Roberto Martínez described Romelu Lukaku’s return to Goodison Park on Wednesday as “every Evertonian’s wish” but few can have appreciated the timing more than Leon Osman. The 33-year-old’s testimonial is on Sunday and ticket sales for the enticing visit of Porto, plus two good causes, will not be harmed by the presence of the club’s £28m record signing. Not that added incentive is required to salute Osman, the midfielder who defied expectation to become one of Everton’s most faithful servants.
No other member of Everton’s first-team squad has made more appearances (388) or scored more goals (54) for the club than Osman. He has been a mainstay of the side for over a decade, having made his debut at Tottenham Hotspur in January 2003, a source of invaluable goals, creativity and intelligence for the bulk of David Moyes’s reign and a key influence in bringing Martínez’s methods to fruition last season. The return is all the more impressive considering the battles that had to be overcome to earn that debut at White Hart Lane. “I could never have imagined being here 16 years later and making 380-odd appearances for the club,” the midfielder admits.
Another dismal England tournament failure this summer reactivated the debate over the lack of technically polished, skilful players emerging from Premier League youth academies. Osman met that criteria as part of Everton’s FA Youth Cup-winning team in 1998, alongside Tony Hibbert, Richard Dunne, Francis Jeffers and Danny Cadamarteri, but the subject was not up for discussion back then. A serious knee injury partly explains why it took Osman five years to break through at Everton. The fact his attributes were not in vogue merely 16 years ago explains the rest.
“I didn’t have issues with it on a personal note,” Osman says. “I wouldn’t get down about things I couldn’t affect but I broke into the first team at a time when the physical need was for strong, quick, tall players. That was at the forefront of most people’s thinking. It was thought you had to be tall, quick and powerful to get into the first team and a lot of the players who came through were. It wasn’t until Spain showed that you could be technically gifted and successful that we started to look to those kind of players.
“Those players were being developed when I broke through myself but the English game wanted the bigger, more powerful player. I’m not disappointed by that, it was what the Premier League demanded at the time, but I’m pleased that I still managed to make a way for myself despite that. I’m pleased my technical ability got me into the first team and has kept me there every since.”
Osman is talking at Claire House Children’s Hospice on the Wirral, one of two charities that will benefit from the proceeds of Sunday’s testimonial at Goodison along with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The Everton midfielder, who arrives with a bouquet of flowers for the receptionists, lost two cousins, sisters aged 14 and 22, to cystic fibrosis and his affection for the hospice and the people involved is clear during his latest visit.
“The reason I picked Claire House and Make-A-Wish is that I had a family bereavement a few years back. They didn’t get as far as Claire House, that was possibly going to be the next step, but Make-A-Wish took them away and gave them a good time. I saw at first hand what a difference these places and organisations make, for kids especially and also for their parents. It’s not just about providing a child with good end-of-life care but providing families with memories and to give them a break.
“I connected with Claire House the first time I came here. As a club we come here every year and the first time I came I was deeply moved. The volunteers who give their time here and the fund-raising that is required is incredible and I just wanted to do my part.”
While Osman has been preparing for his testimonial this week, Everton have secured Ross Barkley’s services on a four-year contract and, in the words of Martínez, made “a real football statement” by signing Lukaku from Chelsea for £28m. Expectation has increased at Goodison Park.
“I think we can make the next step,” Osman says. “We have got quality players and the manager has waited to get the right players who are going to fit in on and off the pitch. He knows what extra we need for the demands we’ve got this season with the Europa League. He’s a very clever manager and I think we will have the squad to compete for every competition we are in.
“Silverware isn’t the next target for me, it has always been the target since I got in the first team. It hasn’t been achieved yet but it is something that seriously needs to be addressed with the quality players we have got in our squad and have had over the past 10-12 years. It’s about time we turned that quality into a trophy.”