History Boys | Karleigh Osborne

At 15-years of age, Karleigh Osborne was starting to lose faith in his ability to play football.

Several trials – the last of which had been spent with QPR – had been unsuccessful and the central defender was unsure of where to turn next in his bid to fulfil his potential and work towards becoming a professional footballer.

But soon he was back on the right track, thanks to a familiar name. Former Brentford club captain Bobby Ross had spent eight years leading the line at Griffin Park from 1966 to 1972 and just so happened to be the man to set the wheels in motion.

“Bobby used to look after me and had a lot of belief in me,” Karleigh explains to BEES. “It didn’t work out at QPR, so he asked me if I wanted to go on trial at Brentford. At the time I didn’t know much about the club, but I was a young lad starting to lose the belief in myself and I said I’d give it one more shot.

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“I stayed there for a few weeks and then I found out there was one more scholarship place up for grabs. They wanted to give it to a defender, but they weren’t sure who so there were three of us going for just one spot.

“We played in a tournament with teams like Celtic and Arsenal and, afterwards, they were going to announce who’d been picked, but a week before, I split my head open at school and I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play, but I figured it was my last shot and I played anyway.

“I played with the stitches in and did well but in the last game, my head split open again and it was almost that sort of Terry Butcher image covered in blood, though mine wasn’t quite as bad! I ended up doing well, proving my worth and then Geoff Taylor offered me a scholarship, I signed it and from there I kicked on.”

From there, his career gathered momentum. He was part of the matchday squad on four occasions during the 2004/05 season and was handed his first team bow on the final day of that League One campaign as boss Martin Allen blooded a number of youth team prospects against runners-up Hull City.

With a play-off spot secured, fans were treated to the first sight of the likes of Karleigh, Ryan Watts, Charlie Ide and Darius Charles. It was testament to the quality of player the club was producing at the time that the rotated 11 battled back from going behind in the first minute to secure a 2-1 victory in front of a seldom-seen 9,000+ home crowd.

Though handed pro terms aged 17, it wasn’t until the 2006/07 season he began to make his mark. Martin Allen had shocked fans as he departed the club following successive play-off defeats and Leroy Rosenior was installed as his successor.

The Bees struggled to progress under the former Fulham, QPR and West Ham striker and he was relieved of his duties in November 2006, having overseen a winless run of 16 games. Scott Fitzgerald took over on a caretaker basis and couldn’t prevent the club finishing the season at rock bottom. Those days were no doubt some of the darkest in the club’s history, but Karleigh says they taught him valuable, transferable life lessons.

He said: “When you are young it is a tough battle to go through, but I’m thankful for those times and the tough times we were put through because the learning we were given in terms of having a strong mentality is priceless. That has put me in good stead for my life and the rest of my career.”

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Having clearly impressed, a fresh two-year deal was tabled – and duly signed – following relegation to League Two. Playing in the fourth tier was certain, but tying down the key performers was not; top scorer Jo Kuffour the most notable example as the ex-Arsenal trainee turned down a lucrative contract to join Bournemouth.

Karleigh made 31 appearances as the Bees stopped the rot and consolidated after finishing 14th in League Two under Andy Scott in the 2007/08 season, but when the 2008/09 season rolled into town, he was surprised to be sent out on loan.

“I was on loan at Oxford first and then I thought I was going to be playing or becoming more of a figure at the start of the season, but it wasn’t to be for whatever reason. I went out on loan and did well and then ended up going straight out to Eastbourne for another month and of course, when that happens you are wondering if it is happening for you.

“I love Brentford through and through so in my mind I didn’t want to fail there, I didn’t want to leave without leaving my mark. When I went on loan I worked my socks off, put in good performances. There were a couple of injuries and I ended up getting called back to Brentford and I ended up playing most of the season from then on.

“I was extremely fired up and the squad was doing well at the time, but I wanted to prove my worth and wanted to show that I was good enough to be in that team and to achieve what we were trying to achieve. I did that by going out on loan and I answered some questions that people may have had about me. I proved my worth and I came back and did it with a Brentford shirt on.

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“It was a good learning curve for me, definitely, but I came back and managed to play a big part in us getting promoted and winning the league.”

He returned to west London in November 2008 and in the 26 appearances that he made in the remainder of the season, Andy Scott’s men kept a notable 11 clean sheets. The loan spells may have come as a shock, yet the fruits of his toils upon his return were sweet.

He continued: “I think he [Andy Scott] expected more of me and I think he was right to; I think that’s why he did what he did in sending me out on loan, which was good for me at that time. Football is a game of opinions, so everyone’s opinion is going to be different.

“Now I look back and reflect on things, I think he was right to send me out on loan; there was no issue between us but he had to do what was best for the club at that time. It worked out because when I came back he got a better player. There were never any hard feelings or anything like that, he was a good manager, did well at the club and got Brentford moving in the right direction.”

Nearly all of the History Boys subjects so far have mentioned the 1-0 victory over Bournemouth at Dean Court in April 2009.

It’s no doubt been resurrected particularly given the difficulty of the game following the dispute between Karleigh and Darren Powell, which saw the latter dismissed just four minutes into the second half. But what does the younger of the pair remember about both the occasion and the altercation?

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“It was a great win, obviously. We were against it playing against them and then we had a man sent off but we kept going. Me and Powelly ended up having a little argument but it was because we are winners and we wanted to win. That was all it was.

“When that happened, that little bit of adversity that we ended up facing in that situation pulled us closer and tighter together, which showed what we were as a squad, as a unit, as a team and as a club. That injected another bit of fuel into us to go on and take the league by storm.”

Less than two weeks later, the league was wrapped up with the 3-1 win at Darlington. Karleigh, along with Marvin Williams, was an unused substitute on the day itself, though he scored on the final day of the season in the 2-0 win over doomed Luton at Griffin Park.

It was a fitting end to a tumultuous season for the 21-year-old; his story had come full circle.

“For me, Darlington away when we secured the title sticks in the mind, but there were a few games at home where we were against it but everybody in the ground pulled together – the fans were an extra man for us. I think throughout the whole season, the atmosphere the fans provided for us to go on win games and keep believing, even when it was tough. They are memories that I will never forget.

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“I want to play every single game – that’s how I am, that’s how I was. But it’s a team game, it’s not about me, so I was fully behind whichever 11 players were on the pitch, supporting all the way through. If I was called upon I’d be ready to do what I need to do to help the team.

“On a personal note, it was amazing because I’d come through the youth team and earned my way from being a 15-year-old boy with hopes and dreams of playing for the first team and winning silverware, to actually achieving it. That’s a feeling that will live with me forever because it’s something I wanted to do. To help Brentford go back in the right direction was fantastic.”

Having made 51 appearances under Andy Scott, and later Nicky Forster, in the 2010/11 season, rumours circulated that a bumper new contract would be offered to Karleigh as he continued to improve and grow into the mould of the academy success he was always touted as.

Nothing concrete came of the speculation and, though he was handed chances under Uwe Rosler after Scott had been dismissed, he was released in the summer of 2012 and snapped up by Millwall boss Kenny Jackett.

Having left the club with 185 appearances under his belt, Karleigh sits comfortably in the top 100 Brentford all-time appearance list, though that statistic provides him with little solace.

“When I ended up leaving, it was sad and a really tough time for me,” he said. “If we’d handled stuff differently and maybe I’d handled stuff a little bit differently, who knows if I would’ve stayed there for a lot longer.

“I enjoyed my time working under Uwe Rosler, he was a fantastic coach. Where he took Brentford as well and the football they play now kind of started from him and he was building that.

“It’s tough because my thing was always wanting to finish my career at Brentford, that is how I felt and that is what I wanted to do. That was something that didn’t happen, but who is to say that it won’t happen? I’ve still got a good few years in me yet!

“I’ve got nothing but respect for the club and the people there, there’s some people who have been there for a long time who are the cornerstones of the club – they do everything and give everything for the club.”

The ill-fated two-year spell at Millwall was followed by a loan and subsequent transfer to Bristol City, during which he scored a ‘bittersweet’ goal against the Bees, before a significant shin injury essentially brought his time in the Robins first team to a close.

He was sent out on loan to Colchester and AFC Wimbledon, before joining Plymouth upon the expiry of his contract at Ashton Gate. Karleigh barely featured for Argyle and, following that Kilmarnock, and was released by League Two Grimsby in the summer. But he’s survived an arduous part his career and is looking to get back into the EFL, having dropped out for the first time.

Karleigh is a current member of Gary Waddock’s squad at National League side Aldershot. His playing days are, by his own admission, far from over yet he has made strides onto the other side of the touchline already.

Having previously worked with the Brentford Women’s team during a loan spell with AFC Wimbledon in the 2015/16 season, he was brought back on board at the beginning of July, this time as head coach.

As has been well-documented, the women’s team – part of the Greater London Women’s Football League Division One – is very much on the rise and seemingly heading in the desired direction under the stewardship of both Karleigh and Development Team managers Nathan Mobey and Justin Ali.

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His tenure may have only really just got underway, but there are significant plans on the horizon.

He said: “We are trying to change the club and get it as professional as we can to emulate some of the success the men are having, but we are a long way from that at the moment.

“It’s the first year and there are a lot of differences and changes being made, but there are really good people and some talented players there. We want to build awareness about the ladies and we have a five-year plan, so if we can bring the women’s and men’s clubs closer together and heading in the right direction, that would be fantastic.

“I think the earlier you start [coaching], the better. I see the game differently now just because I’ve got my UEFA B licence. I see the game differently and understand it better, which is only going to help me as a player as well.”

Quite unbelievably Karleigh is still just 30-years-old and, even six years on from his Griffin Park departure, his deep connection with the club burns on.

“It was an honour to represent Brentford for the time that I did,” he gushes. “I loved every minute of it and I still love the club now. I love what they are doing now, the football they are playing, the way the stadium is looking and how the fanbase is growing.

“I live in Isleworth and my family live in Brentford so when I can go back there, I do. It really is a place and a club that is close to my heart.”

Originally featured in BEES Issue #9 vs Middlesbrough (24 November 2018)

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