Yorkshireman Leigh was a deadline day signing from Sheffield United in 2008 as Aidy Boothroyd looked to bolster a team looking for promotion. He was at the club for about twelve months, scoring a solitary goal in around forty appearances. He rejoined Sheffield United a year later.
Now Academy Manager at Huddersfield United, Leigh spoke to Watford Legends in early 2019.
Hi Leigh, thanks for talking to Watford Legends. You joined the club in the January transfer window in 2008. What attracted you to join the club?
At the time, Watford were flying in the league, they were second or third, that was an attraction straight away. Like Watford, I’d been relegated the season before with Sheffield United.
I wasn’t expecting to leave Sheffield really, it wasn’t something I’d pushed. I came down to Watford and spoke to Aidy Boothroyd. I knew Aidy from before, I’d gone to Norwich on loan, he was youth team coach there. So there was a couple of things really.
They were a club that had been promoted and were pushing again, and that was a big thing.
I think I’m right in saying you’d played against Watford for Sheffield United shortly before you joined?
Yeah I think it was a few days before.
Actually, another big thing (about the move) was Malky Mackay who was there. I’d played with him at Norwich. He was really good friends with a player I was at Sheffield Wednesday with, so I knew him.
He spoke to me at that game. I didn’t know of any interest and he mentioned it that night, said something like “I’ll see you tomorrow”. It was a bit of a strange one.
You made your debut against Wolves and set up a goal in the first minute. A long throw!
I played straight away, I think I was centre-back with Aidy Mariappa who’s back there now, he was coming through then.
The team when I came, there was a lot of talent with Tommy Smith, Darius Henderson, Danny Shittu. At that time, after that game, I thought 100% we’d get promoted.
It was all good and it’s great to get a win in your first game.
Aidy Boothroyd was known to favour quite a direct route to goal. Was your long throw something he had identified when he signed you?
I think so. I think people expect it a bit more now, teams use it as a bit of a set-piece.
Back then Aidy was just seen as a direct manager, long balls and long throws, but if you look at that team, it had a lot more talent in it than just long balls. I think Aidy’s teams got tagged with that, I never felt when I played in it that style, there was more talent than that.
The team had hit a bit of a rough patch after a very good start. How did you find the morale at the club when you joined?
I think if you look towards the end of that season there were a lot of draws. So it wasn’t that we were losing games, but we were drawing too many. If we’d turned some of those games, many of which we dominated and we weren’t conceding many goals, into three or four more wins we’d have been promoted. So there wasn’t that much wrong.
If you look at morale, there was a lot of pressure to get promoted. Aidy had signed players like John Eustace who had been promoted before with other clubs, who had the experience. But unfortunately it didn’t happen.
What are your memories of the play-offs at the end of the season?
I genuinely thought, and many others did as well, that we would go up automatically. That becomes an issue sometimes when you’re in the play-offs, you have to refocus.
I think we got unlucky. If you look at the game against Hull at Vicarage Road, Danny Shittu had a goal disallowed early on, and we’d have gone on to win the game as we were the better team.
We were the better team in the first half of the second leg, but Richard Lee made a mistake for their goal, and in play-off games they are key. Although the scoreline wasn’t great, there wasn’t much in the games. You get mistakes like that, referee not giving that goal, Eustace getting sent off and that red card getting rescinded. Then Richard making the mistake in the second leg, that’s three mistakes over the two legs, you’re not getting the luck you want really.
The following season was a bit of a mixed bag and Aidy Boothroyd left the club and was replaced by Brendan Rodgers. How did you find working for the new coach?
There were a lot of changes. I thought Watford were a fantastic club and I was enjoying it. The summer comes and there are noises, players leaving, Aidy under a bit of pressure.
There wasn’t a great vibe going into that season. Danny (Shittu) left and Darius left and they were key players really, and that’s not great going into another season looking to get promoted.
As soon as Brendan came in it was refreshing. He’s obviously gone on to great things. I think I lasted five weeks max with him! Three or four games.
He was great with me, pulled me in straight away and said look, this is the situation the club’s in, there’s interest in you and you can pick where to go. Me being a true northerner, I wanted to come back home.
I had other options, Neil Warnock was at Palace at the time. We’d just had a baby and had just moved into a house in the area. I went back to Sheffield United and we got to the play-off final again. That could have been a great move but we missed out and that was two seasons in a row I’d just missed out, semi-final one year, final the next.
It was a bit of a whirlwind, twelve months I think it was at Watford. I enjoyed Aidy’s time, and then loved the short time when Brendan came in, only seeing that for a little bit. I was back at Sheffield United within such a short space of time. My wife still speaks now that we’d love to move back, we loved the time at Watford, people were so friendly, the club were friendly. It was a big part of my career as it was the first time I’d moved away. I’ve got really good and happy memories, and my family have. I really enjoyed my time there.
You spent most of your playing and now coaching career around the Yorkshire area – how did you find the south?!
I really enjoyed it. I think if I was to move now, I’d want to stay in that area. It’s a fantastic place to live and a great club, a great training ground.
But when you’re playing, it’s a little bit different. I’ve been lucky to play in Yorkshire and play for big clubs when I’m from Yorkshire.
The main difference I’d say, is that Watford fans were, not sure how you’d put this, they were really good to you. They didn’t know anything about me when I arrived but they were so welcoming. They’d talk about the football more, whereas the northern clubs it was all about results, so if you lose you’re rubbish and if you win you’re brilliant.
At Watford they’d have more of a conversation with respect to the performance. They wouldn’t get on your back, they didn’t get over excited or overly negative. The fans I spoke to were always really positive and encouraging, I always got nice feedback.
At the home games there was always a good atmosphere, there was never any negativity around the place even when we didn’t go up. As long as you tried your best, the atmosphere was really good and the fans were patient.
Your final club as a player was Leeds United, and I think I’m right in saying you’re a Leeds fan. That must have been a great way to finish your playing career?
Yeah it was. It was always my dream to play for Leeds.
It was a big moment. I actually signed on my Dad’s birthday, and my Dad’s a Leeds fan and all my family are Leeds fans.
We got promoted in my first season and then it never really kicked on for me. I only played about 50 games for Leeds and most of those were in the first year.
I supported the club growing up and really loved playing for them, but if you look at it from a career point of view, I didn’t really play as many games as I wanted, probably didn’t play as well as I’d wanted, and had an injury that ended my career.
The good thing about Leeds is that they started me on a coaching pathway, the academy is a big part of the club and Ken Bates gave me my first coaching job, so I’m grateful for that.
If you look at the boyhood dream of signing for the club it was great, we got promotion and the ambition was there, but I didn’t achieve as much as I wanted there really.
You’re now working with the development squad at Huddersfield. How are you finding things?
Yeah I’m Academy Manager at Huddersfield.
I had to retire early through a knee injury at 32 which has allowed me to progress to this job. I’ve done a lot of qualifications and a lot of coaching hours to get to this point.
I absolutely love my job, love still being in football. It’s more of a teaching role and a management role. It’s a really good club, a fantastic owner, a very good Chief Exec who was at Watford when I was there, Julian Winter. He sold me when I was at Watford and I think at Sheffield Wednesday! A lot of the ideas from Watford are in place, bringing the youth players through.
What I would also say is that in my time at Watford I met some unbelievable people, so Nick Cox at Man U, I’m on his course at the minute, I met him at Watford. Malky Mackay was manager and has done really well. Sean Dyche, all these people that started at Watford still in the game and moved on to really good careers, and I met them at Watford.
Did you fancy throwing your hat into the ring when there was the recent change in management at Huddersfield?
No. My ambitions are not to be the manager, I’d like to be the Director of Football really, on that side of things. I’m on a course now on the Business Management and Performance Management side, that route really.
Quick Fire Round
|Favourite Ground (apart from the Vic)|
|White Hart Lane – playing for Leeds in the cup, everything’s really close, it’s like an old traditional stadium and the fans are on top of you.|
|Bit of a random one, but when I was a kid, I played for Sheffield Wednesday and Andy Cole had just signed for Blackburn, we played them in the League Cup Semi-Final and he scored five goals over two legs. He was top drawer.|
|Best Ever Player|
|Back to the Leeds days, Gordon Strachan. Best player I’ve seen live was Totti for Roma in the Champions League.|
|Italian. Va Pensiero in Radlett, they do the best garlic bread ever!|
|A really good red wine, or as a proper Northerner, a Moretti beer on a warm day.|
|This morning I’ve been getting hammered in the gym for my music, Old School Dance.|
|Favourite Holiday Destination|
|Black Corsa SXi, 2 years free insurance!|
|Favourite TV Show|
|It would be a Netflix series like Gomorrah or Narcos. Or any documentary series like the Sunderland or Man City one. The best series is Entourage.|