In this week’s column, Beesotted’s Tim Street looks back fondly at an ex-Bee that we cross swords with in this weekend’s FA Cup Third Round clash with Port Vale…. former Brentford Player of the Year, Leon Legge-Legge-Legge.
Leon Legge is a player perfectly crafted for the phrase ‘cult legend’. Not one who would make many people’s list of all-time top ten Brentford players, and not one who is likely to bother the Hall of Fame engravers – but a legend nonetheless, for less obvious reasons.
Firstly, there’s always something special about a player who makes it after your club plucks them from non-league football – especially when they’re already almost in their mid-20s. Secondly, we all love a player who gives their all and leaves nothing on the pitch. Thirdly, there’s achieving all that while having to battle epilepsy, knowing you could suffer a fit at any time.
And then there’s those last-minute goals. Legge developed a habit at Brentford at coming up from the back to score crucial late strikes, both winners and equalisers. Towards the tail end of the 2010-11 season, he hit last-minute winners against both Tranmere and Charlton in the space of three weeks. The following season, he netted injury-time equalisers against both Bournemouth and MK Dons, in successive games.
Legge, speaking ahead of his current club Port Vale’s FA Cup tie against his former club Brentford on Saturday, modestly shared the credit for those late goals, saying: “We had some good set-piece delivery through Sam Saunders – I knew he’d find me every time I took up a position. The one against Charlton was particularly memorable as one of my mates was a season ticket holder there – he was fuming!”
Legge was already 24 when Brentford gave him his chance in professional football, having kicked around the non-league scene with Eastbourne United, Hailsham Town, Lewes and Tonbridge Angels. He thought the chance might have passed him by after a failed trial at Millwall until Bees boss Andy Scott took the plunge on him in the summer of 2009.
He said: “I was always confident as a young lad and had a lot of trials, but found myself asking ‘why is this not happening?’ I just kept being told teams would keep tabs on me and to be patient, and then Brentford came in. I was surprised at how many times they had watched me – Andy said he has come down to Tonbridge about ten times, and for one of them I was playing up front!
“I remember making my debut at Carrow Road, and Darren Sarll could see I was nervous, so he took me for a walk around the ground and told me to treat it just like any other game. The adrenaline got me going and it felt surreal. We lost, but I had been dreaming of this for years, but then reality kicks in and you realise this is what you do for a living now.
“My chance came quicker than I thought it would and I just cemented my place in the side. By the end of the season, I had been voted Player of the Year, which I wasn’t expecting at all. But in my first season after coming from non-league, it felt like a great achievement.”
Legge’s second season saw him continue as a regular in the back four and begin his penchant for late goals, but it ended in heartache with a 1-0 defeat to Carlisle in the Johnstone Paints Trophy final at Wembley. “We’d played them the week before and beaten them easily,” said Legge. “I can’t put my finger on it – you’d have expected us to win that one. For a lot of us, it was the first time playing at Wembley, so maybe that played a part. It was a shame we couldn’t manage it, and we were left thinking ‘what if?’. But for me, just to play at Wembley was a great achievement.”
Before that, a drab 4-1 defeat at Dagenham & Redbridge at the start of February saw Andy Scott, the man who had brought him out of non-league football, shown the Griffin Park exit door. “I think Andy was a bit unlucky,” Legge said. “I heard about him apparently losing the dressing room, but that didn’t happen. We just got in a rut, and it was hard to rectify. But football is like that, and I’m just grateful that he took a chance on me.
“Nicky Forster took over, and he was already a Brentford hero. He relished the role and enjoyed it, but I think those above him knew it would only be short term as the club was starting to go in a different direction.”
That summer saw Legge the subject of a couple of enquiries from Championship clubs – “I did have a couple of calls in the off-season, but nothing came of it”. Instead, he was once again a regular in the Bees back line under new boss Uwe Rosler, scoring those famous levellers against Bournemouth and MK Dons over the Christmas and New Year period. But the following season, his appearances became more intermittent, and by the 2012 festive season he was on his way, snapped up by former Bees boss Martin Allen at Gillingham.
“Uwe was an intense character, but I enjoyed playing under him,” Legge said. “But the year I left I wasn’t playing much, just coming on for the last five minutes if we needed to push for a winner. That wasn’t what I wanted, and Martin Allen knew the situation, so he came in for me. He was another intense character, but he knew how to build a team, and we ended up winning the league under him.”
After two years with the Gills, Legge had a three-year spell with Cambridge United and is now in his fourth year with Port Vale, who are currently looking a good bet for promotion from League Two. A “freak injury” in August saw him sidelined for three months and he is currently battling to get his place back in an in-form side – and so despite being a Vale regular for the last three years, is no guarantee to face his former club on Saturday.
“I did my medial collateral ligament, which was a bit frustrating as I’m not a good watcher,” Legge said. “I was just getting back into the team, but due to covid postponements we’ve not played a game in almost a month, so nobody knows what the team is. I played against Brentford once or twice at Gillingham, but it would be great to play on Saturday. It’s games like that you want to prove yourself in. You’d like to think you’d be playing their first team, but that’s Brentford’s prerogative really.”
Brentford has certainly changed a lot since Legge’s departure nine years ago – from a steady change in culture to a new stadium and, finally, Premier League football as owner Matthew Benham’s vision came to fruition. The club’s journey has taken many in the football world by surprise, but not Legge, as he saw the early buds begin to blossom in his final months at the club.
“You could see things were gradually getting there,” he said. “You could tell they were certainly going to end up in the Championship at least. The business side of things was just starting to grow, and before long the club would be selling players for ten times what they paid for them, so Matthew Benham’s methods were clearly working, and a few other clubs have thought of doing the same.
“Uwe’s appointment was really the start of a change in football style. The way we had played was like League Two is now, but we became more football-based – keeping the ball on the deck, playing it out from the back and being comfortable on the ball – it’s like that in League One now.”Legge also writes an excellent blog, Epilepsy Baller, in which he details his experiences of coping with his illness as a professional sportsman, and is well worth a read. He added: “The way I see it, if you can get through what I do with epilepsy, you can get through anything. Any football worries are a minor concern when I compare them to what I deal with every day, and it certainly builds your strength and resilience.”