On Tuesday, 17 February this year, Jonjoe Kenny led out an Everton under-21 side at Leigh Sports Village, home of Manchester United’s development squad, seeking to help them secure a victory that would see the young Blues move from third to first in the Barclays U21 Premier League. It was the 13th game of a 22 game season. Any other result and United would reach the summit.
As it happened, neither team found the net and subsequently played out a 0-0 draw. The result meant that the hosts moved up to first place, and it signalled a freefall for David Unsworth’s under-21 side, leaving them to stave off relegation from Division 1 at the back end of the season. Nine games later they had moved down seven places and avoided the drop by just five points.
To add to that disappointment was an early exit from the U21 Premier League Cup at the hands of Huddersfield Town, and after a narrow win over Sunderland to see them through the group stage of the Premier League International Cup, Everton crashed out in the quarter finals on penalties away at Leicester City.
It was a season of promise at times, yet nothing really materialised. However, for any club it’s less about winning under-21 trophies than it is developing players and trying to progress them to a level in which they can contribute to the first team. Do Everton have anyone from last season’s U21 side who are ready to step up to the senior team? Here’s a look.
*Note: This list doesn’t include senior players who have established themselves in the first team but appeared for the under-21s last season.
Time to move on
Why are Everton still paying Francisco Junior a wage? He’s been with the club for four years, has had three different loan spells and doesn’t seem to have improved at all. At the age of 23, it’s clear to see against other under-21 sides that he isn’t able to perform at a good enough level to contribute in the Premier League. It’s probably about time club and player parted ways.
Courtney Duffus could be a good player, but needs to find the end product to his endeavour. He has a decent frame for a striker and strong physical attributes, but there is a lot left to be desired. Like Junior, Duffus has been at the club since 2012, and has offered little improvement on the promise he showed when Everton signed him and brother Tyrone from Cheltenham three years ago. He may benefit from a loan move, but there wasn’t enough in his game for the under-21s to suggest that he is a Premier League-calibre player. Perhaps he would be better off dropping down a couple of divisions and try to make a name for himself there.
Conor McAleny’s Everton career could have been a lot different had a late strike away at Arsenal in December 2011 found the other side of the post. It would have cancelled out a stunning Robin van Persie volley and sent the visitors home with a point, but instead it was the only moment in McAleny’s Everton career with any real significance. In the three-and-a-half seasons since, he’s made just two more appearances for The Toffees and failed to score a goal. He’s had loan spells at other clubs including Brentford, and Cardiff City for the second half of last season, and it now may be time to move on again. Two goals in seven games for Cardiff was a decent return, and Everton would be wise to take a fee for him should there be interest from another club.
The loan rangers
Jindrich Stanek was signed by Roberto Martinez on the final day of the January transfer window last year. Perhaps most memorably, he had a nightmare debut for the under-21s when two big mistakes led to two Leicester City goals in the opening game victory in August. Despite that, Stanek was included in David Unsworth’s squads for the next five, though now hasn’t featured since November. But for a young, foreign goalkeeper, Stanek could benefit from time in the first team at another club to enable him to adapt better to the English game. There could be opportunity at a League Two side, or perhaps in the Conference – such as Blackburn Rovers’ David Raya Martin did by moving to Southport on loan last season.
Ryan Ledson has already appeared for the first team, but he is a player who would benefit greatly from moving out on loan to a lower league club in order to develop in a competitive environment. Ledson was impressive for the U21s last term, showing solid leadership skills in the middle of the park. He definitely has the potential to become a regular face in the senior Everton setup, but needs experience before stepping up to the plate.
Conor Grant was another youngster that played for the under-21s last season who also went out on loan. At the age of 20, he would benefit from playing first team football, and by going out on loan would give his parent club the opportunity to evaluate his worth later on. He played well for the under-21s last season, but now needs regular competitive football if he is ever going to make it as a senior player at Goodison Park.
Although Brendan Galloway has started the last two games for the first team, he definitely needs some more experience under his belt before becoming a regular fixture for Martinez’s side. He did handle himself well in both games, but was at fault for the goal scored by West Ham United, and looked tentative at times. If Martinez feels comfortable starting him, then a loan out to the Championship, or perhaps to a newly-promoted side such as Bournemouth, could be a good idea to help him refine his game. For the under-21s, Galloway looked most impressive playing at centre back, and a temporary move away could see him ready to be an Everton squad regular by the beginning of the 2016-17 season.
Under-21s to look out for in 2015-16
Mainly operating down the right-hand side as both a right back and right midfielder, Gethin Jones was a solid player for the under-21s next year. There is definitely potential in his game, and if he only had an extra yard of pace then he could raise it considerably. However, Jones definitely has the talent to continue improving, and it will be interesting to see what he can do in the coming year.
When Tim Howard was injured at the beginning of 2015, Russell Griffiths was drafted in by Martinez to deputise Joel Robles. Although he didn’t actually play for the first team, he was a solid presence between the sticks for Unsworth’s men in the second half of the season, and may well be a regular in the team next year in case he needs to be called up again.
Jonjoe Kenny was an impressive figure, usually at the heart of the Everton under-21 defence, as he captained the team for a large portion of the season. Though he may not be ready for senior responsibilities just yet, it was a testament to his character that he was chosen by the manager to wear the armband over other, older players. An extra season in this role should help Kenny better himself as a player.
Potential first teamers
Tyias Browning broke into the senior squad last season, making three appearances and providing the cross that eventually led to Phil Jagielka’s last-gasp derby screamer. He also appeared a number of times for the under-21s and looked ready to move up a level when he did. Browning could be a candidate for a loan move, but with Tony Hibbert ageing and no other cover for Seamus Coleman at right back, Martinez should keep hold of Browning as a squad player.
One of the most impressive performers for the under-21s last season was on-loan Belgian midfielder David Henen. His trickery, pace and an eye for goal were the highlights of his talents, and Everton should look to secure him on a permanent transfer – which they can do with a £500,000 option to buy him from Olympiacos. Whether he would be put in the senior squad straight away is up for debate, but he would give Everton something else up front, and could at least be used as squad depth. His versatility is another facet of his game that makes Henen a good transfer target, as he can play on either wing and up front.
Chris Long could be an in-house solution to providing an alternative plan to Romelu Lukaku. With McAleny and Arouna Kone failing to cut the mustard, the Kevin Mirallas situation and Steven Naismith hardly a player to lead the line on his own, Long may be an attacking plan C which would come at no further cost to the club. He played 11 times and scored four goals for Brentford in the second half of last season, and was the leading scorer for the under-21s before he set off for west London. He may not work out, but there’s little risk involved in giving him a try.
Keep at the academy and in the under-21 side
The following players only gave a small sample size this year, were included in under-21 squads but didn’t play, or are only first or second year scholars who should be given playing time for the development squad next year. This would allow them to gain experience against older and more experienced players. It is difficult to comment on most of them as far as the U21 team goes, because they simply have not had enough of a chance to show what they can do.