Although recently renowned for producing plenty of vastly talented young players, when John Ebbrell broke into the Everton team in the 1989/90 season his rise came in the midst of a long barren patch for the club’s youth academies.
Not since Kevin Richardson and Gary Stevens came through to the first team in 1981 had a home-grown player made the cut, and it would be several more years before David Unsworth made a similar breakthrough. When Evertonians first caught a proper sight of the 20-year-old midfielder, it was obvious that he was worth the wait.
FRESH-FACED and composed, the energetic midfielder seemed to exert a confidence and maturity that belied his young years. A graduate of the FA School of Excellence at Lilleshall who would go on to captain the England under-21 team, Ebbrell was soon spoken of as a future Everton captain. A clean and accurate passer of the ball with a formidable work rate, he established himself as a regular in the transitional teams of the early 1990s.
Allied to this work ethic, Ebbrell was a brave and strong tackler. Never was this better exemplified when a crunching challenge by Liverpool’s Steve McMahon in the 1991 FA Cup tie was met unflinchingly by the Everton player. McMahon, a vilified figure at Goodison, came off worst and was substituted. Two decades on, it is, perhaps, what Evertonians best remember Ebbrell for.
As Everton’s transitional period became one of more marked decline, Ebbrell’s promise seemed to eviscerate. Shortcomings – notably in front of goal – that were once excused on account of his inexperience became picked up on by the club’s notoriously demanding fans. For several years, fans spoke of it being ‘make or break’ for Ebbrell, but the progression from promising youngster to a mainstay of the Everton team never seemed to come. Maybe he would have fared better in a stronger team.
When Joe Royle became Everton manager in November 1994, Ebbrell was one of the original ‘Dogs of War’ – a harrier and a scrapper whose primary objective was to break up the opposition’s play. But as Royle sought a more expansive style, he preferred Barry Horne and Joe Parkinson as his central midfield pairing. When Everton reached the FA Cup Final the following May, Ebbrell did not even make the substitute’s bench: leaving him out, said Royle, was the ‘hardest decision’ of his managerial career. Ebbrell at first seemed crushed by this omission, but made his way back into the team during the 1995/96 season. Alas, some wayward performances even made him the target of abuse from sections of his own support. With Royle eventually preferring Tony Grant and even the hapless Claus Thomsen to Ebbrell over the 1996/97 season, it was clear that his time at Everton was drawing to a close.
With his contract running out in summer 1997 and the new Bosman ruling allowing him a lucrative free transfer to the continent, Royle reluctantly sold Ebbrell to First Division Sheffield United for £1million in February that year. Here he was reunited with Howard Kendall, who was managing the Blades, but Ebbrell was to make just a single appearance at Bramall Lane. A succession of ankle injuries picked up at the tail-end of his Everton career had been aggravated when Ebbrell played on to ease an injury crisis. His ankle was operated on but became infected and he was forced to retire while still short of his 30th birthday.Ebbrell returned to Everton in 2000 as Walter Smith’s chief scout, but left after the arrival of David Moyes. He briefly worked as an agent and in 2010 became Tranmere Rovers’ centre of excellence manager.