Ex-Wolves striker Michael Branch: 'I made a mistake and have paid the price'
"I made a very big mistake and I paid the price."
The words of Michael Branch, the former Wolves striker who is preparing to embark on a new career as an accountant after suffering a dramatic fall from grace.
His picture used to adorn the walls of a young Wayne Rooney's bedroom, but Branch went from hero to zero when he was jailed for drug dealing in November 2012.
Looking back on his career, he says he regrets that more support was not available for young footballers back in the 1990s.
He admits to being ashamed of his criminal past, but says he is now looking forward to a bright future as a number cruncher.
Branch's story is one of a promising young player falling out of love with the beautiful game.
He joined Wolves after an initial loan spell in a £500,000 deal from his boyhood club, Everton, where he had been considered a wonderkid at one time having risen through the ranks.
Making his Premier League debut coming on as a substitute at Old Trafford at the age of 17, he was dubbed the city of Liverpool's next Robbie Fowler.
In his book The Everton Encyclopaedia, James Corbett describes Branch as 'a quicksilver striker blessed with control, pace and a knack of intelligent movement'.
Although his time at Goodison Park was marred by injury, he was considered an exciting signing for Wolves at the time.
Many fans hoped he would slot into a side featuring Joleon Lescott, Andy Sinton and Kevin Muscat and drive the club on to promotion.
However, he flattered to deceive during the bulk of his time in gold and black, which saw the former England under-21 international score 10 goals in 71 appearances. He is best remembered for his controversial strike against Nottingham Forest in February 2000.
This saw him pounce when he pounced on an attempt by Forest keeper Dave Beasant to kick the ball out of play so that injured Wolves player Lee Naylor could receive treatment.
Following the arrival of Dave Jones as manager he fell out of favour.
He spent his last year at Molineux out of the side and went out on loan to Reading and Hull City after being placed on the transfer list.
Branch was linked with moves to Walsall and Kidderminster Harriers, but was eventually sold to Bradford City in July 2003.
He drifted around the leagues, eventually calling time on his 250-game professional career while at Chester City.
The team was managed at the time by legendary former Liverpool goal machine Ian Rush.
He moved his family to live in Australia for two years, but was forced to return when their visas ran out.
It was to signal a downward spiral that would see him arrested as part of an operation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency in July 2012.
He said: "You've spent your life being told what to do, when to eat, when to train, when to play and then all of a sudden you can do what you want and that's when some ex-players take a wrong route."
That November he pleaded guilty to two charges of supplying class-A and class-B drugs and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
A judge at Chester Crown Court heard that when officers raided Branch's surburban house they found a kilogram of high-purity cocaine, with a street value of around £50,000. A surveillance operation four months earlier had already seen him hand over three kilos of amphetamine to another man in a Liverpool car park.
His prison sentence was upheld after an appeal, in which it came to light it was revealed that Branch had developed a gambling problem, was drinking heavily and had also fallen into debt.
"I made a very big mistake and I paid the price," said Branch, now 37.
"I went straight from school to earning very good money.
"It was before the really massive money boom but it was still very good compared to my mates.
"When that ends it is hard to adjust. Very hard.
"I'm not a bad person, I made a mistake. I was ashamed of myself and I was really worried what people would think of me – Joe Royle, Howard Kendall and people like that," he added.
Branch served three years of his jail term and sought help from the Professional Footballers Association, PFA, on his release.
"I'd always had an interest in numbers and when I told the PFA that I wanted to train as an accountant they were great with me and got me on a course," he said.
"I wanted to move on and do some positive stuff.
"It was tough to return to studying all those years after leaving school but I was determined to do it because I wanted people to be proud of me again and I wanted to feel proud of myself again."
He has now completed five of the required 11 chartered papers on his way to full qualification as an accountant.
And in the spare time that he manages to find in his busy life, he is part of a PFA programme that is aimed at preventing current professional footballers replicating the mistakes that he made.
Looking ahead to what he hopes will be his future, the former footballer said: "I wouldn't mind being Michael Branch the accountant, who used to play football."