We must be cautious when using the phrase ‘golden generation’ in English football. Such have been the false promises at international level the description is in danger of contamination.
Not so at Goodison Park, where Everton have become one of the leading Premier League clubs ensuring that potential is greeted by opportunity.
Their manager Ronald Koeman selected seven under-23 players in his squad against Liverpool and Manchester United over the past week. One of them, defender Matthew Pennington, responded with a derby goal and signed a new two-year contract on Saturday. He is likely to deputise for the suspended Ashley Williams against Leicester on Sunday.
Tom Davies, 18, has emerged as one of the country’s most exciting talents. Ademola Lookman (19), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (20) and Mason Holgate (20) have become regulars in the squad since being recruited, while homegrown 20-year-olds Jonjoe Kenny and Joe Williams were on the bench at Old Trafford. Even the highest profile academy graduate, Ross Barkley, is only 23.
Regardless of whether many of these call-ups materialised through injury or suspension, for David Unsworth, manager of the under-23s, there is immense professional satisfaction that those he championed have found a pathway to Koeman’s squad.
“I feel more proud now than I did as a player,” says Unsworth, who gave Davies his first start when caretaker manager a year ago. “You are working with these lads and want it so badly for them, and working with them every day I see how badly they want it as well. It is not like when you are a player when you are focusing on yourself, getting in the team and staying in the team. Now you are trying to pass on any help you can to everyone. So when you see six, seven or eight being involved it is wonderful.
“I feel it is a really special group. It’s a long journey for these boys and I have the privilege of seeing them right on the cusp of it, which can be the hardest bit. The final hurdle is usually the biggest one. But they are a quality group and a privilege to coach every day.
“The opportunity will always be there for young players here but once they get in they have to stay in. It is not enough for me when I see all these players getting a chance. You can’t understate how fantastic that is. But now my challenge to these players is to do what Tom has done, and when you get in, stay in every week and sign new contracts. Once you get that shirt you have to keep it.”
It is has not all been serene progress. Everton’s academy has been shaken up recently. The former academy director, Dr Peter Vint, left two weeks ago because his analytical approach proved too much of an intrusion rather than a complement to the footballing ideals.
For Unsworth and the academy coaches, a true assessment can only be made when a player gets a chance. The number of players making the step up and performing is the most meaningful statistic.
“All you need to look at is the success these lads are having on the pitch. That is what we are all about,” says Unsworth. “Historically, we have always given opportunities to young players. What you need at any given time is a courageous manager to throw these lads in.
“We have got that in Ronald. It is wonderful to have that kind of manager who is not afraid at all. Sometimes you have to get it through circumstances, but everyone needs an opportunity.”
Pennington has had to wait for his. After loan spells at Coventry and Walsall an untimely hamstring injury scuppered his chances of pushing Koeman for a place earlier in the season.
“Last season I played a couple of games so the injury halted my progress,” said the 22-year-old. “With the change of manager you want to impress, but you can’t impress from the treatment room. I had to get fit and show him what I could do.”
The last seven days could prove to have been career-defining.
“It’s been a bit of a crazy week,” he said. “I knew I was playing in the derby on the Friday when we did the team shape. I was just excited to play and was hoping for that chance. I’d been playing in the under-23s and hoping to show what I can.
“It is special when you score [at the Kop end]. Not much goes through your head. Just get contact on it. I was glad we’d drawn level but it counts for nothing afterwards when you’ve lost.
“To get back playing with the first team has been good, although obviously the results were not good in the end. First the derby, and then although the Manchester United result looks good on paper it was not the result we wanted after the game or after the performance. So it was not the week we wanted.”
There is no doubt Koeman will invest heavily in his squad again this summer, but there is a feeling at Goodison Park that a youthful foundation is in place to supplement the first-team spending.
“The majority of these lads have come through together,” says Unsworth. “We have added at different times. The board have been brilliant affording us the opportunity to bring in Brendan [Galloway], Mason and Dominic when we felt it was right to bring a player from a certain position.
"We have actively been able to bring that quality that has potential to go into the first team.”