As the dust starts to settle on Tom Davies’ Man of the Match display against Manchester City last month, attention on the blue half of Merseyside has already turned to finding the latest gem off the Finch Farm conveyor belt.
On the face of it, the outlook in that sense is overwhelmingly positive, with David Unsworth’s superb Under-23 side three points clear at the top of the Premier League 2 ahead of Monday night’s game in hand against Southampton, and possessing a number of fine prospects as far as progression to Ronald Koeman’s senior squad is concerned.
Given the loss of the likes of the aforementioned Davies, Mason Holgate and Dominic Calvert-Lewin to the first-team ranks, together with the continued absence of a plethora of talented loanees current plying their trade in the football league, it must be said that lifting the PL2 would be a monumental achievement for a group of players who are now schooled in the art of winning.
Indeed, their collective development has been such that on a personal level, this crop of Everton youngsters may well be the best witnessed in my time supporting the club.
So without further ado, here are five other Under-23 stars who could be set to make the permanent jump in the coming months.
Liam Walsh, Central Midfielder
The jewel in the Finch Farm crown as far as I’m concerned, diminutive midfielder Walsh has long been spoken of as a first-team star in waiting by those at the Blues’ Halewood academy base.
Equally at home conducting play from a deep-lying role as he is in breaking up opposition attacks and snapping into tackles, the Huyton-born teenager has been an ever-present in Unsworth’s starting lineup when fit and recently captained the side in the Premier League Cup match against Norwich at Carrow Road.
Such has been Walsh’s consistency for the group that call ups to first-team training have inevitably followed, however, the 19-year-old was forced to stay at home this week as other Under-23 players were handed a further chance to impress Koeman during a week-long trip to Dubai.
That snub is unlikely to deter the local starlet, who last week told me that he would use it as motivation as he bids to convince the Dutchman he is ready to feature.
So what is holding him back, then? His small stature could be one issue for a manager known to be keen on pace and power, however last season’s successful loan spell with Yeovil in League Two showed that Walsh was more than able to mix it in the professional game. It could also be that Koeman simply cannot find room in midfield at present for a player who would have to compete against Messrs Schneiderlin and Barry for a first-team role.
Whatever it is, though, don’t bet against Walsh eventually making an impression at Goodison Park. Quite simply: He’s too good not to.
Kieran Dowell, Attacking Midfielder
Attacking midfielder Dowell made a number of impressive cameo appearances for Roberto Martinez towards the back-end of last season, but despite not pushing on for further first-team recognition, remains a unique talent in the Finch Farm setup.
Tall, slender but blessed with a sweet left foot and the ability to drift into pockets of space, you’d be forgiven at times for thinking the England youth international had spent the formative years of his footballing education in Spain. In that regard, it’s perhaps no surprise that his only opportunities with the senior side came under Martinez and not Ronald Koeman.
The task at hand for Dowell is to convince the Catalan’s successor that he’s worthy of a try in an Everton team packed with central midfielders but somewhat lacking in creative players.
The problem for the Aughton-born talent up to now has been that, barring a few small exceptions, his best form for Unsworth’s U23s came towards the back end of the previous campaign, when he netted a series of stunning individual goals. Apart from that, the jury is still out at Finch Farm as to whether such a technical player should be thrown into the hustle and bustle of lower league football as he bids to take the next step.
If he’s able to replicate those displays of 2015/16 and consistently influence games at second-string level though, the variety in his game would offer a unique opportunity to Koeman and Co- and one they’d be foolish not to acknowledge.
Jonjoe Kenny, Defender
Unlike Walsh, one player who did make the cut for the first-team training camp in Dubai was versatile defender Kenny.
Another to feature regularly in England youth sides, the 19-year-old has benefitted from successful loans at Wigan and Oxford United, and may well find that his ability to play either as a rampaging full-back or a stopper-type defender could see him handed a chance to stake his claim in future months.
Often found in sessions with Koeman’s seniors when not captaining the Under-23s, an argument could be made that the Kirkdale lad is closest (with Matty Pennington) out of his cohort to making the step up before the end of the season.
If he were to do so, Kenny certainly wouldn’t let anyone at the club down. Standing at just under 5ft 10, the youngster isn’t the tallest but reads the game excellently and possesses a dogged determination to win his personal battles.
That shone through in last season’s match against Norwich City. Thrust in at the deep end in after an injury to Matty Pennington, the teenager perfectly showcased his defensive nous against the likes of Robbie Brady. However, I’d be doing Jonjoe a disservice if I just highlighted his one-on-one play. At his best, Kenny also provides a regular outlet down the right-hand side and is a decent crosser of the ball.
Given the lack of backup options to first-choice right-back Seamus Coleman, it may well be in that position that the defender ultimately makes the breakthrough.
Callum Connolly, Defender
19-year-old utility man Connolly also made broke through for the Blues at the back end of the previous campaign- but once again, has yet to feature since.
With first-team opportunities limited under Koeman, the Fazakerely-born defender chose to head out on loan to Wigan during the January window, and his reward was a two-goal salvo on debut against Burton Albion.
He has followed that up with a number of promising displays, including a composed performance against Manchester United in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Athletic, strong in the air and able to play across the back four- indeed he has featured at centre-back, right-back left-back and even central midfield for both Everton U23s and England- Connolly’s skill-set and versatility marks him out as a good bet to make the grade at Goodison Park over the coming years.
And if it couldn’t get any better, he also regularly chips in with goals at age-group level.
Matty Pennington, Defender
The final name on the list- I deliberated for a while before plumping for him over goal-getting midfielder Harry Charsley- Pennington is no stranger to Everton fans following a couple of appearances towards the back end of the 2015/16 season.
A hamstring injury during pre-season curtailed his progress, but the former Tranmere and Coventry loan star has returned in style and was recently singled out for praise by Unsworth, who described his charge’s display against Arsenal as “probably the best performance I’ve ever seen from a central defender at this level”.
Now 22 and a consistent part of first-team training, Pennington is probably only behind Phil Jagielka as cover if Koeman chooses to persist with playing three central defenders in the second half of the season.
Interesting, it is the current club captain, Jagielka, to whom he bares most resemblance due to his no-nonsense style and committed approach.
Don’t be surprised to see him figure before the season is out.
And a few others to keep an eye on in the coming years…
Beni Baningime is a dynamic holding midfielder in the mold of Idrissa Gueye. He’s been top drawer for Everton U18s over the past few seasons and is starting to establish himself at U23 level.
Welsh youth international striker Nathan Broadhead is in a similar boat to Baningime as far as his progression is concerned, but should Everton harness his talent correctly, he’d almost certainly be assured a career at a high level of the game. Pacey, technical and with an eye for the spectacular, as his goals in the 2015/16 Dallas Cup triumph serve to evidence.
Gangly attacking midfielder Antony Evans starred in the 4-1 mini mini-derby thumping of Liverpool back in September and is currently on loan at Morecambe. Has some filling out to do but talent is there with ball at his feet.
Centre-back Morgan Feeney made his U23 debut back in 2015 as a 16-year-old and has since captained England at U18 level. Comparisons with Dave Watson are apt given how good he is at the defensive side of the game.
*Everton Under-23’s game on Monday 20th February is at Goodison and free to attend. As well as the action on the pitch, there will be plenty of pre-match activity taking place in the Everton Fan Zone from 5.30pm with live music, free giveaways and special guest appearances from Tom Davies, Mason Holgate and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who have all been involved in the fundraising campaign to date.