Howard set to return even as Everton swansong starts

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Tim Howard’s career at Everton appears to be winding down and yet Roberto Martinez is almost certain to return the United States international to the starting XI on Saturday, when the Toffees host West Brom.

That’s despite Howard’s replacement, Joel Robles, having kept three clean sheets in a row as Everton recorded 3-0 wins over Carlisle United, Newcastle United and Stoke City. The standard of opposition might not have been the highest – a League One side in the FA Cup, Premier League strugglers the Magpies and the out-of-form Potters – but the fact remains, Everton’s defensive record in the games Howard has missed has been exemplary.

Howard has been strongly linked with a return to his homeland for some time, and rumours persist that he’ll be a Colorado Rapids player by the time Everton begin next season. He’s been a fine servant to Everton since a 2007 move from Manchester United but the last 18 months or so have been diminishing returns. Martinez insists on his team playing out from the back and goalkeepers willing and able to take possession from his defence, neither of which suit the 36-year-old’s game.

The veteran has strong reflexes when called upon to make saves but distribution is a problem, and there is an audible in-take of breath at Goodison Park when the ball is played back to him under pressure. More than once Howard has turned over the ball in a dangerous area, or played his defence into trouble by off-loading the ball in a position far from advantageous. It’s a symptom of the style Martinez wants, but it’s part of why Everton are mid-table with more than half the season gone.

Decision making is the other aspect of Howard’s game that has Evertonians on edge. It’s a lottery as to when he comes for the ball and when he doesn’t, and what he does if he gets there – and it’s a big if. Ironic cheers have been heard when Howard successfully completes a catch, not pleasant for a home goalkeeper but regular visitors to Goodison have been left wondering what Howard has to do to be dropped.

In the end it was a knee injury that gave Joel an extended run in the team but Howard seems likely to return at the first opportunity. The same thing happened almost exactly a year ago, when a Howard injury saw his Spanish colleague get a few consecutive games to find his feet, and he impressed.

But then it was back to the bench for the former Wigan and Atletico Madrid shot-stopper. He’s much younger than Howard – 26 this summer – and seems happy to bide his time. But the Everton supporters are far less patient, some even counting the days until Howard is in MLS.

Rodgers’ reputation can be restored after Liverpool lessons

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Brendan Rodgers’ last game as Liverpool manager was October’s 1-1 draw in the Merseyside derby with Everton in October 2015 and, with modern football routinely consigning bosses to the scrap heap after they fail at one club, it would be a shame if that is Rodgers’ last involvement at the highest level of English football.

It almost certainly won’t be, it should be said. He’ll be back. Few envisioned Steve McClaren as a Premier League manager again after his nightmare with England but there he is, ensconced at Newcastle, for now. It might take some time for Rodgers’ reputation to be restored to the level it was when Liverpool so nearly won the league, but he’ll get another chance and rightly so.

Rodgers’ biggest problem – aside from the Reds’ confused transfer structure – was of his own making. The perception of Rodgers went from a bright, tactically aware coach at Swansea, to a David Brent-like chancer in his early Anfield tenure. The title tilt of 2013-14 tipped the balance back in the other direction, Rodgers’ team changing their shape to devastating effect and the front three of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, particularly excellent as part of a diamond formation.

But then the pendulum went back the other way and the soundbites outweighed the success. Rodgers appeared a parody of himself, of glib management speak, particularly as Liverpool struggled post-Suarez. The club embarrassed the manager by signing Mario Balotelli shortly after Rodgers had rubbished the very idea, and his team was left desperately short of goals when the Italian struggled and Sturridge’s injury problems started.

It was a long, painful decline from second place to the sack and, even if he didn’t anticipate it, the decision may prove to be the best thing for Rodgers’ career. He can reinvent himself somewhere, if he bides his time and waits for the right chance. There’s no need to leap into the first vacancy that comes available, and jobs at Aston Villa, Sunderland and his old club Swansea have come up and gone elsewhere in the time Rodgers has been on the sidelines. It’s hard to see how any of those positions would have suited his particular traits.

What Rodgers arguably needs isn’t a role where he’s required to play firefighter, saving a team from relegation, but somewhere more stable. He isn’t a rousing, Sam Allardyce-like presence but a more considered, nuanced instructor. A club with a strong youth policy to take advantage of Rodgers’ proven track record of working with young players, a smart scouting network to avoid repeating the problems of Liverpool’s transfer committee and the space to grow, without the expectations of his former post, would be ideal.

A club such as that may be a rare beast. Southampton are probably the best fit right now, and Ronald Koeman may be doing a fine job, but he won’t be there forever. The planets might not align perfectly to allow Rodgers to replace the Dutchman – Rodgers says he wants to be back in work this summer – but the scope is most definitely there for Rodgers to return and be better for his Anfield experience.

Could Banega bye-bye lead to Emery exiting Sevilla?

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Inter have reportedly swooped on Sevilla to take Ever Banega for next season, the midfielder’s contract expiring and the Serie A giants picking up one of Europe’s most cultured midfielders for absolutely nothing. It’s a big loss but Sevilla suffer big losses every summer, and come back as strong as ever. 2016 might be different, though, as with Vicente del Bosque apparently set on retiring as Spain Coach, Unai Emery is in the frame to succeed him.

There are other possibilities than the Sevilla trainer to step in for Del Bosque. Paco Jemez, of Rayo Vallecano, has been touted and he has said he’d be interested, but it would mark quite the change in approach to go from the more conservative and vastly experienced Del Bosque to the younger, more radical Jemez.

Rafa Benitez would likely get a mention but there’d surely be little popular support after his Madrid tenure ended so quickly and in such acrimony, and Pep Guardiola has said he’s going to England, so that rules him out, not that he was ever a realistic choice at this stage of his career. Emery then has the right credentials – a big name with a track record of success, a style of play compatible with the squad he would inherit and, maybe most importantly, he’s not necessarily handcuffed to the bench at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Emery flirted with West Ham and Milan in summer 2015 before committing to Sevilla. If he was honestly tempted by the Hammers and the Rossoneri, a mid-table Premier League team and a fallen Serie A giant, it seems reasonable to assume he would be interested in the vacancy with La Roja. It’s not that simple, of course – Emery may prefer the day-to-day of working with a group of players, not the long periods of inactivity experienced by a national team boss, but it’s an opening that might arise at the right time.

Banega’s exit sees Emery lose a player with whom he has worked closely before, at Valencia, and with whom he has developed a bond. Banega thanked Emery and Sevilla sporting director Monchi for taking him to Nervion after May’s Europa League final, after the Argentine endured a torrid time at Mestalla. Banega specifically cited Emery as the reason he moved to Sevilla, but now he is leaving him behind. It may be a wake-up call to Emery – that however much he likes life at his current club, when there’s an opportunity it’s best to take it.

There are though a lot of moving parts. Del Bosque may yet be talked into staying on, or the Spanish Football Federation may have a new President – particularly if the long-serving Angel Maria Villar can’t explain his questionable loan to Recreativo Huelva. One of the many other sound candidates may be favoured – Ernesto Valverde or Quique Sanchez Flores, perhaps. But Emery might never get this chance again. And Sevilla will not only have to replace Banega, but Emery too. Monchi will have his work cut out for him.

Everton fans’ frustration boiling over – with Martinez more than Stones

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Rio Ferdinand waded into the debate around Everton’s form, Roberto Martinez’s style of play and the development of the club’s young players after hearing a frustrated reaction from supporters inside Goodison Park and on Twitter during the defeat to Swansea City.

Ferdinand in a series of tweets criticised the Toffees’ fans for voicing their displeasure during the match, with John Stones seeming to be the target. Perhaps the most notable barracking came not when Stones’ short back-pass gave Tim Howard a test, to which he responded to by hesitating, fouling Andre Ayew and conceding a penalty, a failure of defender and goalkeeper alike, but later, when Everton tried to play out from the back.

Stones dallied on the ball, as he often does, and the fans, having more than once in Martinez’ two-and-a-half years seen players turn over possession in the most ridiculous of areas, reacted. But the reaction wasn’t entirely anger with Stones, though he does have a tendency to make the same mistake again and again. It was more widespread than that, aimed at the other nine outfield players for a complete lack of movement to create a pass for the England international, and at Martinez for placing too much emphasis on possession for possession’s sake.

It should also be remembered that these are Everton fans who have seen their team win only three times at home in the Premier League this season, and not at all since Aston Villa were dispatched 4-0 in late November. That was five games ago. Since then Everton have lost at home to Leicester City, Stoke City and now Swansea, conceding nine goals in the process. Defensive or goalkeeping mistakes have contributed to more than one of those goals. Is it any wonder the home fans are nervous when the ball spends an extended period of time near Howard’s goal?

Playing out from the back and lumping the ball forward are not the only two options defenders and goalkeepers face; they’re the far ends of the spectrum. There’s a whole range of other choices. And while Stones is rightly lauded for his composure, it’s a skill in itself to judge when to play out from the back and when to exercise caution. It’s one he doesn’t have, and Martinez shows little sign of wanting the youngster to develop it, or indeed of having the coaching expertise to bring it out even if he wanted to. Everton’s defending has regressed enormously under his watch.

Everton are widely praised for the football they play, but, paradoxically, not by the supporters who watch them regularly. Instead, those fans, particularly those starved of victories at Goodison, are tired of the platitudes. Results are not good, and they haven’t been for the last season-and-a-half. After 21 wins in the first 38 league games since Martinez replaced David Moyes, it’s now 18 in 61.

Martinez’s attachment to possession football is part of the problem, not the cure. It’s bred a one-paced team with no other game plan than having more of the ball than their opponents. Everyone moves towards the man in possession, no one breaks behind the opposition defence, the ball is lost and, seconds later, it’s in the back of Howard’s net. It’s a scenario repeated over and over.

Teams who sit back and defend get results at Goodison, and with the defence so feeble, they’re guaranteed to score – Villa were the last league team to draw a blank. The only teams to have conceded more goals than Everton this season are the league’s bottom five. Martinez is rapidly losing support from the stands, and the players are bearing the brunt. Few really expect the Spaniard to be sacked but fewer and fewer would be sorry to see him go.

Perhaps Ferdinand should consider the bigger picture before commenting on an issue that has been building for more than a year. It’s not about one defeat to Swansea or one mistake by Stones, Howard or anyone else. It’s about a manager whose principles are a detriment to results and a team whose potential is being squandered.

Naismith leaves Everton amid lack of opportunity

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Steven Naismith has officially left Everton for Norwich City, the fee undisclosed but rumoured to be around £8.5m. It’s a good deal for the Toffees if that is the price, a substantial sum for a player approaching 30 who wasn’t in Roberto Martinez’s first-choice XI, but the Scotland international will be missed nevertheless.

Naismith’s career at Goodison Park goes down as a curious one. Signed by David Moyes in 2012 when Rangers imploded, Naismith struggled initially. It became clear that the right of midfield wasn’t his position – too lacking in pace to provide the thrust needed from wide – and he didn’t have the appearance of an out-and-out striker either. Playing just off a lone centre-forward would prove to be Naismith’s best role but it wasn’t one he was able to fulfil under his fellow Scot – that was Marouane Fellaini’s domain.

Moyes left for Manchester United in the summer of 2013 and eventually took Fellaini with him, and it was the arrival of Martinez from Wigan Athletic that led to Naismith’s best times in Everton blue, and the finding of his best position. Martinez from day one has encouraged Everton to play passing football – a departure from Moyes’ more direct approach, though Moyes wasn’t the Neanderthal he’s sometimes characterised as.

Naismith in time showed himself to be a crafty player, capable of clever, quick passes in tight areas and with subtle, hard-to-track movement. He could have been tailor made for a Martinez team in that regard, and there were games when Naismith was out of favour that could have been turned by his introduction. Opposition defences learned to sit deep and get men behind the ball to frustrate Everton and prior to the emergence of Gerard Deulofeu’s devilish crosses, it was an easily stifled team.

But Naismith didn’t always get the nod and the gap in the squad he could have filled created by Fellaini’s exit was quickly taken by Ross Barkley. Martinez is enamoured with the young England international and understandably so, but Barkley is very much on a learning curve and the performances don’t always live up to the hype. Naismith never held the same faith of the manager, who picks Barkley week in, week out, almost no matter what.

Naismith, by comparison, scored a hat-trick against Chelsea in September and then disappeared. He didn’t even start that game, entering only as a substitute when Mo Besic went down injured. Naismith scored all three against the soon-to-be-ex-champions, from an unfamiliar left midfield role, and was barely seen again. As parting memories go it’s not a bad one to have, but there’s the feeling Naismith’s tenure could have been much more.

Spain doomed to repeat history as Del Bosque defends Casillas

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There’s a saying, inspired by Madrid-born George Santayana, that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and it’s a message Vicente Del Bosque would do well to heed as Euro 2016 approaches. The coach is standing by Iker Casillas as Spain’s first-choice goalkeeper despite the excellent David De Gea waiting in the wings, suggesting he learned nothing from World Cup 2014.

La Roja went to Brazil as reigning world champions and left in short order with their tails between their legs. Del Bosque’s side were pedestrian from almost the very start of their trophy defence and their tournament was effectively over after 72 minutes against the Netherlands, when Robin van Persie scored his second goal, his team’s fifth, of what ended as a 5-1 rout. There was no going back.

Casillas was one of the villains of that painful day in Salvador, beaten first by a stunning van Persie header that he could only watch loop over him and into the net, then later failing to deal with a Wesley Sneijder free-kick before Stefan De Vrij converted it. He was then dispossessed by van Persie for the fourth goal and, though Casillas had made some outstanding saves, the mistakes counted for more.

The World Cup came after a season in which Casillas only played European and Copa del Rey football for Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti preferring Diego Lopez for La Liga. And Madrid did win both of those competitions, perhaps giving Del Bosque enough reason to keep faith in the leader of the generation that won two European Championships and a World Cup in four years.

But even then De Gea was breathing down Casillas’ neck, and there were calls for the Manchester United custodian to supplant the veteran. Del Bosque resisted and even after the World Cup humiliation, as midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso retired and David Villa was stood down, Casillas kept his place. He returned to the Madrid league XI the following season but it was his last at Santiago Bernabeu, a move to Porto bringing an end to an era at club level.

It still didn’t mean the end internationally, though. Del Bosque welcomed the move across Iberia and apparently took no notice that the player Madrid wanted to replace Casillas was De Gea and but for a dodgy fax machine he might well be wearing Madrid colours today. It appears only injury will give De Gea the No 1 shirt in France this summer.

Del Bosque maintained his defence of Casillas again this week after criticism of Casillas for a mistake that led to a Porto defeat, against Vitoria Guimaeres. ‘All goalkeepers make mistakes,’ Del Bosque pointed out in an interview with Cadena COPE. He’s right, of course. But having inadvertently paraphrased George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Del Bosque would do well to consider the inevitable next line: ‘Some make more mistakes than others.’

Goodbye to the British manager

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If British players are overpriced, then British managers are overlooked. Aston Villa’s sacking of Tim Sherwood and hiring of Remi Garde as his replacement brings the number of British or Irish bosses in the Premier League down to eight, less than half, and follows Liverpool’s decision to replace Brendan Rodgers with Jurgen Klopp. It’s not a new trend, but it’s one that shows no sign of abating.

Managers, like players, shouldn’t be judged on their nationality, and perhaps the real question is why more than half of the highest level of English football feels the need to look elsewhere when hiring. But it’s surely disheartening to British former players or lower league managers, who see their path to the country’s biggest clubs blocked by more fashionable names from foreign climbs.

It may be an inevitable step as more Premier League clubs fall under foreign ownership, or, if not foreign ownership, then a new type of owner who wants greater control over their investment. Are owners from abroad more naturally inclined to look abroad, given that they themselves have no geographic ties to the club they own? Does the generation of owners removed from the old prototype, the local-boy, fan-of-the-club-made-good best evidenced today by Bill Kenwright at Everton, see a structure more commonplace on the continent but largely viewed with suspicion in Britain – a head coach and a director of football – as a way of obtaining the influence they desire, or at least protecting their resources from wasteful spending?

Both Villa and Liverpool are under American ownership, John W. Henry and Randy Lerner approaching the world of sport and business in an entirely different way from what was usually the case in English football. Not necessarily better, or worse, just different. For Henry and Lerner, and the underlings who run the club day-to-day in accordance with the structure implemented by the owner, what has gone before, the manner in which their predecessors operated, matters little. Indeed, if their way worked, the clubs wouldn’t have been up for sale in the first place.

Klopp was immediately linked with the Liverpool vacancy when Rodgers was sacked in October, and indeed a number of supporters hoped he’d replace Rodgers the moment it was confirmed he was leaving Borussia Dortmund. Other names appeared on the bookmakers’ shortlist, but they were long, long odds compared to the German. It may never be known to whom Liverpool would have turned if they couldn’t get Klopp; perhaps they’d been burned on British managers by their experiences with Rodgers. Perhaps they’d have surprised us all and turned to a Garry Monk or an Eddie Howe.

Villa decided against a British manager, Monk, Howe or even David Moyes, at Real Sociedad. There’s been no return for Alan Curbishley, little involvement for Glenn Hoddle. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher prefer commentary to coaching. If Sunderland had been unable to hire Sam Allardyce, would they have gone British to replace Dick Advocaat – Sean Dyche for example, or Steve Clarke?

We’ll never know, but it seems certain that if Jose Mourinho does get the push at Chelsea, his successor will be non-British or Irish. There are no credible candidates from the Home Nations, and that’s another issue that needs addressing. But as seen in Huddersfield’s pick of David Wagner, a former United States international who worked with Klopp at Dortmund, to replace Chris Powell, the trend is creeping into the Championship and beyond. Where next for the British or Irish manager?

Cristiano’s contract conundrum

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Cristiano Ronaldo this week received his fourth Golden Boot, the award given to the leading scorer in Europe, and in an interview to mark the achievement spoke of his desire to retire at Real Madrid, and his intention to play for ‘five or six more years.’ His comments are being presented as a declaration of loyalty to Los Blancos, but there may be more to it than that.

In the interview, conducted with Madrid-based daily newspaper Marca – not un-coincidentally one of the organisations that makes up the European Sports Media association that oversees the honour – Ronaldo spoke warmly of life at Santiago Bernabeu. “I want to win more. I still feel good, I’m young. I’m 30 and I want to play for five or six years,” he said, adding: “I know it is getting more difficult but in my head I think it’s possible. I want to win and I’m at the best club in the world.”

They’re sentiments to warm the heart of any Madrid fan – and maybe calm the nerves after repeated links with Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. It may not be so simple, though, as Ronaldo had more to say on his future. “Obviously I have a contract until I’m 33 and as I’ve said many times my dream is to finish here at Madrid because I feel good, I feel useful, and I want to continue,” he added. A contract with three more years to run for a player who admits he plans on playing twice that long? Someone may be angling for a new deal.

Ronaldo stresses his desire to stay at Madrid and to continue to be successful, but at some point the difference in the time left on his contract and the time he has left as a player will have to be settled. If Ronaldo really is to retire at the Bernabeu, and do so on the timeline he has laid out, something will have to give. The Portugal captain’s last renewal as a long, drawn-out affair, and he didn’t have the leverage of being Madrid’s all-time top scorer to call on then, either.

That deal was signed in September 2013 but it was discussed in the British and Spanish Press for months, with AS, also based in Madrid, claiming in January that year that Ronaldo wouldn’t re-sign. He eventually did, of course, but the situation today has echoes of two years ago. Ronaldo didn’t want money, the story went – he wanted support and recognition, and if Madrid weren’t going to give it to him then maybe United or PSG would. And they surely still would – United welcoming back a former hero, PSG sending a message to the rest of football.

Ronaldo, his representative Jorge Mendes – who has strong links to the French club – and Madrid and their President, Florentino Perez, know that too. After a glittering ceremony to mark his ascension to the top of the Madrid scoring charts and another as he added more gilded footwear to his collection, will there be a third soon as Ronaldo puts pen-to-paper on one final, eye-wateringly large contract? And if so, will it be held in Madrid, Manchester or Paris?

De Gea ready to take Casillas’ crown

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David De Gea said after his show-stealing performance in Spain’s Euro 2016 qualifying win over Ukraine that he wanted Vicente Del Bosque to have a difficult choice when deciding who would be La Roja’s goalkeeper in France next year. Captain Iker Casillas is the competition, the Manchester United custodian has at least succeeded in giving the Coach something to think about.

It’s not only De Gea’s astonishing display in Kiev that pushes him neck-and-neck with the incumbent, though, and Del Bosque was never going to make his decision based on one 90 minute outing, even if De Gea was credited with anything between six and 10 outstanding saves by the Spanish Press. De Gea has proven he can adapt, having left La Liga in 2011 for the Premier League, struggled at first and then become one of the finest goalkeepers in England, and he’s proven his character too. Rather than sulk at not getting his summer move to Real Madrid, De Gea has, after returning to Louis van Gaal’s team, been as impressive as ever.

He faces an uphill battle on the international scene, however, and not only because Casillas is his country’s most successful player – his claim to the gloves isn’t entirely based on past success. The veteran Casillas has looked the part since leaving Madrid for Porto – ironically because he was about to be replaced at Santiago Bernabeu by De Gea, or so the ultimately failed plan went – and Del Bosque tends to pick on form and reputation, but not in equal measure.

More than once a player’s stature has counted for more than their contribution, and Casillas’ time on the Madrid bench in 2013-14 is the clearest example. Del Bosque stood by Casillas then even as Diego Lopez took the gloves in La Liga, leaving Casillas to play in the Champions League and the Copa Del Rey. In Del Bosque’s defence, Casillas captained Madrid to success in both tournaments and set a record for minutes without conceding in the Champions League, so it’s not as if he was completely out of touch.

Casillas and 10 others is a formula Del Bosque has followed throughout his time in charge of the national team and it has been an immensely successful one. But it can’t go on forever, and Spain’s most recent tournament experience led to calls for changes. Experienced pair Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso retired after the World Cup 2014 debacle, forcing Del Bosque into anointing successors. Casillas didn’t, so De Gea remains on the fringes – but for how long?

Stones ready to face more pressure at Swansea

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John Stones faced one of the bigger matches of his young career on Saturday when, in his first Everton appearance since the close of the transfer window, he lined up against suitors Chelsea.

Stones’ performance under scrutiny was manful, and though Everton benefitted from a below-par Chelsea, it was one of a number of high-level performances from the home side. That good result will be undone if its followed by defeat to Swansea City on Saturday as the expectation level rises again on the Toffees, but Stones at least proved a week ago that he can cope with the most intense pressure.

The Premier League champions’ pursuit of Stones was played out across the media, as any transfer saga worthy of the name is, leading to ill-feeling between the two managers. Jose Mourinho wanted the England international and it seemed like money was no object – offers of £20m, £26m and £30m came and were rejected out of hand by the Goodison Park top brass.

Everton’s position couldn’t have been clearer: John Stones was not for sale. Not even if Stones himself asked to leave, as he did late in August. The Toffees played a League Cup fixture at Stones’ old club Barnsley a day later and at that point the silence from the club was worrying for anyone of an Everton persuasion. When Everton went two goals down by half time – Stones partly culpable for one of them – there were dark clouds circling.

They were lifted by a second half – and extra time – come back and obliterated by Martinez’s post-match comments. The manager confirmed Stones’ transfer request had been rejected and the only reason it wasn’t done so sooner was the match in hand. It was thoroughly professional from Everton – and Stones, it must be remembered, who did nothing to alienate the supporters – and the emphatic way Martinez dealt with the issue was rousing.

Everton were intractable and for good reason. Stones, as Mourinho recognised, is a player of almost limitless potential, and few English defenders have displayed his composure on the ball or timing in the tackle since a young Rio Ferdinand came on the scene. Everton and their always-limited finances could have done with £20m or more to spend, the conventional wisdom said, but what good is a hefty bank balance when the spine of the team is ripped out and sold to Stamford Bridge?

However much money Chelsea may have offered for Stones, Everton wouldn’t have been able to sign a player of equal ability and potential. As Chelsea’s dogged pursuit shows, there aren’t many of them around. Martinez, Bill Kenwright and the rest of the Everton hierarchy recognised as much and stood firm, and the five-year contract Stones signed in 2014 meant their hand couldn’t be forced.

Stones has already been spoken of as a future England captain and when Phil Jagielka gives up the armband at club level, it will be between Stones and James McCarthy to be his successor. After showing Mourinho and Chelsea what they missed out on, Swansea present the next challenge, and another chance for Everton fans to remind the world that, as the song goes, money can’t buy you Stones.