Misfits Mysteries and Nearly-Men – Henry Onyekuru

Player recruitment under Steve Walsh showed ambition even if things didn't work out

Lyndon Lloyd 06/05/2020 27comments  |  Jump to last

Steve Walsh’s somewhat brief stint at Everton has become synonymous with waste and a lack of long-term thinking and there are few who would argue that he burdened his successor, Marcel Brands, with a number of expensive millstones that have complicated the rebuilding project that was required following the departures from Goodison Park or Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce.

His promotion from highly successful scout at Leicester to the Toffees’ first ever Director of Football may have proved to be premature but his work at the club was not without its merits. Idrissa Gueye, aided by his almost criminally low release clause, was unquestionably Walsh’s best piece of business but there is something to be said also for a couple of his more speculative signings that held enormous promise, didn’t pan out but still netted Everton a profit regardless.

One of those was Henry Onyekuru, a hitherto mostly unknown young Nigerian striker plying his trade with KAS Eupen, a partner club of the Qatari-backed Aspire football academy, whom he had joined as a 13-year-old and helped to fire into Belgium’s top flight for the first time.

Arsenal, Celtic and Hoffenheim all expressed early interest in him following those goalscoring exploits but it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that he was primed for a move to one of Europe’s big leagues, with the Premier League, where he was tipped to follow in the footsteps of Yakubu, Obafemi Martins and Nwankwo Kanu as the next Nigerian goalscoring star, seen as his most likely destination.

Having brought the likes of N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to Leicester, Walsh had built a deserved reputation for unearthing hidden gems in his time at the King Power Stadium and he had already brought another Super Eagle to the Premier League in the form of Ahmed Musa, albeit with limited success. (The winger had lit up the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for Nigeria but struggled mightily in England with one of his few bright moments coming against Everton in an FA Cup tie at Goodison in which the Foxes dumped the Blues out at the Third Round stage.)

Five years Musa’s junior and being pursued by none other than Paris St Germain during the 2017 close season — he went as far as having a medical with the Ligue 1 giants — Onyekuru was deemed to be an altogether brighter prospect and Walsh no doubt felt he had picked up another bargain when he paid Eupen £8m for him. All that the forward who had scored 28 times in 57 league appearances in Belgium needed was to qualify for a work permit, something Everton hoped he could achieve within the next 12 months.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men…” and all that. Onyekuru would never make a senior appearance for Everton; that elusive work permit was stymied by injury and the young forward’s lack of international appearances during his two years at Everton.

As Onyekuru explains in a recent article by The Athletic, even Dani Alves was tipping him for stardom after the two met in the Champions League while the Nigerian was playing on loan back in Belgium with Anderlecht: “He told me that I was a good player and I could be one of the best in Africa.

“I remember Everton sent me a message saying they had seen the game, were happy with my progress and that hopefully they’d see me in the national team soon so I could get my work permit.”

It was at that point that his path to the Everton first-team, where another of Walsh’s misfits, Sandro Ramirez was struggling and the loss of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United was being keenly felt, looked open. His form for Anderlecht was promising and he was increasingly involved at international level for Nigeria who were preparing for the World Cup in Russia which was coming up the following year.

He was struck down with a serious knee injury in December 2017, however, and a period of wrangling between his parent and loan club followed, with Everton insistent that the problem didn’t require surgery while Anderlecht were of the opposite opinion. In Onyekuru’s view, the Belgian club and coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck, in particular, were annoyed by the Blues’ stance and took it out on the player once he had returned from a period of rehabilitation on Merseyside by relegating him to the bench. Though he had reached double figures for goals during his loan spell with the Brussels club, he made just a handful more starts that season and lost traction in the senior Nigeria setup at an important juncture.

The upshot was that Onyekuru failed to make his country’s World Cup squad, a major blow to his hopes of playing the requisite number of international matches to qualify for a work permit from the UK Department of Employment.

“The plan to go from Everton to Anderlecht was because I didn’t have the permit,” Henry explained. “The best chance for me to get a work permit was for me to go to the World Cup. It was a big disappointment and was like a bomb had hit me. It’s the biggest tournament in the world and everyone wants to be there.”

He had no option but to go back out on loan in 2018-19, with Galatasaray stepping forward to sign him for the season. Onyekuru appeared to settle quickly in Turkey, sending regular clips of himself swanning around Istanbul to social media and cementing a regular spot in their first team. He played 38 times for the Turkish side, scoring 14 times, including the late goal that won the title for Galatasaray in dramatic fashion against rivals Besiktas.

There was plenty of talk of him returning there on loan for the following season but Everton were reluctant to let him go there on loan twice. Regardless, Onyekuru’s focus was increasingly on finding a permanent move elsewhere, be that sooner or later. With a work permit still nowhere on the horizon and perhaps because his experience in Liverpool while he recovered from his knee injury had been a “difficult” and lonely one, he was, by his own admission, no longer thinking about playing in the Premier League.

“I didn’t have the work permit and my head wasn’t there (at Everton) because I knew I wouldn’t get it,” Onyekuru told The Athletic. “I was about to go back to Galatasaray after the Africa Cup of Nations but all of a sudden I received a call from the sporting director of Everton saying they’d found a good club for me.”

That club was Monaco in a league that the striker had always been reluctant to play in but he felt he had no choice. For Everton, the £12m fee agreed with the French club was too good an opportunity to pass up and Henry Onyekuru’s initially promising but ultimately unproductive move from Eupen to Everton was over. He would return to Galatasaray on loan anyway in 2019 when Monaco agreed to let him go on a temporary basis to resume his development playing first-team football but, for now, his dream of playing in England’s top flight is on hold.

Though he is still only 22, the jury is still out as to whether Onyekuru might ever have been a success in England — he missed the 2018 World Cup but was included in Nigeria’s squad for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations where he was called upon just once, for a 12-minute cameo in the Super Eagles’ semi-final defeat to Algeria. To date, he has earned just 11 international caps, below the threshold required for a work permit in England.

As such, the Onyekuru transfer has, predictably, been criticised in some quarters of the Everton fan-base as another failing by Walsh, but the club deserve credit for managing his time at the club well enough that he enjoyed two successful loan spells in different countries to the point that they were able not only to move him on without losing money but make a tidy profit in the process.

Like that of Ademola Lookman, the Onyekuru move was the kind of speculative, low-risk, high-reward move that Everton should be looking to make as part of a holistic transfer strategy, particularly one focused on developing younger players. (Not that Walsh, who signed a number of players on the wrong side of 27 for massive transfer fees during his time at Goodison, appeared to be focused enough on youth.)

If you’ve ever found yourself asking why some teams are able to find future stars when they’re young, cheap and potentially able to either save the club or make the club millions, then it’s this kind of strategy that needs to be in place and one that has been working at Finch Farm in recent years. That’s how, for example, Arsenal were able to pluck Robin van Persie from Feyenoord as a raw 20-year-old for a couple of million pounds and nurture him to become a world-class striker, and, of course, how Manchester City picked up Vincent Kompany at 22 for £6m, how Tottenham acquired Dele Alli for £5m, how Manchester United found Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for just £1.5m and, of course, how Everton signed players like John Stones, Mason Holgate and Dominic Calvert-Lewin for relative buttons and have reaped the rewards.

With Marcel Brands now in the sporting director role at Everton, it’s likely that this modus operandi will continue and there will be plenty more hits and misses along the way… the hope being, of course, that there will be more Calvert-Lewins and Holgates than Onyekurus and Lookmans but, with younger players, you never really know for sure until you try.

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Reader Comments (27)

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Robert Tressell
1 Posted 06/05/2020 at 08:25:52
Totally agree with the point that we need to speculate on players like Onyekuru in order to grow. Whilst him, Lookman and Vlasic may not have done anything much for the first team, they all made a profit for the club. Worth signing a couple each season.

As for the man himself, he seemed to have tremendous potential, albeit a bit raw. I was hopeful he'd be a first teamer. But looks like the injury, World Cup and work permit debacle knocked his confidence and chances at a critical moment and he's destined now to score goals in an inferior league.

Steve Hopkins
2 Posted 06/05/2020 at 08:39:09
Speaking of Lookman, does anyone know what's become of him? Wikipedia lists him as making only 7 appearances for Leipzig this season.
Clive Rogers
3 Posted 06/05/2020 at 09:31:58
Steve, last I read, Leipzig wanted to convert him to a wingback and he has lost his place since then.
Steve Hopkins
4 Posted 06/05/2020 at 09:52:08
That's interesting, thanks Clive.
Dave Abrahams
5 Posted 06/05/2020 at 10:16:22
Did Walsh sign Lewis Gibson from Newcastle Utd? He could turn out to be a gem of a signing. Catch them young is the way to go – as long as you sign the right ones.

Jarrad Branthwaite could be another good signing last season from the North East. He looks okay, very tall and still some growth in him... could be another Jackie Charlton, only better looking!!!

Jim Jennings
6 Posted 06/05/2020 at 11:04:01

Re Lookman, he simply has not been near good enough to get in RB Leipzig's team with the players ahead of him. But it is ironic because he is exactly the profile of player they sign which the author suggests EFC should do. Young, good re-sale value and relatively low risk – even if he did cost big enough money.

Half that RB Leipzig squad is (or was before Covid-19) being linked with moves to cash-rich Premier League teams – fellas like Konate, Upamecano, Sabitzer and of course Werner, who were all signed for relative buttons.

Derek Knox
7 Posted 06/05/2020 at 12:47:11
Hi Dave @5, not entirely sure if Walsh was behind the signing of Lewis Gibson, but if he was, it's probably about the only one he got right. Sorry to correct you but Jarrad Branthwaite was signed from Carlisle United.

Like you say though he could, along with Lewis Gibson prove to be money well spent. It's not very often we can say that with Everton. We have a terrible record when you look back, at some of the astronomical sums (and Contracts) that have been shelled out on poor choices.

Dave Abrahams
8 Posted 06/05/2020 at 13:13:14
Derek (7), nice to hear from you, hope you are getting through this terrible time okay, see you some time this year, hopefully.

Derek, believe it or not I put down from The North East for Branthwaite, because I couldn’t remember which club we signed him from, this word checker is getting worse and worse, I’ve warned Lyndon about him, between you and me, I think he’s a relation of Lyndon’s or maybe Michael’s.

Michael Kenrick
9 Posted 06/05/2020 at 13:13:19
Dave, so sorry... that was poor mistake by me. I feel just like Prof Neil Ferguson now... totally and painfully exposed. Mind you, when you're knocking up a fine-looking young lady like that... well, I forgive him.

Derek, Steve Walsh left us in May 2018, while Gibson was signed the previous summer, so it would be reasonable to expect that Walsh had been heavily involved with his acquisition by the club.

"You win some, you lose some" has to be the aphorism for the youth recruitment game in football. Which seems to have now largely replaced the 'local kid comes good' pathway. Although the number of kids we have that are at least from the British Isles is still pretty robust.

Lyndon has put a positive spin on the Onyekuru saga, which may be justified by the ultimate profit secured. But any wages we paid (especially when he was out injured) should also be factored in. At least Brands had the wisdom to cash in rather than prolong the agony of wondering when he would ever make his Everton debut.

Dave Abrahams
10 Posted 06/05/2020 at 14:19:37
Michael (9), fair enough, we all make mistakes – although I still think you are covering up for that word checker.
Tom Bowers
11 Posted 06/05/2020 at 15:45:11
I have always said that football is a business, like anything else, and it comes down to balancing the books whilst trying to satisfy the shareholders. Many players become investments as a young signing and, if not for the team's success, then later on for monetary gain.

However, some players do not progress for many different reasons and it is not always their fault. Clubs change managers so often these days that your face may fit for a short time... then it doesn't under a new manager.

Some young aspirants have attitude problems and want to be picked every game, even when they have a poor run, so they want out pretty quickly.

Nagging injuries don't help and affect performances and then there are outside transgressions that prevent a player from progressing. Everton have had their fair share of misfits as we all know.

Some things will never change but we long-suffering fans are really hoping the corner is being turned with Ancelotti and the new guys in the boardroom.

Derek Knox
12 Posted 06/05/2020 at 16:30:40
Hi Dave @8, yes it would be great to see you before the year is out, putting an optimistic spin on things, but the way things are going it will be in Temperance House, or a tea-room.

The forecast for Pubs opening again doesn't look likely to be this year, and unfortunately for some, who may have been struggling before, it will be the final nail in their respective coffins.

It has been a devastating blow this, to virtually every country in the World, and it's not even nearing to be under control. There is talk of mutations of the original virus, and second waves etc, there are so many stories and counter stories, you don't know who or what to believe.

Anyway, take care mate and stay safe, as I wish to all on TW.

Lyndon Lloyd
14 Posted 06/05/2020 at 18:57:01
Michael (9): Lyndon has put a positive spin on the Onyekuru saga, which may be justified by the ultimate profit secured. But any wages we paid (especially when he was out injured) should also be factored in

By that logic, we wouldn't sign anyone of this ilk for fear of losing money in the long run. Even if we paid him £4m in wages during his time with us (which we obviously won't have done), we still broke even on a speculative signing which would still be fine.

Again, I'd rather we tried these things with low risk and come out even or in profit than not try them at all.

Robert Tressell
15 Posted 06/05/2020 at 19:36:01
Since Vlasic, Lookman and Onyekuru were on loan much of the time I expect we were not paying their (relatively modest) wages. I was disappointed to see Vlasic go as he's certainly no worse than Iwobi and was much cheaper.

These are absolutely the sorts of signings we need. You only need a couple to ignite and it changes the whole club.

Harry Williams
16 Posted 06/05/2020 at 22:34:11
Steve Walsh bought some duds, but also bought some good ones as well: Pickford, Calvert-Lewin, Gana, Michael Keane.

Walsh gets a lot of criticism and yes I see that. But who is better Walsh or Brands? Everybody knows Silva brought Richarlison to the club.

In Walsh's first two seasons with Everton, we came 7th and 8th in the league... then he gets sacked. Brands 8th and.....? Will Brands go!? The architect is not the answer in my opinion!!!!

Gavin Johnson
17 Posted 07/05/2020 at 02:05:38
The lad can't be seen as a failure. We made £4M and also money on the fees from his 2 years out loan.

I would say the club failed by not cancelling the loan once Anderlecht started acting like dickheads. He could have still made that World Cup squad.

I still think we should have insisted on a buy-back clause when we sold him to Monaco. He's only 22.

Steve Brown
18 Posted 07/05/2020 at 03:28:18
Chelsea have built this approach into their business model, with 28 players on loan this season. Many won't play a game for them but will provide profit when they are resold.

I thought signing Onyekuru and Lookman was smart business in a period where Walsh squandered countless millions.

Tony Everan
19 Posted 07/05/2020 at 12:36:50
Steve, yes I was thinking we have been copying Chelsea’s approach a little bit. Ironically our top scorer in the last 30 years was a Chelsea loanee. I think it is a good and viable approach, if we can get the scouting right in the first place. It’s only a matter of time until we find a diamond.
Ray Said
20 Posted 07/05/2020 at 19:14:28
I think it's a bit unbalanced to just compare Brands and Walsh on transfer work alone. I think Brands has more genuine Director of Football type involvement in wider aspects of the development of the footy side of the business than Walsh did.
Derek Taylor
21 Posted 08/05/2020 at 19:03:47
Given that most on here see Tom Davies as falling well short of Premier League standard, it's beginning to look likely that Unsy's Wonders are a bunch of flops. Of the truly homegrown talent, only Rodwell and Barkley are still with top-level sides and then the former is only at Sheffield on a loan!

Perhaps it would be better to stop signing kids at 6 and 7 to concentrate on the brightest talent in the lower leagues?

Kevin Prytherch
22 Posted 08/05/2020 at 19:52:19
Derek – John Lundstram??

Considering we've had Hibbert, Osman, Rooney, Jeffers, Ball, and Dunne who have also gone on to have distinguished careers (albeit some a while ago)... Would it not be sensible to concentrate on both? We have also had Duffy, Mustafi, Stones and Dier on our books as well.

I'm eager to see how Gibson and Branthwaite progress and hope that Brands starts investing in young talent like these two. They might not always come off, but a million or two gambled here and there is a far smaller risk than £28 million on an Italian youth prospect.

Derek Taylor
23 Posted 08/05/2020 at 20:22:45
How silly of me, overlooking all that local talent. Having said that, though, at least three of them came through in the last century whist Stones came from Barnsley!
Kevin Prytherch
24 Posted 08/05/2020 at 20:51:26
Duffy, Mustafi, Stones and Dier all came from elsewhere, which goes along with your premise of buying young talent. I was just saying that it should go hand in hand with producing local talent.

You could include Lookman, Vlasic and Coleman in with them as well, as they've all been bought as relative youngsters not for the first team (with the possible exception of Vlasic) and either made us money, or became very good players for us. This is an area in which I expected more from Brands.

Andy Crooks
25 Posted 08/05/2020 at 21:07:06
Derek, some on here, perhaps many on here, may well see what they regard as Tom Davies's shortcomings. What evidence do you have that it is "most"?


Derek Taylor
26 Posted 08/05/2020 at 22:39:09
Many correspondents criticise his inclusion whenever he is selected. Personally, he'll do for me but not too many would agree.
Harry Wallace
27 Posted 09/05/2020 at 09:23:34
I love this series. Always a great read 👍🏻
Chad Schofield
28 Posted 17/05/2020 at 09:29:14
Chelsea often get pointed at as good, but while they profited, they must be slightly envious of letting the likes of De Bruyne and Lukaku go. Yet they clearly "bought their titles".

I think the Luke Garbutt article shows even more the sliding doors-style side of a professional football career (they're really good Lyndon).

At 22 Onyekuru could go either way. We have made a 50% profit (less wages)... that's not bad. That doesn't make you a selling club if he comes good, or a financial genius if he does nothing - it was just prudent to sell him for that price at the time.

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