HE HAS been the toast of Merseyside’s blue half this season and is rumoured to be coveted across the park – but Leighton Baines once slipped through the Mersey football net.
Currently the Premier League’s in-form full-back, some would say Baines is second only to Barcelona’s Daniel Alves in Europe, and his England future suddenly looks sparkling.
The 26-year-old elicited high praise with a starring cameo after replacing Ashley Cole during England’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland last weekend, and has become the player tabloids enjoy linking with various departures from Goodison.
But Baines once sat at the opposite end of the spectrum. Rejected by both Everton and Liverpool’s academies as a schoolboy, he eventually convinced Wigan Athletic to give him a chance.
The energetic defender with the unerring left foot progressed quickly through the Wigan ranks, as the Latics climbed the leagues, and his form in the top flight eventually persuaded Everton to return for their former triallist.
But the uncertainty of those early days left a firm impression on Baines, and perhaps helped mould the hard-working, no-nonsense demeanour which has made him a Goodison favourite.
“When I look back to where I’ve come from it feels a long way,” says Baines. “The first team I played for was a Sunday League team called Key Ways. There were also a few lads who are in the Premier League now. Ryan Taylor who is at Newcastle played for us and we were about 10 or 11 at the time.
“Ryan was probably our best player, he was THAT man, on free-kicks, goal-kicks, corners, throw-ins, so he was the main man for us. It was basically just the love of football that got me into it.
“As a kid I used to play every single day out in the street and in the fields with friends.
“A lot of my mates were joining teams, but I was probably the last one to join up really. There were a couple of teams and I joined up with one of them.”
The man who perhaps had the most important impact on the young footballer was his grandfather, nicknamed ‘Dixie’, he idolised his grandson and fuelled his love of the game.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandad,” he says. “He took me not only to my own games but we used to go around watching other games and non-league football, we used to hang out together a lot.
“If he wasn’t watching football he would be talking about it. His whole life was about football.
“When he sadly passed away when I was about 13 it was my mum and dad who I’d go with. I used to play in midfield or up front and that’s all you want to do when you’re a kid, go forward and try to get near the goal to score.
“It wasn’t until I went to Wigan when I was 15 that I started to play left-back. I had been released by Everton at about 12 and was happy just playing with my mates, but during the final year or so of school I realised I had to try and get in a club again to give myself a chance of getting a YTS contract.
“I went back to Everton for another trial but they said I wasn’t for them. Then I went to Liverpool and that had the same outcome.”
The rejection left the young Baines devastated.
“As a kid growing up in Liverpool that’s all you know, Liverpool and Everton,” he says.
“That was a setback and I was inconsolable when I realised I couldn’t play for either of those.
“Then I had a trial match for Wolves and a trial match for Wigan and they just asked me to stay and sign. I was delighted.”
From those lows, the youngster went on to forge a successful club career, culminating with being voted Everton’s player of the season last month.
Baines was the only English outfield player to play in every minute of his club’s Premier League campaign this season, an achievement of which he is justifiably proud.
“I’ve been really pleased with my season for Everton,” he says.
“To play in every game has been a massive help. It was the same last year, I missed only one game if I remember.
“ I think that says a lot, if you stay out there and keep playing you can definitely find some consistency and some decent form when you are playing so regularly and your season isn’t stop-start.
“The first England team I played for was the Under-21s. I’d never been involved in the international set-up before that.
“I got in and around the first team at Wigan when I was 18 and then in the Under-21s when I was 19 after playing a full season for Wigan in the Championship. My first trip with England was away to Austria and Poland. I can remember going and being one of the few players from the Championship, a lot of the others were from the Premier League, so it was an eye-opener for me and a really good experience.
“It was quite surreal to see my name on the back of an England shirt as I’d come from nowhere in a sense.”
It is a statement that sums up Baines’ every-man approach.
Instead of assuming an arrogant entitlement to all of the games riches and glory, Everton’s full back has come up the hard way and will tell you he has a long way to go.
Thank heavens then, that he eventually wound up back in the blue half of the Mersey fold.