It was at Everton’s 2016-17 end of season awards evening when the overlord of the overstatement, who previously delivered such classics as Roberto “what a manager” Martínez and “God, if you’re gonna take me, take me now,” sought another opportunity to over-egg the pudding.
Whether as one-third of Ronald Koeman’s sturdy, at times impregnable central defence, or as understudy to Seamus Coleman at right-back, Mason Holgate had enjoyed a quietly excellent breakthrough season at Goodison Park. A year on from his £2 million move from Barnsley, he may not have shown the sort of dizzying flamboyance on the ball as John Stones, who had also initially left Oakwell for Everton, but there was a self-assurance, a no-nonsense approach about Holgate, belying his total inexperience in the Premier League previously. Some rough edges to iron out, of course, but in some ways, he was a welcome change for those who had contracted heart-in-mouth disease from Stones’ Franz Beckenbauer impersonations before he joined Pep Guardiola’s bold new era at Manchester City.
And so, never a man of subtlety, Bill Kenwright found himself at it again at that season’s prize-giving. Indeed, he recounted how, when Everton bought Holgate in August 2015, then-Tykes chairman Maurice Watkins told him that, in Holgate, they had an even brighter prospect than Stones, a man who the poster-boy of modern football felt at pains to croon over and spend £47.5 million on as virtually his first headline act as City boss. Holgate would have been forgiven had his head subsequently spun off into the stratosphere.
Lavishing due praise or burdening with undue pressure? Either way, after a chequered few years which saw Holgate fail to really kick on in the same way Stones did at Everton, repeatedly find himself out of matchday squads entirely, and take in a loan spell at Championship side West Brom, the penny seems to have finally dropped. Little more than three months ago, he had played just 20 minutes of Premier League football all season. Now, not only is he perhaps Everton’s best defender, but also arguably Carlo Ancelotti’s best option in central midfield currently, too. And with Stones struggling for form and fitness at City, Watkins’ once-risible claim has suddenly transformed to at least debatable.
But enough with trite comparisons, and more on Holgate’s renaissance; if you can have one of these by 23, that is. He has, of course, been a huge beneficiary of a number of circumstances, namely Everton’s failure to land Kurt Zouma permanently, Yerry Mina’s knee injury and Michael Keane’s collapse, but where opportunity knocked, he has answered emphatically. Gone are the hare-brained lunges, or the ascension of that hazy red mist that came to the fore particularly when needlessly shoving Roberto Firmino into the crowd. In its place has arrived an infinitely more matured, refined defender who plays the ball with just the right amount of panache, and times the tackle with just the right amount of venom; case in point - that beautifully-executed interception on Chelsea’s Mason Mount in Duncan Ferguson’s finely-poised debut match as caretaker boss.
Yet not only has Holgate thrived as Mina’s defensive partner - the perfect foil for the Colombian’s mountainous, bouncer-like demeanour - he has also proved a similarly adept central midfielder. With the physical exertions of that euphoric if utterly draining Chelsea win taking their toll on Morgan Schneiderlin and Gylfi Sigurðsson, the Scot took a thoroughly depleted Everton side to Old Trafford and gained a hugely credible point, thanks in no small part to the diligent, tireless work of Holgate alongside Tom Davies. The senior member of this duo, he again grabbed responsibility with both hands; in a stodgy, grizzly game, there was nothing ostentatious, but sensible, every pass optimised for maximum effect.
It was the same in the following two games under Ferguson, as a jaded, beleaguered Everton rallied from two goals down against Leicester in the EFL Cup and earned, under the circumstances, a credible point at home to Arsenal. And at Watford on Saturday, when a natural central midfielder in two-time Premier League-winner Fabian Delph earned himself the most petulant and avoidable of red cards, Ancelotti felt confident enough in Holgate to entrust him with a reprisal of that role. Mina may take the headlines for his brace as Everton came from two down to ultimately win 3-2, but again Holgate admirably got on with his job, like a man who doesn’t want to be fawned over and would much rather everyone just has a lovely day out.
Again, though, even if arguing that Holgate dictated the flow of the game may be a stretch, there was a warm feeling of serenity about his presence in the middle of the park; certainly when juxtaposed with the presence of the hot-headed, infantile Delph, seven years his senior, anyway. Meanwhile, with Davies seemingly enveloped in yet another tailspin, Schneiderlin and Sigurðsson turning slower than Eddie Stobarts despite their marginal post-Anfield improvements, and André Gomes and Jean-Philippe Gbamin still sidelined, you are left concluding whether Ancelotti’s first-choice centre-half might just be simultaneously his current first-choice central midfielder.
Whatever position Holgate makes his name, though, he must surely have been earmarked by now as a potential suitor for the armband. Ferguson himself called him a leader after that draw at Manchester United, and both he and Ancelotti have now invested enough confidence in him to employ him in numerous positions. On the pitch, he is among Everton’s most vocal players, though not in a toe-curling way of talking much but saying nothing. He challenges refereeing decisions, but again, not in the brash, boisterous manner which he may have adopted a few years back. And whereas many of his colleagues have been guilty of cowering at the mere sight of adversity, Holgate often exudes composure and embraces the challenge ahead. If nothing else, consider Everton’s four designated captains of Leighton Baines, Coleman, Sigurðsson and Lucas Digne and ask yourself whether any of these are more suited, or play as regularly, to justify the title over Holgate.
In many ways, Holgate is the Swiss Army knife of this Everton team, having filled in at right-back, left-back, centre-back and now central midfield in his time on Merseyside. Yet it is a credit to his application, his versatility and his willingness to muck in wherever required that even now, in the prime of his Everton career so far, his long-term position remains unclear.