Stones saga a damning indictment of football

The news that reached Evertonians on Tuesday afternoon was the news that everyone associated with the Toffees had been dreading.

The handing in of a transfer request by young centre back John Stones – who has been the subject of vast speculation throughout the course of the summer transfer window, thanks in no small part to Chelsea’s unrelenting pursuit of the 21 year old – left supporters of the Goodison Park based club shocked, angered, dismayed, distraught and offended.

That Stones has left it this late, with less than a week of the current transfer window left open, is reason enough for many to call into question their fealty to the sport of football as a whole.

And yet, Stones’ decision to leave Merseyside isn’t just an indictment of modern football, though it is not aided by the media circus that dominates such occasions.

It is an indictment of football as a whole since its inception.

Richer clubs have always bought the best players from other clubs, because it’s how those richer clubs stay on top and, in turn, weaken their rivals.

Everton themselves and Liverpool did so in the 1980s, Manchester United in the 1990s, and now it is the turn of Chelsea and Manchester City – in England at least – to pluck the very best talent from across the globe  to bring to the Barclays Premier League.

The argument remains, of course, that Stones naturally wants to play at the highest level, winning copious amounts of silverware and playing alongside some of the best footballers in the world in the process. That is a given.

But for football fans, no club is more important than their own.

Evertonians are no different. Everton supporters want the best, most talented players to see their club challenge for success, and to finish in the very highest of echelons in each competition they participate in.

The sale of Stones would once again throw realism into the equation and confirm that football clubs like Everton are inevitably swimming against the tide. That any and all attempts to achieve some success will be thwarted when other clubs circle around their most gifted players.

There are many parties who could be held accountable for this sorry saga.

The blame could be placed at the feet of Stones, who has left Everton in the lurch by handing in said request just one week before the close of the window. Or at the feet of the board, whose inability to suuply manager Roberto Martinez with substantial funds – Romelu Lukaku aside – to push on after Everton finished fifth in 2013/14 with a record Premier League points total. Or at Martinez himself, who failed to get the best out of the Blues’ best first team squad in nigh on 28 years.

Outside of the club, fans could blame the national media, whose dogged daily interest in this story has whipped up a mass frenzy. Or Chelsea, who leaked their opening offer in the first place, and since then have used every trick in the book to unsettle one of Everton’s brightest young starlets.

Where the blame lies doesn’t matter, however. What matters is the never-ending cyclical nature of the best players eventually being bought by the top clubs, and preventing other teams from remotely competing.

And that is the most disheartening reality of all.

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Why 2015/16 is make or break for Martinez

It has been 75 days since a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur brought Everton’s miserable 2014/15 season to a close.

A pleasurable Europa League campaign aside, the Toffees endured their worst domestic season since 2005/06 and, along with it, came a dose of realisation and a period of reflection from current managerial incumbent Roberto Martinez.

The Catalan enjoyed a honeymoon-esque debut season in charge of Everton, with a 5th place finish and the highest points total of 72 achieved by an Everton squad in the Premier League era – a points total that would have ensured a place in the Champions League qualifying round in 5 of the last 10 league seasons. Coupled with a young, vibrant first team squad that dominated matches with Martinez’s brand of free-flowing, attacking football, the adulation bestowed upon the former Wigan Athletic manager was seemingly well deserved.

Fast forward 12 months, and the picture could not have been more polarised. A limp, inconsistent and frustrating 2014/15 followed, resulting in the Blues finishing in the bottom half of English football’s top tier for the first time in 9 seasons – Martinez and his charges were even in danger of being hauled into the mire of a relegation battle before and upturn in results throughout March and April deemed them safe – accompanied early exits from both domestic cup competitions, a spate of injuries to key players and a growing irritation from the Goodison faithful over Martinez’s nauseating positive outlook, refusal to change tack or to adapt his tactics.

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There was little for Martinez to cheer about domestically in 2014/15

And that growing discontent has failed to subside much throughout the course of the summer months. Just two summer signings in Tom Cleverley and Gerard Deulofeu have been added to Everton’s first team squad, – albeit both players will no doubt be very good signings – a fixture list that sees the Blues face last season’s top 7 sides in their first 10 matches of the new season and a growing number of concerns over an increase in the amount of hamstring strains, that Everton’s first team players have picked up in pre-season, has left some Everton fans notably worried about another sluggish start under Martinez.

It would be insensitive not to touch upon some positives concerning Martinez since the end of 2014/15, however.

A brighter pre-season, both results and fitness wise, will undoubtedly allow Everton a much better start to this season than last. Experimentation has taken place with regards to new formations and systems, which have been employed throughout pre-season matches, and the handling of Chelsea’s unrelenting pursuit of centre half John Stones has been impeccably dealt with by Martinez despite the media circus surrounding the young Toffees star.

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Martinez needs more to celebrate if his future at Everton is to be secured

Of course, none of the above will matter much if Everton start the season in much the same vein as the last campaign. Martinez has accrued a blend of experienced veterans and talented, precocious youngsters within his first team ranks -alongside some of the squad he inherited from previous boss David Moyes – and it would be a shame to see the best squad assembled by the Toffees in years fail to live up to its potential by suffering from similar complications as the 2014/15 season.

Martinez knows the pressure is on to recover from last season, and he will need to regain 100% trust from Everton’s fanbase once more by achieving the performances and results of his first season in charge if the 2015/16 campaign is to make him succeed at Everton. Failure to do so could irreversibly confirm that his time at Goodison Park is up.

Which youngster is next to break into Everton’s first team?

Everton Football Club has a proud tradition of bringing young players through its ranks.

From being signed up by the club’s academy at a young age, to working their way up to making their debuts for the senior set up, the Blues have produced a number of exciting, talented players that have gone on to achieve success at the highest levels of the footballing pyramid.

The current Roberto Martinez-led Toffees era has already seen the likes of John Stones and Ross Barkley propelled into the starting lineup as regulars in the past two seasons, and the Spaniard has further underlined his willingness to give youth a chance during the course of the 2015/16 pre-season schedule.

And with just 6 days to go until the new Premier League campaign kicks off, which of Martinez’s current crop of young proteges have impresed enough to be given more senior game time this season? Let’s take a look at the 5 academy stars who could make the breakthrough…

tyiasbrowningTyias Browning

The 21 year old defender has featured the most out of all the potential nominees throughout pre-season, with 6 appearances, and 1 goal against Villareal in Duncan Ferguson’s testimonial, to his name.

He also featured twice from the substitutes’ bench during the 2014/15 Premier League season against Liverpool and Manchester United, and provided the cross in the Merseyside derby at Anfield that would eventually lead to captain Phil Jagielka’s thunderous equaliser in the dying seconds of that contest.

Quick across the turf, physically strong, tidy on the ball and able to play at both right back and centre back, Browning looks almost certain to break into Roberto Martinez’s first team squad in the upcoming campaign, most likely as a substitute from the bench to act as backup for centre halves Jagielka and Stones, as well as Seamus Coleman at right back.

brendangallowayBrendan Galloway

Signed from MK Dons last summer, Galloway was highly rated by Martinez upon his arrival at Goodison Park, but the 19 year old had to wait until Everton’s final two league fixtures of last season to showcase his raw talent to Evertonians.

Deputising for the injured Leighton Baines and Bryan Oviedo against West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur at left back, Galloway performed admirably alongside the rest of the Toffees’ first choice backline and drew praise for his lung bursting, dribbling runs from deep on occasions against the Hammers and Spurs.

The Zimbabwean has played 3 times for the Blues’ first team in pre-season and, despite clearly not being near the finished article by any stretch, conducted himself well on the field of play. Galloway might struggle for game time with Baines and Oviedo vying for the left back berth in the starting eleven, but he would not be daunted if handed any first team opportunities throughout the season, providing he is not sent out on loan by Martinez.

conormcalenyConor McAleny

The 22 year old forward seemed to have missed his opportunity to forge a career at Goodison Park after making his first team debut for the Toffees over four years ago but, no doubt re-energised by a successful period on loan at Cardiff City towards the end of last season, McAleny has staked his claim for a greater first team role at Everton this season with some impressive showings during pre-season.

A hattrick of assists and a goal in the 4-0 victory over Swindon was followed up by further promising showings against Dundee – another match he scored in – Leeds United and Villareal.

With Martinez short of attacking options with just a month of summer transfer window left open, McAleny may be in with a shout of featuring more regularly for the Blues in the upcoming campaign.

keirandowellKieran Dowell

Little was known of the 17 year old before he was handed his first team debut in last December’s Europa League match against FC Krasnodar, and many did not expect to see the England Under-18 international feature much, if at all, for Everton’s first team throughout the 2015/16 pre-season schedule.

But feature the youngster has – making appearances in each of the Blues’ last three friendly meetings with Hearts, Dundee and Leeds, with his eye for goal being picked up by eagle eyed Everton fans.

Not likely to figure in Martinez’s plans barring an injury crisis at Finch Farm, but one to keep an eye on over the coming nine months of the season.

ryanledsonRyan Ledson

17 year old Ledson has only featured once during pre-season for the senior side, but big things are expected of the midfielder in the coming seasons.

He made the bench for the Blues against Southampton towards the end of the 2013/14 season before, like Dowell, making his first senior appearance against FC Krasnodar in the Europa League.

A captain of the Toffees’ youth sides, and a mainstay of the current Under-21 team, Ledson is arguably the least likely of the five to figure for Martinez’s side this season, such is the plethora of midfield options available to the Catalan. Providing he continues to progress at a fair rate, however, Ledson could well feature from the bench if handed the opportunity to do so.