In an era when footballers are often accused of being mollycoddled by those around them, it’s refreshing to hear from a player who prefers home truths over adulation.
Andros Townsend knew all about Rafa Benitez’s way of doing things when he jumped at the chance to be reunited with the Spaniard at Everton this summer, and, even though it may not be to every star’s taste, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘His man-management skills, the way he likes to improve his players, are second to none,’ the winger tells Sportsmail.
Andros Townsend (centre) is enjoying a fresh start at Everton after leaving Crystal Palace
The winger is enjoying working under Rafa Benitez (left) for the second time in his career
‘He doesn’t praise you. After I scored against Huddersfield, he doesn’t come in and say “what a great goal”. He’ll say “you didn’t make this run in behind, you didn’t play this pass, you lost the ball so many times, your defensive position wasn’t great.”‘
‘He’s always looking to improve you and I definitely appreciate that style of management.’
The pair only worked together at Newcastle for a couple of months in 2016 – the club’s relegation to the Championship meant Townsend soon left for Crystal Palace – but that was enough time for Benitez to make a lasting impression.
‘He’s somebody who’s not going to fluff you up and give you what you want to hear,’ Townsend adds while speaking at a McDonald’s Fun Football Festival held in Liverpool city centre.
‘He’s going to try and drag every ounce of talent that you have and try to get the best out of you.
‘I’ve always appreciated that type of manager and I couldn’t wait to link up with him again to see how much he can improve me this time.’
Having turned 30 in July and with the last of his 13 England caps having been won almost five years ago, you could be forgiven for wondering how Townsend expects to get better at this stage of his career.
Townsend spoke to Sportsmail while attending a McDonald’s Fun Football Festival in Liverpool
Townsend scores Everton’s winner against Huddersfield in the Carabao Cup last last month
But energised by his move to Everton – ‘one of the most historic clubs in the country’ as he describes it – and with a manager who trusts him, he is looking forward rather than back.
‘You’ve always got a point to prove,’ Townsend insists. ‘I’m at the age now where I know what I can produce.
‘For me, when I signed, I wanted to read all the messages on Twitter and Instagram – most positive but some negative. The negative ones, I needed to use those as motivation to have the good start, hit the ground running and try and prove a lot of people wrong.
‘So far it’s worked and hopefully I can keep using that as inspiration. A lot of the fans now appreciate me and my hard work first and foremost, which is the main thing, and hopefully now I can start adding some goals and assists to really get them behind me.
‘The fans know that I’m dedicated, I’m passionate and I work hard for the team, for the badge, for the cause.
‘Now it’s about working hard in training and trying to improve on a day-to-day basis and I know, already under this manager, that he’ll work tirelessly to mould me into the player he wants me to be.
Townsend has impressed Everton fans with his hard work but now he wants goals and assists
The former Crystal Palace man is mobbed by his team-mates after scoring at Huddersfield
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‘I’ve got that base to work from. I need to improve and show that I’m good enough to play for Everton as a creative player.’
The onus will be on Townsend to do exactly that – if he’s selected – against Burnley tonight, with a win enough to send the Toffees level on points with Manchester United, Chelsea and rivals Liverpool at the top of the league.
It has, so far, been the fast start that Benitez – an unpopular choice among a sizeable section of Evertonians – desperately needed as he looks to prove that a successful transition from Anfield to Goodison Park, albeit with over a decade elsewhere in between, is possible.
The former Valencia boss found himself hamstrung by the Premier League’s profit and loss rules in the transfer market, able to bring in just a handful of players at a total cost of just £1.7million – the lowest spend of any top-flight side last summer.
But Townsend, himself a free transfer after his Palace contract expired, is confident that the current crop are still capable of challenging for Europe despite the club being subjected to relative austerity when compared to the lavish spending of Farhad Moshiri’s first five years at the helm.
‘This is an ambitious group,’ he says. ‘Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve talked about the mentality and not getting carried away after one result.
‘On the Friday before we played Leeds, the manager called us all in and said “yes, you’ve won one game but it’s only one game, don’t get carried away, Leeds are a good team”. He really gave us a rallying talk and the players thrived off that.
Townsend takes advice from Benitez, who he first worked under at Newcastle back in 2016
The ex-England winger will get his second taste of Goodison against Burnley on Monday night
‘Going back to last season and the money spent, this team finished 10th but they were in the European places for three quarters of the season. We’re not talking about a side who were way off the Europa League or even the Champions League places.
‘We’ve not really lost many players – it’s still the same core of players with a different manager. This team is not far off.
‘It didn’t need wholesale changes this summer, it just needed one or two additions which the manager has done and now this group of players can really attack the season and see if we can break into the places that everyone at the club feels we should be in.’
Two players Townsend feels will be key to his new side’s hopes of success are Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ben Godfrey, who could both feature against the Clarets this evening after recent issues.
‘As a winger, he’s a dream striker,’ Townsend says of Calvert-Lewin, who has scored in each of Everton’s three league games this season despite playing through the pain barrier with a toe injury.
‘He’s physical, he can hold the ball up… if the ball gets played into him he can handle himself around the top defenders.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, pictured celebrating at Brighton, is a ‘dream’ striker for Townsend
Townsend says Ben Godfrey is the ‘real deal’ and will go on to play for England regularly
‘If you get balls in the right areas then he’s going to dominate his man with his physicality and he’s going to get his head on the end of them.
‘For me he’s the perfect No 9 for Everton, and the way we want to play this season.’
Asked which one of his new team-mates had impressed him most at Finch Farm, Townsend didn’t hold back in his praise of player who is still waiting for his first taste of action this season following a frustrating period of Covid isolation.
‘The one player who does stick out is Ben Godfrey,’ Townsend admits.
‘Obviously I played against him last season and he’s got massive potential, but seeing him on a day-to-day basis, he really is the real deal.
‘Again, with a manager like Rafa who will work hard to improve him, he can really go to the very top.
‘I know he was involved in the England setup in the summer and didn’t quite make the squad, but he’s a player who’s definitely going to go right to the very top sooner rather than later – and by very top I mean playing in major tournaments for England.’
And what of James Rodriguez, the superstar who made a shock move to Merseyside last year, but now finds himself trying to force his way into Benitez’s good books after failing to seal a move away?
Townsend would relish the chance to play with James Rodriguez after he failed to seal a move
‘He’s a fantastic player,’ says Townsend.
‘Everyone knows what James can do. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with him in the pre-season games. He’s still at the club and he’s fully focused.
‘He’s trained really hard during the international break as we all have and we’re all looking forward to seeing what we can achieve this season. James is no different.
‘I’m sure when the time is right, when the manager feels… he’ll be reintegrated back into the squad and back into the team.’
Under the lights against Burnley may be too soon for that, but the game could give Townsend the chance to score his first goal at Goodison in a royal blue shirt.
So, how does banging in one of his trademark, 30-yard stunners at the Gwladys Street end tonight sound?
‘That would be a dream come true. When you sign and you go to sleep at night, you dream about scoring the worldie goals in front of the home fans.’
Who knows, even Benitez might congratulate him on one of those.
Townsend won Goal of the Season for this spectacular volley against Manchester City in 2018
TOWNSEND ATTENDS McDONALD’S FUN FOOTBALL FESTIVAL IN LIVERPOOL
Andros Townsend is supporting McDonald’s Fun Football. Free sessions for 5–11-year-olds are available nationwide this autumn. Visit www.mcdonalds.co.uk/funfootball to sign up and play
Registrations for McDonald’s Fun Football from new players have leapt 111 per cent following England’s run to the final of Euro 2020.
Asked how Gareth Southgate and his players are helping drive grassroots participation while attending a McDonald’s Fun Football Festival held in Liverpool city centre earlier this month, former Three Lions star Townsend said: ‘The current crop are really relatable to youngsters these days.
‘Social media has helped, with young kids seeing that these guys are just normal people just like anyone else.
Townsend and Liverpool star Nat Phillips pose with local kids at the McDonald’s event
‘Ten years ago, before social media (was a big thing) and I was growing up, you seemed worlds away from your David Beckhams and your Ashley Coles because you didn’t see them on a day-to-day basis.
‘You only saw them on a Saturday and you thought they were these superstars that you could never get anywhere near.
The fact they are more relatable, they are playing PlayStation… you think ‘wow, they’re just like me, they’re normal people’. It definitely gives you more belief that you can be them in the future.
‘That’s the best thing about this current generation, they’re inspiring these youngsters – like the kids that are here today – and the next generation.’
The Everton winger turned ‘keeper to help promote McDonald’s’ free football sessions