GRAHAM Branch had no qualms about dropping down the divisions when his eight-and-a-half-year career with the Clarets came to an end almost three years ago.

He loved playing football and wanted to avoid hanging up his boots for as long as possible.

After a short spell with Accrington Stanley, he stepped out of the Football League altogether, first signing for Cammell Laird before moving on to Colwyn Bay.

But a freak injury which threatened his eyesight has given him a whole new perspective.

Now, he’s just loving life.

“I realise how lucky I’ve been to have played for as long as I did,” said Branch, who hasn’t kicked a competitive ball since April last year.

“It’s amazing that probably the worst injury I’ve had happened at the end of my career.

“It was a total accident – I got caught with the end of a lad’s boot – but the impact blew out the floor in my orbital bone.

“I thought I’d lost my eye when it happened.

“I’ve had two operations and there’s a chance I might need a third but I don’t think that will be necessary.

“I’ve been lucky. My eyesight’s fine.

“But I decided to finish playing after that.

“Your eyes are so precious, and when something like that happens it makes you realise what’s important.”

Instead of spending his Saturday afternoon’s on the muddy plains of the UniBond First Division, he is focusing all of his attention on five-year-old son Leo.

“He’s keeping me occupied at the moment,” said the 38-year-old, who made almost 300 appearances for the Clarets and described himself as ‘over the moon’ when they won promotion to the Premier League at Wembley last May.

“Once they got into the play-offs I knew they would go up,” he said.

Does he think they can they stay up?

“They weren’t expected to,” he continued.

“But if they do go down I think they will come straight back up again next season. Until you establish yourself it’s very tough. But I hope they do it!”

Branch was a brief part of the emergence of this afternoon’s opponents, Wigan, in the middle of their 1997/98 campaign.

Dave Whelan had started to pump his fortune into the club, who finished mid-table following promotion to Division Two as champions, but they were still playing at Springfield Park.

“How that old stadium didn’t fall down I don’t know,” he laughed.

“But I hadn’t played football for six or seven months after a big fall-out with John Aldridge at Tranmere, so it was just good to get out.

“Dave Whelan had started to splash a bit of money because they were looking to progress up the leagues, which they’ve done.”

They have enjoyed the trappings of promotions, the Premier League and a multi-millionaire backer who has been prepared to spend big to boost their chances of staying in the big time.

But Branch doesn’t blame Burnley chairman Barry Kilby for not throwing the chequebook at the Clarets’ first season back in the top flight.

“I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a nice man and has a very wise head on his shoulders. He’s going about it the right way, without a doubt,” he said.

“You don’t become a successful businessman like he has without having a lot of brain cells.

“And because he’s a fan he wants the best for the club.

“He loves the club, and I’m glad they managed to get into the Premier League while he was chairman.

“He deserves it, and I’m sure they will have more success.”