Ian Plenderleith dissects a biographical account of Lars Leese's career to discover that, unlike his wife, the German never quite felt at home in South Yorkshire
When German goalkeeper Lars Leese signed for Barnsley at the start of their Premiership season in 1997, he was one of six foreign players at the club that year. As the journalist Ronald Reng describes it in his excellent biography of Leese, published in Germany earlier this year, Barnsley boss Danny Wilson was “like a kid in a toyshop who was finally allowed to buy international stars – or rather, players who were international and were taken for stars in Barnsley”.
Reng’s book, written in close co-operation with Leese, tells the tale not just of an unlikely rise at a relatively late age (Leese, then 27, had never played a professional game before signing for Barnsley), but of how a club who had rarely, if ever, signed players from outside the British Isles before, failed to integrate them either into their playing system or their way of life.
Leese’s signing is a tale in itself. After a season as third choice at Bayer Leverkusen, he went to Oakwell for three days of training, mainly with the reserves, and was signed for £250,000, without anyone from the club having seen him play a single game. One reason for their confidence was that his agent, Tony Woodcock, had told Barnsley Leese was Leverkusen’s No 2. He also helped Leese more than double his salary.
Once there, Leese quickly learned about English training methods (“Run your bollocks off”) and, during the course of his first reserve match, that English defenders don’t like the ball played to feet (“Whack it out!”). Worse, he discovered that the “feeling of belonging”, which had been his motivation for playing football over the previous decade, was largely absent. In the changing room and on the team bus, British players and foreign players sat apart. To some extent he understood – the home players had won promotion, their places were under threat and the foreigners were being paid more. On the other hand, he tells Reng, they could have taken their case to the chairman, “but instead they went off to the toilet and bitched about us.”
Leese does not complain about his time in Yorkshire. He remembers with affection the friendliness of the town and the optimistic passion of the fans, and his wife breaks down in tears when the time comes for them to leave Barnsley. But often he finds himself in the role of a bemused observer. The drinking habits of English players were already legendary in mainland Europe, so he wasn’t too shocked at that. However, the puerile dressing-room atmosphere (“embarrassing kindergarten or a happy, mischievous bunch, depending on your point of view,” writes Reng); one of the players dressing up as Hitler at the Christmas party and saluting him with a Sieg Heil; two players having sex on stage with strippers later the same night; the routine food fights in restaurants – these were all episodes that struck Leese as “things you needed to get used to”.
The goalkeeper was slightly more surprised by the mid-season break in Mallorca, a present from chairman John Dennis for a reasonably good run that briefly lifted the team to 17th place. He had taken his training gear along, only to find that no training was scheduled, only long nights on the piss and days sitting by the pool. Ashley Ward’s treatment from the physio for a torn muscle was a pill thrown into his beer.
After Barnsley were relegated, and club clown-cum-reserve striker John Hendrie took over as manager (“The year before he hadn’t said a single serious word, and now all of a sudden he was talking about discipline and order” – Leese), things took a turn for the worse for all concerned. Even when Barnsley’s other keeper, David Watson, was injured, Leese sensed Hendrie’s reluctance to play him. When Jan Aage Fjortoft left the club, he told Leese Hendrie had said it was fine by him, “because he wanted all the foreigners out in any case”.
Leese’s contract expired at the end of that second season, Barnsley released him, and Woodcock stopped returning his calls after a move to Hibs fell through. Leese ended up back in semi-pro German football after a professional career of 20 games. Still, he remains eloquently gracious about, and grateful to, English football for the moments those games gave him.
From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month