On Monday night Everton claimed a 2nd PL2 (under 23’s) league title in 3 years. Given manager Unsworth was seconded away from his role as Under 23’s manager last season it could potentially have been 3 titles in 3 seasons which is an enviable record for anyone’s standards. At a time when the first team has had a dearth of success it has been a welcomed distraction and a point of light relief for Evertonians to see young players upholding the clubs Motto. Beyond that there has also been reasonable questions as to how far the successes over the last 3 years can lead to players helping the first team which is the ultimate aim.
My first memory of Everton winning a youth trophy was in 1998 a few days before the first team faced a make or break final day of the season relegation shoot out. Many of the team involved had already “broken through” at that point (Ball, Cadamateri & Dunne) while there were arguably greater talents lying in reserve (Jeffers, Osman & Hibbert). There was a general acceptance around the fan base that the youth team would provide ample options for the first team in the forthcoming years and was a light at the end of what was a darkened tunnel. While I would love to sit here and write another piece akin to those after the 98 youth cup win it would be disingenuous to do so. There have been substantive changes to the Premier League over the intervening 20 years that have now made it increasingly difficult for players to make the step up and the opportunities to do so need to be treated with a greater degree of caution than before.
The first obvious change is that the state of Everton football club is now in a markedly stronger position than it was 20 years ago. The influx firstly of TV revenues but subsequently of investment from Farhad Moshiri has made a dependence on younger players less of an imperative and more of a luxury for the first team. More broadly the strength of the Premier League has grown exponentially over that time. At the start of the 1997/8 the Premier league was still in the midst of the post Heysel decline that saw the league plummet in terms of overall quality. According to the ranking website ClubELO the Premier League ranked 6th overall in terms of the standard of leagues, with no sides in the top 10 and only 7 in the top 100. As things stand currently we have 6 sides in the top 12 (all above the Manchester United of 1997/8) and 18 in the top 100. Currently the French, Portuguese and Dutch leagues sit in 5th 6th and 7th place and all of them have a far greater tradition of blooding younger players. Part of this is down to philosophical reasons but a bigger part undoubtedly that the gap between youth football and the first team is closer and thus easier to bridge.
The difficulty involved for young players is a structural one. The gap for the under 23 players remains a massively high one and it’s unsurprising so many young players are beginning to move abroad for the opportunities that come alongside that. To their credit Everton have always been a club that has looked to buck that trend. This season young players such as Richarlison & Calvert-Lewin have been mainstays of the side, while others such as Davies, Kenny & Lookman have been given opportunities in the first team. As if to further illustrate this point Everton currently sit 2nd in the league when factoring in the age of the players on the field for themselves this season (in essence the youngest squad).
At one level this ought to give hope to all of the young players involved in the success. There is a long standing tradition and expectation from Everton supporters that younger players are given opportunities and this has been heavily embraced with the appointment of Marcel Brands who has made no secret of his desire to bring the age of the squad down (which we have done substantially this season). This ought to give significant grounds for optimism for all of those involved.
Yet it brings challenges alongside it. A big chunk of the process has already occurred and as indicated above there are already a number of young players on the fringes of the first team who are arguably better placed to snatch any opportunities that may arise. There are also an array of young players who have gained experience in mens football predominately in the championship but also in international competitions such as the Champions League and the Europa League. Whatever the ones personnel opinion is in relation to this it is reasonable to say that in general this will be seen as a more positive and worthwhile indicator than youth football. As a final difficulty for those hoping to make a breakthrough it will be that there is a likelihood that Marcel Brands will look to continue to recruit young players of a certain caliber which will again make it more difficult for players to gain experience.
This paints a negative picture overall but I do so not to try and kill any optimism in younger players but to urge some degree of caution when evaluating their prospects. It would not be true to say that the previous squad to win the title didn’t produce any first team players (as I have seen reported). Dominic Calvert Lewin was promoted mid season from within this squad and Jonjo Kenny has become part of the first team fabric after this. Midfielders Kieran Dowell and Callum Connolly have also been on the fringes of the first team squad subsequently (albeit they have really cemented themselves in that position and now seem unlikely too) while Mason Holgate & Tom Davies were promoted at the start of the title winning season to the first team. Depending on how this is measured you have anywhere from 1 to around 5 players who have had opportunities in the first team squad on the back of that success.
The hope will again be that similar numbers will be given that opportunity. It is interesting though to note a subtle change in the comments from manager Unsworth. Following the win he spoke of preparing the younger players for first team squads adding that hopefully it would be the Everton first team squad. It is a marked contrast to previous years where the aim was explicitly and almost singularly to prepare players for Everton. There is likely more than a hint of pragmatism in the statement from Unsworth who perhaps sees less opportunities for his players to progress but also likely a shift in emphasis to potentially looking to move players on for what fees we can achieve while focusing more on singular stand out individuals to move forward to the first team squad.
For the team in question it becomes a very difficult question to answer as to which player might be the special one to move forward. The victory was very much a team effort across the season, reminiscent of the style and approach of some of the best football played by Everton in the mid 90’s where organization, discipline and hard work where paired with a splattering of quality. 13 goals conceded in 22 games is an outstanding achievement and a great testament to manager Unsworth who has squeezed every bit of quality out of his squad.
The biggest compliment I can pay the team on watching them is that each player looks to have not only ability but also the right attitude to stand a chance of progressing in the senior team. If any one of the 11 who started the final game of the season were said to be moved up to the first team squad next season I cannot say I would either be surprised or concerned. That being said currently very few immediately stand out to me as players who are knocking the door down to leapfrog players in the first team squad. That will very much be the challenge for all of them in the coming months, or increasingly to find a relevant loan to a decent club to achieve success.
Perhaps the exception to this rule may lie in the defence. While Brendan Galloway’s time may have come and gone for Everton it is hard not to be impressed with the other 3 players. Morgan Feeney looks a natural leader and organizer (who we are told is still growing beyond his 6 ft 3 frame). Though I feel he may lack the strength to make the breakthrough I’d be very happy to be proven wrong. To his right you have young Ryan Astley, who is still an under 18 player and looks physically a fantastic specimen and the hope might be if he continues to grow he might begin to put a challenge down over an 18 month period. Yet the real standout for me appears to be Lewis Gibson who partners Feeney.
He is a over a year younger than partner Feeney and looks to have a broader build than him while is around the same height. He also looks a little more comfortable on the ball than Feeney but also shares his desire to defend in a last ditch manner at certain moments. There is also a bit of an aura developing around him currently and it appears he has conducted himself very well in training with the first team. He may be the one player who bucks the trend next season and starts with the first team in pre-season.
Much of this will of course depend on the outlook and direction of Marcel Brands. How he views the quality of this under 23’s team compared to what he had available to him at PSV would be a fascinating discussion to have. It is currently the best under 23’s team in the country so if improvements are required it is by no means a small task to be asked. In his time at the club there has been much rhetoric about allowing pathways for young players and to a fair degree he has allowed that to happen, not just in terms of the age profile of players he has signed but also in his decision not to add players in January (which has allowed for space for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to develop).
While last summer presented a set of problems for him in many ways this summer may be a more complex task for him to navigate. There will still be some difficult conversations with senior players about being moved on (and you sense players such as Walcott may be being added to that list) and there are now real challenges about what we do with the growing mass of younger players in and around the squad. The under 23’s success adds to mix and while there is merit in each option how the squad is handled will to a lesser or greater degree give some indication as to how he sees the team moving forward.
In Holland for example I have little doubt that Lewis Gibson would take up the spot vacated by Kurt Zouma. It may also be that Morgan Feeney would be asked to step in for Phil Jagielka. In a league where the overall quality is much lower there is a space allowed to give both young centre backs the exposure and time involved to both develop and as a club for us to see if they are good enough to play for the team. A similar conversation could be had about Fraser Hornby as a striker replacing Cenk Tosun. However with the pressures that come from the Premier League and the risk of relegation if it goes wrong it is difficult to see how such an approach would be viewed as anything other than kamikaze. Yet where brands chooses to draw the line between exposing the younger players or signing experienced back ups, or between philosophy and reality will be a fascinating twist to this summers business.
For my money I suspect Gibson may well make the step up and that Astley/Gordon if given more time may follow in his footsteps but next season may prove too soon. I genuinely hope Morgan Feeney can step up as having a local Evertonian in the squad would be a fantastic fillip though I would currently bet against it. It will be a space well worth watching.