Sunday, November 27, 2016 is a day Southampton winger Josh Sims will have far fonder memories of than any Evertonian.
As new Blues boss Ronald Koeman returned to St. Mary’s Stadium for the first time since his acrimonious departure from the Saints for the Toffees the previous summer, Sims, then 19, made his professional debut.
It took Sims just 41 seconds to claim his first Premier League assist, supplying for Charlie Austin to break the deadlock in what transpired as the winning goal. Sims ran Everton ragged all afternoon before being substituted late on, and the 1-0 scoreline hugely flattered Koeman’s tepid, lifeless team.
As both Southampton and Everton manager, the Dutchman garnered a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for seeming somewhat detached from his young prodigies; indeed, his starting XI that day had an average age of 29, five of whom were north of 30.
The sheer temerity of Koeman’s post-match comments essentially bore this out, and were as disparaging towards Sims as they were uninspiring to his own crop of youngsters now at his disposal:
“I wasn’t aware of Josh Sims when I was here and he is not my problem – I work for Everton, not Southampton.”
True, he enhanced the development of the likes of Tom Davies, 20, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate, both 21, before his sacking last October, but there was always a sense that Koeman preferred to keep these players at arm’s length.
As he tried in vain to find a winning formula during last season’s dreadful beginning, many were given opportunities; namely the aforementioned trio, and wingers Nikola Vlasic and Ademola Lookman, both 20, to name a few.
But his selections often seemed to have been made without rhyme nor reason, resembling someone fumbling around in the dark desperately looking for a light switch. One week they would be starters, the next exiled out of the picture completely.
With the reigns of both Koeman and his replacement, the irascible Sam Allardyce, now consigned to ancient history, Blues fans should be thankful that the latest man in the Goodison Park hot seat, Marco Silva, seems better-equipped to coax the best out of Everton’s most exciting young prospects.
Silva has overseen five competitive games in charge of the Toffees and already has made 20-year-old Davies the youngest starting captain in Everton history for the Carabao Cup win against Rotherham United. Meanwhile, Calvert-Lewin is the club’s joint-top scorer with three goals and Holgate has featured in every game at the heart of the Blues’ defence.
Yet many of these youngsters have been on the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism, particularly Davies who, after an admittedly poor display against Huddersfield Town last weekend, was beaten from pillar to post.
At times like these, Evertonians can be a peculiar bunch. Despite Lookman ostensibly trying to engineer a move to RB Leipzig throughout the summer, and then contributing very little from the bench against the Terriers, he was greeted onto the pitch last Saturday to almost universal applause.
Meanwhile, Davies, who has already made 74 first-team appearances, received torrents of abuse despite his unquestionable attitude and far greater willingness to help the team’s cause. The seismic disparity between the treatment of these two enigmas is simply illogical.
It is crucial to bear in mind no footballer is the finished article at such a tender age, and though in time Davies may prove to not be good enough for a team fighting to gate-crash the seemingly exclusive top six party, the least any fan should ask of their players is that they show an unwavering determination to help the team’s cause.
While this alone does not, of course, exempt Davies from any form of criticism, he undeniably delivers this in spades. Considering players such as Morgan Schneiderlin and Ashley Williams were castigated for a distinct lack of effort last term, Davies is the polar opposite of this and yet still some fans just will not have him as an Everton player.
This is hardly a group of kids destined for the scrapheap, either. Kieran Dowell, impressive for much of last season at Nottingham Forest, is another who could eventually thrive in the Premier League, with the right coaching.
Lookman may have lost a few friends with his summer-long transfer saga, and there will be contingent of Everton fans whose support he will now have to regain. Even if his highlights at Goodison have been fleeting at best, five goals in 11 Bundesliga appearances during a loan spell at Leizpig suggest he can cut it in the top flight.
In June 2017, five young Blues – Jonjoe Kenny, 21, Callum Connolly, 20, Lookman, Calvert-Lewin and Dowell – were all part of the World Cup-winning England under-20s squad, with Calvert-Lewin scoring the only goal in the final to secure victory against hosts Venezuela. The previous campaign, Kenny had captained David Unsworth’s Everton under-23s to the Premier League 2 league title. Surely, those are the best barometers by which to judge these players and if so, the signs must show they can all make it.
After 23 barren years at Goodison, an element of restlessness among fans is as inevitable as it is reasonable. But if Evertonians can show greater restraint towards their brightest rising talents, it should make for a much smoother transition into the first team for Unsworth’s young stars.
It is ultimately unsustainable to persist with as many thirtysomethings at once as Koeman did. Under Silva, there should be a much more comfortable environment in which to nurture these players and for performances as sterile as that at St. Mary’s to become a thing of the past.