In joining Everton in July 2007, Phil Jagielka completed a football journey that had started out as a hopeful teenager at the Everton academy. His route had taken him to Stoke City and Manchester City, before he signed as a professional with Sheffield United in1998,where he provided almost a decade of unstintingly reliable service.Back at Goodison he would progress even further, rising to the ranks of the England team and establishing himself as one of the Premier League’s finest centre backs.
Jagielka’s breakthrough to the Sheffield United team first came as a 17-year-old at the end of the 1999/2000 season, and he became a regular two years later. Talented, versatile and committed, he played in a variety of defensive positions – centre half, right back and central midfield – and was even considered good enough between the goalposts that United’s manager, Neil Warnock, would eschew the use of a substitute goalkeeper. In a home match against Arsenal in December 2006, Jagielka was called into action after the Blades goalkeeper Paddy Kenny suffered an injury. With his side 1-0 up, Jagielka held his opponents at bay for the remaining 34 minutes and helped secure a famous victory. Such excellence and versatility have become his hallmarks.
Jagielka had played every minute when United were promoted to the Premier League in 2006, and would do so again when they were relegated a year later. However, he had proved that the Premier League was a fitting stage for his talents and in July 2007 David Moyes paid £4million to make him an Everton player.
He started his Everton career slowly, playing in central midfield and right back – positions to which he was less than well suited. Eventually he got a run at centre back and reduced Alan Stubbs – who had started the season as first choice in this position – to the role of a spectator. With his astute reading of the game, fine aerial ability and talent as an organiser of his defence he shared many of the facets of his predecessor. Although Jagielka suffered the heartbreak of missing the key penalty in a UEFA Cup Round of 16 shootout against Fiorentina, his debut season ended on a high with a call-up to the England squad and first cap against Trinidad and Tobago.
The 2008/09 season started with Jagielka as a first choice in the starting XI and when injury to Joseph Yobo saw Joleon Lescott shift from left back to centre back, the pair formed an imperious partnership. One run saw Everton go 643 minutes without conceding a goal. The 37 league goals conceded all season was one of the meanest defensive showings in the club’s history.
Jagielka’s finest moment was soon followed by his most harrowing. Having assisted in keeping another clean sheet in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United, he bravely stood up and slotted home the deciding penalty in the shootout, exorcising the demons of Fiorentina. Six days later, however, disaster struck. Midway through the second half in a home match against Manchester City, Jagielka crumpled in a heap on the pitch. The centre back had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. It meant no FA Cup Final and a ten-month absence from the Everton team, thus effectively ruining his chances of travelling to the South Africa World Cup too.
‘Football can be cruel at times,’ an ashen-faced David Moyes said afterwards. ‘When you’re involved at the top end it can bring you great pleasure but also big downs.’
Jagielka returned to the Everton fold the following spring and has since made a full recovery. The brilliant partnership he formed with Lescott is still to be fully replicated with Sylvain Distin or Johnny Heitinga following Lescott’s defection to Manchester City, but there are signs that the defender is approaching his best form again. He was a worthy inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s squad for the 2012 European Championships and has also assumed the Everton vice-captaincy.
Speaking to the Evertonian in 2010 he talked about his hopes to represent England at 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but he also had a more pressing ambition, too. '[Brazil] is a long, long was away at the moment,' he said. 'I'd love to just do well with the Everton and realise some other goals by getting to semi-finals and finals again and by trying to win something so I can walk up those Wembley steps and know what it's like to pick up a trophy.'