Monday 24 September 2018

Leon: my best is yet to come

Former Ireland and Premier League star goes back to basics

Leon: "A lot of people just crawl under a stone when times are hard but I looked at my kids every day, I went out on loan and ran harder, worked harder." Picture courtesy of James Brailsford Photography

Playing for your country against the reigning world champions, scoring a Premier League hat-trick and having enough talent to convince a club to spend £3million on you: those are some pretty impressive highs for a sportsman to have.

And the lows? Well, Leon Best has had more than a few of those in the last few years. Injury, unhappy loan spells, exclusion from the national team, a spell of unemployment where he was without a club, a job, to speak of. Twice last year, after a spell on trial, he was rejected by clubs who felt the Ireland international really was washed up at the age of 29.

Looking back now, he references a rarely-remembered movie from 1996 starring Michael Jordan and, erm, Bugs Bunny. "It's like the film Space Jam, people though my talent had just been stolen," Best says.


When he was a Premier League player with Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers, Best would not have envisaged a future where he'd be slogging it out in the Rotherham United shirt, trying to keep that club from sliding into the third tier.

But without being patronising to the club they call the Millers around Yorkshire way, Best has found his feet, found redemption at Rotherham, a club he joined last November following a spell where he was club-less, training on his own.

He likes Rotherham and they like him: when he made his first start in February, they were in the relegation zone, six points away from safety but now, unbeaten in seven games, they are six points clear of the drop zone.

Fit again after some injury-scarred times, scoring goals following a season last term where he played 33 times and didn't score once, he's setting his sights high again and feels he could be back in the Ireland squad before the summer is out, and could be a Premier League player again for next season.

"I am still only 29, I should be in the prime of my career, so to not have a club from last summer through to November was hard, it was a shock to me," Best told the Herald.

"A lot of people were saying I was greedy, that I didn't love the game any more, but I think that now I have kicked a lot of people in the shins with what I have done at Rotherham. It's a club where we're not expected to do well but we're doing something right now, hopefully we can stay up."

Best found himself at a loose end last summer when Blackburn let him go by agreeing to pay up the rest of his contract. He had trials at QPR and Huddersfield but both said no, so that move to Rotherham happened, then-manager Neil Redfearn taking a chance, which Best appreciated .

"This was a test for me. I was at Brighton and Derby on loan last season, two good clubs with great facilities. To go to Rotherham is a big change, the training ground is nowhere near as good as any of the clubs I have been at. It was hard to adapt, I had to wash my own kit and clean my own boots, things I haven't done since I was 16," says Best, who was born in Nottingham but raised in Dublin, where he played schoolboy football for Lourdes Celtic.

"It's a life change but it's done its job as it brought me back to reality and made me realise what I have to be to continue at the level where I want to play.

"It brings you right back to when you were starting off, and I like that. There's a great spirit here at Rotherham, we have no big-time players, no players on big money, everyone gives their all, they are all in it for the love of the game and I think that shows in our games.

"We're unbeaten in seven matches and are clear of the third spot in the relegation battle, if we win tomorrow we can stretch that gap to nine points," he added, pleased with his role.

"I have started five games and scored three goals, we won four of the five games I started.

"I am giving it my all at Rotherham and I love the fact that I signed here. It has opened my eyes to a lot of things and made me want to achieve more in myself.

"I want to be a part of helping Rotherham stay up and next season I want to be a striker who scores goals in the high double figures.

"I know that I am a striker who will score 20-30 goals if I play 30-40 games but I have never in my career had a long run of games, I have had spells but it's been a lot of frustration.

"I look after my body and I know what I need, it's just unfortunate it took me 29 years to learn that," he smiles.

Best's career which looked so promising - Marco Tardelli was a big fan and repeatedly made a case for Best to Giovanni Trapattoni, who capped him seven times (2009-10) - started to slide when Gary Bowyer took over at Blackburn.


The beginning at Rotherham in November was less than ideal as Best was sent off on his debut and then suffered an injury which would keep him out for three months.

"I probably did too much, I think I got the double hernia at Rotherham because I was trying too hard," he says, keen to prove wrong those who said he was finished.

"The time I was without a club was a real eye-opener for me, I was training on my own, doing my own gym work, going to different managers on trial and not getting signed.

"You still have all the bills and costs but no one cares. That's how harsh the game is and people don't realise that.

"You see who your friends are at a time like that but you also see who you are as a man.

"A lot of people just crawl under a stone when times are hard but I looked at my kids every day, I went out on loan and ran harder, worked harder.

"We have six games left, I want to play as much as I can, stay injury-free, score some goals and then look to next season.

"I am a free agent and I already know there are five or six teams who are now interested who could have signed me for peanuts this season but backed off as they didn't want to take the gamble, it was like no one believed in me.

"Rotherham don't have the best facilities or players in the world, we don't have £30million players, but I love it here.

"And it shows that when a team need you, as a player, to do well for them, you want to do your best. Because I know I can prove that I can deliver at a higher level."

Winning Ireland caps again, six years after his last appearance, also drives him.

"It has been frustrating and if you look at the players who have been given the chance by Ireland, you have to question if they are better than me, what have they done that I haven't?

The only answer I can give is that they are playing, now that I am back playing there is no excuse," he says.

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