Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, Tom Davies’ greatest triumph on the football pitch was also his most damaging undoing.
As he danced effortlessly through the Manchester City defence, only to dink the ball over the helpless Claudio Bravo and into the Gwladys Street net, the bar was raised on that soaking January afternoon.
This was supposed to be emergence of the Blues’ new cult hero; the local lad who fans could resonate with more than most who, at just 18, had already etched himself into Goodison Park folklore. Little wonder, then, that under-23s boss David Unsworth, who had mentored Davies for much of the last two years, called it the best day of his life.
But in bamboozling Pep Guardiola and his powerless back line, Davies was simultaneously forced onto an unreasonably high pedestal.
To anticipate a relative novice would become a mainstay in Everton’s midfield with such speed should have been far-fetched enough. But to expect these displays of wizardry on a weekly basis is an entirely different proposition.
Many have struggled to define Davies’ identity as a footballer; he burst on to the scene as a tough-tackling, no-nonsense midfielder who dovetailed perfectly alongside Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin and behind Ross Barkley, but often seems a player caught between two roles.
He is certainly creative, albeit not as much as Barkley was, but he can also defend, albeit not as well as Gueye, Schneiderlin or even, arguably, James McCarthy can.
Certainly, Davies has been nurtured. Ronald Koeman clearly never wished to rush his progression; the myriad midfield signings in the summer of 2017 reflect that. But when Davy Klaassen failed to adapt and Schneiderlin failed to care, the youngster’s vigour and dynamism proved a welcome alternative.
This season, though, under the tutelage of Marco Silva, it is difficult to discern quite where Davies stands.
For three consecutive league games in September and October, he captained the Blues, becoming the youngest player in their history to do so at the still-tender age of 20. But after the victory at Leicester City on October 6, Davies would not taste a single minute of football until mid-December.
Admittedly, the introduction of André Gomes, and the imperious form with which the Barcelona player started his Goodison career, made any case for Davies regaining his place almost baseless. But it looked a dramatic fall from grace for a youngster who only so recently had been entrusted with such responsibility from Silva.
If anything typifies Davies’ struggles to build on the City performance, perhaps it is the FA Cup triumph over Lincoln City in early January. Almost two years on from the day which increasingly seems to define him, he was substituted at half-time for a patently jaded Gomes. That Silva felt he could not rely on him to see out a 2-1 lead at home to League Two opposition felt the latest indictment of one of Everton’s most polarising players.
He would not play again until the Blues’ 1-0 win at Huddersfield Town later that month, immediately after the watershed FA Cup debacle at Millwall. Even if he was seemingly only deputising for Gueye, who then looked set to depart for Paris Saint-Germain, Davies’ drive and determination in the centre of the park was a welcome departure from the one-paced, unambitious football Evertonians had been served up previously.
Again, even in defeat to Manchester City and to Watford FC, he stood out. Amid a sea of dross, Davies continued to show that while his end product can, at times, be scruffy and sub-par, he invariably compensates for this shortcoming with his tirelessness and dedication.
And yet since that loss at Vicarage Road on February 9, he has not been seen again. Left out altogether in the 3-0 win at Cardiff City, and an unused substitute in the subsequent matches against Liverpool and Newcastle United, Davies’ treatment continues to baffle.
This is not a case for starting him each game irrespective of form; far from it. Schneiderlin, since his return from exile, has done well enough to merit keeping his place, at least in the matchday squad if not the starting XI, and Gomes looks an improved, reinvigorated player for the 17-day break between the Watford and Cardiff matches.
But consider Silva’s fawning over Davies after the home defeat to City on February 6, in which the 20-year-old, a stand-out performer in royal blue that night, was again made captain:
“In some moments of the season Tom did really well. Then we changed and Tom waits for his chance. When his chance came, he answered well.
“I was happy with his performance in the last match. He did well in two different positions. I saw him taking responsibility and commanding the team in some moments of the match.
“You are talking about a really young player even if he has been playing the last three seasons. He has the quality to do good things but to enjoy his football also.
“Last game we didn’t have our three captains. After we have Tom and Gylfi [Sigurðsson]. Let’s see. He started very young at our club. We hope he can continue and keep improving his football.
“I don’t want to put all this pressure on him. Sometimes when you are not captain you can do the role even if you don’t have the armband. Of course it’s important to him. Let’s see the future and if he can take more responsibility. I think he can do that.”
If the manager is simply unwilling to heap too much too soon on Davies, still in the embryonic stages of his career, then that is forgivable. Too many of England’s most prodigious young talents have found that being promised the earth has stymied their progress.
But Davies could be forgiven for lacking clarity on his own situation when Silva’s team selection often seems haphazard, and his faith in the youngster seems to undulate by the game.
For the boss, then, honesty has to be the best policy. Davies will only benefit from Silva outlining exactly the role his manager sees for him in this misfiring squad. He may seem a rough diamond at times, but few would dispute his potential as a top-flight midfielder.
That promise will only ebb further away, though, the longer Davies is kept at arm’s length one week, then indulged the next. He cannot continue to lurch from one extremity to the other.