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Leon Barnett talks playing to his strengths, FA Cup encounters and behind-the-scenes incidents

From humble beginnings to the Premier League, former Hatter Leon Barnett forged himself a wonderful career in a game that he “would have happily played for free”.

Leon Barnett playing for Luton Town in 2006 holding a ball to take a throw in
Leon Barnett came through the youth system at Luton and went on to have a successful career in the Premier League.

The no-nonsense centre half, who wasn’t afraid of putting his head in where it hurts, won two promotions to the top flight across nearly 20 years in the game, one with West Bromwich Albion and the other with Norwich City, plus promotion to the Championship with Wigan Athletic in 2016.

He enjoyed much success away from Kenilworth Road while his boyhood club dwindled away down the football pyramid, but Barnett admits that he only got to the heights of the English game by working hard and remaining focussed.

“I always wanted to win,” he said. “I think I’ve always been winner driven and put everything on the line to get that result.

“I had targets to hit, like making my professional debut and playing at Kenilworth Road. so I just ticked them off along the way. It’s a trait that possibly benefitted me more than others.”

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It’s that trait which earned Barnett his professional debut at the young age of 16 in 2002. However, the defender says that the jump from youth team action to the men’s game was a big step up.

He said: “When I was in the youth team, it was quite daunting going into the first team setting. I didn’t even really want to train with them. I mean, obviously I did, but they were quite a solid group and I didn’t want to be the one who broke that up.

“I think it was quite tough physically as a teenager going into men’s football, but I knew it was something I always wanted to do and I took on the challenge and grasped it well.”

“I think the changing room we had was a good one. There were loads of different characters and there was always someone there who suited my mood when I walked in. You had Steve Howard who was the big number nine, but he was a friendly giant when you spoke to him personally.

“You had Kevin Nicholls who was captain and a bit like myself - he was competitive and always wanted to win. He was always full throttle whether it would be in a tackle or a team talk. Then you had Ahmet Brkovic who was just a very friendly guy, so I got on well with him.

“There were so many good people there who helped me settle in much easier than I thought it would be.”

On the cusp of the starting line-up

Slowly the young defender developed into a quick powerhouse who could run the ball out of danger and make it hard for attackers. It was an exciting time for the club after returning to the Championship under Mike Newell in the 2004/05 season, and Barnett was beginning to make an impression.

He said: “Mike Newell was really good, especially with the youngsters as he was fairly young as a manager too - I think he still had that player mentality and he gelled well with the younger boys, possibly more than the older boys.

Leon Barnett rises highest against Hull City in the Coco Cola Championship
Barnett wasn't afraid to put his head in where it hurt to win the ball in the air.

“Being so young, you’re kind of allowed to make a couple of mistakes, but the boys in the changing room were quite positive. Any mistakes I made or bad games I had, they would try to dig me out and help.

“Without being too big headed, I think they knew that I was a half decent player and tried to protect me at times so I really appreciate them for looking after me. I think for any youngster going into men’s football, whether it’s grassroots or not, is a big step.

“I was quite quick and that would get me out of trouble. I wasn’t necessarily great with the ball at my feet, but I was very competitive and made it difficult for my opponent which worked in my favour.”

Leon was just enjoying his football and being so young meant he was able to express himself without fear.

He continued: “When I was 16 I had no worries. I was living at home, I didn’t have any issues and I was playing a sport I loved playing - I would have happily played for free.”

FA Cup memories

The Hatters finished tenth in their first full season back in the second tier for a decade, and although Barnett didn’t make too many league appearances during the 2005/06 campaign, he was given a few opportunities off the bench to stamp his own authority on the squad.

One special highlight was getting the chance to go toe to toe with the European champions in a highly entertaining FA Cup third round encounter against Liverpool. Although the Hatters were beaten 5-3 on the night at Kenilworth Road, the former defender believes his 15 minute cameo in the second half was an invaluable part of his progression.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “In the warm up, we were all in a circle doing our stretches and I was next to Enoch Showunmi who was chatting away to me but I wasn’t even listening to him, I was gazing over the halfway line at the Liverpool players. I think he nudged me and said you look a bit starstruck and I was.

“They had some team and to get some minutes in that game was really enjoyable. I was looking up to a lot of players who played in that game and it was definitely one of those personal targets that I hit.

“I think it’s gone down as one of the most watched FA Cup games so it’s good to be a part of history.”

Much later in his career, Leon also recalled an FA Cup tie while at Norwich City that ended up being the first and only time he would go up against the side that handed him his professional debut.

Luton, then in the National League, were drawn against Norwich in the fourth round of the cup and clinched a 1-0 victory against the Canaries to become the first non-league side in history to knock out a Premier League club in the competition.

He continued: “I was quite excited about the draw before the match, as it was the first time I would be playing against Luton, but obviously the result didn’t go our way.

Watch the highlights from Luton's 1-0 FA Cup win against Leon Barnett's Norwich City in 2013 below...

“I remember being at Carrow Road, they were winning the game, and I scored a goal which was disallowed - I think now it would have been given by VAR. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be and Luton went on to get through to the next round.

“We were odds-on favourites to progress to the next round too, but I think Luton just had that never die attitude and the best team won on the day.”

Second season syndrome

The club got off to a blistering start in the 2006/07 campaign, with the Hatters sitting in fifth spot after a run of impressive results, including a 2-0 win against Leicester City in which Barnett netted his first senior goal.

The team were looking up, despite behind-the-scenes financial trouble beginning to surface. This would eventually be one of the many factors that led to consecutive relegations, but Leon was thriving alongside defensive partner Markus Heikkinen in the starting line-up.

Leon Barnett and Kevin Foley celebrate scoring a goal against Stoke City at Kenilworth Road in 2006
The former defender was off to a flying start in the 2006/07 season. He celebrates here after scoring against Stoke City at Kenilworth Road.

“I had a much better understanding of the players around me and what their weaknesses could be,” he said.

“I loved playing with Markus Heikkinen as he was quite similar to me. He was quite laid-back, but a lot better than me with the ball at his feet, so I could pass to him and he could do all the fancy stuff.”

“I think we just gelled well every time we played. I also played with Curtis Davies in the youth team which was great, but I think on a professional level Markus just stood out for me.”

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There was a strong feeling among fans that this could be the year that Luton pushed for promotion to the Premier League, but on 29th October 2006, everything changed. On the way to Portman Road for an evening match against Ipswich Town, defender Sol Davis had a stroke on the team coach. Leon remembers the moment that Sol noticed something wasn’t quite right.

He said: “It was a weird one really. I remember being at the back of the bus, and a few of the older boys, including Sol Davis, were playing cards. He just said that he couldn’t feel the left side of his body.

“I remember a couple of the boys laughing and saying ‘stop messing about, we need to finish this game’, but Sol was being deadly serious.

Sol Davis tackles a Wolverhampton Wanderers player for Luton Town at Kenilworth Road
Sol Davis, who was well-known for throwing himself into tackles, was never the same again after suffering a stroke, according to Barnett.

“We stopped the coach and a few of the younger boys, including myself, got off and had a little walk with a member of the coaching staff to take us away from the situation. It definitely had a knock on effect.

“We ended up losing to Ipswich 5-0 and I think when you see your team mate that uncomfortable, it sends a message to you, especially through the game. I’m not saying that’s why we lost but I don’t think everyone’s head was in the right place.

“I don’t think Sol was ever the same to be honest. I remember him being quite a solid defender, very aggressive and a bubbly person in the changing room, and I don’t know if that aggression faded away a little bit.”

“He was still a nice person but I don’t know if it took something out of him. These things happen and I’m sure it would be the same for anyone else in that situation.”

The side ended up losing six on the bounce after the incident, which proved to be the catalyst in a miserable rest of the season which culminated in relegation.

Barnett continued: “We as a group probably needed to try and find a solution (to the poor form). I know the incident with Sol was an issue for some of the team as he was quite close to Kevin Nicholls, Steve Howard and Paul Underwood at the time.

Another academy graduate Matthew Upson faces up against Barnett in a clash against Birmingham City at St Andrews
Another academy graduate Matthew Upson faces up against Barnett in a clash against Birmingham City at St Andrew's.

“Sol was a bit of a legend to us and would always be up for a laugh and joke, but we would always be thinking if he was ok. It definitely played in the back of our minds, but I don’t think we could just blame relegation on what happened with Sol.

“Obviously there were issues going on around the club and possibly in the changing room that had a knock-on effect for us dipping in form.”

Attracting interest from elsewhere

Despite a disappointing year for the club overall, it was a campaign to remember personally for Barnett. The young defender was voted player of the season by Luton fans and his sturdy performances at the back alerted West Bromwich Albion to swoop in for his services in a deal rumoured to be around £2.5 million.

He said: “Being a local boy playing for his local team is phenomenal, but when you play for the majority of the season so well, you’re always going to attract a little bit of attention.

“I think the club were in a little bit of a bad place and in the end it just came down to timing. It was a good achievement to play as many first team games as possible that season, but it was sad to see the club have points deducted and keep getting relegated and so on.

“I played for Luton for so long, and to see them go all the way down to the bottom was quite tough. I still had friends who were playing for the club so it was hard.”

“It was difficult, but as you know in football, you play for your club until the club no longer wants your services so it was a bit of a tricky one.”

Leon Barnett celebrates with Steve Robinson and Lewis Emanuel after scoring against Leicester City in the Championship at Kenilworth Road
Scoring on the opening day of the season against Leicester City to mark his first ever senior goal is one of Barnett's career highlights.

In spite of Leon leaving Luton under arduous circumstances, he still has fantastic memories of his time with the Hatters.

He said: “We had a brilliant youth team who were all really funny - those days were probably some of the best times in my life.

“I was literally going in and playing football everyday. We had jobs that we had to do and we weren’t really getting paid the most but we’d always have a laugh and a giggle.”

From making his professional debut and dealing with setbacks, to taking on European giants and asserting himself as a top flight footballer, Leon Barnett is a prime example of where hard work can take you.

But most of all, he was proud to be a Hatter, adding: “I was a local lad from Luton that always wanted to play well. Hopefully I brought the fans a little bit of history.” He definitely achieved this and more in a fine career that any professional would be happy to have.

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