James Tarkowski: Everton’s Veteran Leader in Defense

Two years after departing Burnley on a free transfer following their relegation, James Tarkowski finds himself in danger of dropping down to the second tier with Everton. The Toffees currently sit two points above the relegation zone with a game in hand on Nottingham Forest and Luton Town — the latter occupying the bottom three — and they’ll be counting on Tarkowski’s defensive nous and leadership as they look to pull off yet another narrow escape from relegation.


Born and raised in Manchester, Tarkowski grew up supporting Manchester United and watching his idols David Beckham and Paul Scholes on the television. The grandson of a Polish immigrant who fled to England after World War II, Tarkowski began his footballing career at Oldham Athletic before joining Blackburn Rovers’s academy at 11 years of age, where he would remain for three years until being released from the club at his own request.



“It was a strain on his father, John, an electrical engineer who worked all day and then would drive him to training. He admitted later he was too ‘soft’ and he was also deemed too small,” wrote Andy Jones in The Athletic.


Tarkowski grew disenchanted with football but was convinced to continue his development by former schoolteacher John Rawlinson, who brought him to North West Counties League side Maine Road FC. Playing against opponents twice his age, the teenager regained his passion for the beautiful game and soon returned to Oldham Athletic, joining the club on a two-year scholarship.


He initially cut his teeth with the reserves before being awarded a professional contract in May 2011, although he would have to bide his time on the fringes of the first team before nailing down a starting spot during the tail-end of the 2012/13 campaign under manager Lee Johnson. He became a vital performer for the Latics, forming a rock-solid defensive partnership with Jean-Yves Moto and piquing the interest of League One side Brentford, who signed him on a three-and-a-half-year contract on January 31, 2014.


For the first time in his life, Tarkowski left North West England and headed for London, where he quickly became an undisputed starter at Griffin Park. Brentford would go on to finish second in League One, sealing automatic promotion to the Championship. The following season, Tarkowski played a leading role at the back as the Bees advanced to the promotion play-offs, where they would lose to Middlesbrough in the semi-finals.


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After a phenomenal start to life at Brentford, Tarkowski was forced to endure a turbulent spell both on and off the pitch. Mark Warburton, who had both overseen Tarkowski’s arrival and ushered him into the starting line-up, departed the club on May 30, 2015.


He was replaced by Marinus Dijkhuizen, who would last just three months until being given the boot after a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. With the Bees hovering just above the relegation zone, Lee Carsley took over, but he too endured a brief but tumultuous spell and was sacked on November 30, before being replaced by ex Walsall manager Dean Smith.


Off the pitch, Tarkowski was dealing with far worse turmoil; his mother, Janice, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Whilst various clubs began to register an interest in signing the defender, Tarkowski had his heart set on a move to Burnley, where he could remain close to home and help take care of his family. He refused to play against Burnley in a 3-1 defeat at Griffin Park due to not being in the right mindset, and two weeks later, he joined the Clarets on a three-and-a-half-year deal.


As Brentford gradually rebounded under Smith to muster a 9th-place finish, Dyche’s Burnley went undefeated for the rest of the season to win the Championship title and make an immediate return to the Premier League. Tarkowski struggled for game time in his first season in England’s top flight, often being played out of position at right back or as a defensive midfielder, but after an impressive substitute appearance against Manchester United on April 23, the tide started to turn for Tarkowski.


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He was given his full Premier League debut a week later against Crystal Palace, starting in place of the injured Ben Mee as Burnley captured a 2-0 victory at Selhurst Park. The following week, he started alongside Kevin Long at Turf Moor as the Clarets ground out a 2-2 draw against West Brom, reaching the 40-point mark and all but sealing their status in next season’s Premier League campaign.


On July 3, 2017, Burnley completed the sale of Michael Keane to Everton, pocketing a club-record fee of £25 million rising to £30 million in potential add-ons. With Keane plying his trade at Goodison Park, Tarkowski quickly cemented a starting spot in defense alongside Mee, leading Burnley to a 3-2 away win against reigning Premier League champions Chelsea in the opening match of the season.


That famous victory on opening day helped paved the way for a historic season: despite scoring the sixth-fewest goals in the Premier League (36), Burnley finished seventh in the Premier League thanks to a rock-solid defense that conceded just 39 goals in 38 matches. Burnley qualified for Europe for the first time since 1967, but after brushing past Aberdeen and İstanbul Başakşehir, they were eliminated in the Europa League play-off round by Olympiacos.


His performances for the Clarets earned him a maiden call-up to the England national team in March, starting in a 1-1 draw against Italy at Wembley Stadium, but while he was included in Gareth Southgate’s five-man standby list for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he was forced to withdraw in order to undergo a hernia operation. Tarkowski began the 2018/19 season with a bang, scoring two goals in August, but it proved futile as Burnley took one point from their first five fixtures. Fresh off sealing a historic qualification to Europe, Dyche’s men were cruelly knocked down to Earth.


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After being caught in the ensnares of a relegation battle, Burnley gradually found a consistent run of form, taking points off Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester United and finishing six points clear of the drop. Tarkowski’s gritty performances in the heart of defense began to attract admirers within the Premier League, with Leicester City eyeing him as a potential replacement after completing the sale of Harry Maguire to Manchester United for £80 million, making him the most expensive defender of all time.


However, Burnley refused to budge from their asking price of £50 million for Tarkowski, holding firm and hanging onto their star center back in the waning days of the summer transfer window. Apart from an EFL Cup fixture against Sunderland, Tarkowski played every single minute of the 2019/20 campaign, wearing the captain’s armband in the final six matches and leading the Clarets to 15 clean sheets in the league and a 10th-place finish, with Burnley equalling their single-season points record (54).


He continued to attract an increasingly wider net of suitors, with both Leicester and West Ham registering interest, but the Foxes would instead sign Wesley Fofana from Saint-Étienne after balking at Burnley’s price tag. The Hammers tabled several offers for the defender rising to £30 million plus add-ons, but Burnley put their foot down for the second straight summer window and refused to part with him for less than £40 million. As his future remained up in the air, Tarkowski missed Burnley’s first four matches of the season with a “toe injury,” but returned to the side in a 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the EFL Cup.


On November 11, Tarkowski gave a revealing interview with The Telegraph, stating, “We’ve had two transfer windows now where the club have decided, for whatever reason, that whatever has been offered on the table hasn’t been enough and that’s fine because I signed a contract for four-and-a-half years.


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But the longer my contract runs down, I feel I gain the control of my career more than Burnley having the control of it, which is what I feel like I need right now. “There is nothing I have heard or has been put to me that makes me think there is a scenario in which I would sign a new contract at Burnley. That can change, but currently that is the situation.”


He made the decision to depart the Turf Moor and join Everton in the summer of 2022, penning a contract through 2026. It didn’t take long for him to emerge as one of the first names on the team sheet, locking down a starting spot in central defense under Frank Lampard and later Sean Dyche. Capable of marshalling the backline and organizing the players in front of him, Tarkowski brings a dominant, physical presence to the fore and has continued to flourish since reuniting with Dyche at Goodison Park.


At 31 years of age, Tarkowski has formed a stalwart pair in central defense with 21-year-old Jarrad Branthwaite, constantly snuffing out danger and making vital interceptions, and regularly coming out on top in aerial duels. With 35-year-old Seamus Coleman being gradually phased out of the team, Tarkowski has worn the captain’s armband on a frequent basis and quietly emerged as one of Everton’s best pieces of business in recent years.


Everton continue to struggle for goals — only Sheffield United (30) have scored fewer than them (32) — but in Branthwaite, Tarkowski and Jordan Pickford, they may just have the defensive platform to stave off relegation and continue their uninterrupted 70-year stay in the English top-flight.


By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / David Berding / Getty Images