The England Under-21 defender was a costly signing in October but his journey to the top was marked by multiple rejections
Championship winner, Premier League captain at 21 and big-money move to Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton. It would be easy for Ben Godfrey to captivate and impress the students he talks to with his highlights from the past 18 months but he prefers to educate with the whole truth. As he puts it: “I’ve experienced the wind blowing against me a fair few times.”
For the first time since his arrival from Norwich in October, the England Under-21 defender will have Evertonians behind him – well, 2,000 at least – when Chelsea visit tomorrow. “It seems strange that this will be my first time playing in front of them,” he says. “I can’t wait to hear them at Goodison.” Godfrey ‘met’ some fans this week when, thanks to the wonders of robot telemedicine equipment, virtual ward visits enabled Everton to maintain their pre-Christmas tradition of seeing patients at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.
He has also delivered remote talks during the pandemic to students and academy players hoping to forge a career in the professional game. His is a valuable lesson for all.
“One of the messages I try to get across is to have belief in yourself,” says Godfrey. “I would say a massive percentage of football is in your head and you’ve got to keep believing and cracking on when things are going against you. But it is so hard for kids and even for their parents to see that when you are going through it. But as someone who has been through that experience it is so important that you stay strong and believe in your ability.”
Before the rise under Daniel Farke, the Norwich head coach, and the move to Everton for a fee that could reach £25m, there was rejection. More than a fair share while growing up in York.
The 22-year-old explains: “Football has not been an easy journey, particularly for my family. That’s something people don’t always realise. They were travelling to Middlesbrough three or four times a week when I was 13 years old, driving up straight after work, and then to be told you’re not good enough and you’re going to be let go was hard for me, but it was hard for them to be part of that too. After that I went on trial to Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley and they all told me I wasn’t good enough.
“At Middlesbrough they didn’t see me as a player who was good enough to be offered a full-time contract in the future. At Leeds and Barnsley I was told I was no better than all the other academy players they had at the club. It was pretty much the same message at Sheffield Wednesday. I spent a long time on trial there and I remember being happy with how I was playing and training, but again it wasn’t enough.
“As a young kid you feel like your football world is coming to an end. I can tell young kids now that it’s definitely not but at the time you feel: ‘Where am I going to make it then?’ You see every other kid getting contracts and scholarships and kicking on but I just have to thank my family, friends and the people around me who did believe in me back then.”
The defender’s fortunes improved after returning on a scholarship to York City, where he made his senior debut at 17, although he cites an earlier conversation at Leeds as the moment that changed everything. Godfrey recalls: “A massive turning point for me and my family, which stays with me for ever, was when Leeds let me go after a trial. One of the coaches said: ‘Go prove us wrong.’ I remember thinking back then: ‘You know what? I will.’ Me and my family had conversations about it and in the end I went back to York and started that mission of proving those people wrong.”
It is put to Godfrey that having a father who played professional sport – Alex, a tutor at York College, played rugby league for York City Knights and Hull KR – must have been an invaluable help. The Everton defender creases with laughter. “All everyone talks to me about is my dad playing rugby.” That explains it. “We have a joke in the family about this – my mum [Sharon] was a hairdresser but I don’t cut hair. But no, he was a massive influence from a young age and probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He knows the ups and downs of sport and what it takes to make the cut and achieve your goals. He always believed in me and picked me up when I was in broken pieces. As did my mum. I will be forever thankful to both of them for that.”
Godfrey’s guiding influence is now the three-times Champions League-winning coach Ancelotti. It has been a challenging start for the defender in a team that have not kept a Premier League clean sheet since the opening game, and given his assignments so far. In five appearances, beginning as a substitute in the draw against Liverpool, Godfrey has played at right-back, left-back and in a three-man central defence. There are no complaints. “I loved every second of it,” he says of his debut against Sadio Mané. “I’ve watched many Merseyside derbies with my family on TV, it is one of the biggest derbies in the world, so to be involved in it as a new player was massive. It was a day I’ll never forget.”He adds: “I’ve enjoyed it all. I’m a young player who is willing to learn and will do anything for the team and if that means playing out of position then so be it. Every player goes through a spell where you’re on the bench or out of the squad and it makes you appreciate being on the pitch at all times. It is unbelievable to be able to learn from this manager. I am so appreciative of the opportunity. He has worked with some world-class players and, the experiences he’s had, I can soak everything up. And I have been doing.
“He gives you confidence. He’s quite laid-back and to be honest he simplifies things for you. He makes the game as easy as possible for you and I’m really enjoying learning from him. Believe me, everyone here is desperate to achieve something and we are working hard to do something we can all be proud of at this football club.”