By Andy Nicholas
When Ronald Koeman first arrived at Everton, those on the blue side of Merseyside were buoyant with anticipation after enduring two painfully mediocre seasons under Catalan Roberto Martinez.
An overriding feeling from the appointment was that it seemed like Everton fans were unanimous in their feelings towards a manager, a player, or absolutely anything at the club for the first time in a long, long time. Everything seemed to be fitting into place for the Toffees.
Koeman seemed to be a step up from the man he was replacing in most departments if you go on his track record in his two seasons at Southampton – he’d grown their reputation whilst ours had vastly deteriorated in that small amount of time. There was just the one problem, though, that seemed to be mentioned over and over again by Southampton fans when coming to terms with his departure – he didn’t bring through the youth.
Saints’ famed academy has had a never ending conveyor belt of talent season after season for a while now, so much so that non-footballing fans would have thought that Josh Sims was the second coming if they’d heard Martin Tyler waxing lyrical about him in that game where he got a very scrappy assist against a poor Everton defence last November. Nevertheless, Southampton fans often used Koeman’s lack of youth development as a stick to beat him with.
At the time of appointment, you worried for the likes of Tom Davies, Kieran Dowell and Mason Holgate’s progression under the Dutchman this season, but Davies and Holgate have this season established themselves as first team regulars.
The old adage of ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ may come into it, Koeman publically played down the talent in Southampton’s youth squad, stating on numerous occasions that their young players weren’t ready. It’s clear to anybody that Davies and Holgate are more than ready, and that’s why they’ve both made several starts this season.
Martinez has enough flaws as it is as a manager; one of his renowned qualities was that he put faith in youth, which is true. However, sometimes faith doesn’t go far enough, bringing them into the team is one thing, making them good enough to stay in it is a different skill altogether.
Many will point to the emergence of Ross Barkley and John Stones as feathers in Martinez’s cap for young players he introduced into the Everton first team, but both regressed comprehensively the more time they spent under the Spaniard’s tutelage.
Martinez’s overzealous comments on those two in particular led you to question his sanity at times, you saw Stones in particular starting to believe in his own hype more and more as his Everton career dwindled to a strange end. As technically gifted as these two players are, this being published in the media every week is in the end nothing other than detrimental to their progression, youth players need to be challenged on their mistakes just as much as they should be lauded for their brilliance.
Koeman is a straight talker. You play well, you keep your place and visa-versa. The impression you get is that when you don’t meet his standards you hear about it. After Davies’ man of the match performance against Man City, Koeman showed Davies a tape of the mistakes he made. That’s what improves players, not being told how great you are.
Martinez’s head-in-the-clouds ideals are lovely on the face of it, but football is a cruel natured and challenging dog-eat-dog profession at times, a manager who challenges your faults will make the likes of Lookman, Calvert-Lewin, Davies and Holgate better players in the long run.
Credit can be given to Martinez to progressing certain players’ careers whilst at Everton, but Koeman’s slow introduction of young players, waiting for when they’re ready and then throwing them into the team with gentle encouragement and a constant reminder of how they need to improve, will surely give Everton’s current crop of rising stars the platform they need to realise their undoubted potential.