It’s hard to write this one.
Not just out of sadness—and I am sad as I sit here a couple of cans down on Sunday night—, but because as a 31-year-old Evertonian, I havent’ seen many greats of Goodison Park first hand. So seeing one call it a day is tough.
There have been lads that have been talismen in my lifetime. Tim Cahill lived and breathed the Toffees, Andrei Kanchelskis quickened pulses whenever he picked up the ball, Wayne Rooney was a teenage force of nature and Romelu Lukaku was a ruthless goalscorer. I adored them all.
But Everton greats? They’re all a little bit short of that, I reckon.
Leighton Baines is in there though.
On Sunday night, after the Toffees turned in an insipid performance against Bournemouth, there was a swell of calls for the club to axe a large portion of their squad. There are plenty who have outstayed their welcome at Goodison Park. Change is wanted and needed at the Old Lady.
Contrast those calls to hours earlier, when there were tributes to Baines and pleas for him to stay before his future was clarified. Even after 13 years sashaying up and down the left flank in L4, the sight of him in royal blue has not grown stale. At the age of 35, there’s still a sense he can do a fine job at the highest level.
Yet Baines has decided enough is enough. That it’s better for people to be asking “why are you jacking it in, Leighton?” than “when are you jacking it in, Leighton?”
For us, that’s gutting.
We would have loved to have seen him play a part next season and there’s no doubt his influence would be positive as Carlo Ancelotti starts the necessary refurbishment of a lacklustre squad. We would have loved to have said our farewells and to see that cordial pre-corner wave to Gwladys Street a few more times.
But for him? A man who largely shunned the limelight and didn’t adhere to the traditional traits of the modern-day player? An understated send off was probably fitting.
There was no fanfare. No pre-match statement. No guard of honour. Just a classy few minutes off the bench, a brilliant tackle and a thumbs up off as he strode off. All in a day’s work for our No. 3, as it has been for years.
In the coming days, there will be a lot of conversations about Baines’ personality. About his love of music. About buying a 99er in London. About his ambivalence to possible moves to Bayern Munich and Manchester United. About giving those lads a lift at Blackburn. “The naughtiest left-back around.”
In an age when footballers are robotic and monotone, that colour in his character endeared him further to Blues. So much so that often he isn’t really spoken about like he was a footballer, rather that person in your group of mates everyone loves. “You’ll love Leighton you know, mate.”
But bloody hell. He was some footballer. Don’t forget that.
It’s that package of persona and player that makes this such a sobering day. And as we inevitably look forward to 2020-21 and beyond, it feels like it’ll be a while until we’ll get to share such an affinity with an Everton star again. That’s hard to stomach, especially if he decides his passion lies away from the sporting bubble.
It’d be a surprise if Baines decided to stay in football. His love of music has been well documented, as has his burgeoning passion for photography. The fact he’s retiring with plenty left in the tank and not taking up another challenge in the game paints the picture of a man who isn’t wedded to it like so many.
From a purely sporting point of view, one of Everton’s best pieces of business in recent years has been the acquisition of Lucas Digne and as such, the left-back spot is one of a minority of areas that doesn’t require serious attention this summer.
But it’s unlikely to feel the same for a while without Baines after having him there to depend on for so long, even if he was an increasingly peripheral figure in recent years.
There’ll be loads of things I’ll miss. No little looks up before whipping a cross in. No screams of “BAINES” from the crowd to a midfielder looking for a pass as he motored into space down the left. No pull-backs to the edge of the box. No shuffled run-ups to penalties. No last-ditch tackles at the back post. No pinpoint free-kicks.
It’s a testament to the man that he’s managed to emerge from a tumultuous time in the club’s existence with so much credit in the bank. That’s been hard for anyone given the team’s underperformance, especially for our own, who have often felt the strain of being a blue more than others.
But the professionalism, consistency and quality showcased by Baines since 2007 ensured he set a standard to admire and aspire to, albeit one not many of the current crop have reached.
With no trophies to show for his time as a Toffee, hopefully that standard can be his legacy. It must be if Everton are to move forward at the start of what feels like another transitional period.
Those serious conversations about the future can happen on Monday, though. As can the debrief into a miserable term.
Tonight? Raise a glass for a lad who made it look easy in royal blue. To a rare modern-day Everton great. To one of us.
You’re gonna miss him, I can guarantee that.
By Matt Jones