As Everton Under 21s played out their latest game, a 0-0 stalemate with Feyenoord in the Premier League International Cup on December 19th, it brought their season to mid-point with the next game not scheduled until well into January, indeed, almost a four week gap.
It’s most certainly been a mixed few months for Paul Tait’s young men. Having lost a few mainstays such as Stan Mills, Reece Welch, Lewis Warrington plus goalkeepers Harry Tyrer and Zan-Luk Leban on loan and Tom Cannon (permanently), there were bound to be a few squad stability issues and so it has turned out.
In addition to those season-long loans and Cannon’s exit, Tait has also had to contend with the very welcome promotion to the senior training squad of Lewis Dobbin, Mackenzie Hunt and, more recently, Elijah Campbell and Jenson Metcalfe both of whom have also made the first team substitutes’ bench.
The latter “promotions” are what it is all about after all. Too often in the past followers of the Under 21s were used to watching players who were the wrong side of 21 and never going to regularly make the first team. Players such as Matthew Pennington, Callum Connolly and, even, Ellis Simms. Those 3 and many others are carving out decent professional football careers elsewhere. A few, such as Simms and Cannon, have actually brought in decent revenue to the club but it has been clear, in almost all instances, that they would rarely make Sean Dyche think about a first-team spot for them and that has to be the aim.
Another major and, in my opinion, welcome change has seen the use of Under 21 games this season to prove or improve the fitness of players who are clearly in the first team squad. Players such as captain Seamus Coleman, Jarrad Branthwaite, Jack Harrison, Ben Godfrey, Joao Virginia and, most recently, Andre Gomes have all featured. Dele, if he is able to overcome his injury problems will also surely play a game or two at this level?
The season itself has seen a cross-competition haul of 5 wins, 3 draws and 8 defeats with 19 goals scored and 28 goals conceded. The team currently sit 23rd in the Premier League 2 division (of 26 teams). If it’s any consolation, Manchester City sit bottom of that group!
So, what of the next 5 months for Tait’s men? There are career decisions that must be made regardless of anything else.
There are the likes of 22 year olds Ryan Astley and Kyle John, both defenders who have not had a look-in, even as far as making the first team bench when the club was stretched. As they’re in the last 6 months of their contracts, ideally Everton should look to help them join a Football League club to further their careers in the game. Both have ability but are clearly not in the thoughts of Sean Dyche. The same with 21 year old goalkeeper Jack Barrett who has barely appeared at Under 21 level.
If there are outgoing loans for 22 year old (and 1st team bench regular) Mackenzie Hunt or 21 year old Sean McAllister (a regular trainer with the first team squad) then you would imagine they might get a contract extension offer before gaining their first taste of senior football elsewhere? They may of course be required to bolster the senior squad, depending on activity in the transfer window. At the time of writing, both are out of contract in June 2024.
In terms of true “development” loans the main candidate for a temporary move to a League One club maybe is Francis Okoronkwo. His attributes at Under 21 level are obvious though with his physicality and speed. As a striker however, he needs to convert more goals from the chances he gets. Those chances at first team level will be even fewer. I always get the feeling that if he is able to pitch his strength and pace against more seasoned professionals he will realise himself what his next steps and areas for improvement are. Make no doubt though that the Blues were right to tie him down to a contract lasting till June 2026. He’s one successful loan away from being a first team fringe player, just a few months younger than Youssef Chermiti and the same amount of raw promise.
The next action is away at Leeds United, in Premier League 2, on Monday 15th January.