Back in 1996, Robbie Fowler a boyhood Blue, who had chosen to play for the Reds across Stanley Park, was terrorising defences up and down the country and Everton were desperately searching for a young starlet of their own. In February of that year, the Everton matchday programme proudly announced the arrival of Michael Branch, the Toffees’ very own star striker.
“The most natural goalscorer to emerge from Everton’s ranks for years,” was the headline grabbing statement and since Everton hadn’t produced a home-grown centre forward for the best part of 30 years the statement was in most parts true. Not since the arrival of Joe Royle in the mid-60’s had Everton produced a young goalscorer to be proud of and with the club seemingly on the up, having won the FA Cup 15 months previously, Evertonians were genuinely excited about the prospects for the future.
For a number of reasons and I am sure the turmoil that struck Goodison for the next few years didn’t help, Branch failed to live up to that hype and eventually left Everton having scored only three goals in 45 matches. Things certainly started well enough for Branch after he was thrust into the first team with Everton short of strikers, making an instant impact and grabbing headlines across several national newspapers. After his second appearance, in a game against Sheffield Wednesday, the Times reported:
“In only his second appearance and at just 17 he showed heartwarming potential.
“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.”
However as Fowler went on to score 162 Premier League goals for Liverpool, Manchester City and Leeds United, Branch fell from grace, finishing his playing career as a lower league journeyman. Things started to go wrong for Branch following the re-appointment of Howard Kendall as Everton manager. Kendall was in his third spell in charge of the Blues and under pressure to get results with the side struggling at the wrong end of the table Kendall put his faith in experience over youth. When Kendall was dismissed, after just one year in charge, matters failed to improve for Michael Branch and a series of off the field misdemeanours left Walter Smith reluctant to give him opportunity in the first team. Loan spells followed at Manchester City, Birmingham and Wolves, before he finally completed a permanent move to Molineux in 2000.
In just four years, Branch had played under four different managers, but as he let his attention drift from football, the goals dried up and he left Everton under a cloud. Many players have left Everton and gone on to have successful lower league careers, but for Michael Branch matters were about to turn much worse.
As his playing career drew to a close, Branch found himself at a crossroad in life and unfortunately in November 2010, 14 years and a few days after his Everton career began; Branch was sentenced to 7 years at HMP Walton. The Guardian newspaper described proceedings from inside Chester Crown Court.
The judge…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.
Further details appeared in the public domain during his appeal hearing, with Branch’s barrister, Peter Killen, telling the court Branch had been a professional footballer, but developed a gambling problem, began drinking heavily and fell into debt.
Giving judgment, Judge Kramer said it was clear that Branch’s life had “started to crumble” when his gambling addiction led to heavy drinking and debt. The appeal was dismissed.