It takes more than a faint heart to yell Liverpool to victory against Everton in a Wembley FA Cup final, then proceed to build yourself into one of the most appreciated players at Goodison Park. It's OK though. Leon Osman is the man who has done both and when you consider what his 17 Everton years have dealt him, you will know that a faint heart he is not.
First, that little-known Wembley story; an appropriate one to tell as Osman and Everton embark on a massive eight days, which conclude with their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United next Sunday but start with the customary spring-time tussle for a Uefa Cup place with Aston Villa in the Midlands tomorrow. Until the day he signed schoolboy terms with Everton, Osman was a Liverpool fan and a rabid one at that. John Barnes and Peter Beardsley (another player who had feet in both camps) adorned the posters pinned to his bedroom wall and the journey to Wembley in May 1989 with his father, Derek, another red, to see Liverpool win 3-2 in one of the most pulsating finals of all time, lives with him still. "The Ian Rush half-volley [five minutes into extra-time] and Barnes set up the winner..." Such are the memories.
But allegiances can change quickly when the football scouts come calling. Osman was back at Wembley again six years later, only this time it was Everton he was roaring on, in 1995, since when the club have never been back to a stadium of that name. He had signed schoolboy forms a week before the final and travelled as a member of the club to see Paul Rideout's winner against United. "They took all us schoolboys to see the final," the 27-year-old remembers now. "We had a bus for under 14s and 15s. Hibbo [Tony Hibbert, who has shared Osman's journey through the ranks to the first team] was there, Franny Jeffers, Richard Dunne and Michael Ball as well, I think. It was great of the club to take us all down."
The teenage Osman must have thought no obstacle could impede him that day. One of the most talented young midfielders of his generation on Merseyside, he was the subject of attention from Liverpool, too, and David Moyes owes it to the late scout Arthur Stephens that Everton spotted him first, playing for Oldham Athletic, a year after the Latics had picked him out from Skelmersdale under-8s. Born in Wigan and raised in nearby Skelmersdale, 13 miles north of Liverpool, he was just 10 when he first arrived at Everton.
A youngster can get torn between the two clubs: just ask Jamie Carragher who, having joined Liverpool's youth set-up, was tempted to try his beloved Everton but soon hot-footed it back. Though Osman, a Kop season-ticket holder like his father, had also packed into Anfield for Merseyside derbies, he knew where he belonged when he arrived at Everton. "A couple of my friends were at this club and once I arrived I fell in love with it," he recalls. "My dad told me: 'Liverpool want to know if you want to go over there. Do you fancy it?' But I told him: 'I'm alright where I am.' This was good enough for me."
It was on one of the first big nights of his career, though, that Osman was on the receiving end of the tackle which began what was to be a five-year struggle in which the odds of him joining the Everton firmament often looked slim. He was playing against Blackburn in the first leg of the 1998 FA Youth Cup final that Everton won (he started alongside Dunne and Danny Cadamarteri; Hibbert was a substitute) when, having scored the dipping 15-yard volley which completed a 3-1 win, he hurt his right knee in a tackle 10 minutes from the end. "On the bus on the way back it swelled up and by the time I got off the bus I couldn't walk," he recalls. He missed the second leg, which saw Everton lift the trophy, so beginning three seasons of frustrations and fears as he failed to get over the injury. First he was told he had nicked his cartilage and needed surgery. But three months later, the knee was still not right. More treatment and still it felt wrong. "I just never recovered," Osman remembers. "Because I was struggling with my knee I was going over on my ankle all the time." Eventually, a local surgeon's opinion was sought and an exploratory operation found that the entire cruciate ligament had frayed to nothing. "They said I must have frayed the cruciate in that initial tackle and that I'd been playing without one for three years," Osman says. "I didn't blame the doctors. I was relieved in a way because I'd believed all along that it hadn't been right."
Surgery resolved it but Osman's battles were not done. He had fallen three years behind his own Everton intake and David Moyes, whose arrival from Preston North End coincided with the all-important diagnosis at Liverpool's Fairfield Hospital, sent him on loan to Carlisle United, then in the depths of Division Two. It was an eye-opener; training on a patch of land at the back of Brunton Park and doing fitness work at a local gym. Did he fear, as many would, that he might never make it back from this hinterland? "No," he says. "I made my league debut there. It was the first time I had been turning out on a Saturday afternoon 3 o'clock kick-off. I loved it and I felt quite comfortable doing it. I didn't feel that was my limit."
Osman's attempts to prove himself to Moyes, once back at Goodison, have a touch of the tragic-comic about them. He first made a Moyes bench against the odds at White Hart Lane in January 2003 after Richard Wright injured himself in the warm-up. Goalkeeper Espen Baardsen was brought in and Osman, making up the numbers on the bus, was told to get his kit on. "I got changed as quick as I could and ran out for a one-minute warm-up. You've never seen anything like it. I was doing star jumps all over the place." He got two minutes at the end and "one little flick-on with my head," he remembers. And then there was his late arrival from the bench as the League Cup fourth round tie with Middlesbrough went into extra-time, nearly a year later. "The penalties came and no-one put their hand up so I put mine up," he says. "I thought: 'If I score I've got a chance.' I was the only person to miss and we got knocked out. I was devastated." So there was to be no immediate Everton career – only another loan spell, this time at Derby County, where George Burley's appreciation of Osman finally helped him into Moyes' thoughts on his return to Merseyside.
"[Moyes] said: 'Well done, I believe you've done well.' I said: 'Thank you very much.' And that was it," is how Osman recalls the conversation. Some players might expect more from a manager but that is Moyes for you. The manager's career contours at Goodison have followed his own and Osman perhaps understands him better than any of the Everton squad. "Maybe," Osman says. "I certainly understand what he wants and what he means. Some people who join the club don't understand the David Moyes way of playing." That being? "To give everything you've got. Some might come in and think, if I score a goal, do a good turn or put a few tackles in, that's enough. You have to come off the pitch having done everything, with nothing left in the tank."
This certainly sums up Osman, an individual whose career took off as soon as he returned from Derby – the second minute to be precise: that's how long it took for him to find the net in his first start at Wolves in May 2004 – and who has come to embody the focus, work ethic and much under-appreciated football aesthetic which the Scot has drilled into the best performing under-funded club in the land. Osman left that knee injury in the past and Moyes has been rich in his praise for the way he has played on almost continuously through niggles and strains in Everton's desperately depleted squad this season. From October to December, Osman half resembled Ledley King, limiting his training to a single session on the day before a game, just to be fit to play.
Such are the qualities that years of struggle can breed, and looking back now Osman can reflect that had he gone to Liverpool – or had Everton found the riches which remain lacking – then he might never have made it in the game. "I probably wouldn't have," he says. "But if we had got good money and signed lots of big players I also don't think the club would be in as strong a position as it is now. Finding the formula for how to get expensive players to work for you takes two or three seasons. Money doesn't guarantee success." Two wins in the next eight days would prove you also can succeed without it – and demonstrate beyond all doubt that the Evertons and Osmans of the football firmament can win through in the end.
My Other Life
"I like to read because I find it's a good way to relax. I'm not fussy about what I read – fiction, non-fiction, biographies – and I've just finished both of the Bobby Charlton biographies [by The Independent's James Lawton]. Really good. They told you a lot. I read fiction too – Jeffrey Archer is one author I'll get into. Kane and Abel is one of the latest.
"I'll have a go at golf, too, though I can't say I'm very good at it and I definitely have nothing resembling a handicap. I'll sometimes have a round with Jags [Phil Jagielka]. Tim Cahill has a little go too and also Hibbo [Tony Hibbert]. It's a bit of a sight for sore eyes but we have a good laugh while we're going around."
True Blues: Everton's home-grown young guns
Osman is one of seven home-grown players in Everton's first-team squad.
*TONY HIBBERT (215 apps, 0 gls)
Dependable 28-year-old has occupied right-back slot for best part of decade.
*VICTOR ANICHEBE (89 apps, 11 gls)
Oft-maligned striker, 20, who qualifies to play for Nigeria. Fallen down pecking order, reduced to covering for injuries.
*JOSE BAXTER (4 apps)
Promising 17-year-old forward whose debut this season made him the youngest-ever Evertonian.
*JAMES VAUGHAN (43 app, 7 gls)
Injury prone forward, 20. Currently youngest-ever Premier League scorer.
*JACK RODWELL (22 apps, 1 gl,)
Classy 18-year-old who can play in defence or midfield. Scored first goal against Aston Villa this season.
*JOHN PAUL KISSOCK (0 apps)
Midfielder, 19, who has been an unused substitute this season. Been on loan at Accrington.
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