Alex Gulrajani tells the bizarre tale of how Leon Knight found himself unable to play in the English league

Leon Knight has nearly seen it all. Since making his debut for Chelsea as a youngster ten years ago, he has played for 14 other teams, the latest being Coleraine of the Irish League. But while club fallouts have marred his career, nothing could compare with what happened at Rushden & Diamonds – which brought the 28-year-old to the north coast of Northern Ireland. “Peter Taylor came in at Wycombe. A month in, he was overlooking me and bringing in his own players so we had a few words and I decided to leave. I was on my way to Scotland when the call from Rushden came.”

An ambitious chairman bought in a lot of players to get his team up the league. A lump sum paid to Knight at the start of his contract has now become the sticking point. Three-quarters of the way into a tough season the striker found himself on the transfer list. Then bad luck, in the form of a nasty chest infection, resulted in Knight being ruled out of action for ten days by the club doctor. He was given a less than warm welcome on his return to training. “I came back and the manager said ‘You’re out of here, we want our money back’. I lost my head a bit. I’d just come back, there was a bit of squaring-off and words were said between me and the manager but it all settled down.”

According to Knight, the club then kept telling him the wrong time to get to training and meet for the team bus – and fined him as a result. After an FA Cup defeat, the striker was called back in. “They said due to a breach of club rules, I was suspended without pay. I came back after 24 days without training and playing and they decided they were going to sack me but keep hold of my registration until I returned the lump sum paid to me.”

Twitter has been Knight’s release, especially in the fall-out from the Rushden deal, which sometimes got the striker into trouble. “Twitter is a brilliant forum to speak to the fans and speak my mind. A lot of stuff gets said on forums so using Twitter, I can come out and have my opinion. Sometimes things get said in the heat of the moment but on the whole it’s a brilliant tool.”

Unable to play in England while his registration was tied up with Rushden, a brief trial with MLS side San Jose Earthquakes followed a spell in Greece. Hamilton Academicals and Queen of the South in Scotland were next before Knight found his way back across the border at Darlington until Rushden put a stop to that.

“My contract with Rushden was up so I assumed I was free to play in England again. On the way to my first game, my agent phoned to say Rushden had extended my contract by another year! My deal had that option and they enabled it.”

Now Knight is wearing another No 9 shirt – this time the blue-and-white stripes of Coleraine. Historically bossed by Belfast’s “Big Two” – Linfield and Glentoran – the Irish League has gone through many makeovers during its 120-year history and is currently midway through another season where title talk is dominated by David Jeffrey’s Linfield side. The harsh economic climate has hit the division and a few clubs have struggled with their finances – Glentoran the latest to face a huge bill from HM Revenue and Customs.

Being a semi-professional league, with an overall standard roughly between England’s League One and Two, wages aren’t the main reason for playing. While it is widely believed that a couple of the top players earn up to £1,000 a week, the average is around £400 for the top clubs with the lower teams paying anything from £100 a week.

So while Knight picks up what he called a “healthy” goal bonus at Coleraine, the money obviously isn’t the attraction. Commuting from London every weekend and the harsh northern winter haven’t lured the former Chelsea striker to Ulster. Game-time seems to be his main reason for being here and he could be here to stay.

“For me personally, I can’t be who I want to be [in England]. You can’t say certain things. Since I’ve been here, I’m freer to have an opinion. In England, you can’t and I don’t like that. If I do well here, I’ll just sign a new contract for Coleraine – that’s the kind of person I am.”

From WSC 287 January 2011

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