Mason Holgate exclusive: Everton defender's journey to the cusp of the England squad
Sky Sports exclusive: Everton's rising star on developing at West Brom, working under Carlo Ancelotti and rock, paper, scissors; Watch Everton vs Man Utd live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Sunday; Kick-off 2.00pm
Last Updated: 01/03/20 3:03pm
"I got the coat."
It was the answer to the one burning question that had lingered among Evertonians. Bernard had scored the all-important opening goal at home to Crystal Palace, but with Storm Ciara imminent, it was a blustery afternoon at Goodison Park.
An early departure for Theo Walcott caught Djibril Sidibe by surprise, but as Carlo Ancelotti lamented the sight of the Frenchman being one sock short of a full kit, the contest for the coat had only just begun. Substitutes Mason Holgate and Tom Davies could be spotted in heated combat. A game of rock, paper scissors for the right to inherit Sidibe's extra layer.
"I won the coat," Holgate proudly reiterates to Sky Sports. "It got blocked off on video, didn't it! I didn't even realise Djib didn't have a sock on because me and Davo were worried about his coat. The first one I went too early, so we had to redo it, but then I won."
If at first you don't succeed, try again.
Speaking to the defender on the morning of Farhad Moshiri's fourth anniversary as Everton's majority shareholder, it is clearly a mantra that has served Holgate well during his time on Merseyside. A competitive streak has run through his veins from the moment he first arrived at Barnsley's academy aged just nine, right through to playing for the first team under Paul Heckingbottom at Oakwell.
Holgate has worked under five permanent managers at Goodison while his loan spell at West Brom also saw Darren Moore replaced by Jimmy Shan on a temporary basis. When the defender was sent to The Hawthorns, there were those who claimed he was returning to his level having failed to cement a place in the Everton side under several different regimes.
But his time in the West Midlands has proven to be the making of Holgate.
"It was massive for me," he said. "It was the best thing I've ever done going there. Obviously, I wasn't playing in the position I wanted to play, and I didn't play in the position I've ended up in this season, but the consistency of playing every week has made a big difference.
"Before at Everton, I was a bit up and down. I would do well for a couple of games, and then I'd have a few weeks out. The experience helped me massively and from playing on the right you can see different things that were happening on the pitch.
"I've always felt my best position is at centre-half. A couple of years ago, I don't think I was strong enough to play there, so I think that's why I ended up playing at right-back, and that's where I was when I came through at Barnsley. It was due to not being physically strong enough, but I think I grew a little bit more into my body at West Brom, so it's made the transition to centre-back a lot easier."
When talent meets opportunity
West Brom certainly benefited from Holgate's loan spell, narrowly missing out on reaching the Sky Bet Championship play-off final following a penalty shootout defeat to Aston Villa last May. Shan was deeply impressed by his professionalism and drive to succeed during their time together.
"His personality is infectious," Shan told Sky Sports. "He's a very mature young man in terms of how he is able to communicate. He was always very positive around the place, very vibrant, and I think this transpires in the way he plays.
"He's very much a student of the game, and was somebody who wanted to learn and improve at West Brom. When he came to the club, we knew he was predominantly a right-sided centre-half who could operate as a right full-back. But he's got the personality and tactical ability to play anywhere on the pitch. He's played left-sided centre-half for Everton as well so if you just look at the last 12 months, he's played as a right-back, right wing-back, at centre-back and as a holding midfielder.
"Being able to play on both sides of the pitch is massively important - and if you looked at his background, having played in the Football League with Barnsley, that would've toughened him up mentally and physically against strong men. Now he's playing under one of the world's best football managers and that can only benefit Mason in terms of his tactical development.
"There's lots of talented players within our country, and all it takes is for talent to meet opportunity. Mason has met that opportunity, and he's grasped it. People are taking about a potential England call-up, which is credit to him."
Despite Holgate's impressive loan spell, Everton were keen to make Kurt Zouma a permanent signing last summer under Marco Silva. There were other centre-backs linked to the club, namely Zouma's Chelsea team-mate Fikayo Tomori, but David Luiz's departure to Arsenal ensured Everton effectively went into the first half of the campaign with three recognised centre-halves.
Everton have spent in the region of £450m on players since Moshiri bought a 49.9 per cent stake in the club in February 2016, but the events of this season, including the return of Andre Gomes 112 days after sustaining a fracture dislocation to his right ankle, has brought a sense of togetherness that is more in keeping with the club's core values.
"We've created a connection with the fans this year more than ever," Holgate admitted. "We've had a lot of tough times as part of this season, but everybody has stayed together and that's helped us out quite a bit. This season has had a lot of ups and downs - probably the most I've seen in the five years that I've been here. A lot has happened, but it shows the strength we've got as a club that everyone can bind together during the difficult moments.
"If you look at our team it's young and it's coming together. It's not going to happen like a straight line, but I think it's clear to see the direction we're going in both as a club and as a team. When I first came here, the ages were all spread out, but now we've got a good core of people with similar ages and likes so we all get along really well both in and outside of playing. We're all just a bunch of mates.
"We have an identity now with what we're trying to do. The fans here have had to wait 25 years for a trophy, and I want to win things. I don't want to just go through my career sitting in mid-table. I'm pretty sure the entire squad here are the same.
"I'm a winner, and as a team it's something we're pushing towards. We were unlucky in the League Cup this year, but it's coming. With a few new signings and the team we have, we're going in the right direction."
Europe still the aim at Everton
When Everton and Manchester United met back in December, caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson was on the touchline to see a Victor Lindelof own goal give his side the lead, but they had to settle for a point from a spirited display following Mason Greenwood's equaliser.
It was Ferguson who kick-started Everton's season during his spell in charge, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be aware of how difficult it will be for his team to continue their good form at Goodison Park having suffered what is still regarded as the worst result and performance of his reign in the 4-0 defeat last April.
For Holgate, the 3-2 reverse at Arsenal last weekend hasn't altered Everton's objectives for the remaining 11 games of the campaign - and that is down to the change in mentality at the club since Ancelotti's arrival.
"We've got to still be looking at getting into Europe," he said. "It was the aim at the start of the season, and it's been more difficult than most people expected, but we're still in contention and it's more than achievable.
"Sunday is a massive part of that. We've got to perform and get wins against these teams who are competing for the same position if we're going to have any chance. With the players we've got and the form we've been in, I don't see any reason why we can't.
"There's been points in the season when things haven't gone our way, but now every game we feel we can win. Against Arsenal, you can't concede three goals and expect to win, but especially in the last 20 minutes we felt we could turn it around, and that's how the mentality has changed.
"We know where we went wrong last weekend, so [Ancelotti] hasn't had to drill it. Everybody knows their own job to the letter under the new boss. He's come in and made it really black and white so we know what we need to do. Everyone makes mistakes, so it's about reacting and learning from it heading into this tough run we've got."
Three Lions and a wall of fame
Holgate and Jordan Pickford have been close friends ever since they were team-mates in the England U21 side, playing alongside each other in the team that reached the last four of the European U21 Championship finals in 2017.
Pickford signed for Everton while out in Poland that summer, and the goalkeeper went on to claim the England No 1 spot to help his country equal their best ever World Cup performance on foreign soil.
Playing out under Ancelotti
Mason Holgate has significantly increased his successful passes per 90 minutes in the Premier League since Carlo Ancelotti took charge. From November 2 to December 25, he was at 23.9 successful passes per 90 minutes played. Since, he's at 50.5 successful passes.
Between November 2 and December 25, Holgate ranked 126 for average successful passes per 90 for players playing at least 360 minutes. Since Boxing Day, he has ranked 31 for players playing at least 450 minutes.
Holgate is in a position of strength, developing a way of playing with Gareth Southgate's first-choice stopper on a weekly basis, but it is his own performances that have led to growing calls for him to be handed his first senior call-up ahead of England's international friendlies with Italy and Denmark in March.
"Everybody wants to play for England," the Yorkshireman continued. "When you're a kid, that's the ultimate, but it's down to me to decide that through playing well for Everton.
"If I don't get called up then I won't be knocked back as ultimately that's out of my hands. All I can do is the best for Everton.
"Either way I look at it, compared to last season, when people were saying that I would never play for Everton again and that I'm a Championship player, it's been a great season for me as people are now saying I should be playing for England. If someone had offered that to me last season, I'd have certainly taken it."
Every day is a school day for the inquisitive Holgate who absorbs the canvas of Everton cult figures on the wall as he makes his exit. He pauses to stare up at a dancing Daniel Amokachi with a royal blue beret and the FA Cup in his hands, the last trophy Everton won a quarter of a century ago.
The 23-year-old's eyes scan the faces of Dixie Dean, Brian Labone, Kevin Ratcliffe, Dave Hickson and Ferguson - all of whom have been inducted into the Gwladys Street Hall of Fame.
Holgate has everything in his locker, including the coat, to join that list of illustrious names.
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