James Garner opens up on how he bounced back from the worst injury of his career to become an established starter for Everton, detailing how he copes with the demands in Sean Dyche’s midfield, while revealing what he believes would take him to the “next level”.

By Billy Minshall

Despite it only being January, James Garner has already recorded over twice as many Premier League minutes in the 2023/24 campaign as he did during his debut season at Everton.

A back injury removed the Blues midfielder from Senior Team action between November 2022 and April 2023 – a big blow for the then 21-year-old, keen to impress during his maiden year in the Premier League.

But since being reintroduced to the Toffees’ starting line-up when that season neared its conclusion, Garner has bounced back to become a key player for Everton.

Only James Tarkowski (26) has been handed more starts for Everton this season than Garner (25), who, after overcoming a challenging first 12 months at the Club, says an eagerness to prove his ability led to the injury he endured at the start of 2022/23 to worsen.

“It was a stress response in my lower back,” the midfielder recalls to the Official Matchday Programme.“We were aware of it when I signed in that summer, but it was really minor, so I could carry on.

“It gradually got worse and this was at the point where I’d just got fit. I hadn’t played in the Premier League, and I’d just signed for a big club, so I was raring to go.

“I’d just come off the back of a really good season, so I wanted to prove to Evertonians that I was a good signing. A little niggling injury wasn’t going to stop me. That was what I thought. I wanted to play but I got injured in the cup against Bournemouth and had to be subbed off at half-time. From there, I needed time out to ensure I could fully recover.

“That was a tough time for me because I’d never actually been injured properly. That was my first major injury, and I did everything I could to get back on the pitch.”

“That was a tough time for me because I’d never actually been injured properly. That was my first major injury, and I did everything I could to get back on the pitch.”
"I wasn’t here for ‘gaffer’s day,’ so i don’t know what that consists of. I didn’t ask because i didn’t want to find out!"

Fast forward to December 2023, and a busy festive period proved Garner has become an established force within Sean Dyche’s Everton side. The 22-year- old, through illness, missed just one game (against Newcastle) out of the month’s eight.

Sat in the media room at Finch Farm, the Birkenhead-born Garner jokingly points out that he will have done a lot more running than Tarkowski – the only Everton player with more Premier League minutes than him - before noting that a previous experience helped him to cope with such a strenuous Christmas schedule.

“It’s definitely tough,” Garner says as he begins to reflect on recent weeks. “But I feel like my background of having two years in the Championship definitely helped me prepare for that. And also, the top teams in the league who play in Europe and go deep into cup competitions, they’ll play two or three times a week, so it’s no different. The elite of the league are doing it, so you just have to think like that.

“If the games are really close together [like Villa and Crystal Palace were], then we arein the day after, but it’d be really light and just be all about recovery. We use all of the facilities and the staff and use the right people for what you need. Everything here, in terms of nutrition and recovery, it’s all top level. 

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“For me, usually the day after a game I’m okay. It tends to be the second day that’s difficult. I think if you speak to most players, they’d say the same, that the second day is always the worst. That’s when all the aches and the kicks come through. The day after, especially if it’s a night game, you still have that adrenaline and I’m always okay. It’s that second day when it usually gets to me.”

A Manchester United academy graduate, Garner progressed to the first team, before being loaned out to the Championship with Watford and Nottingham Forest. For Forest, Garner made 61 league appearances between January 2021 and the summer of 2022, when the club secured Premier League promotion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who features so often, and covers the kilometres that he does, Garner appears fairly unstirred when asked about Dyche’s famously tough fitness sessions. Although, he did miss the manager’s renowned ‘Gaffer’s Day’ – a particularly demanding pre-season programme of physical training with no footballs required.

A technically-gifted midfield player, but one who epitomises the work ethic and “hard yards” of the Toffees under Dyche, Garner details the running sessions under the Everton manager at Finch Farm, as he explains: “I’d say the sessions are just normal sessions, really, but they might just feel normal now because I’m used to them.

“He definitely makes sure we do the extra hard yards. For example, if we have a longer week than usual when the games are further apart, then he’ll have us doing more running. But you can see the rewards because having a fit squad is definitely beneficial in this league.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised by [the manager’s sessions] because I prepared myself. I’d heard about the type of manager he is, so I felt ready for what he threw at me. I wasn’t here for ‘Gaffer’s Day,’ because I was with England Under- 21s at the Euros so I don’t know what that consists of. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to find out!

“There’s the bleep test, but other than that, there aren’t loads of other tests. It’s more just standard running to keep you fit. And it’ll depend on what type of running he wants you to do – whether that’s short and sharp and explosive, or hitting maximum speed to make sure your hamstrings are ready to go. It all just depends, really.

“For the bleep test, I’m not sure exactly what the number is, but there is a target that you don’t want to be below. There’s an average, and if you’re above it, then you’re deemed one of the fittest in the squad. I’d say I’m above average!”

The manager’s old-school mentality is something that resonates with Garner, who points to his early learnings at Manchester United as being similarly in touch with the traditional values that he now experiences at Finch Farm. 

“When I was growing up at Carrington you had to wear black boots, and everyone was given the same ones, so you’d all look the same. I can’t speak for any other clubs, but when I came through at United, I feel like how they bring you up as a player and as a young lad and then a man – I feel like I’ve had a really good grounding.

“The manager here is definitely old school in everything he does – ensuring standards are high and rules are met. 

“It’s the old-school feel that he brings to a squad. You can see the benefits how it has helped us have a really strong team spirit and I like the way he’s very straight- talking. You know where you stand.”

Reflecting on 2023, Garner’s rapid progress has been remarkable. From being sidelined through injury in January, the following month he stepped up his return to feature for the Under- 21s while being watched by Dyche, Assistant Manager Ian Woan and Senior-Team Coach Steve Stone.

He started making Dyche’s squads in March – an unused member of the substitutes’ bench, before beginning to be utilised in April, and earning a first start back against Fulham. Playing in the remaining eight games, Garner was an important addition to Everton’s successful push for Premier League survival, and the midfielder has been a mainstay ever since.

Featuring for just 804 league minutes last season, June and July’s Under-21 European Championships arrived at an ideal time for Garner, who labels the Young Lions’ triumph in Romania and Georgia as “the best summer of my life”.

Garner scores his first goal of the season as Everton beat Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup.

Garner scores his first goal of the season as Everton beat Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup.

Garner opens the scoring as the Blues beat Bournemouth 3-0 at Goodison Park.

Garner opens the scoring as the Blues beat Bournemouth 3-0 at Goodison Park.

“That probably couldn’t have come at a better time, really,” he reflects. “I came into the side in the back end of the season, and I think I played seven or eight games. It just wasn’t enough for me.

“I think Fulham was my first start back and I felt comfortable from minute one. I knew that going into the end of the season, there was no time for excuses. I was 100 per cent, so I was ready to go from the minute I was put on. To have almost like an extended season with the European Championships at the end of it, it couldn’t have come at a better time. I think I hit good form at the end of last season, and I think that definitely carried on into the Euros, and that was the best summer of my life so far.” 

Heading into this campaign, Garner - aided by the staff at Finch Farm - makes sure to keep up with the required exercises to avoid any repeat of previous injuries.

“Because of the injury last season, I do extra work on my back and my core to keep that strong and stable,” he says. 

"I think it shows the manager trusts me to do the job… I’m trying to do everything i can to pay him back"

“With the work I did with the staff after my injury because I did those exercises for so long, I kind of just know what to do now.

“In the mornings, I’m doing that and keeping on top of it, working with the top staff we have at the Club to give myself the best chance of staying fit.”

So far, that gym work has paid off. This season, Garner ranks among the top eight in playing time for Premier League midfielders; a similar involvement to key players from other clubs like Declan Rice, Bruno Fernandes and Bruno Guimaraes.

“I think it shows the manager trusts me to do the job,” he says. “Whether that’s in my preferred position or in a different role and doing a job for the team,” says Garner, who adds: “I’m trying to do everything I can to pay him back, but I’m just happy I’m staying fit, really.

“That’s the main thing. Last season, I suffered a major injury, and also on the side had little niggles. I was out for quite a while, so I’m happy that I’m back playing now and I’m 100 per cent every week.”

Motivated to repay the trust shown by Dyche, Garner identifies adding goals and assists to his game as being the next step in his development. He has already netted twice for the Blues this season, and, after recording four goals and eight assists while in his final year at Forest, he is confident the aim of improving his attacking output can be achieved.

“My future aspirations now are to continue starting, but also adding more goals and assists into my game,” says Garner. “I feel like I’ve been a bit hard done by this season with assists, but I think I’ve also had chances where I maybe should’ve scored. I think adding more goals and assists because that would take me to the next level, but also, they can win games. I want to be able to do that for the team.”