Exit the 18-yard box – An interview with Leroy Lita

After almost 15 years in English football’s professional ranks, Leroy Lita is somewhat accustomed to a change of scenery.

After three seasons in the Premiership and twice as many in the Championship, he abandoned home comforts, in a rather more dramatic fashion than the short trip from Bristol to Reading, and embarked on the 6000-mile taxi to Thailand.

I thought why not, you only have one career, I didn’t want to go down the lower leagues so I thought why not just go somewhere abroad and have the experience. I had a look [in Thailand] and I liked it so I stayed.

The only English player in the Thai League 1, Lita had to breakthrough into the professional football ranks the hard way.

A product of the Chelsea academy, he signed his first pro contract with then League One Bristol City, and is one of the rare examples to battle back to English football’s highest echelon. Four years later, he fulfilled his dream and made his Premier League debut.

He understands the perils of coming through the youth system, exemplified by BT Sport’s recent documentary ‘No Hunger In Paradise’, which revealed that only 1.5% of academy players go on to make a living from the sport.

Coming through’s not easy. Managers are getting sacked every minute, they’re not able to give young players the time to develop. I know a lot of players who’ve given up and regretted it.

Seventy percent of the footballers in the Premier League are brought in from overseas, but an Englishman moving in the opposite direction is a scarce sight. Managers are under pressure to get immediate results and there’s little time for players to develop, especially at the top level, and Lita knows the attitude to going abroad needs to change.

A lot of English players think if I don’t make it in England I’m not going to play professional football but there are so many opportunities all around the world. Name an English player who’s playing in Italy or Spain. Young players feel like they may not have a chance but you can still have a career abroad, recharge yourself and come back.

Whether the problem is fostered by the coaching or the mentality in England, it’s a stark reflection on the state of the youth system.

Lita’s words were echoed by his former coach Gareth Southgate, who called for English players to finally ditch their ‘island mentality’ and to go and learn from elsewhere. Lita, who made a number of appearances for England’s U21 side, believes it’s curtailing the national side’s success.

We have some great young players but, no disrespect, we look like a youth team when we play against some of the big teams. I remember watching Euro 96 and I’m sure the players in that group were the same age but when I saw them I saw men.

For Lita, the solution could be to encourage young English talent to look abroad.

It’s going to have to change somehow because otherwise, we’re going to be left behind. We’re stuck in a place where our players need to explore, get more understanding, and test themselves. That’s what other players do when they come to England and that’s what we need to do.

Lita knows the importance of adapting better than most, not just to a style of play but to a brand new culture, after his move to Sisaket in Northeastern Thailand.

It’s a beautiful place, but where I was was real Thailand. It’s like 60 years behind, I wasn’t in Bangkok, I was in the bush. They’re a shy people but I got on with them well. The fans are amazing and I give them great credit. They sing for the whole game. Football is like a family thing.

The league was only established only 22 years ago and Lita’s under no illusions about the state of play. The players are still very much learning and developing, however, it is rapidly improving.

It’s not as physical, it’s a lot slower, you have to be more patient. Any player who goes abroad has to adapt. They can’t adapt to the way we play, the way we are mentally and physically, you have to adapt to them and that’s what I’d say to players moving abroad.

Having left Sisaket last September, Lita, who’s entering the twilight of his career at 33, hopes to announce his new move in the coming days. He’s soldiered through football’s highs and lows with a praiseworthy attitude and holds few regrets.

Perhaps, one of those few would be failing to break into England’s senior side but passing up the opportunity to play for the Democratic Republic of Congo was not.

I learned to play football in England, I see myself as an Englishman and I’ve learnt everything I know here. I’ve enjoyed it all. The good and the bad makes you stronger and better person.

His love for the sport hasn’t waned and, although a further career in football beckons upon his retirement, he still relishes prowling the 18-yard box.

I’ve had a few opportunities lately but I’m not ready for that yet. I just want to keep playing. I think it would be a waste if I don’t stay involved somehow. I’ve got a lot of experience and information to give to people. Whether it’s coaching or another route, I don’t know. I want to concentrate on the rest of my career and then I’ll take it from there.

A stalwart of the English leagues, Lita is one of the few to take such a grand leap abroad. Humble and insightful, he still has a lot to offer the sport and although his days on the pitch may be nearing a denouement, his words of advice can be heeded by all young academy players and pros alike.

The Author

Thomas Kershaw

Writer and interviewer of British football. Editor of Wraps On TV and co-host of the weekly podcast. Run the www.trlkershaw.com Just Wittering On Sports Blog. Otherwise a continuously tortured gooner.

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