For this week’s feature interview we spoke to Luke Leahy, Falkirk full back from 2012-2017.
Luke didn’t have a typical start as a professional footballer, beginning his career with former Scotland manager Gordon Strachan’s football foundation before making the move up to Falkirk.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t at academies or anything, I was more just playing with friends and local Sunday or Saturday teams. I went on a few trials to Coventry, Birmingham and some other places, but never really got the breaks there.”
“When I was 17, I decided to go to a place called Strachan Football Foundation, which is Gordon Strachan’s academy. It gives people a chance to train like a professional footballer every day. That’s how my move to Falkirk came about. Gordon got in touch with Steven Pressley and got me a trial, and then I signed that week!”
“I remember it was a long drive, not many people would come and visit because of the journey! My trial week I got to the accommodation at midnight and a bloke called Tom O’Neil, who used to work for Falkirk, told me to get a good night sleep because I had training in the morning. All I can remember is not being able to sleep that night, even though I was knackered, because I was that nervous about the training session!”
Luke is well known amongst The Bairns fans as a marauding full back, but it wasn’t always so. In his first couple of seasons with Falkirk the young player struggled to make an impact from attacking midfield as he battled for minutes.
“In my head I always thought I was an attacking midfielder, and for the first year or so at Falkirk I didn’t start one game, I think I came off the bench a couple of times, that was always my position. Even in the second year with Gary Holt I was always in attacking midfield, but I was playing more. I got more substitute appearances and a few starts, probably four or five starts and 20 appearances.”
“After the season with Gary Holt I was out of contract and I remember on the last day of the season he told me I was being offered a new 2-year deal. It was a surprise to me because I hadn’t played a lot. I am very grateful to Gary for giving me that contract, because the following years at Falkirk was probably the best period of my career and it all could have been so different.”
One funny anecdote from those early days was a Challenge Cup tie with Raith Rovers, where an overeager Luke ended up on the bench as substitute goalkeeper!
“I’ll never live that down! It shows how eager I was, when I wasn’t playing, I just wanted to make the bench, so I said I’d go substitute keeper. That was something I look back on and think what did you think you were doing Luke!”
“Michael McGovern was away for a game, I think an international, and we didn’t have a backup. I had a little bit of experience, because I’d only played with friends in my younger days, I used to have a period in goal. I must have told Alex Smith once because he asked if I had played there, and I couldn’t really say no to him!”
Peter Houston took over following Gary Holt’s departure, and the former Bairn gives the Falkirk legend massive credit for moving him to left back, a position he has grown into and made his own.
“Peter Houston came in and that changed my whole career. My career kicked off with him, he made me a left back and he stuck by me. I still speak to him to this day, he’s probably the only manager I’ve had that I still call Gaffer.”
“There was this one game, it was Hearts away at Tynecastle, they’d just been relegated, and we played them in the league. We were 3-0 down and I came on just after half time, I remember him saying to go on at left back, I’d had a few development games playing there and I was doing quite well.”
“It was probably the best thing for me because I didn’t have time to think about it. It was just you’re on, left back, go out and try to do well. If I’d had plenty of time to think about it, I probably would’ve talked myself out of doing well, I’d have been too worried about making a mistake! My first real game at left back was away at Hearts, Tynecastle is an intimidating place and they were absolutely flying in the Championship, so it was a real tough start.”
“From that game until I left Falkirk in 2017, I think I only missed five or six games, which is quite a good record when you look back at it.”
After cementing his place as first choice left back it was a historic first season for both Luke and his teammates as they reached the Scottish Cup Final.
“I had all my girlfriend’s family down the day of the cup semi-final, and it was a real special weekend, because it was her birthday as well! To beat Hibs, with the rivalry we had in those years, it was fantastic. The quarter final I set up Sibbs for the header, then I got knocked out by Peter Grant, so it was a very memorable tournament for me!”
“I remember the whole week build up was incredible. That was my first season of my new contract, so to go from not playing and to end up playing in the Scottish Cup Final, that’s how rapidly my career changed. The training sessions leading up to it we had people outside the stadium and the cameras there. We trained on the Friday at The Falkirk Stadium then travelled to Glasgow that afternoon, I just remember there being five or six hundred fans cheering the coach on as we were leaving the stadium. That’s something I’ll never forget; it gives you goose bumps just thinking about it now.”
“It wasn’t the result anyone wanted but to be part of it and play in a game like that, it’s a day that will never go away and I had everyone there to watch.”
The 2015/16 season was one of the greatest in recent memory, with dramatic wins coming almost every week, and terrific performances against Rangers and Hibs securing second in a competitive Scottish Championship. Luke reflected on a season that is remembered for the right reasons, despite the team’s defeat in the playoff final to Kilmarnock.
“I think that season showed what the whole team was about. We were never beaten until we were off the pitch, we had so many comebacks and memorable nights at The Falkirk Stadium, that season was one of the best. Obviously, we fell at the last hurdle, but I remember the Hibs night in the play offs, the Kilmarnock first leg, the Rangers games, some great memories.”
“I still get sent that volley in the Hibs game! That was an important goal to go level and probably one of the sweetest strikes I’ve ever hit! The goal against Livingston was the best goal I’ve ever scored, but the goal against Hibs was the sweetest I’ve ever struck a ball. Some of the goals that season were unbelievable, I had my two volleys, Blair Alston hit a few sweet ones, he wasn’t happy he didn’t win goal of the season, Will Vaulks scored a few screamers as well.”
“It wasn’t to be in the end, but we had some special nights and I look back at those games. I’ve seen Falkirk TV are doing some stuff at the minute while we’re all stuck inside with some of the best games, and a good few have been that season. I keep an eye out and do watch the highlights they put on.”
Falkirk kick started Luke’s career, and the club and fans hold a special place for the versatile defender, both for their support on the pitch and their treatment of his family and himself off it.
“Home and away the fans would be there. From down to queen of the south right up to Ross County, they’d be there. I loved celebrating when we won in front of them and they took a real liking to that, they could see the whole team were playing for them.”
“It wasn’t just me, I had Lauren up at the time, who’s my wife now. She came to every game and the fans made her feel so special. They made me and her very welcome which is where the relationship sort of started. There’s a few Falkirk fans still keep in touch with my wife even now, asking how we’re getting on, which just shows how much of a family club it is. Whenever I had people come up it couldn’t have been any easier for them.”
“I always say it’s the club who made me who I am. I was still a kid when I came up to Falkirk, and I became an adult within that period.”
Peter Houston’s Falkirk side were well known for their camaraderie and team spirit, something that hasn’t dissipated in the years since with the Englishman staying in contact with quite a few of his former teammates. These include Falkirk’s current co-managers Lee Miller and David McCracken.
“I keep in touch with the majority of them, it shows how much of a team we were. I go on holiday with Blair Alston, he was one of the ushers at my wedding and I was one of his. In football you have teammates, but when you move on you don’t really hear from them again, but that team was different.”
“When they got the job I said to Cracks, what I’d give to be back in that changing room now, he’s one of the funniest blokes I’ve ever met! I’ve been around him and Lee, they bounce off each other, so I can see them doing really well. Unfortunately, the league had to stop, but I know they were onto something good there.”
After leaving The Bairns Luke ended his spell in Scotland with a move closer to home, as he signed a deal with League One side Walsall. Despite his new side’s struggles with relegation the experience was an extremely beneficial one.
“It was good, because I left home at 18, I always wanted to move a bit closer, and Walsall was only half an hour from where I lived. It was the perfect opportunity, and the perfect chance to move back home.”
“Walsall came to watch the very last game of the season, the game we lost to Dundee United in the playoffs. I was out of contract and the deal was done the day after that game; it was all done quite rapidly!”
“The first season we just avoided relegation and the second we unfortunately got relegated. It showed me how tough League One is. There were players coming down from the Championship who were earning all this money, then there’s me coming from Falkirk. It was a good test for me, and I’ve played over 140 games in League One now.”
“I was never really used to fighting relegation, I was used to coming to end of April and getting ready for a play off or to try and win a game to secure second. It was a weird one for me to get to March-April time and be so worries about getting relegated. The first season we got out of it with a few games to spare but the second year it was tough.”
After leaving Walsall, Luke moved to Bristol Rovers. Despite his debut season with “The Gas” being cut short, the defender has enjoyed his time in the South-Western city.
“I’m loving it, it’s a great city. We were flying up till Christmas, up at fourth or fifth in the league, then had a blip, and obviously everyone knows what’s happened now with the season not continuing, but Bristol is a lovely place to live and I’m enjoying my time here.”