Interview: Dean Leacock

Image: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Dean Leacock was one of the first players to break through from the academy during the Premier League era. The Croydon-born defender was highly rated and tagged as the future Rio Ferdinand but injuries prevented him from fulfilling his potential. Daniel Smith spoke to Leacock as he reflects on his time with the club.

DS – Which football club do you support & did you have any role models within the game growing up?

DL – I was and still am a big Arsenal fan. My role model was Ian Wright but my favourite player was Rio Ferdinand.

DS – Which position did you start out in when you first got a taste for football as a kid?

DL – I was a holding midfielder back in the day but my PE Teacher spotted attributes in me that he thought were best suited to centre back. So, he pushed me back when I played for the school team and I’ve played there ever since.

DS – How did you get the opportunity to sign for Fulham?

DL – I was about 13/14 years old & playing for my Sunday league team, Selsdon Juniors, and I can’t remember why but for some reason we played a match against Fulham. Afterwards, I was asked by Brent Hills, who was working for Fulham, if I would like to go down on a trial. So, I jumped at the opportunity and I was down there for 3 weeks before signing a 5-year deal and it kind of just went from there really. 

DS – Was there anyone in the academy set-up that played a big part in your development into a pro?

DL – Brent Hills was a big influence on my development; he was our youth team coach at Fulham and I learnt a lot playing for him. Outside of the football side of it, I would say my Grandad. He was very supportive and took a big interest in my career from a young age.

DS – Was there anyone in the first team who you looked up to when you were in the academy?

DL – John Collins was wicked with the youngsters, I really liked him! Chris Coleman was great too but John really took an interest in our development. He would always give advice and motivate us in the gym to get fitter and stronger. He was a top, top guy who loved his total football approach, which I also bought into, so we had a good understanding. Even when I left he still kept in touch with me and took an interest in my career.

With Chris Coleman, I used to love him playing with us in training, he was such a good player and someone you could learn a great deal from, either playing alongside or just watching on the sidelines.

DS – Who were your closest mates at the club?

DL – Zesh Rehman, David Shevel, Chris Lock & Malik Buari. I keep in touch with Chris & David mainly and occasionally Zesh to be fair.

DS – You were only 18 years old when Jean Tigana gave you your professional debut away at Wigan. How did it feel and were you told well in advance of the game or was it a surprise?

DL – Yeah I was obviously surprised, it was Steve Kean who mentioned it to me. He phoned me up a couple of days before the match because we had to travel up to the game the day before. He told me that he was going to travel up with us which was wicked as Tigana didn’t speak much, so it was nice to have a familiar voice going into the starting eleven. That was it, I came in the next day for some pre-match training and then we were off on our way. It was an amazing feeling but being so young it was nice to have the support of Steve Kean in the build up.

Making my debut itself, I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t know what to expect so I kind of just went with it and enjoyed it. It was never about the money for me, I loved playing football so it was a great feeling to be given the chance.

It’s only as I got older that I would get nervous because you over-think things a lot more.

DS – Was there anyone in the academy with you that you were surprised didn’t get an opportunity in the first team?

DL – David Shevel when he was a youngster, definitely. He came from Crystal Palace with a big reputation and he was always the stand out player when we were young. The thing that let him down was that as we got older, the rest of us improved our game but he remained on a par with how good he was when he was 14. He never kicked on to the next level, which was a big shame. He was released in the end and I think he gave up football. He was working for one of David Beckham’s schools but I’m not too sure what he does now.

DS – You had a decent run in the team with of 5 consecutive starts in 2003/04: Wigan away in the League Cup followed by 4 Premier League games. How did you feel it was going at the time and did Chris Coleman say if he was happy with your performances?

DL – A couple of games it went really well, I think it was Blackburn away, we won 2-0. Plus we beat Leicester and it might have been Wolves at home too (I think, can’t really remember). It was going ok but I knew there was going to be ups and downs, it was all part of my development and a learning curve so early in my career.

DS – As you mention, there were bound to be ups and downs, but you were doing well and were so unfortunate to get injured in the warm-up at Old Trafford. Do you feel this injury ruined your chances of getting back into the side and how did you feel at the time?

DL – I was gutted! I remember we were warming up by doing these sprints and I got my leg locked into the ground, so as I tried to push off, my knee just collapsed in and it’s something I’ve suffered with ever since. I didn’t think it was that bad at first but we got back into the changing rooms and my knee was the size of a cricket ball! It didn’t hurt that much to be fair but they strapped it up and I had my scans. Then I just sat there and watched the game cos it wasn’t too painful, it was just swollen.

At the end of the day, I was a kid going to Old Trafford with the first team so I was still buzzing for the win. I knew the position wasn’t mine, that there would be ups and downs during my career and that Volz was the first choice. So I tried to accept it as a setback at the time.

The lads were buzzing after the game, Chris Coleman was so happy and it was great to be part of it. On the Monday, I remember Al Fayed turning up at Motspur Park with a load of hampers and a gold bar each for the lads. I managed to get one which was nice and made me feel part of the win.

DS – When you had recovered from injury, you went on loan to Coventry City. Whose decision was it for you to go out on loan?

DL – More the club, at the time Lee Clark was good friends with Peter Reid and he suggested to me to get out on loan under Peter at Coventry, get to experience the atmosphere of first-team football again and get back playing at a decent level. We weren’t doing that great at the time in the reserves, so it was another opportunity for me but my knee was never the same.

When I came back I thought I had a chance of getting back into the first team, Chris Coleman was understanding with the injury and how serious it was, so he was happy that I went out on loan to get back into the swing of things and he said that the door was always going to be open when I returned. To be fair, I did go onto make another handful of appearances for the club, including Chelsea away, which was a real eye-opener for me because Arjen Robben tore me to shreds. It didn’t knock my confidence, I was mature enough to appreciate that he was just a better player and I tried to forget it straight away. But it made me realise the step up in quality. You go from being the best in your age group or in the lower leagues to playing against people week-in week-out who are better than you, so that’s a transition in itself but my attitude was always to get my head down and work harder to catch them up.

Sadly, I was scheduled to play in the cup against Leyton Orient but I was ill so Liam Rosenior played instead and that was it, the opportunities dried up after that. It was tough as we had Volz & Rosenior both ahead of me at the time.

DS – What were both Tigana and Coleman like as managers?

DL – Tigana was cool, he was just a quiet guy in the changing room and around the training ground. Nice enough but he didn’t have any interaction with the youth team, we were kept separate from the first team so I didn’t speak to him much, even when I made my debut under him. He was a man of few words.

Chris Coleman was quality! A couple of times he played with the youngsters in the reserves, I played alongside him and he was brilliant with us. Fulham had a decent team at the time and when he became manager he always made us feel like the door was open and he gave opportunities to quite a few of us who were in the reserves. We would always go on pre-season tours and be included, which never happened under Tigana.

At the same time, Chris Coleman was a tough guy. He didn’t like people being injured, if it was a dead leg he would expect you to run it off rather than drop out. But he was also very understanding if you had suffered a bad injury as I did at Old Trafford.

DS – Your main club was Derby County. You had contrasting emotions in back-to-back season’s there, promotion followed by immediate relegation. Was that playoff win the highlight of your career and how weird was it going from such a high to such a low in a matter of months?

DL – The promotion was amazing because we weren’t expected to go up, so it was a nice surprise. But then being in the Premier League was just a reality check for all of us. People say the gulf isn’t that big but it is, all that money spent etc. You really notice it as a player and we, unfortunately, learnt the hard way. I’m a very down-to-earth guy so it’s hard for me to look back and moan about my career or the times when it wasn’t going so well. I felt very lucky to be in that position and felt sorry for the Derby fans that we struggled so much but it was a great experience nonetheless to play in the Premier League regularly. I never dreamed I would be in that position playing in the top division so it was still a positive to be there even if it was the lowest points total or whatever it was. I don’t look back at my career and remember that side of it.

DS – When you played for Derby I seem to remember you as a centre half but for Fulham, you were a full back. Did you change positions as you got older?

DL – Nah, I’ve always been a centre half but when I came through at Fulham I was only 17/18 and I think they prefer to play experienced players in the centre because mistakes are generally more costly in that position. So it was a combination of things. Volz was out injured meaning there was a vacancy on the right and it was a good way of me getting first-team experience in a position where I was less likely to make costly mistakes.

It was ok to do it then because I was younger and could do the running but the older I got, the more suited I became to centre back role and I always preferred centre back anyway, I felt more comfortable there.

DS – I remember you being involved at both ends when you lined up against us at Pride Park in the Premier League, the match finished 2-2. Do you remember?

DL – Yeah I scored or at least had a shot which deflected in off of one of our lads but they didn’t credit me with the goal annoyingly. Then Bouazza had a shot for Fulham and it came off my leg and lobbed Roy Carroll. It was one of those freak goals that was so unlucky from my point of view, it should never have gone down as an own goal.

DS – How did Fulham compare to your other clubs? Was there a big difference in the way things were done etc?

DL – Nah not really. Footballers are footballers so it was very similar. Obviously, they do things slightly differently but I never had any issues with either Fulham or Derby behind the scenes. Derby are the most comparable to Fulham in terms of stature and they were both really well run clubs.

DS – I believe your family are from Barbados? Was there ever the option/opportunity to represent Barbados, particularly when you were playing in the Premier League and Championship?

DL – My Dad’s from Barbados but my Mum’s English. When I was at Derby in the Championship they contacted me and asked me to go. It was something that I was interested in but when it came down to it, I preferred to spend the International break with my family. It didn’t seem worth the hassle of all the travelling for something that wasn’t going to be a regular occurrence. I would only have done it for the experience anyway and in the end, I chose to stay at home with the wife cos my kids were only young at the time. It’s obviously a long distance too so I declined it. I’ve got no regrets looking back because for what it was, I think I did the right thing, plus my family’s my world.

DS – What are your plans now that you’ve retired? Do you plan to remain involved with football?

DL – I’m now qualified to be a Chef and I’m looking to open up a little steak house but it’s all early days at the moment. I’ll let you know so that you can pop down and try it out!

I went through a difficult stage when I left football where I didn’t know what to do with myself and I found the transition hard. I knew I didn’t want to remain in the game as a coach etc, that’s not me, so eventually, I decided to go down this road. I’ve also had my groin reconstructed and my legs are done with running so I think my boots are hung up for good. Maybe one day I will coach my kids teams or something but I felt like I needed to get away from football and try something new.

I’ve always enjoyed cooking and I got my qualifications through a few months back. I’m hopefully going to set up my own little place very soon.

DS – Finally Dean, we always end with our favourite question. Pie or pasty, which filling?

DL – Beef Pasty.