By Richard Cawley
Ryan Leonard has revealed his move to Millwall had deadline day drama – as he was forced to ditch his car in central London and jump on the tube to make sure he signed in time.
The 26-year-old is the club’s new record signing, with the Lions quickly breaking their biggest outlay twice in the space of nine days after it had previously stood for nearly 30 years.
Leonard has been coveted for a long time by Millwall boss Neil Harris. He wanted to add the midfielder after promotion back to the Championship in 2017, but Southend United dug their heels in and refused to sell.
Eventually Sheffield United pushed through a £750,000 deal in the January window at a stage when the South London club were well-stocked in that department.
But George Saville’s £8million transfer to Middlesbrough put Leonard back on Millwall’s wanted list.
“To say it was a mad dash is a bit of an understatement,” Leonard told the South London Press. “I left about 11.30am and I was driving through central London, which isn’t brilliant. I had to abandon my car and get on the tube at 4pm.
“It was like planes, trains and automobiles. Thankfully enough it got done in time and everyone at the club deserves credit for that. I’m very pleased to be and here start wearing the shirt.
“I knew there was interest in the past and I’ve played against the football club quite a lot of times. It was always a ground you feared coming to, now I’m looking forward to being on the other side and being part of the home team.
“It’s not easy coming here as an away player, coming into the ground and the away changing rooms. Once the game gets going it is a difficult crowd to quieten down.”
Leonard’s transfer to Millwall exceeds the £1m spent on Barnsley striker Tom Bradshaw.
So does he feel extra pressure because of that?
“Listen, it shows how this football club is going to progress under the manager and coaching staff. The whole club is progressing. It doesn’t mean anything to me. It is just a case of coming here and that I want to play football. I want to score goals and show the fans what I can do.
“I like to think I’ve done quite well against Millwall and now I need to start repaying the faith shown in me.”
Millwall and Sheffield United’s interest in landing him just over a year ago was hardly secret.
But Leonard tried not to let the speculation affect him.
“I’m not someone who looks at all that too much. I try and get my head down and get on with the football. I didn’t realise [a move to Millwall was a goer] until Friday morning and I jumped at it.
“In saying that, it can still be difficult for any player. You are trying to forget about it when you go on the training pitch and into games. I’m someone who tries to shut it out.”
Leonard’s switch to Sheffield United looked a big opportunity to play more Championship football after proving his credentials in League One – winning three player of the year awards with the Shrimpers and amassing 265 appearances.
But he played just 59 minutes in the opening weeks. Ricky Holmes was another January signing who failed to get much of a look-in despite being a star performer for Charlton. The winger recently joined Oxford on loan.
“It’s not easy but that goes for any player when they go from playing week in and week out to not really too many games,” said Leonard. “It is just one of those things. It is a learning period. You have to keep going and try to break in.
“I’m here to show what I can do and try and get a place in the team.
“I’m predominantly a box-to-box midfielder and I’d say I’m all action.
“I’ve played against a lot of the lads here but don’t personally know many of them. I’ve had a few run-ins before, but I’m hoping they’ll all be alright about that now!
“I know the manager very well and his coaching staff behind the scenes. They made it a big push to get it over the line.
“I played with Neil [Harris] at Southend United. I think I was 20 or 21 and he was always the experienced man – he was almost like a manager on the pitch, always talking us through the game.
“Even back then he was destined to go to manage and do it at a great club.
“He’s made it clear he wants people to work hard and give it a right go – and I’m definitely one of them.”
IMAGE BY BRIAN TONKS