By Chris Dunlavy
RYAN Leonard has thanked departing Southend boss Phil Brown for setting him on the path to stardom.
Brown, 58, was put on gardening leave last week after a run of seven defeats in eight games left the Shrimpers just two points above the League One drop zone.
His exit ends a five-year spell that yielded promotion in 2015 and a seventh-place finish last term.
Leonard was instrumental in that rise, making 246 appearances and winning the club’s player of the year award three times before completing a £750,000 switch to Sheffield United this month.
As he prepared to test his mettle in the Championship, the midfielder paid tribute to his former mentor.
“I’m gutted to be quite honest,” said the 25-year-old, who joined Southend from Plymouth as an 18-year-old in 2011. “To wake up and see what had happened – it wasn’t the nicest news. Phil and his assistant, Graham Coughlan, were massive for my career.
“I was a kid when I signed for Southend. They helped me grow up. They put in a lot of hours and showed a lot of patience. They had a big hand in (making me) the player I am today.
“I’d been playing right wing or right-back under Paul Sturrock. Then, Phil came in and put me in central midfield. That’s when things really took off.
“It’s very disappointing that it’s come to this. As a management team, they were good enough to get out of this situation. I honestly think they would have.
“But that’s football. A few bad months and, all of a sudden, everything else gets forgotten. Whatever happens, they got that club a promotion and leave it a lot higher than it was when they arrived. Phil is a very good manager who deserves to get back into football very quickly.”
Blades boss Chris Wilder first targeted Leonard in the summer but was told he was integral to a planned promotion push. When that failed to materialise – and with Leonard out of contract in May – a cut-price deal was agreed.
Leonard, born in Devon, admits to some disappointment at moving on, but adds: “If you get a chance to play higher you’re desperate to do it and any footballer would say the same.
“But what you can’t do is let it linger. Southend were brilliant for me. They grew me as a player and a person. We’ve been through a lot in those six and a half years and I’ve got a lot of friends there who I’ll stay in contact with forever.
“There was never any chance I’d give less than 100 per cent, and it would have been the same wherever I was. I’d never leave a club on bad terms. It’s just not me.”
Leonard is settling into Yorkshire life alongside fellow new boys Lee Evans and Ricky Holmes. “It’s been great,” he says, “apart from the weather. The sun came out yesterday and I realised it was the first time I’d seen it in weeks!”
Now it’s about nailing down a place in Wilder’s side. The Blades boss has likened his new signing to versatile defender Chris Basham, who has played as both a centre-half and wing-back this season.
“I’m certainly versatile,” laughs Leonard. “At Southend, I played literally every position except goalkeeper. Even up front!
“I was the same as a kid. For me, it’s fundamental. I think every footballer should be able to play a number of positions. It helps your career and it helps the team.
“You appreciate the jobs other people have to do and you understand where they want to receive the ball. If I had to pick a position, I’d say centre midfield.
“But, if the gaffer here wants to put me out wide or at the back, I won’t let anyone down.”