'I believe in him' - how new Everton signing Tim Iroegbunam impressed his previous managers

Tim Iroegbunam
-Credit: (Image: Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Unai Emery was so enthused by the potential of Tim Iroegbunam that he was willing to sanction the exit of a Premier League veteran to give him an opportunity.

The Aston Villa boss said “I am positive in him and I believe in him” as he kept the young midfielder in his squad in January - giving approval for Leander Dendoncker to leave instead.

While the 21-year-old was unable to earn regular chances in the first team, Emery’s backing highlighted the potential his coaching staff saw in the new Everton player.

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Iroegbunam became Everton’s first signing of the summer when he moved to Merseyside in a deal worth around £9m. The former West Bromwich Albion academy star will add depth to Sean Dyche’s midfield options - particularly with Andre Gomes leaving upon the expiration of his deal and with speculation surrounding the future of Amadou Onana. While there is an acknowledgement he is not the finished product - even with Emery’s backing he made just nine Premier League appearances last season, his only start coming in a defeat to Manchester City - there is confidence in his ability to develop and help the first team squad.

That potential was recognised by Emery, who said in February: “I want him now here because I decided to stick with him and let Dendoncker leave [the former Wolverhampton Wanderers player left for Napoli on loan] because in case the moment comes like now. It is his moment. Firstly, every day in the training session he has to train to play in the matches and to get the performance we want of him and then enjoy. He has to be ready and he has to be ready but being demanding and say ‘it is my time and I am here!’ I don’t know if he is going to, but I am positive with him and I believe in him.”

John Townley, the Aston Villa correspondent for Birmingham Live, said Iroegbunam was unable to fill the void ahead of him when teammate Boubacar Kamara suffered an injury, but that there was little doubt in his ability at the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground. He told the ECHO: “At 20 years of age, Iroegbunam has bags of potential, but at this stage, very little experience in the Premier League. He spent one season out on loan at Queens Park Rangers, but the roles he performed under Michael Beale and then Neil Critchley were different to what would have been expected of him in Emery’s XI. After picking up an injury in pre-season last summer, and missing the first couple of months to the season as a result, Iroegbunam remained at Villa until January, and was kept on after Leander Dendoncker sealed a loan switch to Napoli.”

That decision to keep Iroegbunam with the squad was based on a detailed assessment of his capability, with Emery explaining: "I was testing him in each session we were having, it was a test for him. I was testing him with our coaches. I think he is a player who can progress and we think he could progress more now [after] giving him more chances to play."

The best insight into what Iroegbunam could offer comes from his stint on loan at QPR, when he became a key player in the Championship side’s season. Assessing his impact at Loftus Road, Clive Whittingham of the Loft For Words blog, told Birmingham Live: "We asked him to come in and play central midfield for QPR in a 46-game Championship season, and essentially be the main man. It was a tall order… He was plunged into a situation players with many thousands of times his experience would have struggled with. How did he do with it? Overall, not bad. His main strength was driving forwards, with the ball at feet, committing and beating men, and joining the attack from midfield.”

Chris said Iroebugnam’s best performance was at Preston North End when he played high up the field in a “hard-working, athletic three-man press” behind a lone striker - which might provide insight into why he is seen as having the potential to have an impact in an Everton side that, under Dyche, has relied on a three-man midfield to both protect the back four and support Dominic Calvert-Lewin up front.

Iroegbunam’s fans at Villa extended beyond Emery, with previous manager Steven Gerrard also anticipating him to develop into a star. After featuring in a goalless draw with Leicester City in April 2022, then Villa boss Gerrard said: "He played with calmness and maturity... He’s a top professional. He’s in the gym before training, he’s in the gym after. He needs to come out of his shell, he needs to find his voice because now he’s in men’s football and we think the world of him, he’s got a big future here. But it’s my job to keep managing his game time, to prepare him for a big career."