Few Evertonians will look back on their 2017/18 Europa League campaign with any joy at all. Placed in a group of death with French giants Lyon and a soon-to-be Champions League side Atalanta, the Blues certainly had their work cut out as they slugged through a winless opening five games.
The other side in their group was Apollon Limassol – a club ranked fourth in Cyprus in the previous campaign, and one who took a point from Goodison on matchday two as the cracks under Ronald Koeman began to appear.
They met again on the final match day in a dead rubber contest in terms of the table, but one that would have left Everton bottom if they failed to beat the Islanders. Not only did they send out a skeleton squad to Cyprus, but even manager Sam Allardyce gave the trip a miss to focus on the upcoming Merseyside derby.
Craig Shakespeare managed to mastermind a 3-0 win for the Toffees to ensure they finished third in a group which they really ought to have made more of a fist of. But, over four years on from such a disastrous campaign, something good appears to have come from such an unsuccessful galavant after all.
With the game wrapped up at 3-0, Shakespeare decided to send on a then 16-year-old Anthony Gordon to make his senior bow. He replaced Belgian international Kevin Mirallas on his final appearance for the club, signalling that as one winger’s Everton career came to an end, another’s was set in motion.
The youngster was born in Kirkdale and re-joined Everton’s setup at the age of 11 after a previous spell with both the Blues and Liverpool ended prematurely.
He impressed in the youth ranks and education system, with his school’s PE teacher admitting they built the team around him and focused their philosophy on getting the ball into the talented winger.
At 16, he moved into the club’s under-18 setup where he continued his ascent towards first-team recognition by netting 12 goals from just ten games – including a four-goal haul against West Brom, ultimately finishing third in the division’s scoring chart.
This form caught the eye and he – along with ten other academy graduates – were given the chance to travel as the first team squad to Cyprus, along with the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin, Davy Klaassen and Ademola Lookman.
The next season, he was moved to David Unsworth’s under-23s side, but Gordon was afforded fewer minutes and initially struggled with the step up – managing just two goal contributions during his first season at that level, with suggestions he needed to develop physically if he wanted to step up any further.
But towards the end of that season, Everton showed faith in their latest local prodigy by handing him his first pro deal in March of 2019, following purported interest from German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Perhaps that spooked the Toffees a bit; their youth setup had been mismanaged for a while, meaning the pathway to the first team became hidden under a rubble of players who got caught in between (see Matthew Pennington, Nathan Broadhead, Luke Garbutt and Callum Connolly). Then in the years to come, the likes of Thierry Small and Mohamed-Ali Cho slipped through the ever-growing cracks.
While Ross Barkley and Tom Davies carried the flag of academy graduates from 2013 onwards, neither scaled the heights and both clearly suffered with career stagnation.
But things appear to be changing for the better, starting with Gordon’s first involvement in a Premier League match day six months after turning pro during a 2-1 victory away to Southampton following a run of seven goal involvements in ten games for the 23s.
He made his domestic debut just over a month later, with Duncan Ferguson throwing him on as a last resort in an EFL Cup quarter-final against Leicester with five minutes to go.
Leighton Baines equalised in the final knockings of the match, before Gordon enjoyed his first moment of note by eating up the turf to land a hefty but fair tackle on James Maddison just inside the Everton half.
While the Blues ultimately lost on penalties, Gordon was etching himself into the back of all Evertonians minds – later pulling on the heartstrings with a touching post about Toffees hero Baines.
The difference 7 years can make, an idol turned into a team mate 🙏🏼💙 pic.twitter.com/jeCD0SRjar
— AG (@anthonygordon) December 19, 2019
His Premier League debut then finally arrived on January 18th away to West Ham, with the winger replacing Bernard at half-time and showing small glimpses of what he was capable of in his first league cameo. But he was afforded just 14 minutes thereafter over the coming six games, prior to the enforced Covid break.
During lockdown, Gordon ‘beefed up’ by spending his days in a house with personal trainer Cal Webb and former Liverpool youngster Bobby Duncan. During the boot camp, Gordon’s meticulous attention to detail and work rate was on show for all to see, with Webb stating that the then-teenager completed his own journal of exercises and notes.
The hard work bore fruit; in the first post-lockdown game, Gordon played an hour from the start of the Merseyside derby, before 79 minutes against Leicester in the next home game – notching his first assist for the club in the process to help secure a 2-1 win. He actually managed to feature in all ten games after the break – a testament to the belief Carlo Ancelotti showed in him.
It became clear in those early games that Gordon could play as an ‘old-fashioned’ winger, with his ability to burst to the by-line and fire a ball across the box from either side with either foot.
For that maiden assist against Leicester back in July 2020, Gordon made an intelligent off the ball run, before cutting it back for Richarlison on his left foot.
In fact, three of his six open play assists for the Toffees have been using his left foot; his two-footedness is a large part of his game and one that makes him harder to defend against (and an aspect which will make him even deadlier as he gets older).
At the start of that next season, though, Gordon was only included in three Premier League match day squads from the first eleven and only saw the pitch in one of those, despite running riot in the league cup.
In games against Salford and Fleetwood, the youngster racked up three assists, won a penalty and struck the bar across two very impressive cameos. During a time when Ancelotti persisted with the likes of Bernard, Alex Iwobi and even Theo Walcott, it feels as if Gordon should have got a fairer crack of the whip.
He marked 60 minutes in the FA Cup against Rotherham in January with another assist before he said enough was enough and the talented winger headed out on loan from Goodison to join Championship side Preston until the end of the season – but things never quite got going at Deepdale.
Alex Neil was sacked in March 2021, resulting in Gordon failing to start any of the remaining eight games and not even making it off the bench in the final five.
Change was afoot once more at Goodison upon his return but the 20-year-old was once again taking matters into his own hands – organising his own one-to-one football sessions with professional coach Tom Owens during the summer break.
Another move that certainly paid dividends; Gordon was excellent for Everton in 21/22, albeit after a relatively slow start. He played just 33 minutes over the course of the opening six league games before Rafa Benítez threw him in at the deep end with a start at Old Trafford.
Gordon produced perhaps his most mature performance in an Everton shirt to date; hitting a terrific cross for Andros Townsend after a fine solo run, winning six of his ten battles and making two key passes in just 70 minutes – going from stride to stride ever since; featuring in every Toffees game thereafter.
He enjoyed moments in an Everton shirt before actually notching his first goal for his boyhood club. Against Watford, his driving 40-yard run and pass set his side on their way to the opening goal, while the next week against Wolves he almost rescued Everton a point with a terrific header, only to see José Sá claw it away.
The 0-0 draw with Spurs on November 7th marked his first full 90 of the season and another typically tireless display, as he competed in 20 duels and made three tackles, while a good display against Brentford at the end of the month caught the eye during another abject Everton performance. But they reached their nadir just a few days later.
Liverpool’s 4-1 demolition of Rafa Benítez’s side left Toffees fans seething, and as their neighbours from over the park chanted the faltering Spaniard’s name, one fan made his way onto the once esteemed Goodison pitch.
He approached Gordon, hardly the man to blame for the Toffees’ plight, but perhaps the one most likely to listen. For some, he was listening to one disgruntled fan at that moment, but for many more it felt as if he was bearing the frustration of the previous 27 years.
It seemed to fuel him, as he continued to shine in a dim side – starring in a 1-1 draw away to Chelsea just before Christmas in what was, at that point, his best game in blue.
One key pass and a big chance created, five fouls won, three successful dribbles, six defensive actions and a delightfully whipped free-kick which was turned in by Jarrod Branthwaite to earn a hard-fought point.
All signs had pointed to him finally exploding and doing something really special, and then it happened. In the first half against Brighton, he swung in a delicious ball for Dominic Calvert-Lewin which he somehow failed to head home, before winning a penalty which the big England striker went on to miss.
He then took matters into his own hands, drifting in from the right to shift Alexis MacAlister one way then the next, before unleashing an effort on his weaker side.
It took a hefty deflection on its way into the goal, but he deserved that slice of luck for the bravery he’d shown, before getting his second by starting and finishing a flowing Everton move. Anthony Gordon had arrived in the Premier League, and he continued to prove he’s here to stay.
By the time Aston Villa came to town on January 22nd, Benítez was gone and in a showing at how far the scouser had come, there was audible disbelief that Gordon had been left on the bench by Duncan Ferguson. He came on for the final 35 minutes, and as covered by Joseph Odell, his impact was seismic – creating more chances, making more crosses and playing more passes into the penalty area than any other player.
Frank Lampard then took the reins at Goodison – a young, ambitious manager armed with new ideas and a reputation for giving young players a chance, and Anthony Gordon has been no different. He entrusted him with further minutes, more responsibility and heaped plenty of praise on his young star.
“Seeing the confidence he has on the ball, seeing the drive he has on the ball, seeing how he’ll press off the ball. Anthony is a really good lad and a top young player. The boy’s got a lot.”
He actually admitted to ‘holding back a bit’ on the praise, akin to a certain discussion involving Lampard himself during his own infancy.
Gordon has certainly shown a lot under Lampard, though. In his first home league game in charge, Gordon helped set up Everton’s first goal with a delightful first-time ball around the corner, before assisting the second with a whipped corner onto the head of Michael Keane.
He rounded off the scoring when Richarlison’s well-struck effort flicked off the winger’s boot to help it on its way into the corner of the net – another fortunate goal for the tally, but one he definitely deserved.
By that point, he had played in 33 Premier League games over 1,600 minutes, racking up six goal contributions at a rate of one involvement every 266 minutes. Hardly generational numbers, but solid enough – especially when stacked up against English wide players of a similar age and profile at that time.
Naturally, there are variables to take into account. Gordon has been playing in a struggling side when compared to all bar McNeil on that list, while the likes of Foden and Hudson-Odoi initially struggled for huge minutes, with Saka also suffering due to his own versatility. He is comfortably the 4th best player on that list – but the start of his Everton career deserves plaudits.
Gordon quickly became a vital part of Everton’s survival bid, pulling his and others’ weights during their slog to safety. He won a penalty in a crunch match away to Burnley before scoring the winning goal in a tense 1-0 victory over Manchester United. Albeit another deflected effort, it was the outcome his bravery – and overall performance – deserved.
With five dribbles attempted, six interceptions, ten duels won and six recoveries, it was perhaps his most mature performance yet – much like in the reverse fixture. While Everton had plummeted since the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, Gordon had gone from strength to strength; evolving from a fringe player to the star man who fans turned to for solace – knowing one of them was fighting on their behalf.
He ended his breakout year with four goals and three assists, placing him fourth in the squad for goal involvements – behind senior players or big buys in Andros Townsend and Richarlison, as the Toffees limped to 16th.
Over the course of the wider league, Gordon also made a strong impression. He placed 5th in the league for dibbles attempted per90 amongst midfielders, 7th for progressive runs and 11th for shots – suggesting he was good value for some of the more fortuitous moments that came his way in 21/22.
Unsurprisingly, the big clubs have already begun to circle, with Tottenham supposedly having a £25m bid turned down by the Toffees.
He may not scale the heights that his English counterparts could in the years to come, but Everton have a new diamond – one forged, built and shaped under the immense pressure of keeping his side afloat.
By: James Pendleton / @jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Tony McArdle – Everton FC