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The Kids Are Alright!

Why Everton’s U23s could truly prosper under Marcel Brands’ new top-to-bottom revamp.

Everton’s youngsters have certainly endured an up and down season, in more ways than one.

Whether it’s been listening to the frustrations from the terraces or being ‘frozen out’ of the squad by the manager, the performances of players like Tom Davies, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Jonjoe Kenny have proved to be a microcosm for the bigger picture that has played out at Goodison Park. As Everton fans we’ve always been behind the players who come through the ranks, so could we be seeing a new Everton Golden Generation emerging?

The Toffees’ U23s have hit somewhat of a purple patch over the last few years. Regardless of how David Unsworth has fared in his caretaker roles after the departures of Roberto Martinez and then Sam Allardyce, what cannot be in question is how he has dealt with our Academy prospects. Even while their Premier League 2 triumph was welcomed by all, that was somewhat secondary to Unsworth. He’s been on record to say that the title was a great achievement, but his real task is to mold players ready, willing and able to step up to the challenges of the first team. Before winning the title last year Unsworth had added -

“The biggest thing now is keeping this group of players together and getting them involved in the first team.”

It’s the sign of a greater long term goal than simply just winning a ‘reserve league’, Unsworth’s vision far surpasses that and ultimately should be applauded. It was in that spirit that the Blues preferred to send youngsters out on loan instead last season, ultimately sacrificing a good finish in the PL2 table for higher-level competition with players like Kieran Dowell, Antonee Robinson, Joe Williams and Callum Connolly doing well.

This is where Brands’ model becomes apparent. At AZ Alkmaar, and then at PSV Eindhoven, Brands had to deal with tighter budget constraints than those of the familiar European powerhouses. Signing cheap, selling high has not only helped to keep those clubs running and investing in their first teams, but also ploughing some of those funds back into their academies. This provides plenty of optimism when it comes to Everton and what the future holds for the Blues.

The club’s Academy has always been held in high regard, with the famous old adage of ‘The School Of Science’ close to our hearts, and has been vying with the hit-or-miss ‘The Peoples Club’ as the go-to phrase to describe the club as of late. It didn’t quite work out that way for Martinez and Koeman, and let’s just leave Allardyce out of this one, but Unsworth has most certainly kept it close to heart.

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton - Premier League 2

His U23 side can arguably claim to have been a far more entertaining proposition than the senior side over this period. I know that during some of our poorer periods some fans have even avoided the first team and settled down to watch the reserve fixtures instead, and am sure we’ve all felt like that at some stage of the last two-three years.

For all of this though, does the Academy really still have a role to play? We know the whys and wherefores of its existence, but will it mean anything in today’s money-oriented business model? When Farhad Moshiri arrived, the thought of his billions flooded the fanbase with thoughts of world domination, which is par for the course! Money began to be spent in various areas, heavily on transfers and wages as it turns out, but the outcome wasn’t what the fans, and the major shareholder, really wanted to see.

Poor planning, no aligned direction and missed opportunities have seen the club’s chances of grabbing onto the coat tails of top six clubs slip away. It was clear back in October that Moshiri realised this couldn’t continue, and that changes had to be made. Contact had been made with Marcel Brands in previous years and Marco Silva, it seems, had always been the club’s first choice. The long term strategy of the club was starting to change and with that, so was its recruitment policy and plan.

Enter Marcel Brands. His model of buying young yet promising players and then selling for profit may not seem the ideal plan to move forward, but it has definitely brought results. No doubt money will be there for the club to spend, but there will also be that air of caution not to have another wasted summer akin to last year. So is this the chance that our U23 squad need to prove themselves at the top level?

In the past there was no greater achievement than a local lad coming through the Academy, serving his apprenticeship and making the First XI. The likes of just Brian Labone, Colin Harvey and Joe Royle is impressive enough, but is that a model that can work in modern football now?

Over the last 20 years, money in football has become a virtual be all and end all if teams want success (Leicester City being the exception that proved the rule). However, is a successful youth set-up now the best way to work a way around this? In the long term this could prove incredibly lucrative on and off the pitch.

In Brands’ initial interview he laid out his plans for a clear vision from top to bottom, through every age group, that gives a seamless transition for the players.

“Everton have a good reputation in that and also have a few good young players in the first team squad already and I think we have to work on that for the future..... what’s important for the Academy is the motivation of the people who work there and for the young players to get chances.”

Positive words from Brands for sure and that can only help the club with every player singing from the same hymn sheet. Not something likely to be heard from Chelsea’s hierarchy any time soon! The fans seem to be behind the idea too, in theory at least. The arrival of a big money signing does capture the imagination more than most things in football, but the feeling that supporters get seeing ‘one of their own’ make the breakthrough does hit you in the feels. A quick Twitter poll conducted recently suggests that almost two-thirds of supporters would be happier to see a youngster come up through the ranks and be successful over the arrival of a big name player. Now this may not be conclusive evidence, but it definitely bodes well for the future.

So as we look forward to the upcoming season, if the likes of Davies, Kenny and Calvert-Lewin along with Beni Baningime and Ademola Lookman can continue to improve under the tutelage of the newly appointed Silva it will certainly go a long way to proving him and Brands right. Add to that impressive and growing list the names of Lewis Gibson, Morgan Feeney, Josh Bowler, Fraser Hornby and my personal choice as Everton’s “next big thing” Antony Evans, and we could hopefully be seeing our own version of Manchester United’s Class of ’92.

Now I’m not suggesting that they’ll have quite the same impact, but it can only be seen as a positive that we would even consider the thought. So as I’d suggested earlier the famous, and club favourite phrase would lead us to believe.....

“The School Of Science, it’s on its way back”

It’s a long time since that’s been used in earnest, but there’s now the feeling that the club finally have the plan in place to match Moshiri’s ambition, and more importantly that of the fans. Hopefully after the false dawns of the past few summers, this one has a Brand(s) new Silva lining.

Nil Satis Nisi Optimum

Editor’s Note:

Our thanks to Everton season ticket holder and lifelong fan Neil for his guest feature on Royal Blue Mersey this week. Read more of his work here - One Blue’s View.