Rarely has a Liverpool goal been cheered by so many Evertonians.
Matty Virtue’s injury-time strike secured a 3-2 win for Liverpool U23s against their Manchester City counterparts on Monday night, meaning Everton won the Premier League 2 Division 1 title without kicking a ball.
The young Toffees have an unassailable six point lead at the top of the table, meaning they are guaranteed to lift the trophy after their final game of the season against Liverpool next week.
Champions! #EFCU23s have clinched the #PL2 Division One title.— Everton (@Everton) April 24, 2017
Congratulations to David Unsworth and his young Blues! #COYB pic.twitter.com/osIX0gXWdI
It is yet another triumph for Everton’s flourishing youth system and praise must go to David Unsworth and his staff for making it happen.
This is no fluke. Everton won the Premier Academy League in 2010/11 and 2013/14 as well The Dallas Cup in 2016. While over the last two seasons Everton youth sides have racked up 21 tournament wins.
What makes it all impressive is the intense competition Everton now face at academy level. Youth football has become the latest battleground for the Premier League elite, and it is an increasingly murky world.
Earlier this month Liverpool were recently hit with a two-year ban on signing youth players over claims they tapped-up at 13-year-old schoolboy. Manchester City are also being investigated over the signing of an 11-year-old from Everton last year.
City and United’s increasingly fractious battle to sign talented young players was labelled ‘Manchester’s Cold war’ in a recent BBC investigation.
Everton do their best to keep their noses clean, but simply don’t have the kind of budget Man City, Man United or Chelsea operate with.
Don’t get me wrong it is still substantial, they have a network of more than 200 scouts monitoring the youth squad of every league side in the country. But, like the first team, Everton have to use their resources wisely to compete with the obscene wealth at City or Chelsea.
So how do Everton do it?
The answer is found along a ground-floor corridor at USM Finch Farm. On either wall stretching the length the corridor are photos of every academy player to have made a first-team appearance, from Tony Grant in 1995 through to Tom Davies in 2017.
The ultimate aim of the academy is made very clear - to produce Premier League footballers, or at the very least footballers who go on to have successful professional career.
David Unsworth believes @Everton's future is bright after the Toffees were crowned #PL2 Division 1 champions: https://t.co/2yHJr7Hbth pic.twitter.com/oGmJ4jNA95— PL Youth (@PLYouth) April 25, 2017
Having a clear path from the academy sides to the first team is what gives Everton the edge over some of their more illustrious rivals.
Man City and Chelsea may hoard the best talent, but very rarely are they given the chance in the first-team. The ages of 18 to 21 are a critical part of a players’ development and it seems far too many youngsters are failing to fulfill their potential because they are not being exposed to first-team football during that time.
That is the argument put forward by Everton when trying to bring new young players into the academy. Yes you may earn more money elsewhere in the short-term but what do you value more - cash or your career?
That is helped, of course, by having a first-team manager willing to blood young players in the cut and thrust of the Premier League.
Everton have that manager in Ronald Koeman, something Unsworth believes is vital:
“You can have the best facility in the world and the most coaches but, at the end of the tunnel, if you don’t get the opportunity to play in our first team then you have no Academy. We’ve got a manager here who wants to play the young kids and throw them in. That is priceless.
“We’ve seen other clubs who have quality, quality players but they never get an opportunity to play in the first team. Here they do and, if it doesn’t work out, then the next player is there banging on the door.”
But while producing first-team players is the ultimate aim, Unsworth doesn’t want that to be at the expense of winning.
What makes this title so impressive is the fact Unsworth has had to deal with so many changes to his squad, from top-scorer Oumar Niasse (yes, really) leaving in January to Tom Davies’ progression to the first-team.
The squad has shown great resiliance to cope with whatever has been thrown at them and still come out on top.
“We have a very distinct policy here of, yes, it’s about development, but why can’t you win at the same time?” said Unsworth recently. “We instill that winning mentality in all our players and I, for one, firmly believe you can develop and produce winners at the same time.”
But now the trophy is in the cabinet the real work can begin. These players have shown they can compete with the best at their age group, now it’s time to take that next step.
Winning titles at youth level is great - fantastic in fact. But it should only be the first stage in a longer journey.
In his book no Hunger in Paradise Michael Calvin states that only 180 of the estimated 1.5 million boys who play organised youth football in England will become a Premier League professional. That’s a success rate of 0.012%.
Even if some do make it very rarely do you see a large group of academy players break through at the same time - Manchester United’s ‘Class of ‘92’ was perhaps the last example.
That is the ultimate ambition Unsworth, Kevin Sheedy and the rest of the Academy team, despite those alarming statistics.
And Unsworth is confident Everton have the right approach to make it happen.
“Everybody always asks what it is about Everton? I tell them there’s no magic dust that we sprinkle about the place but we have a set of values, a real way of working, an honesty and a humility about what we do and then you throw in all the expert coaches who know what the journey is like and who know what this club is all about - the fans, the players, the expectations, what it is to be an Evertonian.”