A cold Friday night outdoors in Southport is not usually top of the list of things to do even for the hardiest of Evertonians yet a few hundred made the effort to visit Haig Avenue for the Premier League 2 fixture against Tottenham Hotspur. They did so in the knowledge that two first teamers, Nathan Patterson and James Garner, were returning from injury.
The other main attraction was manager Sean Dyche who announced at the pre-Leeds Press Conference on Thursday that he would be going along to see those two play. He was accompanied in the stands by first team coaches Ian Woan and Steve Stone, and amongst his near neighbours were Director of Football (DOF) Kevin Thelwell, ‘80s Blues legends Paul Bracewell and Alan Harper and also Kenny Jackett DOF at Gillingham and John Coleman, manager of Accrington Stanley who have Everton loanee Ryan Astley and recent U21 player Seb Quirk in their ranks. I’m sure there were others also, scouting no doubt ahead of the summer.
The match itself was something of an anti-climax. The Blues got off to a great start when after two minutes the Spurs goalkeeper mishit a clearance straight to Stan Mills and he carried the ball a few yards before scoring at the near post. 1-0.
2' WHAT A START!— Everton Academy (@EvertonAcademy) February 17, 2023
Watch live: https://t.co/FuPVi0wzE4 pic.twitter.com/6pddOEA3D2
The lead might have been doubled after 14 minutes when Patterson’s trademark marauding run saw him cross to Isaac Price who was unable to properly connect with his shot.
As the tide turned towards the Blue goal, impressive young Blues left back Ishe Samuels-Smith made a great interception in the 6 yard box to deny a certain goal. Spurs did equalise after 28 minutes however from a right wing free kick with Devine sending a good flick header into the roof of the net. 1-1.
The best chance for the Blues after that in the first half fell the way of Francis Okoronkwo. He has recently shone very brightly but, perhaps over-eager to impress the onlooking first team manager, he blazed another goalkeeper-gifted chance high and wide when, with a cool head, he simply needed to guide the ball home. That was a real shame for the young striker who had recently been in excellent form.
In truth, the game was pretty disjointed and scrappy from both sides and big chances were few and far between. Zan-Luk Leban in the home goal made a few fine saves to keep the scores level as Spurs threatened to snatch victory.
The action (or lack of it) aside, it was interesting to see a few things.
Firstly, the formation which was a complete departure from a 3-5-2 to a Dyche-like 4-4-2, no doubt a request from the first-team manager himself. It saw Mills playing somewhat uncomfortably in a supporting striker role to Okoronkwo as opposed to his usual right wing role. I think the change of formation did not help the flow of the game as the players struggled with their “new” roles against a very in-form Spurs side.
Secondly, most eyes were on the returning first teamers Patterson and Garner. Most important of course was for both players to get competitive minutes under their belt ahead of a Dyche call-up.
Patterson had a mixed night in truth, some of his pacey right wing runs were what the first team has been crying out for in his absence and in that regard he looked completely at home. He did however get naively caught in possession after half an hour and had goalkeeper Leban to thank for sparing his blushes. Generally, of the two returning players he looked the more rusty despite having been out of action for less time than Garner. He did clutch his right knee worryingly after 7 minutes of the second half but was able to carry on before his scheduled substitution on the hour mark. Hopefully that was completely as planned and at worst a precautionary measure as he will be needed in the Premiership.
Garner lasted 10 minutes longer than Patterson and showed little sign of tiredness having put in a workmanlike performance as part of a twin pivot with captain Price. His passing was crisp, decisive and measured without particularly finding any killer passes. It was only in the opening minutes that he showed any signs of rustiness in his game so he will have been pleased as will Sean Dyche.
The other two players on view on Friday who have been regarded as first team squad were Mills and Reece Welch. Welch was steady throughout and Mills, when restored to his favoured right wing role following Patterson’s withdrawal, looked much more comfortable. A lung-busting 80 yard run 10 minutes from time almost saw him fashion a chance. Pick of the players was 16 year old Ishe Samuels-Smith who was bright and composed throughout.
Next up for the U21s is an away fixture to Manchester City on 25th February.