Anthony Gordon exclusive: Everton and England's bright new hope
In an exclusive interview, Anthony Gordon reflects on his breakthrough year; Watch Everton vs Aston Villa live on Sky Sports Action and Main Event on Thursday from 5.30pm; Kick-off 6pm
Last Updated: 16/07/20 6:51pm
There is a controlled confidence about Anthony Gordon. The Everton forward, still six months shy of his 20th birthday, displays a maturity beyond his years as he reflects on a hectic month in his first major interview with Sky Sports.
Back in mid-June, some may not have expected him to be part of Everton's youngest-ever starting XI in a Premier League Merseyside derby, but not the player himself.
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"I wasn't surprised that I started because I'd been working really hard in lockdown," he says. "I was expecting to play. I was really confident in myself and the manager showed his trust in me."
Everton have experienced an indifferent return to action under Carlo Ancelotti, winning two and losing two of their five games, but the kid from Kirkdale has been the standout performer, a shining light for supporters understandably underwhelmed by a mid-table finish.
There is no sense of drift when it comes to Gordon. He moved out of his family home at the peak of the pandemic for a fortnight in order not to expose himself to his stepfather Paul's vulnerable immune system, spending lockdown period on an "army camp" with Liverpool personal trainer Callum Webb.
"It was an idea that me and my friends had that I wouldn't let lockdown go to waste by losing any fitness or any shape," Gordon exclusively tells Sky Sports, reflecting on the period of intense conditioning.
"I wanted to get that edge that could possibly turn me into a Premier League player. It was massive for me to do that and I pushed myself as much as I could. I was up early mornings doing two to three sessions a day and I really enjoyed it as it pushed me to my limits.
"It was like an army camp and there was no rest. My mentality grew so much from doing that. I can't even describe how much more mature I am just because of that short space of time."
The 19-year-old showed he had reaped the benefits by recording the best sprint figures in the Liverpool game (15) on his full Premier League debut - despite only playing an hour.
He also stood out for his cameo in the 1-0 defeat to Tottenham after Ancelotti turned to him to inject some urgency into a sterile first-half display, with Gordon producing two key passes and reaching a top speed of 33.31km/h - better than any of his team-mates.
Inspired by England's next Golden Generation
Gordon's rise to prominence has been a long time in the making.
Three years ago this week, England were crowned European U19 Champions, beating Portugal in Georgia. 2017 was a golden year for the Young Lions with success at the U17 World Cup coming later that autumn under Steve Cooper. But the country's biggest international title since 1966 came in June when England U20s won their World Cup in Suwon.
Five Everton players featured in Paul Simpson's squad - Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ademola Lookman, Jonjoe Kenny, Kieran Dowell and Callum Connolly - and Gordon admits seeing the success of his older peers at international level was a major source of inspiration.
"It was incredible to watch them achieve one of the best honours in football even though it's at a youth level - it's a World Cup, and it was really inspiring to watch them.
"They were in a similar position to me, only a couple of years older, so to see them go on to achieve what they did as Everton players gives me the confidence that I could go on and achieve the same if I have the right mentality and work rate."
England's previous best at the U20 World Cup was third place in 1993. Of that squad, only four players went on to represent England at senior level - Nicky Butt, Nick Barmby, Alan Thompson and David Unsworth, who is now Everton's U23s manager.
Having worked under both Unsworth and Simpson, he is well placed to make the natural progression towards a first senior cap some time in the future - and they are only two of the many voices that have punctuated his development.
Gordon became the sixth youngest man to play for Everton's first team when - aged 16 years 286 days - he came on as a substitute in the Toffees' 3-0 Europa League group stage win over Apollon Limassol in December 2017.
Back then, Sam Allardyce was the Everton boss but his assistant Craig Shakespeare took charge owing to a long-standing medical appointment, a week after he had arrived at the club. Gordon had to wait nearly two years for his next taste of the first-team fold when he was named twice on the bench towards the end of Marco Silva's reign - at Southampton and Leicester.
He eventually made his first appearance at Goodison in December's Carabao Cup quarter-final exit on penalties to Leicester, while Duncan Ferguson was caretaker before Ancelotti's appointment.
It means that Gordon has worked under more managers than he's had league starts, but the player himself sees that as a positive.
"As a youth team player, the more managers you can learn from the better," he says. "Every manager has a different style and a different philosophy on how a player should be. They each have their own tactical side of the game, and all the managers I've worked under have been really different.
"I had Paul Tait at U18 level as my manager when I was promoted to make my debut for the first team against Limassol. He was all about portraying how good I was - he was the first-ever manager to tell me that. I thank him for that as he was the first to really build my own confidence up.
"Then I went on to David Unsworth, which was the complete opposite: he didn't care if you were a talented player or not, he was really hard and pushed me to my limits. Pre-seasons with him were really tough and the seasons themselves as he's the type that's always testing your mentality to see how you react. This improves your tactical awareness and prepares you for the demands of the Premier League, and you mature much quicker."
"With Paul Simpson at England U19 level, he's a really good coach. At national level, I find the coaching is a lot more tactical and based on possession because the England age-group set-up is really strong."
Surprisingly, Gordon struggled to hold down a starting spot in the club's U23s last season under Unsworth, and prior to him signing a new four-year contract in March 2019, there was reported interest from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
But conversations with director of football Marcel Brands as well as Everton's tradition of providing a pathway for youngsters convinced him to commit his future to the club - and eight goals in 10 games before Christmas this time around propelled him into the first-team fold before Silva was dismissed.
"Looking over the years, there's been a lot of academy prospects that have come through," Gordon continues. "There was Ross Barkley, Jonjoe Kenny, Tom Davies, Kieran Dowell… so to see them come through from a similar position to me was massive.
"When Marcel came in, I sat down and spoke with him quite a lot. He took a real interest in me which I really enjoyed and it made me feel wanted and a bit more confident about myself. It felt at the time when I signed the new deal that the club was on the up, and it still is. Hopefully we can keep improving as a club and push together.
"I understand as a local lad what it means to Everton fans and what they want to see in an Everton player. I notice that and I'll try my best to give them as much as I can."
'I pride myself on being really professional'
Ancelotti has shown his faith in the player, and despite understandable praise coming his way, Gordon is keeping his feet firmly on the ground.
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He is a young man who is forever learning about the world around him, telling Sky Sports that he has just finished watching Snowfall, an American crime drama series revolving around the first surge of crack cocaine use in 1980s Los Angeles. The lives of characters are fated to intersect, and for Gordon, he feels he has been fortunate to have the right people around him to grow at Goodison Park.
"Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman have been huge mentors for me because I feel they both take a good amount of interest in me," he says. "They really help me on a daily basis, and Seamus is a really good captain. He's very vocal and he'll tell me both when I'm doing really well and also when I can improve.
"Leighton is a massive leader in a much different way as he's not a loud or a big talker. He's just a really composed individual who leads through his qualities.
"As a footballer, I think if you do all the right things off the pitch, it gives you trust in yourself, and it makes things a lot easier. I'm someone who doesn't like to drink, I don't eat badly, my diet is really good and I'm a boring person, really.
"I do little hobbies like basketball, snooker and cards but I'm never out drinking. I pride myself on being really professional for a young player."
Gordon prefers to read in his spare time, and is currently engrossed in Dr Steve Peters' The Chimp Paradox, which provides a mind management programme that helps elite athletes to conquer their fears and operate with control, focus and confidence.
"It's teaching me that people can have two voices in their heads - the good voice and the bad voice - so it's about how to balance them and deal with that."
Becoming a better decision-maker is all part of the steep learning curve for young footballers, and Gordon would appear better equipped than most to make the step-up in class.
Featuring predominantly on the left side of midfield in Ancelotti's 4-4-2 system, but he has shown a willingness to come off the flank to get involved more centrally, breaking between the lines, and the No 10 position is one he sees filling in the longer term.
When asked about playing on the left, Gordon says: "Being the No 10 is still my preferred position as it's where I played all the way through my youth career and it's where I see myself playing in the future.
"But, as I've got older, I've built up speed, power and strength so I can play on the wings as well so it doesn't really bother me. I just love playing."
Ancelotti invested a lot of trust and confidence in Everton's teenage forward, justifying his decision to hand him four starts since football's return based purely on merit.
The numbers indicate several more senior members could learn from the youngster's application and hunger, and Gordon believes there is no limit to how much he can continue to grow under the club's decorated Italian manager.
He admits: "It's hard to put a finger on one area that I'm focusing on improving. I'm looking to get better at the little details in the final third, scoring and assisting, and finding better positions in between defenders and midfielders.
"I actually find it hard to believe how much I have improved in the past couple of months, just working with him [Ancelotti]. He makes football seem so simple.
"As a young player, you sometimes over-complicate things, but he simplifies things right down to the ground. It makes it much easier for me to understand certain tactics or positions I should be taking up."
With his infectious energy, the sight of him scoring his first senior goal in the next fortnight would bring a smile as wide as the River Mersey to Ancelotti - not least because Everton are in need of far greater productivity from midfield with Bernard and Gylfi Sigurdsson joint-third in the scoring charts with just three goals this season.
It would also cap a fine breakthrough season - and while he is focused on helping the team achieve a strong finish in the remaining three games, a maiden strike is certainly near the top of his priorities.
"I want to play as many minutes as possible and I want us to win every game. We're not just going to let the season fizzle out. We're a big club, and the fans deserve to see us winning.
"On a personal level, I'd love to get my first goal and I'm really looking for that. I'll be trying as much as I can to get that but I'll also be looking to assist my team-mates as that's what I love to do."
Everton host Aston Villa on Thursday evening, live on Sky Sports, hoping to bring an end to a three-match winless run that scuppered hopes of converting a much-improved second half to the season into a Europa League berth that was barely plausible during the winter months.
The manner of the 3-0 reverse at Wolves last time out led to Coleman giving a frank and outspoken assessment in which he criticised the players' desire, commitment and attitude - and Gordon says the group are ready to rectify that performance by increasing Villa's relegation fears.
"We're professional players, we lost a game and it was a poor performance," he admits. "But we've moved on and the next day in training, the spirit was high. We're a strong, together group which means we can move on fast and react to that result against Aston Villa.
"Carlo wants us to show more personality by getting on the ball, making more forward passes, driving forward and not just being safe. In other areas, he's told us not to be afraid to be aggressive and tackle like an Everton player should."
Gordon knows what it means to wear the royal blue. There have only been glimpses so far, but make no mistake, Everton and England have a star for the future - and for the present.