And now, the end is near. And so, the naughtiest left-back in the world faces the final curtain.
Leighton Baines won zero pieces of silverware in his 13 years at Everton. He was part of no Everton team that will go down in folklore as being among the best to don the royal blue. Nor did he ever really feel a permanent fixture in England sides, despite a highly commendable 30 caps. And yet still, his retirement on Sunday evening ranks as one of the club’s most poignant, harrowing episodes in recent times, even out-glooming the meek home defeat to relegated Bournemouth which preceded the announcement.
So it should, of course. For in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter that Baines has no medals to polish, or whether he was better than Ashley Cole, or whether he should have signed the one-year deal Everton offered him in June. Frankly, Evertonians are too in love with him to care about such trivialities.
Not least because many will consider him the sole bona fide world-class footballer they have had the luxury of enjoying first-hand at Goodison Park. A generation of Blues, starved of the iconic giants of yesteryear, have marvelled at an unassuming, bashful Baines tentatively emerge out of his cocoon and spread his wings before growing old gracefully. They were with him as he slowly usurped Joleon Lescott - a central defender - to make left-back his own, all the way through to his fitting final act; putting his body on the line with a tackle so crisp on Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson it could only be served with a chef’s kiss.
But gosh, there were some dizzying highs in-between, and lots of them, too. The quintessential ‘Baines era’ will always be the early 2010s; the late Moyes years and the heady early days of Martinez. Think the Travolta quiff. The Playmobil bowl-cut. The smorgasbord of set-piece stunners. The telepathy down that left flank with Steven Pienaar. The mesmeric overlapping runs spinning opponents into a trance. Those looping left-footers than locked onto its target like a laser-guided missile.
In many ways, he and Cole broke the mould and rewrote the rulebook on what being a full-back entails in the modern world; not only defending manfully, but also being as much of a potent attacking force. Yet Baines always made for the more enchanting watch. Though he was no slouch, he perhaps never quite had electricity coursing through those limbs, but glided down the channels with such elegance; almost apologetically at times. You don’t always need afterburners, of course, when you’re blessed with a brain.
- Leighton Baines of Everton in action during the Barclays Premier League match betweeen Derby County and Everton at Pride Park on October 28, 2007 in Derby, England. Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton in action during Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Sunderland at Goodison Park on December 28, 2008 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton on the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Burnley at Goodison Park on December 28, 2009 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton at White Hart Lane on October 23, 2010 in London, England. Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton in action during the pre season friendly match between Everton and Villarreal at Goodison Park on August 5, 2011 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park on October 28, 2012 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Newcastle United at Goodison Park on September 30, 2013 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Swansea City at Goodison Park on November 1, 2014 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton during their Capital One Cup Quarter Final at Riverside Stadium on December 1, 2015 in Middlesbrough, England. Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton celebrates as he scores their first and equalising goal from the penalty spot during the Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park on December 4, 2016 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
- Leighton Baines of Everton during the Premier League match between Everton and Southampton at Goodison Park on January 2, 2017 in Liverpool, England. Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images
- Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
And boy, could he deliver. Literally, better than anyone else, in fact. His 85 goal contributions in the Premier League (32 goals, 53 assists) outperform any other defender, while his 116 chances created in Moyes’ last term were bettered by nobody across Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues. Not to mention the ice running through his veins - an unlikely if unmatched penalty taker, Baines converted 26 of the 29 spot-kicks he took in his illustrious career. Kevin Mirallas, eat your heart out.
Even the way in which Baines aged leaves your heart warmed. Everton are probably guilty of postponing his phasing-out process a little too long, albeit before landing on the ideal successor in Lucas Digne. But while Baines’ powers inevitably waned, there was never any burnout; that thunderous drive which arrowed past Kasper Schmeichel in December proved as much. He also showed himself to be far more accomplished defensively than many gave him credit for - think this season’s two 1-1 draws with Manchester United - and deserved more than nine appearances this term on both Digne’s toils and his own merit. To that end, Baines bowed out as an anachronism - as a full-back who could actually defend.
Yet Baines earnt the Goodison faithful’s unwavering affection for so much more than all of this. For instance, there is a excerpt from Roy Keane’s autobiography currently doing the rounds on social media, when the then-Sunderland boss tried to sign him from Wigan. “The first thing he said to me,” Keane writes, “Was, ‘Roy, if Everton come looking for me, I’ll be moving to Everton, because I’m an Evertonian.’” That same Evertonian then turned down a move up the M62 to be reacquainted with Moyes at then-champions Manchester United in 2013. In him, his adoring crowds saw a boyhood Blue living out all of their childhood dreams, who truly viewed Everton as his own career’s zenith rather than a means to an end. In him, they saw themselves.
It’s all of his other little idiosyncrasies that help make Baines such a one-off, too. Like packing his guitar for the 2014 World Cup, or being spotted around Liverpool’s independent coffee houses and sweat-infested indie rock gigs. Or his dabbling in artsy photography and his waxing lyrical about music from Mark Lanegan to Lana Del Rey to Frank Ocean. The sights of an injured Baines dropping off supporters at a pre-season friendly at Blackburn, for instance, or celebrating a win at Fulham by stopping by an ice cream van, all felt that little bit too surreal. In a world of sanitised footballers with personality bypasses, Baines has always seemed unmistakeably down-to-earth; just as cool off the field as he is from the penalty spot on it.
And so now, with the on-pitch lace-tying and sheepish celebrations consigned to history, you are left wondering if the Baines-shaped void his departure has left will be filled again. Though he has previously mooted a coaching career may be on the cards - Carlo Ancelotti certainly seems keen - he would probably appal Pep Guardiola at how indifferent he seems towards the game. A football fanatic, he is not.
Indeed, it feels likelier that Baines will spend his days capturing his city’s hidden gems through camera lenses and listening to test-pressed records by unsigned guitar bands. Maybe we’ll next hear from Everton’s own Fun Boy Three, then, when he opens his debut exhibition at Tate Liverpool, or when he releases that difficult second album that the NME will no doubt review too generously. But that’s just Baines, and nobody would have him any other way.
In a sense, then, for his swansong to be at a deserted Goodison on Sunday as a late substitute felt entirely apt; no fanfare, no fuss, just a to-the-point club statement and a few kind words from the man himself later. You sense Baines would recoil at the idea of going all John Terry and being carried off the pitch on the minute of his shirt number (would have been a pretty short farewell, in that case...) or even the more modest send-off of a guard of honour à la Tim Howard. He did retirement his way, in the most on-brand way possible, and that’s important.
In fact, it’s the most important thing in this heart-wrenching goodbye. He could have remained Digne’s understudy for another year, or waited until his body reached breaking point. Instead, he has gone out on his terms, when he wanted to. And after 13 years of faultless service to supporters he has left grief-stricken, nobody has earned the right to that more than Baines.