If goals were a rarity at first team level last season, the same cannot be said of Paul Tait’s Everton Under-21 squad. Unfortunately, there were a few heavy defeats where they conceded 5 goals twice and 4 goals three times but the ‘goals for’ were fairly consistent with the exceptions being the games in which they scored 7 (once), 6 (twice) and 5 (once).
The young Blues played a mammoth number of 43 games across all competitions scoring an impressive 81 goals while conceding a hefty 76 goals, an average scoreline of 1.88 v 1.77. By contrast, the first team played 41 cross competition games scoring a paltry 37 goals and conceding an unhealthy 64 goals, for an average scoreline of 0.9 v 1.56.
Top scorers at Under 21 level (across all competitions) were: Tom Cannon 16 (even though he left on loan in January), Stan Mills 14 and Francis Okoronkwo 10 compared to the first teamers Dwight McNeil 7, Demarai Gray 6 and Abdoulaye Doucoure 5. That is stark reading even though the gulf in level of the competitions is obviously massive.
The team finished comfortably 8th out of 14 teams in the top-flight of the league (Premier League 2, Division 1) and made progress in cup competitions beating Football League teams such as League Two Hartlepool United and Mansfield Town. Both those clubs fielded near full strength teams against Tait’s young charges.
In terms of playing style during the season it was interesting to watch the differences at this level as the senior team changed head coaches from Frank Lampard to Sean Dyche. I’m not sure if it was specific instruction but the Under 21s for the first part of the season very much mirrored the formation being deployed under Lampard whether it was a good fit or not at Under 21 level. In contrast, following that period, the Under 21s played the system that suited them best regardless of the senior formation. They often used a 4-2-3-1 for example.
The primary aim as we all know is to get players through the youth teams into the first team. That production line is often assisted by sending the players out on loan as they outgrow the youth levels but maybe are not ready for the Premier League. If that means playing the players in positions which they are most likely to develop (as in the second half of the season) then that can only be an attractive option for feeder clubs who may offer loan opportunities if they can properly “see what they are getting”?
As with previous seasons of course there are opportunities created as the more experienced Under 21s get snapped up for loans and this season was no exception. The loan departures of Lewis Warrington, Lewis Dobbin, Ellis Simms, Tom Cannon, goalkeeper Harry Tyrer gave opportunities to the likes of Frankie Okoronkwo, Katia Kouyate, Sean McAllister, 16 year old Ishe Samuels-Smith and goalkeeper Zan-Luk Leban.
In terms of the players who did themselves no harm in getting in Sean Dyche’s line of vision you would obviously look no further than Tom Cannon (though he had left for Preston North End by the time Dyche arrived) and Stanley Mills who had an outstanding season scoring 14 goals as a winger.
Entirely understandable, though slightly disappointing for keen followers of the Under 21s, that Mills in particular, didn’t get any match minutes in the first team under Sean Dyche but we all acknowledge the pressure that was on the senior team to get results. Perhaps, with hindsight, the wait will not have harmed the longer-term chances of any of the young boys. That’s why Sean Dyche picks the team of course and he has to put the clamour to one side.
In a forthcoming review, we’ll have a forward look at the prospects of the Under 21s, what their opportunities might look like, either first team breakthrough or further development loan. One thing for certain though is these boys know where the back of the goalnet is!
Good luck to them all!