Branch profits from his roots

Norman Fox studies Everton's star pupil who was taught well at Lilleshall
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The Independent Online
Joe Royle was proud of being the youngest player to appear for Everton at Goodison Park. 'Was' is the operative word. He lost the record last month when he selected Michael Branch, a 17-year-old, to appear against Middlesbrough. Eighteen last Friday, the willowy Branch is expected to achieve another landmark in his short career by playing in today's Merseyside derby at Anfield, not only fulfilling the dream of any young Liverpool- born footballer but allowing the Football Association some "told you so" pleasure.

Branch is a product of the FA's National School. Although part-time courses had been run at Lilleshall since the early 1950s, the concept of a boarding school for young players was not well received. The old school-of-hard- knocks professionals reckoned there was not much you could teach kids before they got involved in a "man's game", and it seemed unlikely that creaming off a few of the most promising young players would do anything more than cut them off from the real world even earlier. As for academic work, it was assumed that Lilleshall would be like some American universities that conveniently ignore that responsibility.

Yet Lilleshall has produced many more current full international England squad members and under-21s than anyone predicted, and the boarding school atmosphere has seen a high proportion exceed all expecations academically. Nick Barmby, Andy Cole, Ian Walker, Sol Campbell and Trevor Sinclair are among the most conspicuous current "graduates" while Wimbledon's Ben Thatcher (captain of the under-21s), Jody Morris (Chelsea), Emile Heskey (Leicester City) and Branch are the pick of the youngest former pupils currently in first team squads.

Keith Blunt, the technical director, said that while sending out players almost ready for Premiership duty is all very satisfying, the school really felt it had justified its existence two years ago when the successful England Under-16 team included 10 of their students. The main problem with the original idea of a school of excellence was that it took on too many kids who had no club links, resulting in constant inducements. Now that all of the boarders have club connections before they arrive, the problem is eased, although there have been a few cases of youngsters succumbing to the offers of rival clubs.

Branch was never swayed. He always knew that he wanted to be an Evertonian. A 5ft 9in, 11 stone striker, he has appeared for England at four different age group levels, scoring 11 goals in 27 matches. He left Lilleshall so advanced for his age that Everton allowed him to make his first appearance against, of all teams, Manchester United at Old Trafford last February. He played two further games before becoming a regular member of the first team squad this season, though admittedly injuries to senior players have upgraded him more quickly than Royle intended.

Blunt said: "We don't claim to be responsible for someone like Michael, but when you get players of his age coming through as early as that, you would like to think the school has played its part. Michael came in with a very big reputation as a player with outstanding potential. When he left we knew he had. It's a great thrill for all of us, but he's still developing. He's the first to say he's got a lot to learn, but he has the outstanding qualities of pace and aggression that make him very exciting. Everton have a great opportunity to improve his weaknesses, but when I watched him with the Under-21s recently his techniques had improved. He's got an enormous appetite for the game; a fantastic attitude to improvement. He's a very intense boy."

Obviously Everton see Branch as a likely long-term answer to Liverpool's Robbie Fowler and a short-term hope to pull them through their injury problems. Royle gave his encouragement by involving him in first-team training last season when Duncan Ferguson was injured but insisted that he went back to second and third team football and carried on cleaning the boots of the senior players. He was concerned about the dangers of premature publicity.

"I knew he was exciting to watch, but we had to remember that he was still a first-year trainee on a YTS scheme," Royle said. "His temperament was what impressed me." As had that of another National School graduate, Jon O'Connor. And Royle has no intention of letting Branch slip away like Fowler and Steve McManaman, who, when knee-high to a corner flag, were linked with Everton before they took a walk across the park and straight through the gates of Anfield.