Sussex born & bred: Leon Legge
In the first of our new ‘Sussex born & bred’ series we spoke the Bexhill-born current captain of Port Vale, Leon Legge, about his journey in the game and some of the influences on his career that saw him go from Little Common Rec. to Wembley.
“I’m lying there looking up at the sky with 20 teammates around me... next thing I know there’s a paramedic with me.” It’s an inspiring story, the one Leon tells us. First epileptic seizure at 16-years-old, failed trials, representing Sussex, to eventually making it as a professional at the age of 24.
The journey began for Leon with Little Common, joining the club as an eight-year-old. He stayed with The Green Lane Boys for most of his childhood and you get the feeling it’s his desire to challenge himself that’s helped him to where he is today.
“When I got to under-16s I decided to go and train with the first-team, because John Copley had taken over and they were looking for more players. I didn’t expect anything to come from it but then I got put in the squad as a centre-half.
“I didn’t see myself as a centre-back at all, I hated all that defending and stuff, I was a midfielder, but he trusted me at centre-half. So, then there I was 16-years-old playing against big men on a Saturday, but I was still playing on a Sunday in the youth as well so my whole weekend was just football.”
When it comes to early influences on his football career in Sussex, Leon is spoilt for choice, “there were a few at the time like Andy Atkin who I played with. But the biggest one for me, however, was Ken Cherry (Little Common chairman). He was a massive influence on me, he really looked out for me and all the other young players at the club, he was involved from the young ones right the way to the top looking after players.”
Little Common stalwarts Ken, who is sadly no longer with us, and his wife Margaret, were honoured at Buckingham Palace in 2013 as part of The FA’s 150th anniversary and Leon is just one of many success stories that Ken oversaw at the club.
Talking over his time at Little Common, Leon anticipates the question about the condition he has, that first emerged on a Thursday night at Bexhill College.
“We were training at Bexhill College doing an eleven-a-side game, I went up for a header, didn’t quite head it right, then went up for the second header and next thing I just collapsed. Luckily John [Copley], knew what was happening because his daughter had epilepsy, so he knew how to deal with a seizure.
“It was scary because I’m lying there looking up at the sky with 20 teammates around me and I’m thinking ‘what has happened here?’. Next thing I know there’s a paramedic with me. It was a scary feeling because I’m wanting answers as to what’s actually happened.
“I’m being shipped off in an ambulance and then I’m being told I’ve had a seizure. I’m thinking ‘well I don’t have epilepsy so why has this happened?’ But then it soon becomes clear.”
The 35-year-old however has not let the condition hinder what he wanted to achieve in the game.
“I’ve never let it get in the way of what I wanted to do. I was a young lad (16) and I just wanted to play football and that’s all I cared about. Because I was so young and didn’t know a lot about epilepsy, the dangers still never really crossed my mind.”
Leon also goes by the alias of Epilepsy Baller working as an advocate to raise awareness for his condition. What’s more, November is Epilepsy Awareness Month which he tells us the importance of: “Epilepsy Awareness Month is so important and that’s why I have my blog (Epilepsy Baller). When you ask people about epilepsy you usually get the same response about strobe lighting, seizures etc. but epilepsy is a lot more than that.
“There are so many different types of epilepsy and they are all different in their own way, but all relate to each other. That’s why myself and others are helping raise awareness, to help more people understand the condition more, rather than just seizures and strobe lighting.
“I don’t actually have mine (seizures) when I’m awake anymore, I have them when I’m sleeping. I can tell when I’ve woken up that I’ve had a seizure. I’ve just got to be aware that when I’m tired, I’ve taken my medication and I get enough sleep.”
It’s not just Epilepsy Awareness Month that means a lot to Leon, but also Black History Month which ran throughout October: “It has a massive importance to me. I have plans to go into coaching and there’s so few Black, Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) managers and coaches in the game professionally.
“The social side of it is great. People and players are talking about the subject which is so important and getting people to understand what racial equality is.
“When these types of incidents happen in football, it can sometimes get brushed under the table. It’s a conversation that needs to continue into the next month and the one after.”
Back to his footballing career, there was a key moment as a young player that perhaps shaped his career going forward, “After not really knowing what my best position was, in midfield or defence, Brian Dennis came and watched me at Eastbourne United and asked me to go to Hailsham, he even came to my house and spoke to me.
“I spent a good couple of seasons there and ended up playing under Kenny McCreadie. Him and Brian were big influences for me. It was there under Brian that I solidified as a centre-back after chopping and changing for a while.”
Then, moving forward, things really picked up for the young Sussex footballer following a move to the Dripping Pan: “When Lewes came looking and after speaking to them and Eastbourne Borough I went to Lewes and I spent three great seasons there - winning the league (National League South) getting promoted to the National League Premier and winning the Sussex Senior Cup; I really loved my time there under Steve King.
“At this point I’m a young player playing at a good level, and I started to get scouted for a few professional clubs, like Brighton and I also went on trial at Peterborough.”
At the time, things weren’t going well at Lewes with the club on the verge of being sold and a lot of uncertainty, that prompted Leon to take the risky decision to drop down the leagues: “I ended up going to Tonbridge Angels after the trials with the pro clubs weren’t working out, and Lewes was being sold, so I decided to try something new.
“I dropped down a level to go there but Tommy Warrilow, the manager, essentially said to me ‘come here and we’ll get you a move’ and I just took their word for it really.
“I had a good season there, I ended up scoring 9 or 10 goals, then on my summer holiday I bumped into Tommy and he told me in a bar that Brentford and also Dagenham & Redbridge were looking at me.
“It turned out Dagenham didn’t want to pay a fee to Tonbridge for me and then Brentford came in with a small one. I had a meeting with Andy Scott and Terry Bullivant (Brentford Management), had a good chat with them and then ended up signing. It was important to me that Tonbridge got something out of my move.
“Andy and Terry actually said after I’d signed that they’d been along a few times to watch me, including one where I was playing up front! I had absolutely no idea they had been watching me, I think I’d of played a bit better if I knew!”
To say his career took off at this point would be an understatement. He went on to play at Wembley with Brentford and was voted their Player of the Year, he won promotion with Gillingham, again achieved Player of the Year at Cambridge United and is now the captain Port Vale, having amassed over 350 professional career appearances.
Leon has openly spoke about his influences in Sussex, but one man, later in his career, that needs a mention is the late Justin Edinburgh: “When I left Gillingham for Cambridge it was a weird one because I was playing under Justin Edinburgh who I got on really well with, I even got man-of-the-match in my last game.
“But I was told Gillingham wanted to go in a different direction and that’s just football really. I owe everything to Justin though, he brought the love of football back into my life when he came in at Gillingham, at a time when I was slightly falling out of love with the game.”
So, what does the future hold for Leon Legge? He has no qualms about making it as a BAME coach in professional football, and nor should he. His vision of coaching that he wants to pursue, however, is a unique one.
“Right now, I’m coaching with the Port Vale under-16s in the academy which has unfortunately been put on hold due to COVID, as the manager doesn’t want the risk of me being out for two weeks, but I’m doing my coaching badges.
“I’d like to go into coaching on the defensive side of things. I think it’s something that has been lost in the game, the art of defending. I think (Lewis) Dunk at Brighton is a perfect example, he is someone who loves to defend, he enjoys defending, he loves making a tackle, whereas I feel that aspect of defending has been lost in the game a bit and I want to see more of it.”
Lastly, Leon reminisces with us about his time playing for Sussex, in our Senior Representative Squad, back in 2005 when he made four appearances under the stewardship of John Suter: “At the age I was, I really wanted to play for the Sussex Rep Squad. At the time though, because I was under contract at Hailsham, I wasn’t allowed. So, I asked to come out of my contact just so that I could play for Sussex.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for me to play away in different places and get my name out there because you never know who’s watching!”
‘You never know who’s watching’ is quite possibly the definition of a successful career for Leon Legge. From Brian Dennis watching him at Eastbourne United, to Andy Scott scouting him at Tonbridge Angels. Nonetheless, a career that should provide inspiration for many.
To find out more about playing opportunities in Sussex please contact:
T: 01903 766855