Former Everton team-mates Jose Baxter and James Wallace face each other for Oldham and Tranmere at Boundary Park
JAMES Wallace and Jose Baxter, talented young graduates from Everton’s Academy who took diverging paths out of Goodison during the summer, square up to each other in a fascinating League One encounter at Boundary Park tomorrow.
Wallace, 20, lines up as captain of visitors Tranmere, the surprise front runners in the promotion race during the early months of the season.
Baxter, meanwhile, has established himself as a key player for Oldham Athletic, who say they are keen to secure the services of the 20-year-old from Bootle on a longer contract after his current four-month deal expires.
Both players are highly regarded by their respective managers. Tranmere’s Ronnie Moore says: “We threw down a challenge to James in the summer to cut the umbilical cord to Everton, play regular first-team football for us and take on the responsibilities of the captaincy. He has responded to those challenges extremely well.”
Oldham’s Paul Dickov said: “We think Jose can play at the top but I hope that’s not for a long time, because that means he’ll be with us for a little bit longer. We’re speaking to him (about extending his contract) but the biggest thing for us is that Jose’s loving it here. He loves being in and around the boys here and he’s really enjoying his football so we’ll do everything we can to keep him.”
Both players spent time on loan with Rovers last season after striving, without success, to break into Everton’s Premier League squad on a regular basis.
Baxter’s spell at Prenton Park spanned 14 League One appearances between late September and early January, during which time he carved out a role as the link player between midfield and attack in Les Parry’s team.
Everton declined to extend Baxter’s loan or allow him to return to start a second spell with Rovers, or any other club, during the remainder of the 2011/12 season.
Instead manager David Moyes dispatched Wallace to Tranmere on a loan that ran from late January to the close of the season. Wallace played seven Tranmere games for Parry, who was dismissed after a run of poor results on March 4, and a further 11 games under Moore, Parry’s replacement.
Moore and coach John McMahon were so impressed with Wallace’s abilities and competitive attitude that they decided towards the end of last season that Tranmere should pull out all the stops to recruit the youngster on a permanent basis and make him the cornerstone of the side for the new campaign.
Everton duly agreed to release Wallace from his contract for a nominal sum, with the proviso that they take 50% of any transfer fee if and when Tranmere sell the player on.
With Wallace emerging as one of the most influential midfield players in League One this season, each of the Merseyside clubs can feel comfortable about that particular deal.
Baxter’s path to regular first-team football was not so smooth.
After returning from Tranmere in January he played one Premier League game for Everton, then drifted back into reserve team football. The player rejected the offer of a new deal at Goodison and was released at the end of the season.
He secured a trial with Championship club Crystal Palace during the summer but the Londoners had concerns about his fitness levels and declined to offer a contract.
Oldham manager Dickov, confident he could bring the best out of Baxter, offered the youngster a four-month contract in September. Baxter responded impressively and has notched five goals in 10 League One appearances so far.
Baxter says he is keen to stay with Oldham, although other clubs, notably Championship strugglers Ipswich Town, are taking note of his performances.
“I am enjoying my football and loving every minute of it,” Baxter said. “I definitely want to stay. I love it here. The gaffer, the lads, every part of the club is top drawer. There haven’t been any talks yet but, hopefully, that will come.”
Wallace says he knew within a few weeks of the new season that the “gamble” of leaving Everton and attempting to build a career from the lower divisions was going to pay off. He reckons players in a similar situation with Premier League clubs should consider his experience.
“People should really look at the decision I made,” Wallace said. “I did not think I was going to get into the first team at Everton and I could have been waiting around for my chance for years.
“I think it pays to get out and play football, even if it’s on loan. You should be knocking on the manager’s door, saying, ‘can I get out to get some experience?’
“You might not want to take the risk just in case it does not pay off but I was always confident in my ability to get out and show people what I can do.
“There’s no point in hiding your talents in games played behind closed doors in the reserves.
“I think it’s paid off of me. I think I have shown what I can do and I think Tranmere, as a team, have shown what they can do by getting to the top of the league.”