“I feel like Benjamin Button. I was born old, I will die young,” joked Zlatan Ibrahimović, hubris dripping from his placid brow after notching his 28th Manchester United goal of the 2016-17 season at the ripe old age of 35.
It is a sentiment Leighton Baines will likely never publicly echo - he is far too sheepish to compete in Zlatan’s league of lions - but may privately resonate with as the Everton left-back, the same age now as Ibrahimović then, continues to showcase his similarly enviable inability to age.
Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay Baines is that, for a man who has made just six appearances this season and 14 outings since the start of last term, he invariably slots in so seamlessly, so assuredly to an often charitable back line that not only could you mistake him for a first team fixture, but his colleagues look all the more at ease for his presence. His flawless display in Sunday’s 1-1 home draw with Manchester United, nullifying any threat down the right flank while posing an attacking threat of his own, was just the latest heart-warming chapter in what increasingly feels like a welcome second wind for Baines’ career.
Aside from that barnstorming last-minute equaliser against Leicester City in December that left the Park End goal rippling and Goodison Park quaking, Baines’ marauding ventures forward and 30-yard missiles are likely now consigned to history. Even the Dickens-esque sideburns and Fisher-Price bowl cut, symbols of those halcyon days, have made way for a more sensible short back and sides. Times have changed, and so too has his game. He may pull the handbrake on more often now, but his legs have far from given way yet. And while many of the plaudits sent his way at his peak revolved around his attacking prowess, he has arguably showed himself this term to be a more accomplished, reliable defender than ever given credit for.
The conundrum, of course, is how sustainable a renaissance this can be for Baines, given his advancing years as a top-level footballer. Even at this late stage in his career, it is difficult to think of many of his team-mates who surpass his intelligence levels on the pitch. But it has only been a handful of games so far, admittedly. And though Lucas Digne, 26, has undoubtedly suffered second-season syndrome, and need not be rushed back hastily from his muscle injury, he will surely come again. With Baines’ contract up at the end of June, then, it begs the question: is it better to prevent tainting a legacy than to risk prolonging it?
Recent history would suggest Everton are particularly poor arbiters when faced with this dilemma. Though warmly welcomed back on to the hallowed Goodison turf at half-time on Sunday, Tim Howard’s performances nosedived so drastically by the time he reached the twilight of his career that even the most elementary of saves made by the American goalkeeper were at times greeted with sarcastic applause. Leon Osman, loyal a servant as he was, floundered so frequently in his later years that, at least in the echo chamber of social media, “f*** off Osman” became the latest example of classic Evertonian gallows humour. Even Phil Jagielka, released last summer at 36 after six years as captain, probably outstayed his welcome by the end, as did Phil Neville and Sylvain Distin, both still Blues regulars by 35.
In truth, though, none of these players are or were lionised by the Goodison faithful anywhere near as much as Baines. He is different, in that he is so similar to those he has left crooning for more than a decade now. Not just because he is a boyhood Evertonian, but because he feels like the antithesis of the caricature of the modern-day footballer. Those fortunate enough to have come across him speak of how down-to-earth and approachable he is. He gave a bunch of fans a lift to a pre-season friendly in 2013. He has terribly normal interests, like photography and playing guitar. In him, Evertonians see themselves. It is why, for instance, the masses jumped to his defence after bizarrely being made to apologise by Roberto Martínez in 2016 for suggesting his patently dysfunctional side had no chemistry. As that foreboding banner in the final days of Martínez’s reign read, Baines is one of us.
Yet in many ways, this unwavering affection felt and his refusal to allow Father Time to catch him could later prove as much of a curse as it feels currently a blessing. Were he just another ghost in the machine passing through, leeching off the club’s extortionate wages all the while, it would be far easier to stomach parting ways. As it would be if his career was evidently on a downward trajectory at this juncture. Instead, both the sentimental and on-pitch value in Baines will doubtless make the decision on whether to retain him an even more arduous task.
Other than the miraculous return of André Gomes to Everton’s midfield, which feels a case of needs must more than anything, Carlo Ancelotti has already shown he is not one for bringing absentees back into the fold at the earliest possible opportunity. What’s more, Everton will likely play no more than one game a week from now until season’s end. With Digne’s injury and a less taxing schedule in mind, it seems logical to persist with Baines at least for a little while, to afford him the chance to build on his impressive performances against United and at Arsenal last week, and to potentially prove his worth for another campaign.
Success cannot be built on sentiment. Logical and obvious as that may seem, it is a notion Everton have previously ignored in favour of drinking the Kool-Aid. Baines has shown he still has plenty left to give in the immediate future, but whether or not his performances from now until May merit a new deal, Ancelotti and co. must at least refrain from assessing the situation through schmaltzy, royal blue-tinted spectacles.