Michael Branch's fall from Everton to prison offers cautionary tale

Goal Busted Net

Maybe, looking back, all the hype and expectation didn't help.

"The most natural goalscorer to emerge from Everton's ranks for years," it said in the programme at Goodison Park in February 1996. Michael Branch had never kicked a ball for the first team at that point but those words stuck. They were used against him when it became apparent he was not, after all, another Michael Owen or Robbie Fowler, and they form the epitaph to his career now he has really screwed up and is beginning a new life inside prison.

The early days are worth recalling before the difficult business of trying to come up with a satisfactory explanation, if indeed there is one, about the descent his life has taken and the chain of events that shows, albeit in an extreme case, what can happen when the comfort blanket of football is removed, the money dries up and the perks of the industry are gone.

Branch was "hailed as the player Evertonians had been waiting for", to quote James Corbett's latest book on the club, The Everton Encyclopaedia. He made his debut at 17, in the same team as Neville Southall, Dave Watson and Andrei Kanchelskis. "Willingness, electrifying speed and inherent natural ability," Corbett recounts. "A quicksilver striker blessed with control, pace and a knack of intelligent movement."

One game in particular stands out. Early in the 1996-97 season, Everton played Sheffield Wednesday and Branch, making his second start, made two of the more accomplished Premier League footballers of their generation, Des Walker and Steve Nicol, look ordinary. "In only his second appearance and at just 17 he showed heartwarming potential," the Times reported the following day. "He is impudent, linear and his style of play is uncannily similar to a certain Robbie Fowler from across the other side of Stanley Park."

Here was a teenager who appeared to have the keys to the football universe. "He had everything at his feet," Andy Hinchcliffe, a member of Everton's defence on the day Branch made his debut, put it on Saturday. A 10-year-old Wayne Rooney had posters of him on his bedroom walls. Branch was a few years older than Leon Osman, but their paths did cross. What a contrast in the way their lives have turned over the past few days, as Osman joins the England squad for the first time and Branch gets used to a whole different set of rules at HMP Walton.

The judge at Chester Crown Court heard that when officers from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) raided Branch's house in July they found a kilogram of high-purity cocaine, with a street value of around £50,000. A surveillance operation four months earlier had already seen him hand over three kilos of amphetamine to another man in a Liverpool car park.

"Significant criminality committed by someone who would once have been viewed as a role model," a spokesman for Soca described it. Branch pleaded guilty to two charges of supplying class-A and class-B drugs and was sentenced to seven years.

The obvious question is how someone can go from point A, being tipped as the next bright young thing of English football, to point B, just another Home Office statistic in an overcrowded prison. It is not an easy one to answer. These things can be over-analysed sometimes. It might be one thing or, more likely, a whole succession of events. Perhaps the system could have done more to help him and maybe, to return to the original point, it was more difficult than we understand to cope with always being the bloke who never justified the hype. Or maybe it is more straightforward than that and we should stop scratching around for excuses and just accept that, put bluntly, he's a bit of a lowlife. A drug dealer is a drug dealer, no matter how it reached that point.

Perhaps, though, the case of Mark Ward throws up a few possible clues.Ward, another former Everton player, was a significant figure in top-flight football in the 1980s and early 1990s, not just at Goodison but also with Manchester City and West Ham United. He, too, knows very well the routines at Walton.

Outside the football bubble, his was not an uncommon starting point: an ex-pro with few useful qualifications, half a working life ahead of him, not a great deal of savings and, still, a taste for the good life. When the police busted down the door in May 2005 they found cocaine worth £645,000, along with paraphernalia including bowls, mixing agents, a vacuum seal and a hydraulic press. "A drugs factory," detective inspector Chris Green of the Merseyside force described it.

Ward did not live at the property but he had the keys and knew what it was used for. He ended up serving four years of an eight-year stretch at Walton and the book he wrote from inside his cell, From Right Wing to B Wing, is a brutal 272-page dissection of the greed and desperation that had put him there. "What a dickhead I'd been," the introduction concludes.

In Branch's case, joining up all the dots starts back at Goodison, when an over-hyped career started to unravel in tandem with Joe Royle's position as manager. Walter Smith took over but was reluctant to play him. A wildcard selection in the Merseyside derby in April 1999 did not pay off and that was the last time he played for the club. Branch went to Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan, following similar spells at Manchester City (where he rejoined Royle) and Birmingham City. A £500,000 fee was agreed to make the deal permanent but Branch had little impact at Molineux, went on loan to Reading and Hull City, then signed for Bradford City followed by a couple of years at Chester City.

His last professional appearance was in a 2-1 defeat at Wrexham in March 2006, at the age of 27. The last goal was the previous November, in a 3-1 win against Peterborough. After that, Branch spent the fag-end of his career with Halifax Town in the Conference and Burscough in the Northern Premier League. Whether he retired officially, no one seems certain. No one was paying a great deal of interest in the one-time wunderkind by that stage. His career, as Corbett writes, had become "a sorry tale of unrealised potential".

What kind of player was he? Not a very prolific one, for a striker. There were 41 goals spread over a decade, including 13 in one season for Chester. Branch managed three for Everton. Four came in his 11 games on loan at Wolves but six in 67 after the deal was made permanent. The video is still on YouTube of a game against Nottingham Forest in 2000 when Dave Beasant tried to kick the ball out of play because one of Branch's team-mates was injured, lying on the floor and needing treatment. Branch intercepted it, took a couple of touches and put it in the net.

There is a world of difference between a spot of on-pitch snideness and where he is now. Twenty-three hours a day in the same cell, a lightbulb that is never switched off and the occasional visitor in a waiting room where the chairs and tables are screwed to the floor.

Hinchcliffe remembers his former team-mate as just a normal, likeable lad, someone "who had scored a hatful of goals as a kid". One thing for certain: this is not where his career was meant to have taken him by the age of 34.

Luis Suárez could find perfect foil in Osvaldo

A few weeks ago Paddy Crerand was asked for his opinion on Luis Suárez and, true to form, the 73-year-old didn't hold back. Crerand played for Manchester United in the 1968 European Cup final and now works for the club's television channel. He is, by his own admission, about as biased as they come. "You would never get fed up of punching him, would you?" was his considered take.

Crerand once decked one of the Krays' henchmen, sending him down a flight of stairs at the Astor club, so the chances are he meant what he was saying. Though, to give Suárez his due, winning matches has always been his priority ahead of winning popularity contests anyway. His goal against Newcastle last Sunday was a thing of beauty and, on current form, you would back him against Fernando Torres in one of the subplots of Liverpool's fixture at Chelsea on Sunday.

Torres may once have warranted the nickname El Niño but these days he is often little more than sporadic breeze passing through Stamford Bridge.

Suárez, meanwhile, has been playing with such brilliant, penetrative menace that Steven Gerrard now identifies him as the best striker he has ever played with and, as compliments go, that's pretty high up there. Gerrard has seen, close up, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Torres at their devastating best.

Suárez, however, cannot reasonably be expected to carry the team's hopes all season and, in fairness to the American owners, they seem to have absorbed the message that reinforcements are desperately needed. Word reaches me that Liverpool are looking at the Roma striker Pablo Osvaldo for the January window.

Osvaldo is a player of considerable talent, recruited from Espanyol for €17.5m, but comes with his own baggage. He was suspended by the club for 10 days last season after taking offence when his team-mate Erik Lamela did not pass him the ball, and punched him in the face when they got back to the dressing room.

Give busy Peter Herbert benefit of doubt

The chances are you might not have been too aware of Peter Herbert a few weeks ago and had no idea the Society of Black Lawyers was about to stake its claim to be regarded as the alpha male of football's pressure groups.

It may be that some of its own members did not realise it either.

Herbert has been one of the more quoted men in football ever since and is now in a state of open conflict with Tottenham Hotspur because of the way, a long time ago now, their supporters started identifying themselves as "yids" as a badge of honour. Serial racism, says Herbert, stating that he will report it to the police unless the entire culture changes by 20 November. Nonsense, say Spurs, pointing out their fans reclaimed the word "as a defence mechanism to own the term and deflect anti-Semitic abuse".

Herbert's apparent crusade to knock the game into shape is now prompting questions about why his organisation bolted itself on to football in the first place and accusations in some quarters of publicity seeking and profile-building.

The opinion here is that it is probably better to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there does comes a point when it becomes a close-run thing. So thank you, Peter, in the politest possible sense. Stick around, by all means. Let's just not turn this into a one-man show.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Taylor, for The Observer on Saturday 10th November 2012 21.59 Europe/London

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