If things had turned out how they should have done for Jose Baxter it is unlikely that he would have ever been a Plymouth Argyle player. Once the second-youngest player to ever start a Premier League game, big things were expected of him.
However, just a handful of games for Everton and a series of poor decisions later, Baxter found himself with two suspensions for drug use in the space of just nine months. As his blossoming career spun out of control, he struggled with mental health issues and depression, at one point contemplating suicide as a way out.
Fortunately for Baxter, whilst he would never hit the heights that many had predicted for him, he managed to turn his life and his career around. After hitting what he described as ‘rock bottom’, he rebuilt his career with the help of Everton chairman Bill Kenright who allowed him to train at the club whilst he regained his fitness and looked for a new team to play for. Oldham Athletic would be that club and after a season with the Latics he signed for Plymouth Argyle on a free transfer as one of Ryan Lowe’s summer signings.
Despite question marks still hanging over Baxter, and most notably his fitness, it is clear to see the talent he has. He’s an exciting midfielder that can pass, dribble and shoot and he has already endeared himself to the Argyle faithful. Nonetheless, probably wary of his chequered past and with question marks hanging over his fitness, Lowe only offered the midfielder a six-month contract, a deal that runs out this January.
He was optimistic when the signing was announced, proclaiming that “once we get Jose Baxter up to speed and firing on all cylinders, then he’s going to take the roof off this place”. The problem is that he hasn’t got up to speed yet.
Baxter was recommended to Ryan Lowe by former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill. With over 200 Premier League appearances, and having captained both Everton and the Australian national team, Cahill is sure to know what it takes to play at the centre of midfield. A high recommendation indeed.
Former Oldham manager Paul Scholes is also believed to have been impressed by Baxter during his short spell at Oldham. Lowe himself should also be aware of what Baxter can do as well, with the midfielder producing an excellent performance in spite of his own team losing 3-1 to Bury last season.
Baxter’s obvious talent
On the pitch, Baxter has also, by and large, looked the part. He’s comfortably one of the best passers in the team, ranking as the midfielder with the second-highest passing accuracy, only behind Conor Grant, and the player completing the most passes per-90 minutes in the entire team.
Additionally, only Danny Mayor completes as more dribbles per-90 minutes (Adam Randell and Billy Clarke are excluded from these rankings due to their lack of minutes).
When he’s played, Baxter has looked like an important cog in the Argyle engine. He may have only scored once and is yet to assist a goal, but it is worth noting that he has only started five games this season, while half of his minutes have come from defensive midfield.
However, therein lies the counter-argument. Unfortunately, Baxter is rarely on the pitch. For all of his pedigree and potential, his midfield fundamentals and the excitement he brings, he doesn’t grace the pitch as often as many would like. He has only made three starts in the league this season after more than sixteen games have been played. The harsh reality is, he’s spent more time off the pitch than on it.
Is he worth the risk?
At the time of writing Baxter hasn’t appeared for the club in a month, when he came on as a substitute for the last half-hour away to Swindon in early October – a game which he helped to turnaround, it’s worth adding. He last started a game in September and therefore, it’s only fair to ask, whether or not he’s worth keeping at the club.
When he signed, Lowe was adamant that he’d be rewarded with a long term contract, but as January gets closer and Argyle’s form is still short of the expected, the money may be better spent elsewhere, on a player that can take to the pitch more often.
There’s little doubting Baxter’s potential. The consensus amongst Argyle fans appears to be that in Baxter, Argyle have one of League Two’s better midfielders even if he is yet to fully show it, which makes the impending decision for Lowe that much more difficult.
Ultimately, if the physio team don’t envisage his minutes increasing in the second half of the season, you could argue it’s only right he finds another club in the spring. In the same breath though, you have to wonder whether or not there’s a suitable replacement loitering around on a free in January – it’s unlikely. Would it be worth signing a downgrade on Baxter based on the fact that he would actually be fit enough to play?
The case for and against Baxter is an interesting one and a fine balancing act of potential talent, glimpses of it shown, and availability. It’s an age-old footballing cliche. With Baxter though, I think it’s best to hold out and see what happens.
Give him the benefit of the doubt and stick with him for the entire season. You can question Baxter’s fitness record, but you can’t question the player’s strength of character. When he was at his lowest, he recovered and therefore, I’m sure some injury niggles won’t hold him back now.
It would appear that he has the talent that I expected would be hard to find in League Two even with a transfer fee, so I see little point in throwing it away for the sake of six more months. Extend Baxter’s contract, get the boy fit and let him carry us up the table.