Leroy Lita interview: ‘The rose that grew from concrete’ – The meaning beyond the beat for Reds striker
With over 100 career goals, as well as experience at English football’s highest level, Barnsley striker Leroy Lita made a success of the hand he was dealt, and music offers a gateway into his persona, as well as revealing one source of inspiration in particular.
Anyone who has followed the domestic game closely in the past decade or so is likely to be familiar with the name of Leroy Lita. Wherever the former Chelsea youngster has gone, he has managed to find the back of the net, appearing in the Premier League with Reading and Swansea City along the way.
The 29-year-old got his professional breakthrough with Bristol City, and 12 years on, he is working once again with the manager who gave him his debut for the Robins – Barnsley boss Danny Wilson. A one-time England Under-21 international, it is Leroy’s forward play that has established him as a recognised figure, but there are so many other factors that come into the equation in determining how sustained and successful a player’s career is. Every individual has their own personality and the best coaches and managers take the time to understand and utilise that.
Signing for Reading in 2005 for what was a club record £1million fee, Leroy scored 29 goals altogether in his first two seasons with the Royals, helping the Berkshire side into the Premier League and showing further promise as they finished 8th at the highest level. However, when looking at the most enjoyable spells of his career so far, there was a specific reason why he picked out the club he went to after Reading for a mention.
In August 2009, former England defender Gareth Southgate signed Leroy for Middlesbrough but a managerial change saw Gordon Strachan come in two months later. A year on, Strachan was replaced by Tony Mowbray, a huge Boro favourite from his playing days. In some respects, football is a small world at times with opinions being all too easily influenced, but Leroy reveals how the ex-West Bromwich Albion gaffer admitted some misjudgement to him.
“I really enjoyed working under Tony Mowbray at Middlesbrough. He told me that I came across totally differently to how he expected and that he enjoyed working with me.
“People talk in football and you can get a bit of a reputation. I think he was surprised that I was the way I was.
“It was nice for a manager to say that because they don’t usually admit when they’re wrong!”
Through social and more traditional forms of media, players have the opportunity to convey a certain persona. For some, the face they present is largely genuine, while others can be guilty of putting forward something more fabricated.
With Leroy, supporters have long seen what he brings on the pitch but how much of an understanding do they get for the person behind the player? Music discussion is the angle explored in each of these interviews and it gives an insight into Leroy’s character, what inspires him, and where he has come from.
Although many hip-hop devotees connect with the late Tupac Shakur’s music and messages to this day, the uncut, raw meaning and emotion in his work helped to make him an icon way beyond the genre. Leroy, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa, explains how he first came to identify with his favourite artist.
“I remember my friend gave me 2Pac’s album ‘R U Still Down? (Remember Me)’ when I was still at school. That was the first one that got given to me and the first one I bought was another 2Pac album, I can’t quite remember which one.
“It’s the stuff he talked about; I’d seen a lot of it myself growing up. It’s real stuff and how he told the story makes you think instead of just bopping your head to the beat.”
One of 2Pac’s songs to resonate with people most strongly was ‘Keep Ya Head Up’. The 1993 track offered acknowledgement and support to women dealing with the struggles to get by as well as poor treatment and a lack of respect from men.
The song begins with the lyrics, ‘some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots’, and Leroy wanted a permanent dedication on his arm to those and the lines that follow.
“I love the lyrics and that’s a great verse. I love my tattoos and I had space, so I went for it.”
Signed by Swansea City for £1.75million ahead of their first Premier League season, Leroy was described by Swans manager at the time, Brendan Rodgers, as ‘a proven goalscorer’. Although he was in the youth ranks at Chelsea, as mentioned, he spent the first few years of his life in DR Congo (at the time, Zaire).
There would be musical influences relating to his heritage for him to hear growing up, although considering his liking for 2Pac it is perhaps surprising that one genre in particular isn’t a favourite of his.
“I’m not a fan of hip-hop; I’m just a fan of 2Pac. Growing up, I was a fan of the number one artist ever, Michael Jackson, and he’s someone I still listen to.
“Michael Jackson’s music makes everyone smile and makes them happy; you hear it and you want to dance. I’ve also had African music from my family and that would always be on around the house.”
Scoring his first career goal in Bristol City’s 3-2 win at Port Vale in September 2002, Leroy came to prominence in 2004/05 as he struck 29 times for the Ashton Gate side. Still only 20 at the time, he joined a Reading team in July 2005 who went on to win the Championship and promotion to the Premier League with a record point tally of 106.
Given the number 8 shirt for the Royals, he netted 15 in 32 games that season and along with Kevin Doyle and Dave Kitson he was part of a trio that came up with 56 of the team’s goals. It was a squad that had great chemistry and solidity to go with its firepower and winger Glen Little revealed one of their regular training games in his interview on here last month.
Leroy mentions one of the other ways that players were able to put something forward individually that would be used by the group.
“At Reading, everyone picked a track and it was put on the CD by squad numbers. That was a good idea and it worked well for us.
“The one I chose was definitely 2Pac. At Swansea, Ash Williams liked to get on the music and you’d hear a lot of Rick Ross and people like that.”
Although it was Dave Kitson, Kevin Doyle and Leroy leading the way for goals in Reading’s promotion nine seasons ago, a teenager over from Cork City had also got in on the act in his limited amount of game time. The Irish striker has had two big-money moves this year, from West Brom to Hull City, and latterly to Southampton.
Leroy singles the 27-year-old out as the most memorable of his career teammates for singing, and he also recalls his own initiation performance after his switch to South Wales.
“At Swansea, me and Wayne Routledge went back-to-back and did a little rap. Shane Long’s a very good singer and he plays guitar.
“He surprised me because I thought he was going to be a quiet guy. He loves music and I think he’s got a karaoke bar.”
As Steve Coppell guided Reading to 8th place in the Premier League in 2006/07, Leroy struck against the likes of Liverpool, champions Chelsea, and Manchester United (also once against them in the FA Cup). He was the match-winner on the opening day as the Royals came from 2-0 down at the Madejski Stadium to beat Middlesbrough 3-2 and earn their first ever Premier League victory.
It was a season that yielded much more than anyone could have legitimately predicted for the team and one of the biggest characters in the squad was an American goalkeeper who played in every league fixture. Once again, his choice of tunes gets a mention from a former teammate on here, and predictably, it isn’t for complimentary reasons!
“Marcus Hahnemann – wow! He’s listening to some crazy, heavy, screaming music where people are getting setting on fire and all sorts!”
Prior to signing for Middlesbrough, Leroy had loans with Charlton Athletic and Norwich City, again getting amongst the goals. After scoring 20 over two seasons with Boro, it was off to Swansea where he added two more Premier League strikes to his tally, spending time on loan in the Championship with Birmingham City, Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton and Hove Albion.
This summer, he completed his move to Barnsley with the brief of firing the Reds back towards the Championship following relegation last term. The club’s first time back in League One since 2006 has got underway in mixed fashion, with two wins, three draws, and two defeats.
Leroy got off the mark with a goal in the 2-1 win at Crewe and registered another in the 2-2 draw away to Coventry. He is familiar with South Yorkshire after his time with Sheffield Wednesday, and as Danny Wilson’s team target a push up the table, the pre-game playlist in the changing room could do with some inspiration in Leroy’s opinion.
“It’s not the best at the moment, it’s struggling! I’m not sure who chooses it but someone needs to change it.
“I think the lads are more into house and stuff like that so I don’t think they’d like the music I listen to if I put it on. I just put my headphones on!”
Fresh off the back of his first top-flight season, Leroy went to the 2007 UEFA European Under-21 Championship with England. He had made his debut while still with Bristol City in 2005 but during the tournament he netted three, finishing as second-top scorer overall.
He was also named in the Team of the Tournament alongside the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Branislav Ivanovic and Kevin Mirallas. Leroy scored in the 1-1 semi-final draw with the Netherlands but was off the field for the shootout, which went the way of the tournament hosts, finally ending at 13-12 to the Dutch.
When asked which of his career teammates he would record a cover version of a song with, he opted for some dancehall vibes with one of his England counterparts from those Euros, with a cameo from Swansea and Wales’ captain thrown in.
“I’d do ‘System’ by Popcaan with Wayne Routledge. I’d have Ashley Williams on there too.”
As a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, I knew all about Leroy from watching him play against us all the way back to his days with Bristol City. Having also seen him hit the target for Norwich at Hillsborough, it was much more welcome to have him scoring in the blue and white during his loan from Swansea in 2013.
Leroy ended his stint with six goals in 17 appearances for the club and his winners against Charlton and Crystal Palace proved crucial as Wednesday avoided relegation on the last day of the season. That 81st-minute headed winner against Palace in front of the Kop at Hillsborough was one of my favourite moments of the season and although he didn’t return for a second spell, I wanted to hear Leroy’s impressions of his time in S6.
“I knew about Sheffield Wednesday being a big club but…wow. When I was at Swansea, they were the best fans I’d heard before a game and then I got to play in front of Sheffield Wednesday fans.
“They love their football and even with the team not doing as good as it should there was still 20-25,000+ there for each game. As a kid you grow up wishing to play in front of that.
“I got great support from Sheffield Wednesday fans and it was an honour to play for them.”
With a record that shows his instinct in front of goal, you would assume that Leroy had been kicking a ball around at every moment possible since he was young. It is likely to be some surprise to many then that he actually had a strong dislike for football once upon a time.
He recalls being in the house while his family were watching the 1994 World Cup and wanting to watch cartoons instead! However, once he began playing and realised he had a talent for it he started to love the game pretty quickly.
Having played at the highest level in English football, as well as for a number of reputable clubs, what does Leroy feel his time in the game has taught him and what has he enjoyed the most?
“I think the best thing is getting to go to different places and experiencing other cultures. You learn about people you’d never get the chance to if you were just at home.
“It’s just important to love every minute and the ups and downs. It’s a great career so just enjoy it and keep believing in yourself.
“Playing football is the best thing in the world.”
As alluded to at the beginning of the article, most people with a keen interest in the English game are aware of Leroy by now. Naturally, those who don’t know him on a personal level will be unaware of his interests away from football and the facets there are to his character.
“I listen to a lot of music. I also watch a lot of documentaries and I like learning about history, war and politics.
“I know it’s a bit boring but you get a lot of time after training! I do things with my friends and family too, just normal stuff, I like spending time with my people.”
Every supporter has their opinion on individual players, whether they are wearing their team’s colours, representing the opponents, or otherwise. What really tends to paint an intriguing picture, however, is to hear from the players themselves on what they think of their fellow pros. This regular closing question gets the inside track from the interviewee on the ones who have impressed them the most and what specifically sets them apart.
Each player on here is asked to put themselves into a 5-a-side team and to select four of the best they have ever worked with to complete the line-up. Here is Leroy to introduce his team and it begins with England’s current number one and a story from before the Premier League titles, the international caps, and the shampoo adverts!
“My goalkeeper would be Joe Hart. I remember the first time we met up with the Under-21s and he wasn’t even the number one then.
“We were in training and I had the ball outside the box. He started shouting ‘go on then, shoot at me!’ and I put it straight into his arms!
“I could see then this guy was quality and he’s doing pretty well for himself now. My defender – Ashley Williams.
“I think he’s one of the best in the Premier League and he’s a top guy and a great leader. He’s definitely my number one defender that I’ve played with.
“Midfield – I need a righty in there. I’ll go for Steve Sidwell, I’ll put him in.
“He’s tough, he works hard and sets up and scores goals too. I need a tricky little guy in there and there’s only one – Wayne Routledge.
“I played against him from when I was young so I’ve known him for a long time.”
Follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes
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