In 2005 the broadcaster and journalist Gary Imlach scored a surprise bestseller with the publication of his William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner, my Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes. It was a biography of his late father, Stuart Imlach, a Scottish international winger with Nottingham Forest and subsequently coach at Everton. It was a moving evocation of a bygone era in football, in which Imlach was often treated harshly by the game (he never received his Scotland caps, for example) and detailed his growing alienation from the sport to which he’d devoted his life.
This is in many respects a counter-balance. Stan Osborne was a 15 year old apprentice at Everton when Imlach was a coach, and as with ‘My Father…’ this book details a growing disenchantment with football as his big break turns sour. But the narrative turns full circle, with Imlach the cause for much of this unhappiness. He comes across as a cold, distant man and Osborne’s fledgling career falters because the coach ‘doesn’t seem to fancy him’. His eventual fate as a dumped apprentice is, by degrees, arbitrary and unfair and he leaves Everton two years later ‘with a chip on my shoulder the size of the Liver Building.’
Set against the backdrop of Everton’s 1970 League Championship win, there are fascinating glimpses of the club’s golden era. In the context of Everton history, Osborne would probably not merit a footnote but from his viewpoint in the shadows of these great days he has written a revealing account of what it was like to be part of one of football’s great institutions. There are details, such as the kindness of Howard Kendall and Alan Ball, which would go some way to restoring his - and the reader’s - faith in football and Everton FC.
On a wider basis it is a revealing account of football’s cruelty and the broken dreams of thousands of young hopefuls. Osborne concludes 40 years after his own departure from the club by visiting Finch Farm, home of Everton’s acclaimed academy which has in recent years bred England internationals like Wayne Rooney, Leon Osman and Jack Rodwell. ‘This huge and incredibly sophisticated operation… seems a far cry from the Everton of 1969/70,’ he concludes in an upbeat note.
But as the club’s academy director Ray Hall points out, becoming a full time player at Everton ‘is the equivalent of getting into Oxford or Cambridge’ and breaking into the first team ‘like becoming Prime Minister.’ For every Osman or Rooney there are certain to be 100 more boys with similarly broken dreams to Osborne’s.