When Sylvain Distin signed for Everton in 2009, he was 31 years old and seemed to have been knocking around mid to lower range Premier League teams like Newcastle United, Portsmouth and pre-Abu Dhabi Manchester City for ages. At best, the £5m transfer fee appeared to have bought a squad player who would do little to move the club to the next level; at worst, it brought a player looking to top up his pension as he coasted to retirement. What did we know?
That three year contract has been extended by two more years and who is to say that another 12 months isn’t on the cards, despite the Frenchman turning 36 on Monday 16 December. The big man has lost none of his pace, none of his positioning skills and none of his strength – and he looks as fit as ever, his record number of Premier League appearances for a foreign outfielder pushing on towards the 450 mark, as he looks after himself very well.
All highly commendable, but what makes Sylvain Distin extra special are two characteristics that can only be observed rather than known – at least from the outside.
The Martinez Project has challenged the centre-back to add to his game very late in his career. All eleven Everton players must be willing and able to give a pass and take a pass in 2013-14 – there is no hiding place, no alehouse ball pumped from back to front, no Row Z as an option. Everyone knew that the reason Distin did not have a single international cap – not one! – was his distribution. He was an old-fashioned stopper, without much of a right foot and, if truth be told, without much of a left foot either. Opposition managers knew this and pressed nine Everton players and left one – you guessed it – free to receive possession and start the attacking plays. Early season matches – remember all those 0-0s? – showed that the big Number 15 was less comfortable than either of his bomb-forward full-backs or his midfield convert centre-back and captain with this discipline. But Distin has learned, improved and grown into The Martinez Project – the humility of an intelligent and thoughtful man shining through.
Which leads me to the second aspect of Distin’s work for which Evertonians must be grateful. His arrival coincided with Phil Jagielka’s rise to prominence as one of the Premier League’s most consistent centre-backs, recognised by a growing number of England caps. A captain at Manchester City and Portsmouth, Distin is used to working with younger players, finding the right word for them on and off the field. How much influence he has in the dressing room cannot be known from my perspective, but if a young player isn’t listening to M. Distin, they’re not listening to anyone.
When he does hang up his boots, I hope he stays on the staff – but, for now, Bonne Anniversaire Monsieur et Merci Beaucoup!