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Founding Members flying high with the help of EFL talent

21 October 2020

For Everton and Aston Villa to be sitting pretty at the Premier League summit is not the result of chance.

Founding Members of the Football League in 1888, league fixtures between the two have been more frequent than any other in the 132 years since, a period of time during which both Clubs have crafted a history of - and reputation for - developing young, exciting, home-grown players.

This season, though just four games young, has already brought that history, as well as the unequivocal importance of protecting the English footballing pyramid, to the fore. 

Out in front with Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-Min as the top-flight's joint top-scorer, Everton and England's Dominic Calvert-Lewin has six goals to his name, as well as a further three in EFL competition, following the Carabao Cup hat-trick against West Ham United that earned him the Player of the Round award for Round Four. It's the same competition in which he scored on debut for Northampton Town just five years ago.

He's surrounded by players with similar experience, too. The likes of Jordan Pickford, Fabian Delph and, as of transfer deadline day, Ben Godfrey, who has played in all three EFL divisions.

A quick scroll through the names below Calvert-Lewin's on the scoring charts reveals more of the same. Coventry City academy graduate Callum Wilson; Jamie Vardy, whose fairytale story with Leicester started in the Championship and culminated in a Premier League title; Neil Maupay, whose burgeoning reputation in England began at Brentford; the England captain himself Harry Kane, and Three Lions team-mate Jack Grealish. The list goes on, and will continue to do so.

Indeed, alongside 20 of the 23 players who performed so memorably for Gareth Southgate's side in Russia in 2018, eight of the current top 12 goalscorers in the Premier League have played EFL football. That includes Aston Villa's Ollie Watkins, the latest player to take home a match ball following his much-discussed treble against champions Liverpool, and first to score three against the Merseysiders in the top-flight for more than a decade.

Watkins successfully spearheaded a starting eleven that had a combined 778 appearances in the EFL, having made his name at Exeter City in League Two and later Brentford in the Championship, and was joined on the scoresheet by Ross Barkley - the former Toffees man once loaned to Sheffield Wednesday to gain valuable experience. 

In the case of Watkins, his is a prime example of a young player's development benefitting all sides of the English league football pyramid, in a month which brought its landmark 200,000th fixture

"He came through and happened to be there for my whole time at Exeter," former Grecians manager Paul Tisdale said in an exclusive interview with the EFL. "He was very athletic, had good feet and an eye for goal. He had big potential. He’s doing superbly now and it’s great to see; he’s still that same engaged player."

It's a trend which extends to dugouts up and down the country. The man who brought Watkins to Villa Park, Dean Smith, has grasped the opportunity to manage his boyhood club with both hands, having started out at Walsall. Graham Potter and Brendan Rodgers were plucked from Swansea City, Sean Dyche from Watford, Frank Lampard from Derby County. Throw in Steve Bruce, David Moyes, Nuno Espirito Santo and Chris Wilder, and another picture of progress begins to form.

It serves to highlight something which has been evident for quite some time. Talent, be it on the pitch or in the technical area beside it, is plentiful throughout the EFL's divisions, and those who rise through the league structure - or indeed come into it to further their skills - can positively affect others. 

The fact that Calvert-Lewin may not have developed into a striker without the guidance of the Sheffield United academy tells you everything you need to know about how players can learn and adapt their trade.

The Yorkshire-born youngster scored six goals during a one-month loan with Stalybridge Celtic before returning to Bramall Lane and, following a further spell at Northampton Town under current Blades boss Wilder, moved to Everton in 2016. It's a £1.5 million transfer that is looking more and more like a shrewd piece of business with every passing day.

Each year, the EFL's Youth Development Week seeks to celebrate stories just like his, and the extension of the League's EFL Futures initiative in 2019 means we can expect yet more chapters to be written and characters to emerge. Since launching in 2016, the £1 million-per-season programme - which will now run until the end of the 2021/22 campaign - has provided EFL Clubs with a financial incentive to give home-grown players more first team opportunities.

It follows the introduction of the Club Developed Player Rule at the start of the 2018/19 season, which ensures each club is required to nominate at least one Club Developed Player on their teamsheet for all League competition matches, alongside an increase in the number of home-grown players that must also be named.

What is clear is that the League and its Clubs are investing time and resource into the next generation, and with good reason, for the benefits can be both wide-reaching and immeasurable.

"I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for the EFL, and playing League football is something I'm proud of," Manchester United captain Harry Maguire enthused when speaking to us last summer. Reminders of his time at Sheffield United, Hull City and Wigan Athletic are common across social media on a Saturday, but his is a relatively 'old' story as they go in this world, due to the fast-moving nature of the EFL talent conveyor belt.

More recent months have seen a 16-year-old Jude Bellingham sign, play and score for German giants Borussia Dortmund after his big Birmingham City breakthrough, while twenty two-year-old Eberechi Eze swapped Queens Park Rangers for Crystal Palace. 'Remember the name' is an utterance associated with Wayne Rooney, the England and Manchester United legend currently starting his coaching career with the help of the EFL, and it's one we'll hear from League commentators for years to come.

'Where Stars Are Made' was the strapline for this year's annual EFL Season Launch and, on the most recent evidence alone, it couldn't be more apt.

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