Throughout the summer of 2009, a cloud of uncertainty hung over Goodison Park, with Manchester City doing all they could to prise Joleon Lescott from the Blues’ clutches. That deal was eventually done, although not before Everton were walloped on the opening day of the campaign by Arsenal.
The Blues’ 6-1 defeat that day owed much to a toxic atmosphere inside their famous old ground, totally at odds with a club that had finished the previous Premier League season in fifth place – and which three months earlier was playing in an FA Cup final.
The object of Evertonians’ frustrations was Lescott, a player who had been unsettled by City’s bidding for his services, and who had subsequently expressed his desire to make the move. Nobody foresaw the extent to which David Moyes’s decision to field the centre-half against the Gunners would backfire. This, however, is what can happen when such matters are allowed to drift.
Troublingly for Everton’s fans, Moyes’s successor, Roberto Martinez, is now embroiled in a similar fight to keep an England international defender on Merseyside; one that is no easier than the Scot encountered, in the face of what he described as ‘disgusting’ behaviour from the buying club, as the Etihad Stadium outfit chased Lescott.
Chelsea have been relatively quiet in the market this summer. Jose Mourinho, though, plainly has a sparing list of players who he believes could improve his English champions – and Stones is top of it. This would never be a deal that could be wrapped up as swiftly as those which took Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to Stamford Bridge in 2014. The two Spaniards were, effectively, for differing reasons, up for sale.
Stones isn’t. But neither was Lescott. We know how these things generally play out. When a member of the Premier League’s current ‘big four’ decide that they want to raid any of the rest for one of their jewels, the shopper gets their goods, in the end.
Even if the player initially resists, there is no guarantee that they will be sticking around for the long-haul. One only has to go back a week to Fabian Delph’s about-turn on his original decision to decline City’s advances, for evidence of the scale of the task confronting a significant majority of England’s top-flight clubs in keeping hold of their most treasured assets.
Unlike the contract that Delph signed with Aston Villa in January, however, which contained a now infamous £8m release clause, there was no such agreement inserted into the five-year deal that Stones committed to at Everton, just last August.
Regardless of the tactics employed by Chelsea to alert their prime target to their interest in him, then, it is Martinez’s club that hold the aces in this particular situation. In theory, if Everton want to keep their man, all they have to do is say no. In reality, the Toffees’ power extends to being able to name their price for a man for whom they paid Barnsley £3m in January 2013.
Considering the prowess that Stones has already exhibited in his brief Goodison career, the four-cap England player’s boundless potential and the enormous sums routinely being paid out elsewhere for talented home-grown footballers, then Everton can legitimately ask the Londoners to stump up a mammoth fee for their player. If Chelsea rate the 21 year-old as highly as their aggressive pursuit suggests, then they should be willing to pay roughly £40m to make him theirs.
Without Stones’s consent, of course, the transfer won’t happen. Still, it is unlikely that an excellent young footballer, seemingly with the world at his feet, wouldn’t be interested in joining a club that is sure to be vying for all of the major domestic and European honours, for some time to come. That is without factoring in the opportunity to train and play alongside a collection of world-class players – and to work for two-times Champions League winning manager Mourinho.
Yet, for all the obvious temptation to advance his career at Stamford Bridge, Stones has plenty to contemplate before he decides that leaving Everton this summer is the right thing to do.
Almost from the day he took over at Goodison, Martinez has been gushing about his young centre-half. None of his players’ games have evolved more than Stones’s has during the Spaniard’s two years at the Blues’ helm. The Yorkshireman is a shoo-in in any Martinez XI, given carte blanche to express himself on the ball in the fashion that sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries.
Stones still has plenty to improve on with regards to the art of defending, though. There is a tendency, typical of any rookie centre-back, to suffer lapses in concentration. Additionally, for all of his undoubted comfort and poise in possession, Stones’s decision making is far from faultless. These are minor deficiencies that will be ironed out in time. At Everton, that process will take place while Stones is, predominantly, shining in the first-team. Whether these aberrations will be overlooked by Mourinho, with Chelsea’s slender margin for error as they chase Premier League and European titles, is less clear.
Twelve months away from a European championship finals tournament – and with his game becoming more rounded almost by the week – this isn’t the time for Stones to take a step back from regular action. A decidedly assured individual, the England man might well back himself to go to west London and quickly force his way into Chelsea’s side. Certainly, you have to wonder if Gary Cahill really thought things through when he went public on his club’s behalf last week, to tell Stones that this is a chance he has to ‘grab with both hands’.
If Stones does pitch up at the Bridge, then Cahill’s spot alongside John Terry – and, consequently, his England berth – would instantly become more vulnerable.
But should Stones actually look to Cahill for inspiration? A player who, since leaving the relative backwater of Bolton Wanderers for Chelsea in 2012, has completed a clean sweep of domestic and European trophies – as well as establishing himself as a first-choice in Roy Hodgson’s plans.
Or would Stones be better advised to reflect on Lescott’s fate once he ditched Everton for The Etihad? The current West Brom player featured heavily in City’s 2011/2012 Premier League winning side. In truth, though, the defender was never the domineering figure he was with the Merseysiders, during his spell up the East Lancs Road, which ended with his release in 2014.
Lescott will probably still consider that he made the right call in heading for Manchester. A 27 year-old when he made his move, it was possibly the ex-Wolves player’s last chance to be part of a trophy-contending team. Stones, by contrast, will be asked again, and again, if he says no this time round.
There is plenty for the player to mull over, therefore. Whatever the outcome to this tussle, though, Everton need to know where they stand, sharpish. Lescott’s departure in 2009 didn’t immediately flush away the ill-feeling of the Toffees’ miserable early season. In fact, it was the new-year before Moyes’s team really hit their stride.
Martinez can’t afford his charges to be so sluggish from the blocks in their forthcoming campaign. The manager, a revelation in his first year at Goodison, saw his stock fall alarmingly as the Blues hit a brick wall last term. With persistent rumours also surrounding the future of James McCarthy, a player inextricably linked to Martinez through their previous relationship at Wigan, the Catalan has to take a grip on matters at his club to safeguard against a repeat of six years ago.
Until the future of Stones is decisively resolved, Everton are in limbo. Unless the player is prepared to say he has no intention of leaving, then Martinez has to tell Chelsea to put up or shut up, now.
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