‘I was right to leave’: Everton’s James Garner thriving away from Manchester United chaos

James Garner and Nathan Patterson during an Everton training session at Finch Farm

When Sir Jim Ratcliffe signs off his final report into what’s gone wrong at Manchester United over the past 10 years, the sight of an academy talent thriving at a Premier League rival may form a category of its own.

James Garner had been a United player since he was seven until a heart-to-heart with Erik ten Hag 18 months ago preceded a £15 million transfer to Everton.

Reflecting on a move which has seen him become a mainstay of Sean Dyche’s midfield and one of Everton’s players of the season, the 22-year-old has no regrets, insisting the choice was his.

“When they start signing three, four midfielders you kind of understand your place. It was a decision that I wanted to make,” he said.

James Garner in action for Manchester United during a pre-season friendly against Leeds United
Garner (right) found his pathway blocked by new recruits at United - Will Russell/Getty Images

Seasoned Old Trafford watchers can judge as to whether the midfielders who blocked Garner’s pathway at United have offered the same value.

“I still live in Manchester so obviously you bump into the odd person. Fans being fans they always give you their little comments and stuff. But look, I’m happy where I am now, yeah,” says Garner, diplomatically, when asked his view on that topic.

What is indisputable is that he is among an increasing number of ex-United players – his best friend Angel Gomes is currently excelling at Lille – to discover the grass is greener beyond Old Trafford.

“It’s always a tough decision [to leave] when you’re coming from a club that is deemed one of the best in the world,” said Garner. “It was a big decision but one I knew was right.

“I feel like I’ve proven it to those who didn’t believe me over that side, but more importantly I’ve proven to myself that I can play in a Premier League side week in, week out.”

Garner did not elaborate on who ‘on the other side’ had no faith in him.

“It’s always motivation but while it might sound a bit clichéd, I don’t do it for anyone else other than my family. They’re the ones whose opinions matter,” he said.

“I had questions with myself over whether I could compete at the highest level and I’m doing that so I just need to take it a step further now.

“That was always a question on my mind, I’ve done it in the Championship but the Premier League is the best league in the world, so can I compete against the best players in the world? I feel like I’m more than standing my ground. I feel that I’ve not even reached becoming the player that I know I can be.

“I feel that in the Championship I definitely reached it and confidence definitely helps when it comes to reaching your maximum week in, week out. I feel like I’m nowhere near that at the moment but hopefully I can get to that soon, putting in better performances and helping the team more.”

James Garner (left) battles for the ball with Jack Grealish
Garner (left) gets regular first-team playing time at Everton - Martin Rickett/PA

Garner’s career has echoes of Chelsea’s Cole Palmer, who realised his academy dreams at Manchester City but then had to surrender to the reality of his situation.

“Some people might have thought it was the wrong [decision] at the time but I knew it was the right one because I didn’t want to stagnate when I’d just had such a good season [with Nottingham Forest]. I wanted to go out and prove to everyone and prove to myself that I can play at the top level,” said Garner.

Asked if United tried to convince him to stay, he added: “Not necessarily. I definitely had conversations with him [Ten Hag] but I’d just come off the back of a good season, probably the best season I possibly could have had, so I didn’t want to sit on the bench week in, week out.

“Of course, when you are going through an academy, it is always the dream to go all the way and establish yourself in the first team. But you can’t be naïve and lose track. I could easily have been comfortable and sat there with all my mates and train, been on the bench and travelled and been comfortable. But, you know, for me, I play football. I love to play football and if I’m not, I’m not happy or enjoying it. My life ultimately revolves around football. That is when I am at my happiest.”

Dyche and Everton are reaping the rewards and now Garner is determined to explore the limits of his midfield talent.

“Can I really now take it to the next step?” he said.

“I know I can compete and not look out of place. Now I feel – I don’t want to say one of the main guys – but I feel an important part to the team, adding more goals and assists into my game.”

United’s loss looks like Everton’s considerable gain.

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