Kevin Thelwell: 20 months at Everton and facing 'changed realities'
Written by Simon Austin — November 19, 2023
FARHAD MOSHIRI’S time at Everton has been a case study in how not to run a football club.
The British-Iranian billionaire arrived at Goodison Park in February 2016 promising to restore the Toffees to the top of the game. He did back these ambitions with money - to the tune of £750m.
In February 2021, the CIES published a table of the highest net spenders in European football, going back over 10 transfer windows to the summer of 2016.
Everton were sixth, ahead of AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Juventus. Remarkably, this huge spending did not correlate with an upturn in performances though - in fact the exact opposite happened.
In Moshiri’s first season at Everton, 2016/17, the team finished seventh in the Premier League. Their sequence of finishes after that was eighth, eighth, 12th, 10th, 16th and 17th last season, when they narrowly avoided relegation from the top flight for the first time since 1951.
Moshiri had talked of European qualification being a minimum requirement and of wanting the club to be “top of the table”, but deeper objectives weren’t clear, leading to contradictions and confusion.
For example, former Director of Football Marcel Brands had spoken about the importance of the Academy and bringing young players, only for the club to make big-money signings (often instigated by the owner) being brought in, blocking pathways.
The turnover of senior staff on Moshiri’s watch has been astonishing: three Directors of Football, eight managers, eight Heads of Performance and three Academy Managers.
Without an overarching identity or style of play, each successive manager (often chosen by the owner) has had a different approach, necessitating a different type of player, leading to churn and waste.
Which brings us to the situation Everton find themselves in today: hit with a 10-point penalty by the Premier League for breaching Profit and Sustainability Rules and awaiting judgement on a proposed takeover by 777 Partners.
It is little surprise that Director of Football Kevin Thelwell, who arrived 20 months ago from New York Red Bull, describes a "changed reality" at the club. He has been working to establish this overarching identity and game model, and to operate with "financial common sense."
Speaking on the TGG Podcast a week before the points deduction from the independent commission, Thelwell outlined the new direction at the club.
He said: “Mr Moshiri has tried very hard to build something that’s going to be very successful. For whatever reason that hasn’t worked out. There has been lots of change at Everton and we all know that having a very clear identity is a very strong marker for success.
"Constantly having lots of change at Everton has caused its own difficulties. We are trying to get into a period of stability, a period where we can start to redress the balance in terms of the financial aspects, whilst recognising it’s still about what happens on the grass on a week-to-week basis and building teams that have the ability to compete.”
The main remit has been to “apply some financial common sense."
Thelwell told TGG: “The reality is you can’t spend more than you earn, that’s the same for Sporting Directors the world over. The second bit is how do you also create a team that’s competitive in the most competitive league in the world?
“They are the two big rocks within my remit - financial balance and also making sure we stay in the league and also start to build something people can believe in out on the pitch.”
This has led to a very different approach to recruitment. All new player contracts now have relegation clauses, requiring a wage reduction of between 25% and 40% should the team go down. There are also more performance-related bonuses.
The average weekly wage per player at Everton has gone down from £62.5k in 2022 to £52.8k in 2023 to a projected £57.7k in 2024. Agent fees are down too - averaging £673.2k per transaction in 2022/23 - the lowest in the last nine seasons. Overall agent fees are projected to be down 44% in 2023/24.
Over the last three seasons, Everton are £52m positive in net transfers, bettered only by Brighton (with £153.2m). There has also been an effort to reduce the average age of the squad and to sign players with resale value.
Thelwell admitted the summer window was “very difficult.”
“Our reality is we didn’t have a lot of money to spend," he added. In fact the only money spent was on a loan fee, for Arnaut Danjuma from Villarreal.
"The MO for this window was about adding players in that space, more support for Dominic (Calvert-Lewin) in Beto and (Youssef) Chermiti - a player for today and a player for tomorrow," Thelwell explained.
"Then also to add some more quality in the wide areas, and Jack Harrison on a free loan from Leeds was, in our opinion, a very good take, and Arnaut from Villarreal also, a very good loan take.
“We were generally happy with the players we recruited and the work we did, albeit it can always be better. Under our circumstances I think we did as well as we could have done.”
Before Thelwell’s arrival, the recruitment department often seemed to be in competition with the Academy, with pathways for young players blocked by new signings. There was also a tendency to hold onto young players for too long. This may have helped them win Premier League 2 in 2016/17 and 2018/19, but it didn't help in terms of progression to the first team or sell-on fees.
In fact, over the last five seasons, Everton have consistently been one of the lowest-performing teams in the Premier League in terms of homegrown minutes. According to the CIES, only 1% of their minutes this season have been for club-trained players - defined as players who have been with the club for at least three seasons between the ages of 15 and 21.
Thelwell admitted that blooding players is especially difficult when the first team is struggling, but he has been taking steps to ensure that players get more senior minutes at younger ages.
“What we decided to do from the moment I walked in the door was to make the teams younger,” he told TGG. “We looked at a lot of research to say if players aren’t playing senior football by a certain age it’s going to be very difficult for them to make the next step.
“One of the first things I did was appoint James Vaughan to the role of Loans Pathway Manager and he’s done a brilliant job. We started to create these pathways for young players to get more opportunities.
“While we haven’t seen all the benefits of that in the Everton first team - which is very difficult to do nowadays, especially under difficult circumstances - we have seen a lot of benefit from it from an experiential perspective, something like 25,000 more minutes played by players out on loan from Everton and also from a financial perspective.
“We don’t really want to be selling young players, but if there is the opportunity to sell at the right price it would be daft not to do so.”
Jarrad Branthwaite is one player to have benefitted. He joined Everton at 17 from Carlisle and had loans at Blackburn Rovers and PSV Eindhoven before becoming a first-team regular this season.
His loan at PSV last season began inauspiciously, with limited playing time, and his loan contract was then reworked to guarantee games. Thelwell negotiated this with his predecessor as Everton Director of Football, Marcel Brands, now Chief Executive at PSV.
“Marcel was very clear he was going to get more playing time, so we all took a little bit of a leap of faith to hold him to his word really,” Thelwell said. “As it was, it worked out brilliantly.
“He (Jarrad) got a lot of playing time in that second part of the year, a lot of experience in not only the Eredivisie but also European competition, and we’re reaping the benefit of that now.
“We always had him, in our minds, coming back to us and playing in the first team, but of course you then need a manager who is going to give the young player the opportunity and, in our case, under difficult circumstances. Sean did give Jarrad that opportunity and I’m glad to say it’s working out really well for everybody.”
It would have been easy to block his path, as has happened in the past.
"Yerry Mina hadn’t played a lot and finished the season really strongly and was a big part in helping us to stay up," Thelwell said. "We could easily have offered him a new contract and another year.
“Conor Coady had come in the building. Anybody who knows Conor, he’s just a fantastic professional, so it would have been very easy to add him on a permanent at a very low price.
“But we decided not to do either of those things to hold the door open for Jarrad. That can sometimes work the other way and swing against you, but when you’ve got a lot of people around the table believing it’s the right answer, we decided to do that.
“Now we’re all reaping the benefits of that.”
Thelwell has also worked on a long-term strategy, in conjunction with the rest of the staff. Of course, the ultimate objective is to compete for trophies again.
“Everybody wants to get Everton back where we all believe it belongs. The vision has to be to get back among the elite, to start competing for trophies, to start to get back into Europe.”
But there's a deeper strategy behind that, which comprises four ‘strategic pillars’:
1. Who we are:
Thewell had a head start here.
"My parents are from Liverpool and my dad has been an Evertonian since he was born really, he’s a true Blue. I’ve sort of grown up with all those stories of what Everton is and should be and can be from my dad. He’s been at all of the big games over the course of time.
“My first ever game was actually at Goodison, it was Mick Lyons’ testimonial in the early 80s. I’ll never forget how Goodison felt at that time. Being from the local area you pay attention to all of these big clubs and what’s important to them, so that’s been helpful.”
Thelwell said the core values are "honesty, hard work, respect, humility - a nod to working-class values" and recognition of "an incredible history and tradition."
"That starts with the players and Sean is very clear, from when he first came in, is very clear on that," Thelwell said. "One of his great sayings is, 'We need to get some sweat on the shirt.' For me, that is an embodiment of some of those core values, which is what we are."
2. How we play:
This is a game model that will survive changes in managers and also run through the club, from seniors to Academy.
Thelwell said: “What do Evertonians want from their teams on any given weekend? I think they want to see this dogs of war piece, they want to see honesty, hard work, people playing for the football club, playing for the colours, giving absolutely everything and leaving it all out on the pitch.
“But they also want to see this school of science bit, this bit they had in the 60s and 70s, they want to see good football, they want to see pass forwards run forwards, they want to see attack, they want to see teams build the game in a particular way.
“It’s understanding if you can find a way of playing the game in a way that epitomises those two things, then you’ve got a chance. We should be building on those two pillars and people should see that in all our teams.
“This is not something that’s going to be built in a day, it’s going to take some time, because we want this to stretch across all our teams. Sean is finding a way to find results playing in lots of different ways.”
Does Dyche, who arrived as manager in January, fit this style?
"Number one, it was about our circumstance," he said. "We wanted to stay in the Premier League and had to identify somebody who had experience of that and could do that.
"But then also you’re looking for somebody to come in and help you build something. From our perspective it was about saying we need someone who’s going to help us right now and Sean was perfect for that.
"But then also, has Sean got the ability to help us in the future, medium and long term? And in my opinion he has, for sure. He epitomises a lot of these working class values we hold so dear, and also he has the ability to evolve his game and philosophy to help us to really get somewhere. And as we sit here today, I think he’s done a really good job."
When he appeared on the TGG Podcast in August 2022, Dyche admitted he was frustrated at being typecast in terms of style of play.
“Burnley: back-to-front football, don’t like foreign players," he said. "I’m very much more open-minded about what comes next, about playing styles."
Thelwell said the data shows him Dyche had already evolved.
“We are very lucky we get access to a lot of data and access to a lot of information around the Premier League," he said. "If you look at Sean at Burnley and Sean at Everton, he’s already evolved. The data tells us that, the naked eye tells us that, and in my opinion we’re heading in the right direction.
“Of course there’s more evolution to come, there always is, but I think he’s done a really really good job in very very difficult circumstances. To also help to build a team that’s not only got this mentality that we’ve got at the moment but then also to build out the team, in terms of a philosophy, is not easy to do.”
3. How we support:
Thelwell has beefed up support services during the last 20 months, with Jack Nayler arriving from RB Leipzig as Head of Spoors Science, Sean Miller from Wolves as Performance Coach, Alex Scanlon from the Football Association as Performance Analyst and more.
Staff are being encouraged to look at best practice in football and beyond.
"We are talking to staff members about looking at other football clubs, other sports, other businesses - and let's start thinking about a plan that helps us achieve this standard of great," Thelwell said.
"Then of course making sure we don’t lose sight of who we are, so applying this Everton context and filter. It’s about people being innovative and finding different ways to support this process."
Data is a huge part of the process throughout the football department.
"I regard myself as really lucky to have gone to New York and had that experience, especially with the Red Bull group," said Thelwell, who was Head of Sport at New York Red Bull for two years before arriving at Everton.
"They’re certainly very strong on data. So to have two-and-a-quarter years to work really closely with data and see how that could not only impact New York but also across the group was a really good experience.
"Coming to Everton, I again regard myself as really lucky, because we have a separate Insights department which is set up to support the whole of the football operation.
"When I first joined, it was about moving them from the outside of our space to the centre, to help us make more informed decisions and maybe have a different perspective on performance problems."
The Data Insights team is headed up by Charlie Reeves, who has been with the club for six-and-a-half years and was previously an energy trader and with Ecotricity and Data Analyst for Forest Green Rovers.
Thelwell described him as "a very very capable individual" and added: "We work closely with him - as do Sean and all departments. We are very lucky to have him and he’s done a great job. Everybody sees the benefit of that because so many people are knocking on his door.
"Where we want to get to and are getting to is, if we have a performance problem, lets go to the insights team first and help them to help us to make more informed and better decisions."
When Everton were struggling at the start of the season, the data reassured them they were nevertheless heading in the right direction.
"Charlie, every six to eight games, will sit down with me and Sean and the coaching team and we’ll have a review and say, 'What’s the data telling us?' That really helped us in the early part of the season, because we weren’t picking up results. But when you looked at the underlying numbers we were actually out performing teams.
"During that time it can be a difficult space for a manager, so it's, 'Do I stick or do I twist?' Those meetings would have helped me and Sean to say, 'We’re going in the right direction here, let’s just keep on believing in the plan you’ve set out and we’ll get the benefits of it in due course.'
"The Insights team will tell you, 'xG difference is probably the strongest marker of success at the moment and where you are against that number generally determines where you’re going to end up.' You’ve got to be careful not to tie yourself in knots with data, because there’s so much of it, but also you’d be daft if you didn’t pay attention to some of that underlying detail, because it can help you if used in the right way and in the right hands."
4. Staff development:
Thelwell said this meant "creating different ways for lots of lots of different individuals to get better" and "might be opportunities to do research and development, to present in front of people, working groups that help them work through a performance problem."
After a number of Everton staff attended TGG Live last month, they presented back to their colleagues on key findings. Dan Micciche, another recent recruit as Player Development Lead, had presented on the progression of players from Professional Development Phase to the senior side on day two of the conference.
Thelwell also emphasised that staff had been heavily involved in formation of the club's strategic plan.
"In my opinion, it would be very easy for the Chief Executive or the Director of Football or owner to say, 'This is the vision, this is the direction we’re going in.' The difficulty with that is if you’re not able to take the workforce with you, then most of the time it’s a plan that’s built on sand."
Thelwell wasn't complaining about the circumstances he now finds himself in as Director of Football.
"You’re never going to get one of these jobs where everything is rosy in the garden, it's all sailing in the right direction, because there would be no reason to appoint you," he said.
"A big part of the job is helping to navigate those difficulties, not only in the decisions you make, but also in the way in which you behave in making those decisions, because, like it or not, people are going to look at you."
He has had to plan for different scenarios, often with the worst possible outcome in mind (which is just as well).
"Everything begins with the end in mind," he said. "What’s the very worst that can happen and work back from that point."
The hope is that this is rock bottom for the club and they can start to build for a brighter future (although there are reports that Burnley, Leeds and Leicester now plan to sue them for loss of revenues).
"Of course we’ve got this world-class stadium (at Bramley Moore Dock) on the horizon, so we want to build a team that’s going to be befitting of that," Thelwell said. "That has to be the ambition, because we work at a very big football club where enough is never enough.
"I don’t want to speak too soon, because we are playing in the most unforgiving league in the world. I don’t think we are quite changing the story just yet, but we are hopeful that over the course of a season we can help to do that."