Wizard of Oz: Why Leon Osman Should Have Been An England Regular Long Before Now



I had no doubt Leon Osman would be a star, from the very first time I saw him play.

It was 15 years ago, on a boiling hot Saturday afternoon back in June 1997, and he was part of an England schoolboys side that dominated their German counterparts at the old Wembley Stadium. 

England's under-16s were exemplary in the shadows of the twin towers that day. A year on from Euro '96, where Terry Venables' senior team had played with such enlightening verve and gusto, these mini replica versions, clad in Walkers Crisps kits and prototype Adidas Predator boots, were emulating their heroes admirably. 

This generation of prodigies were destined for great things, having been schooled in the same high tempo, interchanging, free-flowing passing game that had taken the real Three Lions to the brink of greatness on the very same pitch 12 months earlier. 

In a team that included some teenagers that would make it big - Joe Cole and Stephen Warnock among them - and some that wouldn't, Osman stood out as the team's heartbeat. Cole was already the worst kept secret in scouting circles, and he was exceptional in a more advanced role that day, but it was Osman who stole the show in midfield, scoring once and creating the other in a deserved 2-1 victory.

The thing that struck me was Osman's unwavering appetite to get on the ball; as if he was playing in his school playground, free of inhibition and not stifled by the pressure of what will have been the biggest occasion of his young career. This kid was special. He weaved in between the lines, created improbable angles and demonstrated a level of decision making that belied his years.

I watched on with interest in the years that followed. But while Cole signed for West Ham, took to the Premier League like a duck to water, and made his full England debut in 2001, I'd heard very little of Osman.

He'd signed YTS forms with Everton after leaving school, but was yet to make an impression at Goodison Park. In fact, while Cole was lining up for Sven Goran Eriksson's full side in the World Cup in Japan, Osman was about to shipped out on loan to Carlisle United in the old Third Division.   

As years passed, I'd all but given up on seeing Osman fulfil his potential. As a rule of thumb, any young player who doesn't establish himself in the first team by the age of 21 or 22 is deemed surplus to requirements and tossed on football's scrapheap. But Everton saw something in Leon, and he would go on to reward them for their patience.

Osman was a revelation when he finally broke into David Moyes' team during the 2004/05 season. By this point, he was 24 and had a sturdier carriage than I remembered, but he still played with all the youthful exuberance of the teenager I'd seen at Wembley years earlier. His kid in a playground mentality has never left him, regardless of which role he's been deployed in - and there have been a few. 

In the intervening years, Osman has grown into one of the big league's most consistent performers. His passing and assist stats are regularly in the top five in the Premier League and he has scored important goals time and again in recent years. 

Jack Wilshere calls Osman the most underrated player in the Premier League. The Arsenal starlet has also likened him to Andres Iniesta, and while I'm not going to get ahead of myself by comparing Osman with the great Spaniard, you can see what Jack is getting at.

Osman roams intelligently between the lines. At 5ft 8ins and a little over 65kg, he is not the most physically imposing midfielder in the Premier League, but his courage and poise have served him well. As I first noted back in June 1997, Osman is not an archetypal English footballer. He has a certain je ne sais quoi, a guile and an imagination. 

Yet in the past decade, a period that has seen Kieran Richardson, Gavin McCann, Jermaine Jenas, Jordan Henderson and Nigel Reo-Coker all awarded international recognition, Osman's has never received a phone call from the FA.

Furthermore, in an era when most in his age range have flattered to deceive in an England shirt - often crippled by big tournament pressure having had their fearlessness coached out if them - it's Osman's mental strength and selfless work ethic, even more than his consistent level of performance, that should really have led to him gaining full international honours aplenty.

Maybe Roy Hodgson has realised as much. Because at 31 years of age, and having made his best start to a Premier League season ever, Osman was named in the England squad for them first time this week. Sadly, you get the feeling his is a token call-up akin to those of Kevin Davies and Bobby Zamora. But better late than never. Because having been a late bloomer, Osman could yet maintain his consistent level well into his 30s.

I expect he'll grab his chance with both hands if he's awarded his debut in Sweden on Wednesday, because he's not one to crumble under pressure. His belated bow will complete a long, drawn-out transition from schoolboy dynamo to senior international.

And, who knows, Leon Osman could yet become the kid in the playground - and the Iniesta-like figure - that England have so dearly been lacking. 


Click here to read more from Bet.Unibet Editor Ben Cove.