As we get into the summer transfer window and the names of alleged targets roll in, for those with long memories or those as lucky as I was to see the successful Everton sides of the mid 1980s, I have taken a look back at the balance of those squads. I looked at the mix of home-produced players, players signed very young from other clubs and the “old heads”. The main reason for doing this is to draw comparison with recent and current Everton teams where, to state the obvious, we have not seen success.
I would unashamedly start with the period between 1983 and 1987 when great teams were built by the legendary manager Howard Kendall. Everton were blessed in the early years of that period when three young players from the club’s junior ranks emerged within a short space of time and Kendall saw fit to have confidence in them. The players I refer to are Kevin Ratcliffe who went onto skipper the team, Gary Stevens and Kevin Richardson.
Kendall (much like more recent Everton managers) had initially in 1981/82, recruited seasoned professionals to build a team. It didn’t work. Of the seven players he bought in a matter of weeks, the only success was goalkeeping legend Neville Southall, the cheapest of the lot. He thankfully changed course.
He recruited, or in the case of Graeme Sharp, promoted young players to the first team to produce an exciting nucleus that dominated football in the mid-80s. Add to that a pair of injury prone or written off (in some quarters) senior professionals by the names of Peter Reid and Andy Gray and a great squad was born that will never be forgotten.
For the record, the names of the ten players recruited (and age when bought) are as follows:
Graeme Sharp (19, but signed by previous manager Gordon Lee), Trevor Steven (19), Adrian Heath (21), Derek Mountfield (19), Neville Southall (22), Kevin Sheedy (22), Pat van den Hauwe (23), Alan Harper (22), Paul Bracewell (22) and squad player Paul Wilkinson (20). Only Heath and Steven commanded big fees.
I know people will point out that a) times have changed in terms of finances and indeed style or level of football and b) the club was very lucky that they managed to win with such a small squad (14 players played the vast majority of the games). I would rather, personally point to the effective recruitment of young players, timely promotion from the youth teams, energy, pace, enthusiasm and leadership on and off the pitch. I saw it week in week out. After a period of mediocrity (sound familiar?) the manager had placed faith in his young charges, something that hasn’t been seen since, at least not with the same volume of players.
Since those times we have been barren (FA Cup 1995 aside) in terms of success. Although the production line has not been as regular, we have nevertheless seen in the last 20 years or so, the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ross Barkley achieve club and international success. It proves that it is not beyond us to produce star names. In addition, there have been moderately successful (mainly lower league) careers carved out by Victor Anichebe, James Vaughan, Peter Clarke, Jose Baxter and Danny Cadamarteri. Few, if any of the latter names ever nailed down a first team spot at Goodison Park. So for these years (mainly David Moyes years) there was a trickle more than a full stream of young players coming through.
So what about the future?
Looking at home grown talent now, we have only Tom Davies, Anthony Gordon and Jonjoe Kenny as “home produced” that have so far made a breakthrough. With Dominic Calvert-Lewin (a 19 year old when signed), Mason Holgate (18 when signed) and Jarrad Branthwaite (17) we have a few “brought in” younger players who have made a breakthrough with Everton rather than at previous clubs (i.e. I am not including Richarlison or Ben Godfrey in this review as they were established Premier League players).
For now, the current crop of Under 23s is talented but collectively they are still very young, still developing physically and inexperienced with no “older heads” to guide them on the pitch. In theory, Gordon and Branthwaite could play for and help the U23s but it would hardly help them as individuals. Within recent seasons we saw playing in the U23s the likes of senior player Oumar Niasse getting match fit and Jose Baxter returning as a player for a year. We also recently had Matty Pennington, Joe Williams, Callum Connolly, Antony Evans, Harry Charsley and other players in their early 20s all helping the progress of the younger players. These latter players were never going to properly make it at Everton but they had “know how”. They’ve all gone.
Unless these current 18 to 19 year old players are trusted to learn the hard way alongside the “older heads” playing in the first team AND we as a club and supporter-base are prepared to suffer the consequence of inconsistent performance as they learn their trade, then we may not see them any time soon. Tough as it is, they may have to see out the season without going on loan to other clubs, to develop physically, to overcome disappointment as they learn in a blue shirt. You have to question the value of “loaning out” and the knock on effect of introducing even younger players into the already inexperienced Under 23 set up.
It’s a big step up from Under 23 to first team and it might be that, in our seemingly eternal search for success, we need to invest what money we have or what we can generate into finding the next Heath, Sheedy, Steven etc. So, in other words, 19 to 22 year olds not the Ronald Koeman (and others) “quick fixes” that don’t work and leave the club with long expensive contracts for average players.
With Premier League Profit & Sustainability regulations still hanging around it is possible that only a sale of a major player or two would give us an opportunity next summer to significantly reinvest in the development bracket of the market with perhaps three or four younger (19 to 22 year olds) talents from the Championship or Europe. That would be an uncomfortable prospect for most supporters if we were to sell say Richarlison and buy some young players with high potential but it might prove to be a better long term outcome.
It would be a big statement (to sell a star), maybe the club was just fortunate in the mid 80s but we DO need a strategy. What we’ve had recently under Steve Walsh and Marcel Brands has only worked with a few of the many signings. I would suggest we need to try to build a team.
If we’re going to finish mid-table again I, for one, would prefer to see a team with youth and promise rather than a mid-table ageing team that offers little hope of improvement for the following season. That’s what happened in 1983/84 and look what the next season did for the club!