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There were times when Michael Branch craved anonymity as he tried to escape a past in which he had gone from being hailed as Everton’s answer to Robbie Fowler to serving 3½ years in prison for supplying drugs. “I was thinking of going back to my christening name — Paul Michael Branch — because I just wanted to forget about everything else,” he says. “I didn’t want people to judge me for one mistake. I thought it would help me move on. When I first came out of jail, I wouldn’t leave the house. I wouldn’t want to come to the game and the odd time I did, I would try and hide by wearing a cap.”
But Branch, now 41, has stuck with the middle name that earned him the right kind of fame when he burst on to the scene in the 1990s before his career crashed and burned. And now he is forging a new identity as a trainee accountant, counsellor, confidant and mentor. His story is powerful and poignant, but his determination to grasp his shot at redemption also uplifting.
Branch is back at Everton, working as part of their community team on a range of projects, from helping teenagers excluded from school back into mainstream education to doing 24-hour shifts at the club’s Home Is Where The Heart Is homeless facility.
The first time Branch submitted his CV for the position, he was overlooked for the job. But, having undertaken voluntary work at the club since May, he has now earned a full-time role. “This has saved me,” he says. “It is not just about me trying to help other people.”
He did not initially tell any of the youngsters — or, indeed, his staff colleagues — about his background, but let them find out naturally, by which time he had already built up a level of trust. Even without his time behind bars, Aigburth-born Branch’s rise and fall ensures he is well placed to pass on advice. He joined Everton aged nine with expectation swirling around the jet-heeled forward and spent time at Lilleshall, the FA’s one-time national school.
He made his debut aged 17 as a substitute against Manchester United at Old Trafford in February 1996, scored his first senior goal the next December in a 2-2 draw away to Chelsea and rumour has it that Wayne Rooney had posters of him on his bedroom wall.
Yet Branch’s last appearance for the club came in April 1999 when he started a 3-2 Merseyside derby defeat by Liverpool at Anfield, with the pressure of living up to his billing swallowing up a talent who could not turn to the sort of support network now in place at clubs for youngsters. A drop down through the leagues followed with moves to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Reading, Hull City, Bradford City, Chester City and Halifax Town.
He brings authenticity to his new job because of those experiences and has had an impact in preventing some youngsters from making wrong choices in their own lives. In the summer, after a Premier League “Kicks” session at Everton’s hub near Goodison Park, Branch was walking home when he came across two groups of lads threatening to stab each other. He managed to defuse the stand-off because of the relationships he had built up with some of those involved and the next day the situation was de-escalated further at a meeting at Everton.
“They just want to know about the football at first and then they will go home and google and find out about the other stuff then,” Branch, who has barely changed since his time in an unforgiving spotlight two decades ago, says. “They are just shocked. Shocked that I am here: ‘You played football, why are you doing this?’
“You speak to a lot of them and they say, ‘I just want to graft. I just want to sell drugs.’ They think there is nothing else out there for them. One of the toughest kids was screaming about wanting to harm staff here. I got talking to him, listening and slowly and surely he found out about me and then he was saying how his grandad used to watch me play.
“He is a good kid. I can see a change in him. He is no angel, but he has exited the programme and he has my work number if he ever needs to speak to anyone. He has been in a young offenders’ unit and he was talking to me about prison but not in a big, macho way. He is scared of going to prison and I’ve said, ‘Yes, you should be.’ My mistakes have helped me with these young kids because I am sure they are going to listen to me rather than someone who hasn’t been to prison.”
It was July 2012 when Branch’s world caved in. After a spell living in Australia, he had fallen into debt, the house he shared with his now former wife and three children was under threat of repossession and a downward spiral led to what he terms “the biggest mistake of his life” and one that would be played out in public. A court case heard how, in an effort to pay off his debts, he agreed to deliver amphetamines to a man in a pub car park. The drugs were later intercepted by the police and Branch said that as a result he was threatened into storing a block of cocaine worth £160,000 at his house. The police discovered it and he was sentenced to seven years at HM Prison Altcourse in Fazackerley, Merseyside.
“I know it is not right but unless someone is in that situation with a young family, you don’t know what you are capable of doing,” he says. “That’s the honest truth. On the day I was sentenced the prison van took a different route to normal. It stopped by the traffic lights outside the club shop. The side of the stand at Goodison was all lit up. Through the window of the van, I was looking up, thinking, ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ I was so gutted.
“Prison is the hardest thing in the world without a doubt. Scary. At first I am being asked, ‘Do I want to go on the numbers?’ [a section of the prison for those at risk of attack]. I don’t even know what ‘the numbers’ is. It is like with all the vulnerable people and I’m thinking, ‘Why am I going to be vulnerable?’
“It is in case you are targeted. That’s when it hit home. It gave me a lot of time to think. I got help for my mental health which I needed at a much younger age. Football was a different beast then. Old school. The wellbeing of the academy kids comes to the forefront now.
“I enjoyed Lilleshall and then I am supposed to be the next Robbie Fowler and it didn’t work out. I started to hate football. You wish you had never played football because it very quickly becomes negative if you are not scoring.”
Henry Mooney, from Everton In The Community, offered unflinching support and Sue Gregory, director of youth engagement, has been a source of constant encouragement.
Branch had once thought of quitting football altogether when falling out of favour at Wolves under Dave Jones and going into accountancy.
The PFA talked him out of it, suggesting he should pursue it at the end of his career, and just before his sentencing he had enrolled on a course and so continued with his plans.
“I had two ways,” he says. “I had to do 3½ years so I could either fight it, ‘Poor old me. I’m the victim. I shouldn’t be here. They only gave me this long because I played football’.
“Or, ‘OK, how can I make the best use of my time here? What can I do so that when I get out I don’t end up in that situation.’ I studied. While lads were on PlayStations, I studied. I got no trouble for it. If anything I got more respect off them. I remember doing my coursework and prison guards coming in and saying what are you doing that for, as if you are ever going to be an accountant. I was just like, ‘OK, we will see.’
“I also had counselling while I was away and loved it. I started reading counselling books and the counsellor said I should try it. I spoke to the PFA and did a course when I came out and it went from there. I just felt as though I hadn’t gone through everything to throw it away and not use it. Even coming out I have struggled massively with personal stuff, and financial stuff, but I would never go back into that now.”
Those skills are being put to everyday use. Branch is qualified to Association of Accounting Technicians level in accountancy, and is on day release from the club to top up his qualifications. He is putting together a programme of ten sessions on finance, for those in Everton’s house for the homeless.
Setting foot in Walton Prison to coach football to those prisoners on good behaviour has proved surreal. “It feels strange,” he says. “But in a good way because I have moved on.”
Next month Everton are taking a staff team to play there and when the fixture was arranged there was no shortage of comments. “One of the prisoners said, ‘Who are you playing for? Are you taking a half for us and a half for them?’ ”
His journey is far from complete. Branch wants to mentor at Everton’s academy, for example, but that he volunteered that comment shows how far he has come.