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Leighton Baines was the free-kick maestro and a cool local lad Everton fans will miss

It has now been a quarter of a century since Everton last won a major competition when Paul Rideout’s header shocked Manchester United to win the FA Cup.

In the 25 years that has since passed, Everton supporters have had precious little to shout about, as a long overdue trophy for one of Britain’s biggest clubs continues to evade them all too easily.

Nine league championships, five FA Cups and a European Cup-Winners’ Cup in the cabinet already, there are already plenty of legends that have gone down in Toffees folklore from the likes of pre-war striking sensation Dixie Dean to late 20th century keeper Neville Southall who have been part of the many glory years.

So it speaks highly of Leighton Baines’ popularity among Evertonians that despite being unable to help them land silverware, he is a snug fit among the Everton legends of the past following his retirement on Sunday. He gave 13 years service to the club – 420 games, 39 goals and 67 assists – not bad for a defender.

His links with the club and the area go back even further than 2007 though. The 35-year-old was born in Kirkby in Merseyside, grew up as a passionate Everton supporter and was part of their youth system as a teenager before departing for Wigan.

He broke into a Latics team on the rise and within three seasons had secured two promotions that fired them into the Premier League for the first time ever.

Against many’s expectations, Wigan established themselves in the top flight relatively easily and Baines’ contributions at left-back in their first two years led to Everton bringing him back to Goodison Park for around £6million. Evidence that the Toffees could once pick out a bargain.

After struggling to find a regular staring berth, Baines soon made the left-back position his own and in his early years at the club forged a devastating partnership with Steven Pienaar who featured on the left flank.

It was arguably the best in the Premier League and their link-up play so often resulted in Baines whipping in a cross that any Toffees attacker would happily gobble up from inside the box, such was his accuracy.

Even after Pienaar moved on Baines was still just as integral attacking the left side but he was a goalscorer too, most notably from free-kicks. Toffees supporters still relish a match at West Ham in 2013 when from two central free-kicks he picked out both top corners in a 3-2 win.

He was just as cool from 12 yards, becoming the first ever Premier League player to have a perfect record from the penalty spot after taking more than 10 spot-kicks.

The personal accolades rolled in to reflect his status as one of the best full-backs in the country. In 2012 he was the first Everton player since Southall in 1990 to feature in the PFA Team of the Year, before then featuring in the next season too.

He was loved by supporters, being voted Everton’s Player of the Year in 2011 and 2013, as well as his team-mates who did likewise with the Players’ Player of the Year in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Although his influence has gradually declined in the last couple of seasons – just 17 appearances in total, his last goal scored in December was typically one that will be long remembered by supporters. In his first start of the season against Leicester in the Carabao Cup, he scored a spectacular equaliser from 25 yards that flew into the top corner and caused Goodison Park to erupt for one last time at his brilliance.

Following his retirement he holds the record for the most Premier League goals contributed by a defender with 85 – (32 goals, 53 assists).

International recognition did come calling with England and were it not for the unfortunate circumstance of playing at his peak at around the same time as Ashley Cole he could have picked up more than his already highly respectable 30 caps.

Yet, Baines struggled to establish himself in an England shirt in his five years at international level, not helped by being part of the side that infamously were dumped out of the 2014 World Cup at the group stage without winning a game.

His struggles at that level are less of a surprise since he opened up about being homesick shortly after his 2010 debut when he said: ‘Everyone wants to be a part of England, to come away and play, but I have always found it really hard, even when I was a teenager, being away from home. I have always struggled with it, that’s quite tough.’

Far from damaging his reputation though, the 2014 World Cup revealed the cool side to Baines’ persona when he was often seen walking around with a guitar slung on his back as part of his desire to learn a musical instrument.

He can be often spotted hanging around indie music darlings such as Miles Kane as and the Arctic Monkeys. He even wrote a music blog on Everton’s website.

None of it was as a front for attention seeking either. Baines is anything but that. He cannot be found on social media and is happy to travel around Merseyside via local transport to help spend the time on another hobby, photography.

He told Sportsmail in 2016: ‘You walk round town and people know who you are and then you get a bit embarrassed.

‘Part of the embarrassment is that they don’t know the picture you are taking is a load of crap but I do! I have no confidence in that.

‘There is no feeling that I am good at it because I am really not. In the past I wouldn’t have even wanted to talk about this. So maybe that’s progress…’ 

His down-to-earth persona and sticking to his Merseyside roots has made him a rare breed among today’s stars in being able to connect and understand his fanbase. From giving supporters lifts to friendlies and helping out with community initiatives, nothing was beneath him. 

He could connect with the fans and they could connect with him, the only difference between them was his given talent made him good enough to proudly represent Everton as well as his country for the majority of his career.

It should not just be Everton fans lamenting the retirement of a player, who typically made little fuss ahead of hanging up his boots.

Supporters around the country should also recognise Baines as one of the country’s best ever left-backs on the pitch, and one of the most relatable and likeable characters off it.

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