Said my first word at one. Bored by 11. Left school at 16. I left home. I wrote home. I found a new home. I did things I never dreamed I would. Sure, I was born in Carlisle. But I was made by the Royal Blue Mersey.
As Antoni Sarcevic rifled home Plymouth Argyle’s second in stoppage time, poor Jarrad Branthwaite sank to his knees. His first team league debut for his hometown club may have come sooner than he envisaged at just 17, but probably not as swimmingly. Perhaps then, as he cut his teeth in the men’s world on that October afternoon, even he would not have foreseen he would be starting a Premier League game nine months later. And not just because in those halcyon days of pre-COVID, there was no domestic football scheduled for July.
Yet, eight League Two appearances, a £750,000 transfer, one global health crisis and two Everton centre-half injuries later, fate has conspired to leave Branthwaite leaving Evertonians all a little giddy. After a baptism of fire at Molineux, involving losing the eventual goalscorer from a free-kick he conceded all within his first 60 seconds, Branthwaite has excelled in the 165 minutes he has graced the pitch since then.
First came an assured, composed showing against Aston Villa on Thursday having replaced the injured Mason Holgate from the bench, now a fearless shutout at Sheffield United, instrumental in seeing the Blues over the line to a hugely credible 1-0 win. And an 80 per cent passing accuracy and 100 per cent tackle success at Bramall Lane to boot. That 4-2 defeat to Wolves under-21s in the EFL Trophy last September must already feel like a whole different era in the 18-year-old’s 17-game career.
It’s important now, though, to temper any feverish excitement over the ginger gem they may have unearthed. That forgettable first minute aside, Branthwaite has yet to put a foot wrong and looks a real talent, yes. But he’s registered just one half at Wolves, 75 minutes against Villa and now his first full 90 at Sheffield United. Shakier moments and sterner tests await.
Indeed, to neck the Kool-Aid so abruptly would feel akin to the initial rave reviews of Luke Garbutt, who some began heralding as Leighton Baines’ heir after an exemplary outing in Wolfsburg, or Brendan Galloway, a speck of sunlight in the anaemic second and third seasons of Roberto Martinez. By the same token, it took about three years for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to win over just some of his naysayers, or Holgate to finally staple his name to the team-sheet. That’s the trouble with first impressions. You only get to make one.
What seems a more sensible next move for Everton, then, is to recognise that Branthwaite’s inspiring start only heightens the urgency to plan his career trajectory meticulously and immediately. Though Carlo Ancelotti bore closer resemblance to a middle-aged man at breakfast on an Albufeira golf holiday on Monday, the Italian has managed elite-level footballers long enough to know when he has a player on his hands. He will see that Branthwaite looks too good to be allowed to fester. So, too, must his colleagues.
The question now for Branthwaite, then, is what’s next? Another outing against Bournemouth alongside Michael Keane on Sunday looks a certainty, earned not only through the absence of Yerry Mina and Holgate but on his own merit. Then the season ends, Mina and Holgate will recover, the similarly encouraging Lewis Gibson (who Everton could end up paying Newcastle £5 million for) returns from Fleetwood, and Branthwaite could be shoved rather brusquely back down the pecking-order and into the under-23s. Or worse, the bench. Or even worse, the bench of the club who’ve borrowed him for the entirety of next term.
There are two sides to every loan. Some can be character-building experiences both on and off the pitch that see boys leave Everton and return ten foot taller. Seamus Coleman, for instance, helped Blackpool to the top-flight in 2010 and soon established himself as a regular under David Moyes. Though mostly played out of position at right-back, Mason Holgate became a West Brom mainstay last term after being marginalised by Marco Silva and has since reaped similar rewards. Leon Osman credits his 17 games with Derby County in 2004 as essential to moulding him into a Premier League midfielder that made more than 400 appearances in royal blue.
But a fair few other prodigious talents have been the recipients of sloppy, short-sighted managements and the victim of a club in a constant state of flux. Galloway appeared to vanish without trace along with Martinez after the Spaniard’s sacking, making just 13 appearances across two spells with West Brom and Sunderland before upping sticks to Championship strugglers Luton last summer. Likewise, Ipswich Town were the sixth and final club Garbutt was loaned to, before Everton put him out of his misery and released him at the ripe old age of 27 last month (not that Ancelotti seemed to notice, mind).
Elsewhere, Matthew Pennington, 25, is also on his sixth loan with another year left on his Everton contract. Kieran Dowell, 22, has found a fourth temporary home in the Championship with Wigan Athletic. The Latics also rented Beni Baningime, 21, last term, but used him only once. Hailed by David Unsworth as too good for under-23s football, Baningime has not featured for Everton since April 2018, and cannot get into a midfield as supine and statuesque as the current iteration at Goodison Park.
All of which should provide cautionary tales for Ancelotti and Marcel Brands to heed when deciding the best place for Branthwaite next season. If he is considered an asset to the first team on a more regular basis already, he must play. Or at least feature semi-regularly. To allow him to grow stale on the bench, or be cocooned in the cushier ecosystem of under-23s life, would feel a retrograde step after such a promising beginning.
Similarly, though, if Branthwaite is to be loaned, due diligence must be done for a change. It cannot be any old club, or the first that rings up Brands or Ancelotti, that borrows him or indeed any others from Unsworth’s cream of the crop. Regular game time at the right club with the right ethos is what he needs above all else now. Not the opportunity to be the answer to pub quiz questions or an entrant in countless ‘Where Are They Now?’ listicles by about 2028.