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COLUMNIST JOE JENNINGS

Tony & Leon...

By Joe Jennings :  11/04/2009 :  Comments (0) :

They say that it’s tough to ever beat the Bullens Road boo-boys.

James Beattie and Simon Davies are testament to that. At times during this rollercoaster of a season, the Bullens have been looking to induct a new member of what is an ever-growing society, one which includes Stephen Hughes, Graham Stuart and of course, Gary Naysmith. The initiation tends to be endless levels of abuse throughout Goodison games.

This is where local lads Hibbert and Osman come to the fore.

Everton have their former scout, Arthur Stephens, to thank for plucking what was one of Merseyside’s most talented young midfielders in Osman from Oldham Athletic at the tender age of 10. Osman — who was a Liverpool season-ticket holder in the Kop with his Dad at the time — took little time to immerse himself into Everton.

"A couple of my friends were at this club and once I arrived I fell in love with it."

His love for Everton, though, almost broke his heart, as a tackle against Blackburn Rovers in the first-leg of the 1998 FA Youth Cup Final looked set to torpedo any Premier League ambitions he most definitely harboured. The tackle to his knee would result in a perennial five-year struggle to work his way into the Everton first eleven.

Osman could have been forgiven for thinking it was not to be; it would have been easier to throw in the towel and settle for lower-league standing. But he didn’t.

Instead, the mercurial midget was sent out to Carlisle United, then struggling for survival in Division 2, to ply his trade. It was certainly an education. But it was to be at Pride Park with Derby, following on from sporadic bench appearances at Everton which included the only penalty miss at the Riverside Stadium that sent the Blues crashing out of the League Cup at the Fourth Round stage, that Osman would showcase his undoubted ingenuity as a footballer.

While the club he loved was scrapping for points to stay alive in the biggest league in the world, Leon was weaving his magic in the First Division. Suffice to say, many Derby fans wish he would never have left.

But it wasn’t far from Derby that Osman’s Everton career took off. Wolves were as good as down, and with Everton having already secured safety with some games to spare, the opportunity arose for Osman to leave a mark on the first-team. Inside two minutes, he certainly achieved that. Ducking down from a Tomasz Radzinski cross, Osman guided his header beyond Jones. The local lad who was too small, too weak and too slow to ever do justice on the Premier League stage couldn’t hide his delight.

For Hibbert, the story was a little different. Although he himself was a member of the 1998 Youth Cup winning side, nothing was really expected from the Huyton-born full back. Tony’s baptism of fire in Blue came down at Upton Park back in March 2001, when an Unsworth penalty and a Niclas Alexandersson strike ensured victory. Tony was certainly not bedded in cosily though, having been scythed down by Psycho Stuart Pearce, which earned Everton the crucial penalty on the stroke of half-time.

Although Hibbert had offered a promising display, he was still deemed as a stop-gap while injuries ravaged Walter Smith’s squad. Little to get excited about.

I think it’s safe to say with all certainty that both players haven’t looked back since. Both have played their part in the Moyes revolution and continue to show why they are so integral to the Everton cause.

It baffles me, to put it politely, as to why BOTH Osman and Hibbert (and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise) continue to feel the wrath of certain fans. While our supporters certainly are hardcore and do offer unstinting levels of loyalty, for me at least, some just don’t understand the game. I’ll go as far to say as I resent the attitude some have towards the pair.

Is it because they’re both Scousers? As a Blue you understand your own club far better than those on the outside, the little abstract things that make a club tick, that are key components to its fabric and unique identity. Osman and Hibbert would fall under this category.

Do both suffer from the Rooney factor? That is, we have already had a very special home-grown talent, the one who had all our love, hope and dreams. Do we now, unintentionally at least, expect the same standard from all our other local lads? One thing we certainly do is burden them with the weight of expectation.

Yes, both have deficiencies, most footballers do, but what they bring to the side in positives far outweigh anything else.

Leon Osman is the most underrated footballer at the club. He is the closest thing we have to Mikel Arteta. Yes, my opinion may be out there, but in terms of ball control, skill, ingenuity, spatial awareness, and influence, he is indispensable. Everton look good when Leon Osman plays well. To suggest that is a coincidence is to underestimate Osman’s contribution. Yes, his form has dipped this season at times, but is that abnormal for a player who is STILL carrying a knee-injury which culminates in little or no training during the week? Osman still empties the tank when he pulls on the shirt though, injured or not. And that, I guess, is a measure of the man.

Tony Hibbert, defensively at least, compares favourably with any right back in Britain. Despite an endless amount of nose-bleeds when crossing the half-way line over the years, the penny seems to have finally dropped. He may, finally, have sussed it out. His attacking play has improved, his passing has improved, but most importantly, his confidence has improved. Even his nauseating ability to ball-watch has proved absent without leave.

Tony and Leon could have succumbed to the boos and taunts a long time ago, but both just continue to prove people wrong, unrelentingly, as they play their part in the Everton renaissance.

Both can be infuriating, both can make the wrong decision, but more often than not, both not only show real quality, but real pride in the Blue jersey.

Imagine Tony and Leon dancing around Wembley come late May, running together with the FA Cup. Isn’t that — two local lads winning the greatest club cup competition on Earth with the team they love — our idea of Blue heaven?

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