After years in which Everton’s best young players were thoroughly overshadowed by those emerging from Liverpool’s youth development programme, Michael Branch was hailed as the player that Evertonians had been waiting for. The England youth international and graduate of the FA National School of Excellence was a quicksilver striker blessed with control, pace and a knack of intelligent movement.
Handed his debut as a 17-year-old during the 1995/96 season, Branch showed many encouraging signs: willingness, electrifying speed and inherent natural ability. What he lacked, perhaps, was ruthlessness in front of goal. Joe Royle, himself once a teenage centre forward, included him more often in the opening stages of the 1996/97 season. In only his second start, against Sheffield Wednesday in September 1996, Branch ravaged his experienced opponents – Des Walker and Steve Nicol – setting up both of Everton’s goals in a performance that had pundits purring. ‘In only his second full appearance, and at just 17, he showed heartwarming potential,’ reported The Times. ‘He is impudent, linear, and his style of play uncannily similar to a certain Robbie Fowler from across the other side of Stanley Park.’
But as Royle’s managerial reign unravelled, Branch suffered. Too often he was called upon as a substitute, expected to turn around the fortunes of an out-of-form team. In short, it was too much of a burden for his young shoulders to carry. His progress plateaued during the 1997/98 season, when he was hampered by injuries and overshadowed by Danny Cadamarteri. The following campaign Walter Smith seemed equally reluctant to use Branch or sell him – both Manchester City and Portsmouth sought the forward.
A surprise inclusion when Everton met Liverpool in April 1999, Smith’s wild-card selection failed to pay off. It was the first and last time the Everton manager started Branch. At the end of the 1998/99 season he was transfer-listed. In January 2000, Branch joined Wolves in a £500,000 deal, but failed to make an impact. His subsequent career in the lower leagues was a sorry tale of unrealised potential.