Leon Osman interview: 'If I hit a brick wall, I try to find a way around it'

As he prepares to make his 400th appearance for Everton, Leon Osman tells Simon Hart how he used to envy Francis Jeffers, that his unequal leg lengths nearly derailed his career, and how managers Moyes and Martinez are polar opposites

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The Independent Online

It seems a little hard today to imagine Leon Osman envying Francis Jeffers anything. Osman, after all, is poised to cap his testimonial year with his 400th Everton appearance against West Ham United this afternoon. Jeffers, by contrast, is finished as a footballer, his career – as he acknowledged in The Independent last week – a cautionary tale.

Yet as young men making their way in the game at Everton it was a different story. Where Jeffers, four months the elder, was scoring Premier League goals at 18, Osman saw his development stalled by a series of injuries and operations, six in all. It is a comparison that comes up as he reflects on the slow-burning success of his top-flight career and remembers the fortitude needed during a three-year period in which seven of his 1998 FA Youth Cup-winning colleagues played for the first team before him.

“I was jealous of Franny being in the first team and everything that goes with it,” says Osman, who waited until the month of his 23rd birthday for his first Everton start. “I was jealous of it all but looking back now I wouldn’t swap the way things went. Maybe making me wait for it made me hungrier. Having come up against a brick wall a couple of times maybe some players would have lost hope and given up, but if I come up against a brick wall I try to find a way around it.”

Osman’s recollection of this period in the newly published Ossie: My Autobiography provides not just a lesson about the value of patience and perseverance but also the revelation that his troubles were all down to the fact his left leg is “three or four centimetres” longer than the right.

 

When the great Brazilian Garrincha graced Goodison at the 1966 World Cup, the fact he had one leg shorter than the other enhanced his mystique. For a kid from Skelmersdale, it was rather different. Osman, riddled with worry, did not tell Everton until after the second of four cartilage operations (there were others to his ankle and anterior cruciate ligament).

“I’m pretty sure it’s the root of all the injury problems I had,” explains Osman, 33, who now wears a specially moulded platform inside his right boot. “I didn’t understand the workings of a football club back then; I didn’t know that a club maybe would help me out and I certainly didn’t want to take the risk – the club may have said, ‘He’s not worth it’. It was only when I started having serious issues and the club showed they would do everything to help me that I realised how silly I’d been.”

Osman pulls back the hood from his coat when stepping into the BBC Radio Merseyside building in Liverpool for our interview but he hardly lights up the place with a starry presence. A low-maintenance, one-club man, he was once told by John Terry during a match that Jose Mourinho was an admirer – “I don’t know to this day whether he was just trying to throw me off my game,” Osman says – but this versatile, creative midfielder has had to work harder than most for the kind of wider appreciation that came with his England debut two years ago this week.

There are no regrets that that door closed almost as fast as it opened (“I look back at it now as something I am very proud of”) but he does suggest his qualities – the quick feet, nimble movement and swift thinking which compensate for his lack of pace and power – have only come into vogue recently. “[In the] early 2000s it was a very physical game and then Spain went and showed that small, technical players can win you World Cups. Only after that did people maybe see me and what I can bring to the team.”

His struggle for recognition is reflected by the terms of the pay rise he was offered at Everton after his breakthrough season in 2004-05 – a jump from £3,000 to £6,000 a week, but with his £3,000 appearance bonus removed. It is a detail included in his impressively candid book, in which he sought to “show things that the fans don’t see”.

This includes criticism of Tim Cahill’s powers of self-promotion, which has caused a stir among Evertonians. Osman accused the Australian, who had flown in from New York, of gatecrashing David Moyes’ Goodison farewell when he followed the Scot and the departing Phil Neville on to the pitch after the May 2013 match against West Ham. It is hardly a hatchet job. “We all joked about it with him that night,” says Osman, who still considers Cahill the best player he has played with. “He affected the game at both ends. He wasn’t technically the best but he really did affect the game.”

As for the two managers he has worked under at Everton, Moyes and Roberto Martinez, Osman says their methods come from “opposite ends of the spectrum”. He gives this example: “I am not saying which is right because they’ve both got their merits but let’s take Ross Barkley. Martinez wants to heap praise on him and make his confidence soar; Moyes didn’t want him to get carried away and wanted him [to] go out and show the manager how good he could be. It’s just two different methods to get the best out of a player.”

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Osman in action for Everton against Arsenal

Osman is keen to point out that Everton under Moyes “played some fantastic football, we just didn’t start from the back”, yet his reflections on the day Martinez’s Wigan Athletic won their 2013 FA Cup quarter-final at Goodison are revealing about his old manager’s more cautious mindset. “[The players] were devastated and were thinking about what went wrong. We went over it and said, ‘What do you remember from the team meeting before?’ and someone said the gaffer was saying, ‘Don’t choke, don’t choke’. I’m not saying that’s the reason but it’s the thing that stuck in people’s minds. It was as if it was ours to lose rather than us having to go and win it.” That afternoon ended with Osman and Leighton Baines discussing their admiration of Martinez. “He outmanoeuvred us that day and we wondered what it would be like to work with a guy like that.”

Now they know, and it has given Osman – who played every league game last term – a new lease of life. “I didn’t even realise it at the time but it is something I needed, not just for my football play but for my learning about the game. It has been great to experience that and I haven’t even had to move clubs to do it.”

With a recently signed contract extension until May 2016, Osman believes his late start means he still has more to offer. “I wasn’t subject to rigorous demands at a young age and, mentally and physically, I feel I’ve a few more years left. If I’ve learnt enough about the game and can mentally spot moments and find positions on the pitch to show my ability, the physicality shouldn’t matter.”

And he hopes there remains time to fulfil his ambition of winning a trophy. “We have come close a couple of times, getting far in Europe, FA Cup final, FA Cup semi-finalists. We have been capable for the last seven or eight years of winning something and we’ve now got to make it a reality.”

First comes today’s meeting with West Ham. It is an opportunity for Everton, 10th in the Premier League but unbeaten in six matches in all competitions, to move within a point of the fourth-placed Hammers. “This Premier League at the minute is wide open and if we manage three wins on the run we won’t be far off,” adds Osman, a man who knows all about playing the long game.

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