One thing that’s been lacking at Everton since David Moyes’ time in charge has been stability.
The club replaced the pragmatic Scot with an idealist in Roberto Martinez. When his time came to an inevitable end they replaced him with a pragmatist in Ronald Koeman, who was subsequently chopped in favour of (albeit temporarily) the ultra-pragmatist, Sam Allardyce. The Blues then moved back to the idealist ball-playing ways of Marco Silva, before again booting him out in favour of a more pragmatic hand in the Don himself, Carlo Ancelotti.
That means we’ve had five permanent managers in four years. By footballing standards we’re not the worst manager merry-go-round, but there’s certainly been no consistency in terms of style-of-play.
So what has all this turmoil meant at academy level?
The Steadier Ship
Well, despite the constant changes in the ‘top job’, David Unsworth has been in charge of the under-23s since 2014 – just a few months after Martinez’s appointment.
And Unsworth and Martinez certainly seemed to have a good rapport. Indeed, Martinez seemed to be something of a mentor to Unsworth, with ‘Rhino’ taking on the Spaniard’s blue-tinted spectacles of positivity whenever he spoke in the media and Martinez even recommending him for the top job after he, himself, was sacked. At a footballing level too, Unsworth was intent on replicating the possession-based style-of-play that the first-team had adopted.
The trouble was that Martinez’s star faded rapidly over three years at Goodison Park, and when he was finally ousted as Everton boss, a significant change was sought.
Which led to Koeman joining the Blues.
Unlike Martinez, Koeman never seemed to have any desire to become part of the Everton fabric. For him, it was more like a nine-to-five job, a stepping stone. He was the first team manager - the under-23s and the academy didn’t come under his remit, unless there was a player or two he could use.
It was at this point that the connection between the first team and the academy seemed to dissipate.
The appointment of Allardyce didn’t help matters. And then in came Silva - the first manager since Mike Walker to not hand a debut to any academy player during his time at the club.
The Times, They Are A-Changin’…?
After so much turmoil at the club, Farhad Moshiri has looked for stability.
In 2018, Marcel Brands joined the club as Director of Football. A man best-known for helping to identify young talent and create a pathway into the first team for them following impressive stints at both AZ and PSV in the Netherlands.
Then, last year, Ancelotti was enticed to the club on a four-year deal.
Both of these moves seem to indicate a statement of stability on behalf of Moshiri. Perhaps, even, the idea of a long-term plan for the Blues.
There’s also been changes behind the scenes this year, with Leighton Baines given the role of ‘Professional Development Coach’, John Ebbrell taking on the role of ‘Head of Academy Coaching’ and, most notably, David Unsworth’s role being expanded from Head Coach of the under-23s to also becoming the club’s ‘Director of Academy’.
The changing roles of both Unsworth and Ebbrell are noteworthy as it indicates an academy-wide overview. Indeed, as part of Brands’ vision for the club, he wants “every Everton team – from under-12 to under-23 – to share a recognisable style of play” – and these appointments seem key in achieving this.
To Ebbrell, this style of play means:
“Everything on the pitch to be done quicker, for the ball to move faster and for us to press with more intensity.
“We want to improve technical speed and accuracy. To play in key areas at the highest level, you must have magnificent skills and be able to perform them quickly.
“It is right we take that into the Academy and make sure we are seeing those qualities at all ages. We want to align all age groups in what we do.
“My main task is to make sure there is consistency, certainly from Under-12 to Under-23, which feeds into what the First Team needs.”
The Next Academy Star
With all this said, what goes on at the academy is largely a mystery to fans of the club. The thing that is noted, though, is which players can break into the first team.
After a lull for the past few years, Anthony Gordon has been the latest player to make the breakthrough and he certainly seems to have the potential to become a key player for the first-team.
But who will be the next players to join him?
Well there are two stand-out candidates: Ellis Simms and Tyler Onyango.
Simms, like any good striker should, has been scoring goals relentlessly at academy level and is now doing the same at under-23. He’s edging closer to a first-team appearance and has been named on the bench on a few occasions now.
Onyango, meanwhile, is a lanky 17-year-old midfielder with a Fellaini-esque barnet who broke into the under-23s team last year. While there’s plenty of competition in central midfield at the club (the first-team have at least eight recognised senior central midfielders), the Blues still seem to be lacking a rock-solid option on the left of the three central midfielders currently utilised.
Whether Onyango and Simms get (and take) their chance remains to be seen. But, either way, it’s good to see that the club now seem to be moving towards a long-term plan.