And so it has begun... Reports of Chelsea's interest in John Stones that surfaced shortly after the end of last season, easily dismissed at the time as tabloids filling column inches with obvious stories at the onset of the "dog days" of summer, have now morphed into what appears to be a concrete bid from the Premier League title-holders for a player who is arguably Everton's most valuable long-term asset.
That £20m offer has been summarily rejected, of course, but the story won't end there; Roman Abramovich will undoubtedly be back to test the Blues' resolve. The problem with having something that everyone else wants, of course, is that you regularly have to fend off attempts to steal it away. Like a lone leopard protecting its kill from a cackle of circling hyenas, the club will be nervously guarding its asset from those covetous interests... except in this analogy, it's more like an 800lb gorilla weighing up an attack, one that often throws its weight around sufficienty to get what it wants.
In that respect, the end of the transfer window can't come soon enough for Evertonians who see in Stones a future Everton and England captain capable of leading our team for many, many years to come. A gifted, "ball-playing" defender whose composure belies his 21 years, he also seems to have a rare maturity and sense of perspective when it comes to his career. In stark contrast to his England teammate, Raheem Sterling, whose dummy-spitting eventually engineered a big-money move from Liverpool to Manchester City this month, everything Stones says indicates that his feet are planted firmly on the ground and that he is content to grow and develop where he is now, his eyes firmly on the long term rather than short-term attention and riches.
The belief that Stones is unlikely to swap regular first-team football for the bench at Stamford Bridge by forcing his own exit from Goodison Park will comfort Blues fans between now and the end of summer and it shifts the onus on keeping him at Everton to Roberto Martinez, Bill Kenwright's and the Board of Directors.
There too there is hope, however. If Martinez has demonstrated anything in his blooding of the likes of Stones, Brendan Galloway and Tyias Browning it's that he places a high value on youth being the key to the club's medium-term future in the absence of huge transfer budgets to transform the squad. The hierarchy, meanwhile, benefiting from an easing in the imperative to sell on the back of increased broadcast revenues, have successfully dug their heels in over Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman over the past couple of years and kept Martinez's team together.
Memories of Joleon Lescott, Jack Rodwell and, in particular, Wayne Rooney – players sold for significant profit, albeit for differering reasons and with varying results – live on in the memory, however, and that, combined with Everton's increasing inferiority complex when it comes to the "big five" and their gargantuan budgets, means that news of Chelsea's verifiable interest has been met by many with a foreboding sense of deja vu.
Importantly, Sterling's recent move to the Etihad, City's own acquisition of Eliaquim Mangala, Manchester United's historical expenditure on defenders, and Abramovich's own dealings provide plenty of context for Everton standing firm over Stones's value to the club, not just now but his potential value in the future.
Sterling, a year younger but with few more achievements to point to than John, went for £49m; in Mangala, City paid by most estimations an exorbitant £41m for a player who has often looked lost in the environs of the Premier League; United paid £29m for Rio Ferdinand a decade ago (a bargain in today's market) and £30m for 18-year-old Luke Shaw last year; and, perhaps most pertinently of all, Chelsea sold David Luiz to PSG for a staggering £50m.
As long as Stones wants to stay a Blue and the TV money keeps rolling in, the club have no reason to sell and Martinez's comments only this week in response to interest in James McCarthy – another important player whom Everton should do their utmost to keep this summer – would back that up. Every player has his price, of course – while the risk of a career-ending injury lurks for every professional player, it would short-sighted not consider silly money for any player – but Everton should close their ears to anything under £50m.
To an outsider, that may seem ridiculous for a 21-year-old who is still learning his trade but, like John Terry, Chelsea are clearly looking at an investment in a long-term fixture for their club and that should come with a hefty, Luiz-sized premium. They can certainly afford it.
While Martinez continues to operate within a strictly-controlled budget, if Everton harbour any ambitions of challenging for the top four again, then the club simply has to hold onto its best players. The manager's rhetoric reflects that and so have the Board's actions over the past couple of years as they have rebuffed interest in our young stars and rewarded them with new contracts. It's imperative that continues.
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