A free-kick specialist, hard worker and all-round nice person, Leighton Baines’ importance to Everton cannot be underestimated.
Ever since he moved from Wigan to Goodison Park, Baines has won over both fans and pundits alike with his tremendous ability both going forward and defending back.
He has made the £6 million Everton paid for him look like a bargain, but unfortunately for the Toffees, rumours of a transfer to long time admirers Manchester United have never gone away, with United likely to re-ignite their interest in the summer.
After making his debut for the Lactics in 2002, Baines was an instrumental part of their promotion campaign in the 2004/05 season. Following an impressive couple of seasons with Wigan, it was Everton who won the race for Baines’ signature, securing a £5 million deal with a further £1 million in add-ons.
The left-back slowly developed his set-piece skills and was regularly near the top of the assists chart at the end of each season.
His eye for goal from free-kicks and long distances have made him a popular fantasy football choice, whilst also being named in the 2012 PFA Team of the Year, the first Everton player since Neville Southall in 1990.
His popularity amongst fans and the coaching staff is unquestionable and at 28, he still has a number of years left, so it isn’t surprising to see so many clubs sniffing around him.
Chelsea and Manchester United both see Baines as the successor to their legendary full-backs Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra. Both players are entering the twilight of their careers, despite Chelsea already having a ready-made replacement in Ryan Bertrand.
Manchester United are certainly making signs that they are going to make another strong push for Baines this summer. New signing Alexander Buttner has only made one league appearance since joining and with Evra gradually on the decline it is beginning to look more and more likely that Baines will end up at Old Trafford.
This will be the fitting tribute that such an illustrious player deserves. Baines has never won a trophy at Everton and he has sadly had to play second fiddle to Ashley Cole on the international stage.
In any other generation, Baines would go down as one of the greatest ever England left-backs, but unfortunately he is living in the same age as England’s most capped full-back. Cole’s performances over the last decade or so are incomparable, but he won’t be around forever.
It is highly questionable whether the Chelsea defender will make Brazil in 2014 and should he miss it, English football fans can rest easy knowing there is a world-class replacement just waiting in the wings.
For Baines himself, his last international tournament will probably be Euro 2016 in France and hopefully he will be able to look back on his career, and see all his great personal achievement.
The final piece to this puzzle, however, is whether Baines would want to move on?
Opta statistics suggest that Baines is up there with the best full-backs in Europe, not just England, especially in terms of chances created and crosses made.
Since Steven Pienaar's return to Merseyside from Tottenham, Baines’ link-up play with the South African has been breath-taking at times and the two have formed a lethal combination down the left flank.
He may well end up seeing out the rest of his career at Everton and in a world filled with egotistical, money obsessed prima-donnas, that might not be such a bad thing. Players like Baines are dying out, the game is completely changing and soon there will be virtually no players of his calibre left.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute of all is for him to be go down as one of the true Everton greats, both a great player and a great person.
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