Player recruitment under Steve Walsh showed ambition even if things didn't work out
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.
Reader Comments (27)
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1 Posted 06/05/2020 at 08:25:52
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.
2 Posted 06/05/2020 at 08:39:09
3 Posted 06/05/2020 at 09:31:58
4 Posted 06/05/2020 at 09:52:08
5 Posted 06/05/2020 at 10:16:22
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!!!
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.
7 Posted 06/05/2020 at 12:47:11
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.
8 Posted 06/05/2020 at 13:13:14
Derek, believe it or not I put down from The North East for Branthwaite, because I couldnt remember which club we signed him from, this word checker is getting worse and worse, Ive warned Lyndon about him, between you and me, I think hes a relation of Lyndons or maybe Michaels.
9 Posted 06/05/2020 at 13:13:19
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.
10 Posted 06/05/2020 at 14:19:37
11 Posted 06/05/2020 at 15:45:11
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.
12 Posted 06/05/2020 at 16:30:40
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.
14 Posted 06/05/2020 at 18:57:01
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.
15 Posted 06/05/2020 at 19:36:01
These are absolutely the sorts of signings we need. You only need a couple to ignite and it changes the whole club.
16 Posted 06/05/2020 at 22:34:11
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!!!!
17 Posted 07/05/2020 at 02:05:38
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.
18 Posted 07/05/2020 at 03:28:18
I thought signing Onyekuru and Lookman was smart business in a period where Walsh squandered countless millions.
19 Posted 07/05/2020 at 12:36:50
20 Posted 07/05/2020 at 19:14:28
21 Posted 08/05/2020 at 19:03:47
Perhaps it would be better to stop signing kids at 6 and 7 to concentrate on the brightest talent in the lower leagues?
22 Posted 08/05/2020 at 19:52:19
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.
23 Posted 08/05/2020 at 20:22:45
24 Posted 08/05/2020 at 20:51:26
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.
25 Posted 08/05/2020 at 21:07:06
26 Posted 08/05/2020 at 22:39:09
27 Posted 09/05/2020 at 09:23:34
28 Posted 17/05/2020 at 09:29:14
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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