Osman swaps teams to follow his dreams

The Premiership: In the post-Rooney era Everton have a new local hero - and his goals are leading the way to Europe
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Leon Osman surveys the interior of the hangar-sized gymnasium at Everton's Bellefield training ground. For a moment, his mind goes to the "playback" function of the videotape of his life; to the scenes where he is a 10-year-old again, a schoolboy born in Billinge, near Wigan.

Leon Osman surveys the interior of the hangar-sized gymnasium at Everton's Bellefield training ground. For a moment, his mind goes to the "playback" function of the videotape of his life; to the scenes where he is a 10-year-old again, a schoolboy born in Billinge, near Wigan.

"You know, my dad used to be stood in the corner, over there, freezing with all the other parents. He was here two hours, four times a week - Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday - watching me and my brother [Carl] train. You've got to take your hat off to that, haven't you? It was unbelievable devotion to your kids. But he never pushed us or said, 'You should be a footballer,' or anything. He just let us follow our dreams."

What would have made those more uncomfortable for Osman Snr, Derek, is that this represented, until then at least, the dark side of the city. He was a committed Red, and, naturally, so was his son. "Up until that time my dad used to sit me on a barrier in the Kop. But once I came here, I never went back. Now I'm playing for the Blues and my heart's completely with Everton. I think dad's changed his allegiance, too!"

During those years Derek Osman has surveyed his son's elevation from peripheral performer, during a period in which he suffered a serious knee injury and twice went out on loan, to Goodison's local hero this season. The midfielder's seven goals from 27 appearances, including his brace against Aston Villa in the 3-1 victory last Saturday, have been appreciated all the more because it has been achieved by "one of their own".

Wayne Rooney and Francis Jeffers, among the products of the same youth set-up, run by Ray Hall, the academy manager, and Neil Dewsnip, the technical manager, may have moved on, but Osman appears to be a fixture. Although he is a free agent when his contract expires this summer, Osman says: "We're in talks at the moment. Hopefully things will get sorted out. I've been here all my life. This is where I want to stay."

He was discovered as an eight-year-old playing for Skelmersdale Boys, and went to Oldham Athletic originally, for a year. "Then a man named Arthur Stephens, who was a scout at Everton, saw me. I came here when I was about 10, and I've been here ever since.

"I have always thought there's a closer link with the fans when they see a local lad on the pitch. It's all about pride in where you come from. It's like, 'He only lives up the street from me, and there he is playing in front of 40,000 people'. It's great for the team and great for the kids, knowing what a reputation the youth set-up's got. If they come here, they know they can look forward to developing as a player."

While Rooney and, to an extent, Jeffers exploded into Evertonian consciousness, Osman's emergence has been at the end of a slow-burning fuse, principally as a result of a potentially career-threatening cruciate ligament injury three years ago.

"That was my lowest moment; when I realised how long I was going to be out [it turned out to be a year]," Osman explains. "A lot of people have had to retire after an injury like that. But I was determined to get over it. Thankfully, I had the right people around me: the physios here were tremendous, and my family and friends supported me and kept me positive."

Osman desperately needed first-team football, but was realistic enough to appreciate that it wouldn't immediately be with Everton. He went on loan to Carlisle, and the following season, having still failed to establish himself among the Everton élite, joined Derby County, under George Burley. "I had a great time, and settled in really well. I took to the fans and they took to me."

Derby wanted to make the association permanent. "I said that if I wasn't in David Moyes' plans, then I would sign. But David told them that he wanted me back. I returned for the last three games of the season. I started the first, and scored [after five minutes at Wolverhampton Wanderers]. I managed to play all three and that was that."

Goals certainly keep a player at the forefront of a manager's mind, you suggest. "It's a great trick," says the 23-year-old with a smile, adding: "I've always tried to score goals, and have been confident that I've been capable of doing it. That debut goal against Wolves settled the nerves tremendously."

Moyes reveals that initially, he harboured doubts about Osman's physique. "I think we did, in as much as he was very small, quite lightweight, and didn't have a great deal of pace. But we always believed his football ability was exceptional," the manager says. "I think there's more to come from him, and that we'll see more maturity in time in his play. But he works hard for the team, and couples that with his own natural ability to make things happen. He's been an important part of the team this season."

Moyes adds: "The important thing is he can play in several positions. Leon's happy to play up front, or wide, or in midfield. Actually, you couldn't really say what his best role is, because he can do them all to a good level."

Osman had just emerged from the jacuzzi when we speak. "You need that after a hard week's training," he says. No easing up now by Moyes, even with fourth position seemingly secure and with a place in next season's Champions' League beckoning, although to mention that in this environment is akin to mentioning the war in the presence of German visitors. You simply don't do it, not with the Anfield leg of the Merseyside derby in a fortnight's time, when defeat for Everton would produce an anxious Premiership run-in.

Two years ago, Everton were denied by today's visitors, Blackburn, from claiming a place in Europe. This time, however, there appears to be a real stability about this side.

"After we lost Tommy [Thomas Gravesen, to Real Madrid], I think we were looking for a new balance and blend, and that has been the case," Moyes says. "It was an excellent performance against Villa, but I sensed against Chelsea and Manchester United we were coming close to it. Mikel [Arteta], Tim [Cahill] and Leon have all done well for us in midfield."

Post-Rooney and Gravesen, sceptics have waited in vain for fissures to appear. "Obviously, nobody wanted to see Wayne go, because he is a tremendous talent, and we've also lost Tommy," says Osman. "Other people have been brought in, James [Beattie] and Mikel. We all know James's strengths, and Mikel has already shown what great skill he's got. You just have to adapt, and we have managed to do that."

The loss of Rooney and Gravesen may even have made the squad more resilient? "Possibly, yes. But we're such a strong squad, anyway, that we made sure it didn't affect us. We're just carrying on the way we were before Wayne and Tommy went. We've gone from strength to strength."

The same could be said of a young man who has demonstrated that not all successful products of the Everton youth policy are teenage phenomenons. And this one plans to stick around.

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