As Jonjoe Kenny remembers the sights and smells that defined his childhood it is tempting, more so at a time such as this, to close your eyes and travel back with him. He can tell what, with a few bumps here and there, is the textbook story of a local boy made good, and Everton games were the focal points throughout. Kenny grew up in Kirkdale, virtually on the doorstep of Goodison Park, and the glimpse of a buzzing County Road brought the kind of sensory assault that would leave thousands pining today.
“It’s about a five-minute walk round the corner,” Kenny says. “On matchdays going to the stadium it was always busy in our area. The chippies were packed, the pubs were packed, and when you’re walking to the game through it all there’s no better feeling. As a kid growing up, it was such a big thing.”
Many months will pass before youngsters hoping to follow in Kenny’s footsteps, which ultimately led to Everton’s first team, can feel the same immersion. But football is feeling its way towards a return and Kenny will be among the first to experience its new, hopefully transient, form. He is enjoying what has been something of a breakthrough season on loan at Schalke. The Bundesliga will return in closed-doors guise from 16 May and, while that might feel strange, it at least means his momentum can continue relatively unchecked.
“I wanted to come here to prove a point to people, but also to myself,” says Kenny, who has established himself as David Wagner’s regular right-back and banished the frustration of featuring sporadically at Everton. “I don’t want to be a player who plays a couple of games and does well. I wasn’t happy to be sitting on the bench, or part of the team when I wasn’t playing. I want to play football and express what I’ve got.”
He has succeeded thanks in no small part to Wagner’s influence. As he rose through the Everton ranks, playing 40 times since his debut in May 2016, he became known as a capable, aggressive player who could work the flank effectively. But he has unlocked a more expressive side under the former Huddersfield manager, for whom he has started all but two league games.
“I knew I could get forward and show what I’ve got up the field as well. He gave me the confidence to do that and make different kinds of run, not just straight down the line, and it all just came together. I just needed to have the belief that I could get up there and deliver more chances.”
Kenny’s incursions have been a familiar feature of the Bundesliga’s sixth-placed side. His confidence had taken a hit during 2018-19, when Marco Silva afforded him only eight league starts. “I wasn’t performing as I wanted when I arrived here, in pre-season, so you think a lot, ‘Do people think I’m good?’, and all these things go through your head.” Things started to click, he thinks, in a friendly against Villarreal and the settling-in process was essentially complete when he scored an exceptional goal against Hertha Berlin on his fourth official appearance.
“I was always a homebird,” he says of the adjustment it took to step out of a life that, for so long, had been steeped in Everton. “I always wanted to stay at home with family and I wasn’t massive on going away on long trips when I was younger. Even though I’ve been on a lot with England [at youth levels], it wasn’t my favourite thing to do. But I haven’t been home for four months now and it changes you as a person. Not everything is easy and that’s exactly what I needed to progress: to come out of my comfort zone, learn a new language, learn how new people work.
“You have to adapt to what surrounds you. It wasn’t like: ‘I’m a scouser, and if you aren’t scouse I don’t want to speak to you.’ I found it was great to meet different personalities, different people, and get involved with everyone else.”
He has been pleasantly surprised at the progress in his German-speaking skills and it is no surprise that Schalke would like him to become part of the furniture. Links with other English sides have also sprung up, with Arsenal among those mentioned.
In an ideal world, you sense, he would like to continue his childhood fairytale. “It was perfect, the way it went for me when I was younger,” he says of that path from the nearby streets to the Goodison pitch. Occasionally the extent of it all would strike. “Being a home boy from Liverpool, born blue, you’re always going to feel a bit of pressure.” Criticism from the stands would sting but his slow progress owed more to the presence of Séamus Coleman, once a role model and now a good friend, ahead of him.
It would be tough, even if potentially necessary, to sever ties at 23. He recalls difficult times in academy football, such as feelings of envy when other players were pushed up an age group. “But you’re only a kid, only a baby really, so it’s a lot of demand on you.”
He was among a decorated crop who all “just loved the club”. Among them was Kieran Dowell, with whom he forged a formidable right-sided partnership in England’s Under-20 World Cup win three years ago. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who had joined them from Sheffield United aged 19, scored the winner against Venezuela in the final; the pair are close and Kenny has enjoyed watching the striker’s towering form under Carlo Ancelotti.
“He’s always had everything really,” he says. “He looks a lot bigger and stronger now. The big thing was that he used to do a lot of running off the ball when he was younger, an unlimited amount of running into the channels. You’ve got to go into those areas but I think he’s learning that, to be at his best, he doesn’t have to make runs for the sake of it. He’s making clever runs.”
In part, he talks about Calvert-Lewin with such relish because he believes there are parallels with him. “He’s another player who has a lot of belief in himself, so it wasn’t really anything to worry about when he got a bit of stick,” Kenny says.
Kenny is speaking before the confirmation that Schalke’s return to action will be the small matter of a visit to Borussia Dortmund. He misses the supporters, while accepting there are “much more important things going on”, and enjoys the close-knit feel of the Gelsenkirchen club, whose earthiness reminds him of Everton. In the space of a few weeks he will have progressed from bingeing on Game of Thrones during lockdown to the oddly watered-down tension of this year’s first Revierderby, via physically distanced training sessions and regular health checks.
“I was ready, and would say I’d been ready for a long time,” he says of his attitude when boarding the plane to Germany last June. Now he aims to show it all over again.