Morgan Schneiderlin starts with an apology. Ten months on from leaving England behind to return home to France, he is a little out of practice.
“I might have lost a bit of English,” he jokes. “I’ll try to find my words!”
Not that any rustiness on his part shows. Throughout a half-hour chat, Schneiderlin makes for engaging company, talking eloquently and honestly about a fluctuating three-and-a-half-year spell at Everton, which concluded last June when he signed for OGC Nice in Ligue 1.
Until his move to Goodison Park in January 2017, Schneiderlin’s career had followed a pretty constant upward trajectory. He cut his teeth with Strasbourg, making five appearances for their senior side, before venturing out of his comfort zone to join Southampton in June 2008 at just 18.
Southampton were relegated from the Championship and saw their parent company enter administration in his first season, but from then on neither Schneiderlin nor the club looked back. Successive promotions arrived in 2010 and 2011 under Nigel Adkins, with Schneiderlin a Saints regular en route back to the top-flight.
After a rocky beginning, they established themselves in the Premier League admirably, first with Adkins, then Mauricio Pochettino, then future Everton manager Ronald Koeman. Schneiderlin was excellent throughout, his industry and composure in midfield integral to their eighth- and seventh-placed finishes under Pochettino and Koeman respectively.
It was enough to earn himself the next step up the ladder, when Manchester United paid £25 million for him in July 2015. Despite United’s toils under Louis van Gaal, who left the following May, Schneiderlin played 39 games in his debut season at Old Trafford (including a 3-0 victory at Goodison in which he scored), won the FA Cup, and earned himself a place in France’s Euro 2016 squad.
But when he reconvened with Koeman, then the newly-appointed Everton manager, at Wayne Rooney’s testimonial in August 2016, the seeds were sown for his later move across the North West.
“The first contact I had was when we played the testimonial,” Schneiderlin says.
“I crossed Ronald Koeman, who I had a good relationship with at Southampton. He just told me: ‘You know my door is always open. I want to work with you again.’
“I said: ‘Yes, but at the minute I’m feeling good at United, and I want to get going there and keep playing for United.’ The more the weeks and months went on, he kept messaging me.”
Opportunities at United under José Mourinho were harder to come by, though, and Schneiderlin’s appearance as a late substitute in November’s draw with Arsenal was only his eighth of the campaign, and his last in a United shirt.
It was roughly then that Schneiderlin decided he needed to move on. Suitors were not in short supply, but Koeman’s overtures proved irresistible.
“By November, I made the choice to leave United,” he says.
“I heard a lot of clubs were interested in me, but the project of Everton, with Farhad Moshiri, was very attractive. He was telling me he wanted to bring the club into the Champions League. Everton is obviously a big club in England, so the choice was easy in the end.”
Instantly, his £24 million move to Goodison in January 2017 felt inspired business, as a rejuvenated Schneiderlin’s arrival coincided with a huge resurgence from Koeman’s team. Indeed, of Schneiderlin’s 14 Everton appearances in 2016-17, eight ended in victory and just two in defeat, while Everton took one point from the four games he missed after signing that season.
Often deployed alongside the metronomic Idrissa Gueye and the exuberant Tom Davies, with Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas ahead of him, Schneiderlin slotted into an exciting Everton side seamlessly. A seventh-placed finish in his and Koeman’s maiden campaign followed, which meant Europa League qualification for the first time since 2014 for Everton.
At least on paper, moving from United to Everton could have been deemed Schneiderlin’s first step down. Yet after going somewhat stale at Old Trafford, he needed this belonging, this ‘joy’ again.
“From the first day I came, I was very happy with the people I met there,” Schneiderlin says.
“Obviously, I knew the manager, so it made it a bit easier with the way he wanted to play. I think we had a very strong team with Lukaku, with Barkley, so I was very happy.
“I had a couple of small injuries that stopped me a little bit, but overall, for the first six months, I felt like I found the joy of football again.”
Then came what Schneiderlin calls a ‘transition summer,’ and one which served to define the legacies of both Koeman and director of football Steve Walsh at Everton.
In July, Lukaku made the reverse move to that of Schneiderlin six months earlier, when Everton’s record Premier League scorer swapped Goodison for Old Trafford. Barkley never played for Everton again after 2016-17, despite a deadline-day move to Chelsea collapsing. He left for Stamford Bridge the following January.
Gaping wounds, but ones which Everton, with Moshiri’s largesse, had ample resources to tend to. In came nine new senior players, to the tune of more than £125 million, but the squad looked top-heavy with attacking midfielders following the signings of Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Nikola Vlasic and Davy Klaassen. Conspicuous by its absence, meanwhile, was a tailor-made Lukaku replacement.
Coupled with an earlier start - Everton began 2017-18 with a Europa League qualifier against Ruzomberok on July 27 - and Schneiderlin admits preparations for a campaign bursting with optimism were hardly ideal.
“When you lose a player like Lukaku, I understand it’s very hard to find someone of his pedigree, but when you don’t replace him with someone that can score you goals and do the work Lukaku did for a few years, it’s very difficult,” he says.
“Then you lose Barkley and bring players in who maybe, at the time, didn’t know the Premier League and needed time to adapt.
“We played Europa League qualification; everything maybe happened too quick. When we started pre-season, we didn’t really have normal preparation.
“I think we played our first game almost two or three weeks after the first training session, so he [Koeman] didn’t want to burn us out. It was more about being better and better as the season progressed.”
But charged with a gruelling set of opening fixtures, including clashes with four of the Premier League’s ‘big six’ in their first five games, neither Everton nor Schneiderlin hit the ground running.
And the more Everton’s new pieces failed to coalesce, the more scrutiny under Koeman snowballed. Crushed under the hefty weight of Goodison expectation, he was sacked in October after consecutive home defeats: first to Lyon in the Europa League, which essentially knocked Everton out after one point from three group games, and then a Premier League drubbing against Arsenal, leaving them in the relegation zone.
It was a decision Schneiderlin accepted, if not one he necessarily agreed with.
“We didn’t have very good performances, me as well,” he admits.
“We felt like on the pitch we were not physically good enough, but we knew the more the season went on, the more we’d find our feet.
“Of course, the Europa League was very difficult. We had very disappointing results which affected our confidence for the Premier League a little bit. But what people have a tendency to forget is that in the first six or seven games, we played Manchester City, United, Chelsea, all the big teams.
“We won the first game against Stoke and then drew against Man City, but we could already sense the fans wanted even more, which I understand, because the thing in the media was: ‘Everton want to play in the Champions League.’ So, I understand the expectation was even higher.
“But it was difficult when you change a manager like this, because one part [of why Schneiderlin joined Everton] was that I signed for Koeman. Not just for him - for the football club as well - but I felt not very happy with the decision. But so be it. It’s football.”
If Schneiderlin was disappointed by Koeman’s dismissal, many Evertonians appeared similarly irked by the decision to replace him with perennial firefighter Sam Allardyce.
Eventually, that is. For after initially courting Watford’s Marco Silva, Allardyce was appointed Everton manager 38 days after Koeman departed.
In the intervening period came another arduous spell under caretaker boss David Unsworth. Schneiderlin received his second red card of the season in a 3-0 defeat at Lyon in early November, before reports surfaced that he and Mirallas were sent away from training by Duncan Ferguson at Finch Farm two days later.
Schneiderlin denies this, as both he and Unsworth did in the immediate aftermath, adding Ferguson swore to him that he did not leak this version of events to the media. But he feels the story made life harder for him and Allardyce, a manager he respected, upon his later appointment.
“I had a good relationship with him [Allardyce] because he was a manager who was very direct, who will tell you what he thinks. At Everton, people were criticising him because of the way he wanted to play, with long balls and everything,” he laughs.
“But he’s shown in his career that, like it or not, it brings results most of the time. The thing that was hard for me and him was the story that came out before [his appointment] in the paper about the training ground thing that happened with Duncan Ferguson.
“It was very difficult for him because I don’t think he expected the fans would react like this against me.
“I’m in Nice now, I’m away from England, so if it really happened, I would tell you straight to your face: ‘Yes, it happened,’ but it didn’t.
“I was out of the squad [against Watford the following Sunday]. I came to train with him [Ferguson] and the only thing he told me was: ‘Morgan, look. I know you’re very sad, I know you played two days ago. If you want to go in, you can go in,’ and that’s what I did. It’s the only thing that happened. Then I was very surprised [to read] two days later that I quit training.
“I think that was the turning point of my Everton career because after this, people didn’t judge me again for my performances. They just judged me because of this, because they thought I disrespected the club and the shirt. I think a lot of fans didn’t believe me; they just believed what they read in the paper. I think that cost me my future at Everton.”
Before Everton’s visit to Crystal Palace in January 2017, Schneiderlin had played merely 25 minutes in royal blue. Yet so enthralled were fans by his signing already that the concourse in the Selhurst Park away end that day was teeming with Evertonians belting out his name.
Fast-forward 13 months later, coincidentally also against Palace, and Schneiderlin appeared to be booed by a section of his own supporters when introduced by Allardyce as a late substitute in a 3-1 home win.
Allardyce admitted post-match his own surprise at the frosty reaction. Yet having signed to such fanfare, did Schneiderlin ultimately feel underappreciated by the Goodison faithful?
“I just think I was never judged well. Even after Allardyce came, I read papers but I didn’t read about my performances,” he says.
“I don’t need journalists to tell me if I played well. On social media, you can read some things. And every time, I read a journalist saying: ‘Maybe one of his best games, maybe one of his best games.’ I played three or four [good] games and then one game, straight away: ‘Not good, not giving everything, doesn’t want to be here.’
“Of course, that influences peoples’ perception. I’m not saying I was perfect, far from it. But it’s just something I felt was very hard because I felt like people always felt I was not giving everything.
“When things were going well, people said: ‘He’s class, he’s very calm on the ball,’ and when things were going wrong, they said: ‘He doesn’t care, he doesn’t sweat,’ and so on. It was very disappointing because I loved my time there, even if it was difficult sometimes. But I think it’s a great club with a fantastic fan base.”
In fairness to Schneiderlin, who certainly improved as that trying season reached its ending, he was far from the only Everton player guilty of underperforming. Allardyce led them to eighth, albeit amid a backdrop of rancour and disillusionment, before another bold new era at Goodison was heralded when he was replaced by Silva in May 2018.
Schneiderlin admits he contemplated his future after a difficult campaign, but Silva’s arrival brought with it a clean slate. He started the next season well, particularly impressing in the battling opening-day draw at Wolves.
But on September 12, 2018, Schneiderlin’s father, Albert, passed away.
Having spent his father’s final days with him in Zellwiller, France, Schneiderlin stoically started Everton’s next game, a 3-1 home defeat to West Ham, just four days after Albert’s passing.
With Everton 2-0 down and half-time approaching, Silva replaced Schneiderlin on 44 minutes. Understandably, he was emotionally and physically exhausted.
Between then and Schneiderlin’s next Premier League start five months later, he played only 39 minutes of top-flight football, not even making the bench for 15 league games.
“I played well, I think, until my dad passed away, and then it was very hard for me as a human being to come back, to do everything,” Schneiderlin says.
“It took me a lot to come back after two days, to bury my dad and come back and play that game.
“But when he [Silva] took me off, it was very disappointing. Of course, he could have waited 45 minutes. Of course, I understood that, at that moment, we were losing 2-0.
“But the most difficult thing after this was not to play for two or three months and not even be in the squad. Of course, I was sad that I lost my dad, but I don’t think I showed sadness every day at the training ground.
“It was very difficult for me and at that moment I was very disappointed with the way he dealt with it, but it’s football. I just had to keep going and be ready because I knew he would need me in the season.”
If there was a silver lining to Schneiderlin’s spell out of the team, it was that it afforded him more time with his wife Camille and their first child, Mae, who was born in October 2018.
He kept himself fit all the while, showing the sort of professionalism that some at Goodison perhaps accused him of lacking the previous season, particularly by doing several hard sessions every fortnight with a personal trainer he brought over from France.
And when finally called on again, he grasped the opportunity emphatically. From February’s 3-0 win at Cardiff, Schneiderlin played eight more games for Everton that season, none of which they lost.
He was superb as Everton thumped United 4-0 on Easter Sunday, quietly yet confidently going about his business and dovetailing perfectly with midfield partner Gueye, from whom he was once inseparable.
Another eighth-placed finish was their reward for a strong finish, but the mood around Goodison that summer felt entirely more upbeat than 12 months prior. Yet Gueye left for Paris Saint-Germain in July, and three midfielders joined: Barcelona loanee André Gomes was signed permanently, as were Fabian Delph and Jean-Philippe Gbamin.
Schneiderlin was left a little unsure, but again Silva reiterated his desire to keep him.
“All my career I’ve wanted to have an open discussion; that if the club doesn’t want me, they tell me; that if I want to leave, I will tell them,” he says.
“I had a lot of clubs who wanted me abroad and in England, so we had a talk with [director of football] Marcel Brands and the manager and they told me: ‘Look, you are staying. We want to keep you here and play here.’
“When the season was starting, I could see he bought three midfielders - Delph, André stayed, and Gbamin. So, at one point, I might have forced a little bit to go, because of course I didn’t want to spend another time [out of the team]. When Jean-Philippe got injured, they chose to keep me.”
For numerous reasons, though, Silva’s world unravelled that season. It started disappointingly for Schneiderlin, too, as he was sent off in the season-opener at Palace. But he at least enjoyed more game time under Silva than in the previous campaign, until the Portuguese’s sacking in December 2019.
Schneiderlin struggles to pinpoint what caused the demise of Silva who, like Koeman, left with Everton in the bottom three. But he admits their struggles to defend set-pieces were symptomatic of an underachieving side - in Silva’s 53 league games at Everton, they shipped 23 goals from them, including a league-high 16 in 2018-19.
“It’s difficult to say. We conceded a lot of goals from set-plays. It’s very difficult because Silva was someone who everyone liked,” he says.
“Sometimes it doesn’t click. We didn’t play well and the results showed it.”
The first post-Silva game, though, saw Schneiderlin deliver one of his best performances in an Everton shirt.
Ferguson, in temporary charge, picked him in a two-man midfield alongside Sigurdsson against a fearsome Chelsea at Goodison. Schneiderlin was immense, winning six of Everton’s 37 tackles - a decade-high for the club and exactly double their season average up to then.
A reinvigorated Everton deservedly won 3-1 as Ferguson, clad in Everton sweatband and Howard Kendall’s old watch, darted down the touchline hugging ball boys. A buoyant Goodison duly erupted. Evidently, it’s one of Schneiderlin’s most treasured Merseyside memories, too.
“Duncan Ferguson came and said: ‘Look, I have no time to speak about tactics.’ He just reminded us what Everton was about and what he wanted from us as players. He came, he was smiling, it was the best day of his life probably!” he laughs.
“We had to fight, and that’s what we did. We came on to the pitch knowing the only way for us to win this game was to be compact and fight for every ball. We had a very good game. It was fantastic.”
The only drawback from that euphoric day was the collateral damage - Schneiderlin was one of several players to sustain minor injuries, and it transpired as the only game of Ferguson’s four at the helm in which he featured.
Highlights for Schneiderlin extended further than on the pitch that season, too. It should not be forgotten that, that October, he kindly offered free tickets to the home win against West Ham to Evertonian Dan Griffiths and his family. Griffiths had reached out to Schneiderlin following the passing of his mother, who would say: ‘See you in the Morgan Schneiderlin’ before going to bed every night.
He made five more Everton appearances thereafter under Carlo Ancelotti, and took to him hugely in their six months working together.
“I like him very much. I read his two books, because maybe I want to be a coach later,” Schneiderlin says.
“When I spoke with players who played under him at PSG or other clubs, they always told me how close he was to his players, how good he is, how good his training sessions are.
“He’s someone who has charisma, who you listen to, who’s very close to his players, who knows football better than anyone. I liked my time with him and his training sessions very much. It was a real pleasure.”
A defeat at Arsenal in February 2020 brought the curtain down on Schneiderlin’s Everton career, with his move to Nice confirmed in June, three months after the coronavirus-enforced suspension of football. For the first time since those fleeting Strasbourg outings, he is back playing in his home country.
He has not left Everton behind altogether, though. We talk the day after another Palace clash, the 1-1 draw on April 5, which he watched and was disappointed to see his old team relinquish their lead late on.
“I sometimes text the players,” he adds, namely Gomes and his compatriot Digne, two team-mates he was especially close with. His only regrets about his time at Everton, he says, are that he could not sustain his blistering early form, and that the nucleus of the ‘great team’ he joined was then broken up the following summer.
As for his current side, this season has not gone entirely to plan for Nice, who were bought by INEOS, the chemical company founded by British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, in summer 2019.
Having finished fifth last season, they parted company with Patrick Vieira in December after losing five straight games and exiting the Europa League, but have won four and drawn one of their last five Ligue 1 matches under Adrian Ursea, formerly Vieira’s assistant.
Schneiderlin has not always been a starter, but his 29 appearances this term eclipse the 16 and 18 outings in his final two Everton seasons. He missed Sunday’s win versus Nantes through suspension, but started the previous five games, and has occasionally donned the armband in the absence of their injured captain, Dante.
“It’s a new chapter for me and my family,” says Schneiderlin, whose second child, Keira, was born in September.
“I made the choice because Nice has a big project. Nice wants me for the long-term here. They brought me here for a new role, to speak a lot with the young players and to give my experience to the team.
“It’s something I’m learning. I’m enjoying it. If I’m captain or not, it doesn’t change the way I behave.
“The last few years, this club has made very big steps. We have a very good training ground,” adds Schneiderlin, who is speaking from Nice’s state-of-the-art training complex which opened in October 2017.
“As players, we have rooms inside where we can rest and sleep before games. The training pitches are very good - they brought an English gardener [grounds manager Scott Brooks] who worked at St. George’s Park before, so the pitches are almost like in England.
“Of course, life in Nice is sunny, so it’s very different to Liverpool - I need some sun cream for training!”
So, after more than a decade in England which took him from the third tier to the Champions League and just about everywhere in-between, might we ever see him back on these shores, either as a player or a coach?
“I don’t know how football will go, but as I say, I signed for Nice because they wanted me here for the long-term,” he says. “We’ll see how football is, because it’s a world no-one can predict.
“I loved my time in England. It’s a very special country for me. I love the English mentality and my son was born there, so it’s a special place.”
While it’s heartening to hear Schneiderlin still holds Everton and England dear to his heart, the move to Nice appears best for all parties. In the salubrious surroundings of the Côte d’Azur, a jovial, affable Schneiderlin feels at home.