SPORT — 27 August 2013

Leon in action for his current club. Picture courtesy of Blackburn Rovers FC

By David Hennessy

“I think as a player you can’t be afraid to go down,” says Blackburn’s Republic of Ireland international striker Leon Best. Although it was not so long ago Best was firing for Newcastle United in the Premiership, last summer the striker opted to move from The Magpies where opportunities would be limited to Championship Blackburn in order to further his career. However, Best damaged his anterior cruciate ligaments soon after signing and would miss a large part of last season. Fit again, Best has already been on the score sheet for the Ewood Park outfit and will be one of a number of Championship players that Giovanni Trapattoni should be monitoring the progress of this season.

“You get a lot of players who stay in the premier league and they don’t always play: It’s to have that Premier League badge on their arm even though they’re not playing regular football. But then you’ve got players that have gone down to lower leagues like Kevin Doyle who has stuck with his club and he’s doing well and he’s still in the fold for things. Players sometimes have to take a step down to benefit themselves like Gibbo (Darron Gibson who went from playing a small role at Manchester United to the role of midfield general at Everton): He’s doing very well now and playing regularly and I think he’s become a better player for it.”

When asked if it is a goal of his to add to his seven Republic of Ireland caps, grounded Best says he is more concerned with doing well for club as anything else is out of his hands: “I think the main thing for me is to stay fit and play well for Blackburn and score goals and then everything round it takes place.

“When I was playing well in the premier league and scoring goals in the premier league, I wasn’t finding myself in the fold of things and when I was playing with Coventry in the lower leagues and doing alright with them, I was getting my chance and getting called up so it is funny how things work in football sometimes.

“There was a bit in the paper of Trapattoni saying I needed to work harder but every player’s different. Some players can only run as much as they can run and their job isn’t to run and close people down and just run for 90 minutes. Some players’ jobs are about creating chances for the team, scoring goals and helping others to score.”

Best featured in the World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign in a thrilling encounter with the world cup holders of the time Italy where Republic of Ireland avoided defeat and almost snatched victory. He also played in the first leg of the play-off with France which would end in heartbreak. A Coventry city player at this time, he has gained Premiership experience since then.

Leon chases Eric Abidal in a World Cup play-off with France, a tie that has painful memories for Republic of Ireland

Although his Newcastle career was also hampered by injury at times, Best showed himself capable of finding the net at the highest level and able to fill the void left by the sale of Andy Carroll. Although Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Jonathan Walters and Simon Cox all got game time at Euro 2012, none could come up with a goal in any of the three matches. Does Leon allow himself to ponder what difference he could have made at the major tournament? “It’s always unhealthy with ‘what if…?’

“The country always wants the team to be doing well. It’s not going to be easy to reach (the next World Cup in) Brazil and I think if you go into Brazil, you want to be bringing the best players and giving the country the best opportunity to do well. I’ve not heard from no one at all (at FAI) but I’m just keeping my head down and working hard and if I’m scoring goals for Blackburn and playing well, he (Trapattoni) can’t turn a blind eye.”

Although born in Nottingham, Leon qualifies to play for Republic of Ireland through his mother who was from Dublin. He lived in Bluebell, Dublin for a number of years as a child before returning to Nottingham. Asked if he played any gaelic football while living with his Irish granny, he says: “I played a few school games. I was at Drimnagh Castle and I played a few school games for them and a bit of hurling but my main thing was always football.”

He began his career with Notts County before being signed as a trainee from Southampton in 2004. Best would make 15 league appearances for The Saints while also being loaned to QPR, Sheffield Wednesday, Bournemouth and Yeovil Town. In 2007, he joined Coventry City where he spent three seasons and became a fans’ favourite before signing for Newcastle United in 2010.

The striker made a decision about which country he would represent when he was still a teenager, representing Republic of Ireland at Under 17 and then Under 21 levels, but says this was an easy decision: “When I was playing at Notts County, Ireland showed a lot of interest in me and a lot of loyalty. Then when I started playing and doing quite well in the youth team for Southampton, England came in but it was an easy choice really. I chose Ireland and wanted to stay with them and play and I thought I would play more with them.”

It was the current Norwich City boss and former Republic of Ireland international Chris Hughton that brought Leon to The Toon. Although many say he was harshly treated at Newcastle, Hughton has proved himself to be a promising manager at St James’ Park, St Andrew’s and Carrow Road. What is it about Chris that make his teams so organised? “I think the main thing Chris has is he’s an excellent man to man manager and I think he understands his players and as a player you respect him whether you’re playing or not. He’ll play his best players and he’ll play his players who are doing it for him at the right time and I was very disappointed to see him leave Newcastle, I thought he did a great job and he wasn’t given the right chance but he’s done very well for Norwich. A good manager, like a good player, will prove himself wherever he is.”

Hughton served as assistant to Brian Kerr when he was in charge of Republic of Ireland. When asked if his former boss is a man Best would like to see in charge of the national team, the Blackburn striker’s answer is unequivocal: “Definitely yeah, I think now with his status at Norwich and what he’s done for clubs: He’s got a promotion at Newcastle and he’s kept Norwich in the Premier League and I think they’ll have a good season this year as well under him. Definitely, I think if he was Ireland manager, he wouldn’t be afraid to bring in the players and play the players that should be playing.”

For the full interview, see the August 31 print edition of The Irish World.

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