By Alan Feehely
Five minutes before half-time in the Merseyside Derby, January 2018. Mason Holgate and Roberto Firmino tussle as the ball goes out for a throw-in, before Holgate shoves the Liverpool forward over the advertising hoardings and into an enraged Anfield crowd. The defender could return against Manchester United and you can find odds here for that game on Unibet promotion code. Firmino bounces up and sprints toward the Everton defender, angry that the then-21 year old could be insolent enough to treat a Brazilian international with such disrespect.
It was a minor incident in truth, but encapsulated rather nicely the attributes that set Holgate apart from a lot of up-and-coming defenders in the modern game. He has a spikiness to his character that is refreshing, something that will only lend itself to a greater ability to lead and influence as he matures and refines his character. Having spent the last five years at Goodison Park, he has already shown he has the ability to respond to challenges and adapt his game – after all, he’s gone from highly-touted youngster to a possibly forgotten man to an England international-in-waiting and perhaps Everton’s first-choice centre-back.
Of Jamaican descent, Holgate was born in Doncaster in 1996. He joined Barnsley at the age of nine, progressing through the ranks at Oakwell before making his debut in December 2014 against his local club, Doncaster Rovers. He ended his debut season as a professional as Barnsley’s young player of the year before Everton swooped in to purchase him for a fee in the region of €1.4m. “Mason came into the first team soon after we had the pleasure of watching John Stones make the step up and then make the move to Everton,” remembered Barnsley supporter Dan Dowle.
“So after seeing one youth player come in, impress and then move to the Premier League, the fans were excited to see what Mason could offer. Like always with a youth player that has stood out to the fans that go to watch the youth teams, it soon filters through to the rest of the fanbase and the excitement starts. It was the same with Mason, and we saw how talented he was when he was given his chance with the first team. However, it was soon like déjà vu. Most fans could see that he was destined to make a move to either a top Championship team or a Premier League team, just like Stones. When you have a young player displaying that level of ability I guess all you can do is enjoy them while you have them, because sooner or later they’re going to be playing elsewhere.
“He seemed a level-headed lad when he broke into the first team – he didn’t seem to have an ego and looked to be quite focused on what he wanted and what he needed to do. On the pitch, he looked like a calm defender – good on the ball and not scared to keep hold of it, something that a selection of the Oakwell faithful really want to see. It didn’t take much to see that he wouldn’t be here for long – we can’t compete with the majority of the Championship clubs when it comes to wages so I expected a move to a team going for promotion, but as the games went on it became clearer that he was probably too good for those teams and that a Premier League team would come in for him.”
It took time for Holgate to settle on Merseyside. He spent his first season with the club playing for the reserves, before being blooded in with the first team in his second campaign, making his Premier League debut in a 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur. He became a fully-fledged, albeit bit-part, part of the first-team the next season, before falling down the pecking order and being sent on loan to West Bromwich Albion in the Championship for a more game-time, albeit at right back instead of his preferred position in the heart of defence. Looking back, it was an important move in the youngster’s career. “I was immediately taken by his commitment – he has an edge to him that supporters like,” remembered West Midlands-based journalist Joe Chapman.
“We knew he was coming in before January 1st, so he came straight into the side early doors. It was a really good deal, in hindsight. I’ve no doubt it helped him break into the Everton first team, even if he’s now playing in his favoured position, centre-back. Mason clearly has fond memories of Albion, and has spoken very positively about them before now. He was also spotted in the away end at Leeds last season. It was a shame his loan spell ended on a sad note – he missed a penalty in the shootout against Villa in the play-off semi-final – but I think Albion supporters still generally think highly of him.”
Holgate returned to Everton a changed man. In what was a disappointing season for the club collectively, he flourished on the left-side of the centre of defence, exhibiting his ability to bring the ball out and showcasing a leadership ability and voice that was in short supply elsewhere in the team and at odds with his age and comparative lack of experience. Once Carlo Ancelotti took over from the sacked Marco Silva mid-season, it became clear that Holgate had gone from being a disposable asset to perhaps Everton’s first-choice centre-back. His progress has been interrupted in 2020/21 by a pre-season injury, but one would expect him to continue his impressive form as soon as he returns in the new year. “I thought signing him was a very savvy move and plucking youngsters with big potential from lower down the footballing pyramid is something Everton have been really good at over the last five years,” explained Liverpool-based journalist Ell Bretland.
“He looked an athletic defender and never seemed fazed to be playing Premier League football at such a young age. Stones was almost balletic on the ball, and although Holgate didn’t have the same silky skills, he’s certainly good on the ball and can perform as a ball-playing centre-back as modern football demands. The West Brom loan move was vital in my opinion and many more Everton youngsters should benefit from temporary moves away when they are on the cusp or in-and-out of our first team. I was confident he would be coming back and it thankfully proved to be the case. The run he had in the West Brom team together with the responsibility he was given with a higher standing in the side will have aided him far more than a few outings with Everton and I’m sure his time at The Hawthorns played a huge part in powering the upward trajectory he’s enjoyed since. His overall game appeared to have matured when he returned from the Baggies and he looked more assured and confident, particularly when it came to his defending. Holgate’s positioning, timing and tackling have really come together in the last two seasons.
“It’s a real blow for him to have suffered an injury this season and I’m sure he’d have contributed to Everton’s impressive start. I’m not certain he’s our best defender right now, but at 23 he will be the main main, out of the current crop at the back, in time. I feel that his displays were improving at a similar rate to Dominic Calvert-Lewin last season, and while he would never grab the headlines like DCL’s goals do, I think he’d be sharing similar plaudits right now had he been fit and playing – I think he’s that good. He’s at that nice stage where he can teach Jarrad Branthwaite and Lewis Gibson, build a good relationship with another Yorkshire lad in Ben Godfrey, and aid the older heads of Michael Keane and Yerry Mina. I think if he continues to progress he will certainly win England caps and he’s talented enough to be part of a trophy-winning Everton side.”
In his absence, serious competition has emerged. Everton have begun 2020/21 like a steam train, and are sitting top of the table at the time of writing. Of key importance to their good start has been the impressive relationship developed between Keane and Mina. Both had their own individual struggles last season to find form and consistency, but are playing with renewed confidence and competence this campaign. Coupled with the purchase of Godfrey, who looks an intriguing talent, and with youngster Brainthwaite waiting in the wings, you have five capable centre-backs when all are fully-fit. Statistically, it would appear that Holgate is the best at progressing the play into the final third and the most aggressive in winning the ball through high pressures, but his two older team-mates, Keane and Mina, are better at the defensive basics and in the air.
Holgate will be itching to get back to full fitness and regain his starting spot on the left side of Everton’s central defense. One wouldn’t imagine it’s a challenge that will phase him – he’s already had to deal with being a highly-touted youngster in the rough and tumble of the lower leagues, the subject of a multi-million pound transfer to a Premier League club, and a player in danger of becoming a forgotten perennial loanee. For my money, Holgate will come back in top shape, determined to win back that starting shirt and gain international recognition.