It was not so long ago that Ben Godfrey’s career brimmed with promise.
After a successful first season at Everton, the £20m acquisition from Norwich was named in Gareth Southgate’s provisional England squad for the rescheduled Euro 2020 in May 2021 and made his full international debut a month later.
At that stage, the tough-tackling Yorkshireman was vying with Ben White for an international breakthrough. But the years since have seen their respective careers diverge. White is now a mainstay at title hopefuls Arsenal; Godfrey a bit-part player with Everton.
To say the 26-year-old former Norwich man has been on a bumpy path since those heady days under Carlo Ancelotti would be an understatement. He has suffered from the constant state of flux at Everton including multiple changes of manager, his own positional versatility which has seen him moved from pillar to post, and a bout of long COVID that left him struggling to breathe during certain games in the 2021-22 campaign.
Due to those challenging circumstances, the impression that has been given is of a career in stagnation. Prior to Tuesday’s 0-0 draw at Fulham, Godfrey had played just 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, often finding himself behind not only favoured central defensive partnership James Tarkowski and Jarrad Branthwaite, but also Michael Keane in manager Sean Dyche’s pecking order.
So Godfrey started January at something of a crossroads, “frustrated” at his lack of playing time according to Dyche, and courted by several clubs, including Leeds United of the Championship. While his stock may have fallen, enough still see the value in a positionally flexible and athletic former England cap who has been itching to prove himself.
The problem for Godfrey up to now has been that so do Everton. With only four senior centre-backs on their books and injuries biting elsewhere, Dyche and director of football Kevin Thelwell have so far resisted interest in his services. They would like to keep the squad intact and moved to assure him during a chat prior to the Fulham game that opportunities would come his way.
“You can only pick eleven and he’s been unfortunate in his time under me,” Dyche said after Tuesday’s 0-0 draw, in which Godfrey played a star turn. “But he’s been working very hard.
“I make it clear to all the players that training and performances are important. Nobody gets a gimme or is certain to be in the team every week.
“We assured him a few days ago that he was in the mix and right there. Maybe he understands by playing tonight. I don’t think Patto (Nathan Patterson) has been doing badly but it was the right game to play Ben. He delivered a good performance.”
Godfrey sees himself as a centre-back by first and foremost, but started his first game since December 16 on the right and was given the task of shutting down Fulham dangerman Willian. It was a restricted role in an increasingly dogged team performance, one that saw him track the Brazilian’s movements deep into opposition territory at times. Across the 90 minutes he attempted just 18 passes, completing nine.
The former Norwich defender made a number of key interventions but his personal highlight was a recovery run and sliding last-ditch tackle in the second half to prevent an easy tap-in for Willian at the back post. It was reminiscent of a similar moment in December’s win at Burnley, where he prevented another certain goal, and a reminder of what Godfrey, at his best, can bring. The pace, aggression and sheer bloody-mindedness that earned his move to Everton and an England call-up in the first place.
The club have clung to the belief that there is still a player there waiting to be coaxed out. They have previously rejected significant interest from Newcastle and started this season confident in their four central defensive options. Despite the summer departures of Yerry Mina on a free and Conor Coady at the expiration of his loan, they aimed to give Godfrey the space to potentially kick on again.
At times in recent months, it has looked like opportunities would not come and that a move might be more beneficial for his career. That may well still be the case beyond this season — he has just 18 months to run on his contract — but injuries and interest from elsewhere, as well as his own professionalism in training, saw him get an opportunity on Tuesday that he grasped.
Godfrey finished Tuesday’s game with seven clearances, including four with his head — a total only bettered by James Tarkowski — and plaudits ringing in his ears.
Afterwards, Dyche praised his “defensive responsibility, which was clear with a great clearance at the back post, and the pace and strength he shows”.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, meanwhile, described his display as “terrific, especially after getting a yellow early doors and playing against someone like Willian”.
The truth is Everton, currently with only one central midfielder in James Garner available, need Godfrey and others on the fringes to dig in and prove their worth. A growing list of absentees and off-field issues, included the much documented 10-point deduction, have threatened to submerge their season.
They still might. Dyche’s side ended Tuesday in the relegation zone, courtesy of Luton Town’s 4-0 victory over Brighton. But this was a decent point in the circumstances; another reminder of the resilience in the squad in the face of adversity. Wide men Dwight McNeil and Jack Harrison joined Godfrey in unfamiliar (central) roles and also played their part in what was a gritty point.
“There’s always going to be bumps in the road across the season but it’s your togetherness, your work ethic (that’s important),” Pickford said.
“Everyone is giving their all for the badge, if that’s extra running after games or extra training. There’s no slumping (when players don’t get a chance).
“People are applying themselves so they can taken an opportunity when the gaffer calls on them.”
(Top photo: Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)