Everton transfer priority clear despite Jamie Carragher's Ross Barkley suggestion

Luton Town's English midfielder #06 Ross Barkley (R) wins a header during the English Premier League football match between Luton Town and Everton at Kenilworth Road in Luton, north of London on May 3, 2024. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. /  (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)
Ross Barkley wins a header during Luton Town's 1-1 draw against his former club Everton -Credit:HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images

Socks around his ankles, Ross Barkley shared a hug with Jordan Pickford and turned to the Everton supporters and clapped.

For 90 minutes the former Blue had tried to pull apart his former club. He came close - firing at Pickford with a rasping effort from the edge of the box in the final minutes, heading over from one of Alfie Doughty’s dangerous crosses and coming inches from slipping Elijah Adebayo behind James Tarkowsk ias Luton Town pushed for a winner they could not find.

But the man with more ‘noise’ around him than any other on the pitch at Kenilworth Road could not quite create a moment to split the teams. On the TV, Jamie Carragher wondered whether the 30-year-old could end up at Everton again - a cry that would have been denounced back when then-Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson was so incensed by his controversial switch to Chelsea that he contacted the police.

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How Barkley would fit into a Sean Dyche side is unclear - there are plenty of good reasons the perennial claims of a reunion have not materialised over recent summers when the England international has been available for free. The likelihood is no such return follows this summer either. But until his future is decided, expect a chorus of debate online and across living rooms and pub floors over the possibility.

There was a sense that this game could end up about Barkley. With the Blues safe after that hat-trick of superb wins last week it was one of few obvious talking points, something recognised in Bedfordshire too - it was no coincidence he was the player who adorned the front page of the matchday programme.

But as Everton’s director of football Kevin Thelwell watched from the stands, the biggest lesson he may have picked up ahead of what will be another summer of careful, savvy, opportunistic rebuilding, came not from Barkley, but one of his team0mates. Tahith Chong was a menace throughout this highly entertaining match, drawing the Blues into conceding precisely the same free-kicks and corners that they have turned into precious goals over the past nine months. If Dyche could add one attribute to this team over the close season, it surely must be pace.

One attribute he does not need to search for is resilience. That much was clear in the seven minutes of added on time in which an Everton team with the luxury of little to play for still threw bodies at protecting a point that was nowhere near as valuable as it looked set to be just a few weeks ago.

In those minutes, tense only for the home supporters still fighting for survival, Luton had six efforts on goal. With the final kick of the game Jarrad Branthwaite threw himself in front of an Andros Townsend drive. In the seconds before, Jack Harrison’s shoulder kept out a bicycle kick at the back post and a sprawling save from Pickford just about pushed clear a Luke Berry header.

Luton pushed for the winner but until those late efforts, the Blues came closest to finding it. Their forays forward were rare but potent. Harrison’s deflected half-volley almost looped into Thomas Kaminski’s top corner. The home keeper also did well to push over Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s powerful header.

Those efforts came in an entertaining second half that followed a high-tempo opening 45 minutes in which the momentum swung between both teams. Luton started the strongest, Chong threatening down the Everton right but unable to fashion a clear cut chance for himself or his team0mates. The former Manchester United academy player was a menace on the left and when he drifted inside to pick the ball up in space, forcing James Garnerr into a foul that saw the midfielder in the book after just eight minutes.

This game felt like the Blues were the senior side in an FA Cup classic and they rode that early pressure to take control of the game. First, they started to win the midfield battles - creating a platform to probe forward from as they dictated play on the halfway line.

Everton’s biggest threat was down their own left and momentum built impressively ahead of the opening goal. Dwight McNeil earned the scorn of home supporters when he went down under the challenge of Teden Mengi in the box. Referee Tim Robinson refused to give a penalty but the question was asked of him because McNeil had got the wrong side of Mengi in a foreboding of the trouble he was to cause the centre-back in the minutes to come.

Moments later Branthwaite skipped the easy pass to Ashley Young as the Everton defence manipulated the ball on the halfway line once more and the ambition allowed McNeil the space to whip a dangerous ball behind the Luton backline that Mengi poked desperately goalwards. It took an excellent reflex save from Kaminski to keep the scores level.

The Blues came again though and it was McNeil’s third involvement in quick succession that led to the breakthrough. His corner looked to have been dealt with by the hosts but replays showed Branthwaite being muscled to the ground by Mengi. Robinson was called to the monitor and his next decision was to point to the spot.

Calvert-Lewin withstood the pressure to slot down the middle, sparking celebrations with the away end behind the goal.

Everton had the platform their performance deserved but failed to build on it. As the home supporters reeled from the goal their players sprung into life and the crowd swung behind them again. It was poor game management from the Blues to allow Luton to find hope in a game they had been second best in for 20 minutes, but Kenilworth Road is a claustrophobic, hostile arena housing a desperate relegation battle. It erupted when a long ball forward drifted over Young’s head and onto the chest of Adebayo. The Luton forward slotted it past Pickford on the spin and the home end had the double joy of seeing the net bulge and Young, booed throughout because of his association with rivals Watford, on the floor.

The equaliser sparked a passage of play in which both sides came close, Branthwaite nodding down to Tarkowski at the back post but only for the Everton captain to be unable to make serious contact as he slid in. At the other end Carlton Morris curled wide and Doughty struck a volley straight at Pickford before Morris forced Ben Godfrey to head off the line in the final exchanges.

The second half saw Luton dominate but, just like Everton saw out first half stoppage time, the resilience embedded in this team allowed them to pull through for another game unbeaten in this streak - a fourth in a row, and a fourth with Dyche in his tracksuit.