Even at the tender footballing age of 21, Kieran Dowell’s career already feels like it is at a crossroads.
Four years since his Blues senior debut, in a 1-0 Europa League home defeat to FC Krasnodar, attacking midfielder Dowell, who on Friday joined Sheffield United on loan until May, has not kicked on as much as many expected him to.
Roberto Martínez used him sporadically towards the end of his ill-fated tenure, while David Unsworth praised his man-of-the-match performance in the final game of 2015/16, a 3-0 home win over Norwich City, saying Dowell “showed flashes of pure genius.”
But since Ronald Koeman’s subsequent arrival, Dowell’s Everton career has become increasingly stagnant. He managed not a single first team appearance in the Dutchman’s only full season at the Blues, and since returning from last year’s loan spell at Nottingham Forest, has managed just two senior outings - both in the EFL Cup.
In the first half of last season at Forest, he shone; the pinnacle coming away to Hull City, in which a magnificent individual performance saw Dowell claim the first hat-trick of his career.
But after Aitor Karanka replaced Mark Warburton as manager at the City Ground in January, the youngster’s form seemed to go awry; he was no longer a guaranteed starter and added just one strike to his nine-goal tally following the Spaniard’s arrival.
Karanka later suggested Dowell was suffering a lack of confidence, but opted against re-signing him this summer, leaving the player back in limbo at Goodison Park.
In many ways, Sheffield United could be the club to make or break Dowell. Boss Chris Wilder is a demanding, ambitious man who has transformed his boyhood club’s fortunes from League One also-rans to Championship promotion contenders, and suffers no fools.
Some may argue Wilder is less willing to put his faith in youngsters - Chris Basham, Billy Sharp, David McGoldrick and Leon Clarke are all still Blades regulars despite being north of 30, while on-loan Liverpool midfielder Ben Woodburn has failed to establish himself in Wilder’s team and might be returned to the Reds.
But the development of David Brooks, now a Bournemouth regular, and Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson, both 21, under Wilder, suggests that if the manager thinks Dowell is good enough, he will receive ample opportunity at Bramall Lane.
Indeed, in an interview with sufc.co.uk, Wilder could not have been clearer about how highly he rates Dowell:
“We tried to sign him in the summer after David [Brooks] went, but the manager wanted him around the first team for the first six months. We have kept on with it and been persistent with it and he is a talented footballer who wants to play some games.
“First of all, he has got to get into our side and he understands that. He had a decent season and is a talented player at [England] Under-21 level and gives us a balance to the group and competition at the top end of the pitch.
“He had a great loan spell at Nottingham Forest in this division and did very, very well. We are looking for him to do what he did at Forest and a little bit more for us.”
At a club like the Blades, who are only four points off the automatic promotion places, Dowell will surely be more motivated than he may found himself at times in an ailing Forest outfit that finished 17th last season.
Away from the Premier League - what a magnificent job Chris Wilder continues to do at @SUFC_tweets So impressed when interviewing him. Down to earth, genuine love for the club and a superb track record. Vastly under-rated (not by Blades.)— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) December 29, 2018
It is telling that Everton manager Marco Silva was willing to let Dowell depart despite it leaving the Blues with no other obvious deputies for Gylfi Sigurdsson in the number ten position. It leaves the Toffees undeniably short in that department, but then again, Dowell has only been named three times in a matchday squad, all of which resulted in him being an unused substitute, so it is hardly as if Silva has been reliant on him until now.
In fact, that he and Tom Davies, 20, moved on to the first team scene at similar times, yet there is now a difference of more than 70 senior appearances between the two, rather exemplifies just how far behind Dowell has been left.
For all of Davies’ recent criticism, he has shown far more encouraging signs in a royal blue shirt than Dowell, despite arguably being the more limited player in an attacking sense at least.
Dowell needs, now more than ever, to play regular first team football; even at a lower level, it is the best, and possibly last chance he will get to prove himself to Silva and the Blues hierarchy.
If not, he risks joining the scrapheap as another case of ‘what might have been’ for yet another much-heralded Everton youngster.