Every footballer supporter thinks their club has a fine crop of young players bubbling underneath the senior setup. Ask any fan of any team about a prospect in the youth setup and there’ll be one in particular that has everyone excited.
Investing down the rungs of the club hierarchy can be a crutch when times are bad, cultivating a hope that there’s a brighter dawn to come. But often a dash of fledgling talent and enthusiasm can have a short-term impact too.
It’s a pertinent point for Everton at the moment. As aforementioned, ask anyone who frequents Goodison Park about the youngsters working their way through the setup and they’ll rattle off some names that should go on to achieve big things in the game. But while some fans may put blind faith in rising stars, for Evertonians it’s an assessment not without credence.
This season, under the stewardship of former Toffees defender David Unsworth, Everton’s Under-23 team have marched to the summit of the Premier League 2. In doing so, they’ve played some fine football and catered for many players who are a long way short of the age cutoff.
By contrast, the first-team have floundered as of late. After a positive start to life at Goodison Park, the plans of new manager Ronald Koeman have started to unravel. Everton have won just one of their last nine games and have been devoid of energy and incision during that testing spell.
Things look unlikely to get any easier either; before Christmas, Everton head to Watford, a game which is followed by back-to-back home clashes against equally impressive Arsenal and Liverpool teams.
Going into this treacherous sequence, the Toffees need a spark. For much of the campaign, the same faces have been turning in the same uneven displays and while Koeman has tinkered with the setup often, it’s yet to align. Needless to say, Everton supporters have become weary of the likes of Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas, Tom Cleverley and Gerard Deulofeu underperforming.
During runs of tough form flippant shouts from the stands of “get the kids” are frequent. But it’s hard to shake the sense that this team would benefit massively from an injection of youthful tenacity.
After all, there’s been a Dad’s Army look to the Toffees back four and goalkeeper in recent weeks; the age of those five combined was 153 in the recent 1-0 loss to Southampton and was shielded by a 35-year-old Gareth Barry. For the opposition, 19-year-old Josh Sims, making his debut for Saints, brought a much needed effervescence to their play.
Balance is needed in all facets of the squad, including age. And while the experience and rugged instincts of these veteran players can still be useful, they need to be protected and offset by intensity around them.
Gallingly, for a lot of Everton supporters some young players have shown that not only are they capable of providing helping achieve that precarious balance, but that they’re ready for the rough and tumble of the Premier League too.
Mason Holgate is one. In Everton’s first three games of the season the youngster excelled both as part of a back three and at right full-back. In the Toffees’ first two wins he was the Man of the Match, offering a quiet assurance in defense and composure on the ball. Holgate provided a reminder of his precocious talent with a fine cameo against Manchester United on Sunday with the match in the balance.
Tom Davies is also ready. The midfield dynamo has been a star for the Under-23s this season and whenever he’s strode onto the pitch in the Premier League for the Toffees, has look unfazed by the challenge. The 18-year-old is an all-rounder, able to carry the ball through phases, clatter into tackles and link play in the final third.
There are others impressing on a consistent basis under Unsworth, most notably striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin and playmaker Kieran Dowell. But Holgate and Davies look thoroughbred for senior football. Each has been blooded and each has offered something refreshing to the cause when called upon.
Yet Koeman remains reluctant to use the duo from the start, despite the likes of Coleman and Barkley, to name a few, struggling in their respective positions. It’s a facet of his management he’s spoken about candidly and one that’s worried supporters of a club that’s prided itself on giving kids a chance.
“We have young players but when is it time for a young player?” said the Dutchman when asked recently about adding a tyro to the team. “I don’t believe now because still they are not ready and the pressure is more on now than it was.”
For many of a blue persuasion, the time is now. While Everton may have missed the boat in terms of more favorable games to integrate these youngsters into the side, there’s a staleness festering in the personnel on show at Goodison. The announcement of the XI an hour before kick-off is followed by a resigned sigh rather than a rush of anticipation.
It’s not anticipated that Koeman will be at Everton for a long time and many have pointed to that short-term thinking as a reason for him placing an emphasis on seniority. But the Toffees—players, staff and supporters—have sleepwalked their way through the past couple of months of the term. The brash fearlessness of youth can wake them up.