There’s no doubt that the shock return of former academy graduate Jose Baxter has sharply divided the fanbase.
Some supporters have praised Everton’s compassion and understanding in giving the midfielder a chance to resurrect his career. Others feel Baxter is a troublemaker who doesn’t deserve special treatment.
I can certainly understand the anger from some supporters regarding the Baxter deal. The 24-year-old is seen as a ‘bad egg’ having twice been banned for failed drugs tests and remains officially suspended until June.
Supporters unhappy with the move argue, with some justification, that it sends out completely the wrong message to other young players, some of whom may see their place in the U23 squad taken by the midfielder next season.
They will also question why he has been allowed to resurrect his career now when he was released by the club five years ago. Why not re-sign other players who have been released to help their careers? When does Everton’s responsibility for the lives of young players begin and end?
They are all valid points. But ask yourself this - have you ever made a mistake, needed forgiveness and be given another chance?
Baxter has been extremely foolish and wasted his natural talent having been mollycoddled in the Premier League bubble since his was six through to his 20th birthday.
But despite having - and wasting - opportunities and experiences we can only dream of he is just as human as you and me. We are all fallible.
Everton have a richly deserved reputation for looking after their own, and that includes players as well as staff and supporters.
This move is typical of a club we all take pride in for being different from our peers. It is a classy gesture.
However, it is also a gamble.
Everton have risked damaging their reputation by taking on Baxter taking this final opportunity and not disrupting a settled and productive youth system.
David Unsworth is no mug and you can be sure he has thought about this decision at length.
I doubt the contract will be worth very much and likely contain strict behaviour clauses. You would also expect Baxter will be encouraged to participate in community projects and is unlikely to get anywhere near the first-team.
There should be no guarantee of regular U23 football either. Everton will be wary of blocking chances for young players who have never stepped out of line.f
Baxter’s travails can be held up as an example to young players blessed with similar footballing gifts. If he is truly repentant he will be willing to share his story with the academy players and show just what can happen if you stray down the wrong path.
Baxter isn’t the first former Toffee to veer from the straight and narrow. Young midfielder Billy Kenny was sacked in 1994 at the age of 20 for ‘gross misbehaviour’ amid allegations of drugs and alcohol abuse. Michael Branch, who made his Everton debut at the age of 17 in 1996, was jailed for three years for drugs offences in 2012.
If just one young player can learn from Baxter’s mistakes and be stopped from throwing their career away before it’s even begun then this will prove a worthwhile exercise.
And if Baxter performs well for the U23s and earns himself a contract to continue his career elsewhere then where is the harm in it?
Everton is going through a rapid transformation as it belatedly looks to drag itself into the modern era. That means shedding the nice people’s club image and replacing it with a ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality.
By taking that stance and applying it to Baxter then there is no way he should be offered a contract. It just makes no sense from a footballing perspective.
But what about from a human perspective? Isn’t part of what we love about our football club is the fact it is different from the rest?
Fans of teams in the current top six fear the teams are being swallowed up by commercial and corporate greed. At least this deal shows our club still has a soul.
I’d hate to think Everton would forget what made it so special in order to compete with the likes of Man City and Chelsea. This deal suggests we may be able to have the best of both worlds.
But everything in the end will boil down to one man - Baxter himself. He is incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity and he simply has to take it.
Because if not he will not only be killing his own career but harming Everton’s reputation as well.