Updated: Jun 20, 2020
We slid in to his dm’s. He replied. Which, in itself, was surprising given the blue tick residing next to his Instagram handle. The obtaining of which is an interesting rhetoric from his so-far solitary season in the Eredivise.
But despite that mark of verification, Leigh is as humble as they come. “Every match I get asked for my autograph but I think to myself ‘why? I’m just normal!’” The defender clearly doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. And, to me, as a supporter of Scottish football, who maintains that the connection between our players and supporters contributes to the disposition of our game north of the border, it was refreshing to see. Especially from a player who grew up amongst legends: “I remember when Aguero first signed for City”, Greg recalls. “When you first saw him, you were like ‘oh my god, that’s Aguero!’ But, after a few weeks, the awe wore off and he just became a teammate. I think that’s why I don’t really buy in to the celebrity lifestyle of a footballer.”
Greg and I arranged to meet in Aberdeen on the first Sunday of February to do a shoot and interview. Unfortunately, Connor, Stonewaller’s photographer, was suffering from the Scottish winter and couldn’t attend. But I still felt it made sense to travel up and ask some questions. I arrived early. After 10 minutes-or-so of waiting, a figure emerged through the granite buildings - as did two crutches. Maybe it was for the best the shoot was delayed - but I think that was mainly because Greg wanted to pattern up a trim first!
Anyway, Leigh’s time in Holland was cut short last summer, temporarily at least, when he signed for Aberdeen on a season-long loan - The Dons have the option to make it permanent. And whilst the Red Army wait with baited breath for developments on any potential deal, we thought we’d take Greg’s mind off the speculation and his rehabilitation with a whistle-stop tour of his career thus far. Our scheduled stop-offs include trips to Jamaica, Canada and the afore-mentioned Netherlands. But, for some, the best part of a holiday is the coming home. So let’s start with Leigh’s first. Strap in.
You were born and raised in Sale, a suburb in south-West Manchester. You signed for local boys club Sale United – what do you remember from your time spent there as a kid? So I was always a striker growing up! But I just remember romping everyone - our team was decent, to be fair! We used to win 8-0 or 9-0 every week. And it was from there that I got scouted by City.
But geographically, Sale is a lot closer to United than it is to City. Growing up, were you in the red or the blue corner? I was a red! I think I’m long enough out of City now to admit that!
In that case, did you have any reservations when signing for Manchester City? I was actually trialling for United at the time. But our Sale team were so good that we got a full team trial against City and, from that, City offered me a proper deal. So it was a no brainer really.
As you’ve mentioned, you were scouted as a striker. So how did the transition to left back come about and how long was it before it happened? It was a few years in actually. But, when I first went in to the academy, there were already four or five strikers, so I started out playing left wing. But when we made the move to 11-aside, we didn’t have enough defenders. So, because I enjoyed defending, unlike a lot of boys at 14-15, they asked me to play centre-half. And from there I moved out to left-back.
That’s not the only change that happened during your time at City as the club itself received substantial investment from their new Middle-Eastern owners – how was it watching that transition unfold at such close proximity? It was interesting! It was definitely slow at first. You’d see things change around the training ground at first, then you’d see foreign players be introduced to the club. We, as academy players, were assured that the way the club viewed their youth policy wouldn’t change as, traditionally, City are a very home-grown club. But obviously, looking at it now, it’s changed quite drastically. It was also interesting to see how the new investment impacted the players in the academy. I remember the first contracts given out after all the money arrived, they were giving out big, big deals to young guys - that really changed the dynamic in our dressing room and between players. But obviously, the facilities improved, coaching improved. But it was always everyone’s dream to be an academy graduate. You saw players on the board who had done it in the past - Kieran Trippier, Micah Richards, Stephen Ireland - that definitely became harder to do when the money came in.
That’s one thing I wanted to ask you. For you personally, did you have mixed emotions about the investment being put in to the club? Whilst you wanted to see the club enjoy success and train in the best possible facilities, your chances of reaching the first team would diminish with the likes of Gael Clichy and Alaksander Kolarov signing for the club. At that point, I was maybe slightly too young to start worrying about the first-team. I just continued to play with the academy and looked to progress through the youth teams as the way they release players is very cut-throat.
You certainly did that as you were nominated for the academy’s player of the year award in the 12-13 season as well as gaining international recognition with the England U19’s in January 2013 – did you think you were making strides to get in to the first team picture at that point? Kind of. Although I think I was more realistic about my chances. I played with Denis Suárez and Karim Rekik who were quality players and physically, fully grown men at 17, 18. Even those guys weren’t getting a sniff. So I realised that it probably wasn’t my path anymore. Despite that, I just wanted to play a game to boost my CV going forward. I was almost involved in a Capital One Cup game; but was let down last minute. I had trained all week and Kolarov was injured, so I travelled with the squad, ate dinner with them, stayed at the hotel, had breakfast the following morning - then in walks Kolarov! Which meant he was on the bench and I was pushed to the stands. So I was very close.
Despite that near inclusion, you went on loan to Crewe Alexandra at the beginning of the 2014-15 season – did you feel that was best for your development at that stage? I’d say definitely. I needed experience. I had a good year with the academy under Patrick Viera, I learnt a lot; I learnt the theory of the game. We had a strong team that year but we just missed out on silverware; I think that was seen as the end of the road for a lot of the players in that side. And I was one of them - I needed to go out and get games under my belt. As, in my opinion, there’s a big difference between youth football and senior football. The need to go out on loan is less so now for players at the bigger clubs in England with the new format of the EFL Trophy, but we didn’t have that back then.
You played 42 times for Crewe that year and scored the goal of the season but were released by Manchester City upon the expiry of your loan deal – how tough was that to take? Nah, that was a tough one to take. More just because of the manner in which it happened. So it happened in the January. I was misled a lot; they offered me the opportunity to sign for New York City on loan as part of the affliction. But then they realised they had to offer me a new deal as my contract was expiring, so that was taken off the table - that was really frustrating. Then, when it came to finding out I wasn’t getting a new contract, it was my agent that told me as opposed to the club. But, that’s football; it happens. I’ve seen a lot worse since then. It was just frustrating. And scary; I was no longer under the umbrella of City - it was just me on my ow