It’s an early November morning and the first topic on the agenda is a short clip doing the rounds on social media, showing the defender barging his way through a crowd of his team-mates to celebrate with the Port Vale fans after their win away at MK Dons in the FA Cup first round.
Only it’s not as generic as it sounds. He’s waving his hands, sarcastically asking the travelling support for “jazz hands – no clapping” in response to a recent social media furore over a similar ‘ban’ adopted by a university student union.
“It went around everywhere! I was having an argument with someone on Twitter about it; there was a big debate and I got involved. I ended up saying to the fans, if I score or we win, that’s the celebration I’m going for!”
In a way, it typifies the style of the towering 6’4” centre-back, who takes no nonsense either on the pitch or off it. Brentford fans became accustomed to that grit during his three-and-a-half-year stay at Griffin Park, but you might not be reading this feature had the Bees not provided the springboard for him to progress from non-league.
That springboard was presented to him during the summer of 2009, as the club was preparing for life back in League One after a two-year absence. For seven years or so Leon had been doing the rounds in his native East Sussex, turning out for the likes of Eastbourne United, Hailsham Town and Lewes, while balancing full-time work as a care worker and later as a nightclub doorman.
Having started in the professional game at the ripe old age of 24, he openly admits there was a time when he felt the break might not ever come, though his sheer love of the game meant it didn’t matter all that much.
“I had a lot of trials when I was younger,” he says. “I went to Peterborough, had a week at Charlton when Alan Pardew was manager there and they told me they’d keep tabs on me, done a week at Brighton and it was the same sort of thing. I just thought it was never going to happen.
“Even though I was getting told ‘no’, I didn’t want it to affect my football because I’ve seen it happen to players where you hear they’ve been on trials left, right and centre but it doesn’t quite happen. It has an effect sometimes and they disappear and sometimes even give up, but for me, I love football. So whether I became a pro or not, it was something I always liked doing. I enjoyed non-league football. It was good having the banter with the lads and you look forward to Saturdays after a week of work.
“But I ended up going to Tonbridge Angels, had a really good season and scored 10 goals. Halfway through that season I had a trial at Millwall that didn’t pan out and then at the end of the season I bumped into my manager Tommy Warrilow on holiday – we ended up staying in the same hotel; he was on his honeymoon – and he told me he had some news that a couple of clubs were looking at me.
“We spoke about it over a drink and he said it was Brentford, Dagenham & Redbridge and another team. Dagenham didn’t want to pay any money to Tonbridge and then Brentford came in, though the fee wasn’t big. I had a meeting with Andy Scott and Terry Bullivant, had a good chat with them and then ended up signing. I kept it quite quiet so just my family knew about it but then it popped up on Sky Sports News!”
Joining a squad who’d just won League Two meant patience was key, particularly when Alan Bennett and Mark Phillips were the incumbent centre-back partners of choice for Andy Scott. As players making the transition to professional football often find out, there’s a level of fitness required to make the step up and thus Leon found himself playing reserve team football for the first few months.
He was handed his debut away to Norwich in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on 1 September 2009 and made a brief late cameo in a league defeat to Yeovil three weeks later, but though he was coping well and impressing, the bit-part role wasn’t sitting right.
Then came the chance.
“I felt like I was ready, so I went to knock on the gaffer’s door,” he continues. “He said he couldn’t play me at the time because those two [Bennett and Phillips] were playing well, but asked if I was interested on going out on loan.
“I agreed and nearly went to Torquay, where Paul Buckle was manager. I just wanted to get some game time but two weeks later, Mark got injured at Exeter and a few weeks after that we had an FA Cup game against Walsall. I got told on the Friday that I was playing and that was it. I was buzzing, got to sleep early, told my mates I was going to be starting and a few of them put bets on and I ended up scoring as well!
“Griffin Park was packed with fans but because they hadn’t really seen me play, they could’ve thought it was a bit of a gamble to play me. I was just glad to have taken my chance. Before that, the most I probably played in front of was 1,000, or something. To see 4-5,000 was great and it was one of those where I wanted to keep playing in front of that many people or more.”
With Phillips sidelined until February, Leon seized his chance and excelled in doing so. By May, he’d played 33 times, scored three goals and helped to keep 12 clean sheets in the process, a return that saw him scoop the Player of the Year award in 2010 and sign a new two-year deal soon after.
He was an important member of the squad the following year, too, with one of his most revered memories being stepping out onto the hallowed Wembley turf for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final in April 2011.
“Growing up, Wembley was always a sacred ground that not many people get to play at. I wanted to win so bad but it was just a shame we came second-best, especially against Carlisle, who we’d played just over a week earlier and beaten 2-1. Everything went for them that day.
“I know the gaffer at the time [Nicky Forster] made a few changes and I don’t think many agreed with it – for example, Marcus Bean didn’t play when he’d been such a good player leading up to that game. I think that made a difference. I still remember looking at the crowd of 40,000 and to play in such a sacred ground in front of that many fans, whether we won or lost, it was a good experience. I always said I wanted to go back and rectify that and win there again someday so hopefully I get to do that before I retire.”
But perhaps one of his standout moments was the last-minute equaliser as Brentford came from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 with MK Dons on New Year’s Eve 2011, in a game where Charlie MacDonald scored against the Bees just four months after departing TW8. “When you have the delivery like you did from Sam Saunders, he’d always put it in the right place for you,” he added, referring to his goalscoring exploits.
Uwe Rosler had taken charge by that point and, in his first season, continued to value Leon as a key player, despite several hamstring injuries that had hampered his progress. But over the summer, Tony Craig and Harlee Dean were brought in at centre-back as the German moulded his team for a promotion push, effectively demoting Leon to the role of squad player.
“It was frustrating because there was a change in play, I suppose. I still talk to Uwe now, to be fair. I got on with him and there were no arguments or anything like that in the background but he wanted to play a different way and I kept being thrown on late on in games to go and mark the big man and make sure he didn’t win anything. It didn’t look like I was going to play, really.
“It was frustrating because I just wanted to play – that’s all it came down to. With the age I was as well, I felt I needed to keep playing because I didn’t want to go a whole season without playing, I still had 18 months left on my contract and it didn’t look like I was going to get a chance. It was either make the decision to go and play somewhere else or stick around and I wasn’t up for sticking around and playing 10 games a season. That’s when Martin Allen was sniffing around and got me to Gillingham.”
A loan to Priestfield on 1 January 2013 became permanent 30 days later and by the end of a rocky season, which might otherwise have been banished to the history books, Leon had an unexpected League Two winners medal around his neck as Allen led them to glory.
That said, his time in Kent also saw him close to falling out of love with the game and, during a recent interview with Port Vale’s official podcast ‘Talk of the Vale’, Leon said that he credits ex-Gills manager Justin Edinburgh – who sadly passed away last June - with helping him to persevere and reignite the passion.
He said: “Not too many know this, but there was one stage in my career when I nearly gave up – I just couldn’t be bothered with it. When you know you love a game so much and certain people you come across put you off of that, I questioned why I was even coming in and training, doing what I was doing. When it got to that point, I was thinking, “Go back to when you loved it,” which was, basically, non-league football, get that passion back and then, if it takes you back into the league then so be it. I just didn’t want to hate the game because I loved it so much.
“There was a point where that happened but then I came across Justin Edinburgh. He brought that passion back out in me for football. And even though I only worked with him for about 7-8 months, it just brought me back into that zone where I loved it again. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and go back to training. The confidence was back for the Saturday. It was someone like him who brought that back for me. I even told him when I left as well.”
Fortunately, the hunger is back now. Leon joined Vale in the summer of 2018 after three seasons with Cambridge and is looking to help guide them towards a return to League One after a disappointing 20th place finish last year.
“During the first season there was a lot of turmoil with the former chairman. There was a lot going on behind the scenes and the running of the club wasn’t the best, which had an effect on a lot of things. But the new owners have come in, who are fans as well, a bit like Matthew at Brentford.
“Every decision is for the club and not for a financial gain. Everything’s pretty positive now, whereas the last few seasons have been quite toxic and the fans have been on at the chairman and some of the staff and players that have come before me. At the moment, it’s a much more positive atmosphere and a nice place to play at. It’s no shock that we’ve lost just once at home as well."
Now 34-years-old, the obvious question is how much longer can he keep playing? Having recently played against Man City in the FA Cup third round at the Etihad Stadium, the answer is as expected.
“I’m looking at coaching and a few other things, but the way I look at it, because I came in at 24, my mindset is that I’ve missed out on four or five years of pro football. I’ve looked after myself pretty well and I’m playing week in, week out at the moment so I’m still looking to get a few more years.”