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Fans Comment
Chris Marks

Whatever happened to the Likely Lads?
11 January 2006

FA Youth Cup Winners: 1998

DISCLAIMER: This article, dealing with Everton youth players over the last 15 years, acknowledges that Wayne Rooney was an exceptionally talented player to come through the Goodison ranks. The kind of talent that most clubs could expect maybe once every 100 years or so. Therefore, he is the exception to the general situation this piece will attempt to outline.

I was visiting my parents over Christmas, and, for my sins, I flicked through that days copy of the Daily Mail. I cant be bothered to explain why my relatively sane parents would read this piece of tat, but they do. Amongst its usually bland and ill-informed sports reporting, there was a feature on promising young footballers coming through the ranks at all twenty Premiership clubs. As well as the usual crop of teenage wannabes striving for recognition at most of the clubs, I was alarmed to notice that our beloved EFCs young candidate was the 24-year-old Leon Osman. How can this be? And, further to this, whats happened to our local presence generally?

The 1984-85 Championship-winning squad contained no fewer than six players either born locally (if you permit North Wales as local-ish for Southall and Ratcliffe), or who came through our own system (Ratters and Gary Stevens). Furthermore, Messrs Ratcliffe and Stevens made their debuts in their late teens, and hence by the time they were in their mid-twenties, were seasoned professionals. The current Everton first-team squad, excluding James Vaughan (who is yet to start a league match) features just two of these home-grown talents: Hibbert and Osman. They are both 24, being of the 1981 vintage, and have made just 146 Premiership starts between them. By similar ages, Ratcliffe was a cup-winning captain and Gary Stevens was heading to the World Cup with England. Where has our local talent gone?

An even more damning statistic than these is this: with the exception of Rooney, Osman (aged 23 at the time) and Nick Chadwick are the only youth players to make their full debuts since David Moyes took over in March 2002. What happened to one talent through per year we used to expect? Looking back over the last few years (since the debut of David Unsworth in 1992), there is a fairly regular stream of gems to have made their presence felt in L4 [Note: all stats are for League appearances only]:

  • 1991-92 David Unsworth (272 starts, 34 goals until 2004)
  • 1994-95 Tony Grant (43 starts, 2 goals)
  • 1995-96 Jon OConnor (3 starts, 0 goals) included as he is considered by many to be one of the lost talents of the club, along with Billy Kenny, who debuted earlier.
                  Michael Branch (16 starts, 3 goals)
  • 1996-97 Michael Ball (102 starts, 8 goals)
                  Richard Dunne (54 starts, 0 goals)
  • 1997-98 Danny Cadamarteri (38 starts, 13 goals)
                  Gavin McCann (5 starts, 0 goals)   a Premiership regular; has an England cap.
  • 1998-99 Francis Jeffers (37 starts, 18 goals)
  • 2000-01 Tony Hibbert (108 starts, 0 goals)

I may well have left out one or two, but these main candidates illustrate the point well. Between them they have amassed 678 Premiership starts for The Blues, scored 78 goals, won full international honours for England and Eire, and in some cases brought in much-needed transfer funds. As well as these impressive figures, consider how much they have saved the club by avoiding the need to splash out on other players. Furthermore, those that have been sold have not always been adequately replaced. Ball was replaced with Pistone, who cost 3M and has managed just 94 starts in 5 years at the club. Ratzinski (no spelling mistake) cost 4.5M, whinged and dived, and was arguably a far poorer player than Jeffers could/would have been.

Since the appointment of David Moyes, only Osman and Chadwick have come through. EVERY SINGLE OTHER YOUTH PLAYER has been released (aside of Rooney). Thats almost four years worth of youth player intake released. But does the fault lie with the manager? Possibly, but how many of the Stephen Schumachers, Daniel Foxes and Anthony Gerrards of this world will make it to the top of the domestic game? Probably not many. A glance through ToffeeWebs transfer archive shows that none of them have achieved much in the game so far; indeed, only Schumacher at Bradford, Chadwick at Plymouth and Fox and Gerrard at Walsall have done much at all in recent years at League 1 level or above. So I repeat: where has the talent gone?

Not only is this a worrying trend, but the talent we have had come through is sometimes hardly worthy of the word, not by top-flight football standards anyway. A lot of Blues will counter the following question with talk of our fabled Youth Academy (to open in 20xx), but wheres the quality in our young players? Obviously, not every club can have a production line like Man United in the early 1990s or West Ham in recent years (2 Ferdinands, Lampard, Cole, Defoe, Carrick, Glen Johnson etc), but we cant seem to produce even decent Premiership players.

Ill draw some comparisons. Everton get a young defender through the ranks. He may be a good defender (Hibbert), but cant pass (Hibbert, Unsworth). Or he makes calamitous mistakes (Unsworth, Dunne). When our loveable off-spring across the park get a similar player, he matures and becomes Jamie Carragher (limited, but a better centre-back than weve had in many a year). When we get a lightening-quick striker who cant score goals (Branch, Cadamarteri). Liverpool get Owen. Upon the arrival of a skilful midfielder, someone to dictate the tempo, to provide the killer pass, he is brittle and inconsistent (Tony Grant). Liverpool get Steven Gerrard, and even David Thompsons a better player than many of ours.

Being hyper-critical, even Rooney himself has a highly suspect temperament which can make him a liability at key times. Even when quality does come through, its often wasted, such as Michael Balls treatment (or lack of) when injured and the sale of Gavin McCann, an underrated player we could have used in the six years since he was sold. Clubs not normally associated with our historical standing (if that still applies at all) are now producing top players as well. Witness the emerging talents up at Middlesbrough and over at Manchester City to see how far we have slippeed behind.

An alternative approach to developing your own talent is to buy it up from smaller clubs before others can get there. Arsenal have done this particularly well, snapping up the likes of Anelka and Gael Clichy before anyone outside France would have heard of them. Chelsea and Man Uniteds recent tussle over the Nigerian prospect Jon Obi Mikel indicates theyre not far behind either. Our attempts have not been so successful (so far). Moyes has signed Iain Turner, Jon Ruddy, Patrick Boyle, and Bjarni Thor Vidarsson, but none of them has yet worn the royal blue at a senior level. Previous efforts are more embarrassing: anyone remember Matt McKay or Gary Rowett? How about Andrew Pettinger, a goalkeeping prospect so bright he quit the game when he left us? Didnt think so.

I fully realise that we desperately need a new Youth Academy. Whether the new facilities offered by such a project would be the missing link remains to be seen. Surely it is just part of the solution having the proper coaching and scouting personnel in place is vital too. Even the establishment of a perfect academy, due to produce an endless supply of talent (like Ajax or Nantes in Europe, River Plate in Argentina and countless clubs in Brazil) would only produce results, say two or three years after its inception (in 20xx). But the presence of at least some decent players from our ranks would help no end, thickening the squad in key areas and releasing valuable money for team strengthening elsewhere.

So as well as joining my fellow blues in hoping for some bargains in the January sales, Ill be keeping an eye out for the reserves and under-18s results, praying that the full-time contracts given to the likes of James Vaughan, Mark Hughes and Paul Hopkins mean there is real promise to come in the near future.

Chris  Marks


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