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Everton 2023/24 Season Preview: Under 21s

Changed Premier League 2 format will provide greater variety of opponent for Tait’s Toffees

Tranmere Rovers v Everton XI - Pre-Season Friendly
Big season ahead for Paul Tait
Photo by Matt McNulty/Getty Images

It’s back to Everton Under 21s football from next Monday (14th August) and the game could not be much bigger as they travel to Liverpool’s academy to take on their arch-rivals in the mini-Merseyside Derby.

Our “home” games this season are to take place largely on Friday nights at either the re-named Big Help stadium in Southport, the Walton Hall Park ground not far from Goodison or, I would think, Goodison Park itself.

Paul Tait’s young men are likely to be even younger this time around as several mainstay players have moved on either permanently or on loan within the last month or are about to do so.

Looking ahead at the potential team Tait might use is difficult as there have been barely any proper Under 21 pre-season games. As Sean Dyche naturally wanted to look closely at a number of Tait’s players in and around the first team training squad, there has been a lack of numbers to warrant a full pre-season programme for the younger players.

They have played two games with a narrow 0-1 defeat at Forest Green Rovers and a 0-3 reverse against a Glasgow Rangers B team. On both occasions the Blues fielded a very young team. The other friendly against Tranmere Rovers was not officially an Under 21 game, it was more of a First team fringe players/Under 21s hybrid affair.

What we can say with absolute certainty is that the young Blues will not be able to call on the services of several regulars from last season.

Stan Mills (on loan to League One Oxford United) and regular U21 goalkeeper last season, Zan-Luk Leban (on loan to National League outfit Farsley Celtic) are two of the main movers. The time for Mills to play men’s football is absolutely right, he will continue his progression against more difficult, more physical opponents. Although the Slovenian Under 21 international Leban had a stellar season and could potentially aim for a Football League team, the thinking must be that he will get regular game-time in Yorkshire in proper men’s football and that is more valuable than seeing him sit on the bench in a higher league.

Tranmere Rovers v Everton XI - Pre-Season Friendly
Goalkeeper Jack Barrett might get regular games this season
Photo by Matt McNulty/Getty Images

The vacancies they leave behind at Under 21 level are likely to be filled by Jack Barrett in goal although some of the senior goalkeepers might get game-time too as permitted over-age players. As for replacing Mills that’s a tall order given his goal contributions last term but the most likely candidate is the highly promising Isaac Heath, an altogether different player to Mills but an effervescent style nonetheless.

On the departures front, we are highly unlikely to see last season’s top scorer Tom Cannon feature. As speculation mounts about his short term future, the Blues are reportedly (and understandably) looking for a reasonable loan fee to allow him to leave the club for the season. It is also very unlikely that centre back Reece Welch will be playing in Tait’s team this term as he also is overdue a loan move to help his development and, at time of writing, is strongly rumoured to be on his way on loan to League 2 Forest Green Rovers.

In terms of attacking replacements we have already seen the emergence of Francis Okoronkwo and Katia Kouyate last season and they are certain to get regular playing time unless loans are also deemed a good way forward for them. Young Dutchman Martin Sherif also will feature.

Everton U21 v Dinamo Zagreb U21: Premier League International Cup
Isaac Heath likely to get more opportunities following the loan transfer of Stan Mills
Photo by Emma Simpson - Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images

In a revised format for the Premier League 2 season, the previous two-division league has been abolished and a single league of 26 teams (previously in the 2 divisions) has been established.

The new format will also give teams a greater breadth of fixtures, initially playing 20 different opponents at home OR away subject to the draw made recently. That compares with the 13 that Everton faced home AND away in Division 1 last season (so 26 games in all last term). Should Everton finish in the top 16 then there will be a further series of elimination games (up to 4) to play to determine final ranking.

Although the changes seem rather complex (understatement!) the real benefits appear to be that the teams will play a greater variety of opponents (20 rather than 13) and the run-in will be even more competitive as the top 12 in the end table will qualify for the 2024-25 Premier League International Cup.

The Blues are also this season definitely taking part in the English Football League Trophy which pits the Under 21s against seasoned professionals from the lower reaches of the Football League - that’s always an education. No matter how talented our boys are there’s nothing quite like an autumnal breezy damp night in Doncaster to put you in your place! 19th September for that one!

Everton U21 v Birmingham U21 - Premier League Cup
Okoronkwo (L) celebrating with Kouyate
Photo by Emma Simpson - Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images

I expect there may be other announcements around fixtures in other Cup competitions to follow but nothing yet confirmed.

The initial fixtures for Everton Under-21s’ 2023/24 season are listed below:

  • Liverpool (A), LFC Academy, Mon 14 Aug, PL2
  • Middlesbrough (A), Heritage Park, Fri 18 Aug, PL2
  • Brighton & Hove Albion (H), The Big Help Stadium, Fri 25 Aug, PL2
  • West Ham United (A), Rush Green Training Ground, Fri 1 Sep, PL2
  • Doncaster Rovers (A), Eco-Power Stadium, Tue 19 Sep, EFLT
  • Norwich City (H), Walton Hall Park, Fri 22 Sep, PL2
  • Burton Albion (A), Pirelli Stadium, Tue 26 Sep, EFLT
  • Arsenal (H), The Big Help Stadium, Fri 29 Sep, PL2

Just a few days to go until the big game against the city rivals, good luck lads!