Ian Woan exclusive: Everton’s survival, innovative Dyche and how fitness will give an edge

In the lobby of Everton’s plush hotel on Lake Geneva, assistant manager Ian Woan sits back and reflects on a challenging yet productive start to the summer. 

Led by manager Sean Dyche, Everton’s coaching staff have made no secret of their desire to head into the new season as one of the Premier League’s fittest teams. 

It is a worthy goal but one that requires hard yards in training: double sessions in the heat of Evian, France, followed by Dyche’s notorious ‘Gaffer’s Day’ shortly after their return to Merseyside. 

Dyche may be the one leading it all — his fingerprints are clearly all over the squad’s most gruelling start to the summer for some time — but Woan is his trusted lieutenant. The main man tasked with coaching those values and pulling it all together on the pitch. 

Former team-mates at Nottingham Forest, the pair have worked together on the same coaching staff since Dyche’s nascent managerial days at Watford. That was over a decade ago, with the journey since seeing them enjoy considerable success at Burnley before making the short move to Goodison Park midway through last season. 

Once described by former Burnley chairman Barry Kilby as Dyche’s “football wife”, Woan remains as important a pillar in his manager’s set-up as ever. 

“When we first started working together at Watford, he (Dyche) was still young and super keen to be on the training pitch and to do the sessions,” Woan tells The Athletic. “Over the years, he’s definitely learned to delegate. 

“There’s a trust in what I do and can deliver.” 

Woan’s main remit is “delivering sessions” with first-team coach Steve Stone, another former Forest team-mate. Responsibilities for those drills are largely shared out but Woan is “more dominant with coaching and leading”. 

The pair are chalk and cheese. Stone is a man of fewer words and more “abrupt”, while Dyche’s assistant manager tends to be more outgoing and “sympathetic”. Theirs is a contrast of styles but, between them, they are tasked with bringing the overall vision to life on the pitch. 

James Tarkowski speaks with Mark Howard, Woan and Stone (Photo: Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

“The planning is meticulous,” Woan explains. “We have a staff meeting every day at 9am with all the heads of department — usually about 10 of us, including sports science, physio and (interim head of football operations) Jonathan Williams — and training normally starts at 11am if we’re at Finch Farm.

“We go round everyone and find out what’s going on, then the four of us will sit with (head of performance) Mark Howard or (first-team physical performance coach) Jack Downing and go through what we’re after in the session. 

“There’s an element of delivering presentations to the lads. I get together with the analysts to watch games and we put together three or four presentations a week. When I was at Watford, you probably had one analyst and that was your lot. 

“If there’s been a Saturday game, the manager will usually do a debrief on Monday. Come Thursday, it’s presentations with the different units on what we want and the strengths of the opposition. Friday we go through set plays, then there’s a squad meeting Friday afternoon, which I usually deliver, on where we feel we can hurt the opposition. 

“There’s a lot of one-on-one work that goes on, too. Usually, players are a lot more talkative and approachable when you go to them individually. We’re not shy in calling people out but you don’t embarrass people.

“The two of us (Woan and Dyche) can fight like cat and dog but never in front of the staff. I’m pretty opinionated — that’s what I’m there for. Steve is different from the two of us. You’ve got to have different opinions, but you know who the manager is. 

“We’ll have open or heated discussions, but when he makes a decision we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.” 

Woan and Idrissa Gueye (Photo: Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

Hailing from Heswall, on the other side of the River Mersey to Liverpool, and a former academy scholar at Everton, Woan is back where it all began. 

Footballing allegiances may be split in his family, but Everton have been his club ever since his days as a budding teenage footballer in the 1980s. 

“A lot of my family were red but I was at Everton as a kid from 15 or 16,” he says. “My era was 1985-86 — that’s when I was fully into it. (Neville) Southall, (Gary) Stevens, (Kevin) Ratcliffe, (Derek) Mountfield, (Trevor) Steven, (Kevin) Sheedy… I could go through them all.

“But growing up, my idol was always Andy King (whose second spell at Everton ended in 1984). Just his love for football, his talent and edge. I had the absolute pleasure of working under him as a player at Swindon. Then I came back and became his under-18 coach at Swindon. That’s where my coaching path started.”

It is for those reasons that Woan now describes last season’s finale, with Everton’s relegation battle going down to the final game, as the “worst week of his life”.  

“I’ve been around relegation before but I think this was more personal as it was Everton,” he says. “It was tough. Different. We were pretty calm and didn’t change, even though we knew the enormity of the game. We got the goal and I ended up in tears at the end. The fourth official put 10 minutes up and it was the longest 10 minutes of my life!” 

There was a desperation not to have his name associated with Everton’s first relegation in over 70 years.

Woan knows he is at a club steeped in history and passed on some of his insight to Dyche before taking the job. Through that lens, it came as little surprise when Dyche referenced the famous Everton team of the 1980s and his admiration for their traits and spirit. Peter Reid, a key member of that side, was an early visitor to Finch Farm after the former Burnley manager took the reins. 

“We would chat about it all,” Woan says. “I think it’s come as a surprise to the gaffer just how big the club is. 

“You can go anywhere in the world and bump into an Everton fan. I tried to explain to him that your profile as Everton manager is global and there are demands from the fans.” 

Dyche, with Stone and Woan at his side (Photo: Chris Brunskill / Fantasista / Getty Images)

Woan speaks of Dyche’s “very high” standards, a legacy from their time working together at Forest under Brian Clough, where it was all about “doing the basics and giving your lot”.

But there is also a feeling that the Everton manager is unfairly pigeonholed in some quarters; wrongly typecast as a relic from a bygone time. 

“With the gaffer, he’s always fighting against his image,” Woan argues. “You look at him, he’s 6ft 2in, a big ginger skinhead and he’s got a gruff voice, so people pigeonhole him as a 4-4-2, ‘get it down the middle’ manager.  

“He’s a million miles away from that. He’s incredibly thoughtful, forward-looking, trying to push the envelope to find those little inches that make the difference.”

Woan points to the different formations used last season to illustrate his point: 4-3-3 became 4-4-2, with three at the back also used out of necessity in the final weeks of the season.

The suggestion is to expect more of the same this time around, but they are more concerned with principles and structure than formations. 

“We want to be effective,” he says. “We play way more than people think but sometimes that’s good for us. Look at our stats each game — we’re getting two more bodies in the box each game for crosses, and tripled our crosses in games off final third entries. That was a big part of it. 

“You’ve got to be able to deliver that and, to do that, you’ve got to be fit. Those stats are key markers for us. If you’re going to win games, you need to have more shots, crosses, and more bodies in the box but still stay structured behind it. We feel we need to tick those boxes.

“We’ve got to push the boundaries this year and have to be incredibly fit to compete in this division.”

(Top photo: Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

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