Left-back come central midfielder come left midfielder come centre-back come left-wing-back Luke Leahy has been one of the first names on Steve Cotterill’s team sheet this past season – although the jury is still out when it comes to predicting where on the pitch he’ll play. The well-rounded player joined Coventry City’s academy when he was seven but was released in his early teenage years. After unsuccessful trials at Birmingham City and Peterborough United, Leahy ended up playing at Gordon Strachan’s Football Foundation. He impressed the manager of non-league Rugby Town and divided his football between the Foundation and Rugby Town before his big break arrived.
“Gordon [Strachan] rang Stephen Pressley – who was the manager at the time at Falkirk – and asked if I could go on trial up there,” Leahy began, “so I went up to Scotland for a three-week trial in April time and at the end of the trial they said they were going to sign me in June! I had a couple of weeks back home before I moved up to Scotland for five years!
“I loved my time at Falkirk! I didn’t play much in the first season; I kind of struggled to get used to it. I thought I’d be straight into it all but it took a while to get going, and obviously, I was only 18, so it was a big move at the time for me but after the first year, I got my head down and really kicked on. My number one moment would be playing in the Scottish Cup final, which is like the FA Cup final up there, that’s my best experience in football. The whole build-up and the week leading up to it was unbelievable! We were in the Scottish Championship and for a town like Falkirk to make the Scottish Cup final, it doesn’t happen very often, and it was my first season properly playing and it was my first season at left-back. I’d probably equate it to the Championship Burton Albion side reaching the FA Cup final.” Leahy’s Falkirk went down by two goals to one against Scottish Premiership side Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Hampden Park, but he doesn’t let that dampen the memory.
The now 29-year-old also picked up a rare award from his time at Falkirk: “Yeah, Goal of the Decade! I don’t think there are many of them going around so it was nice to receive it!” Leahy’s spectacular left-footed half-volley against Livingston was voted Falkirk’s Goal of the Decade in 2020 and he promises it was deliberate. “I remember I got asked this at the time and my reply is that there’s no one in the box to cross it to so of course, it’s a shot,” he laughed.
After five years with his beloved Falkirk, Leahy was picked up by Walsall and moved back to the West Midlands to play his first minutes in the EFL – and there were a lot of them! “I didn’t think I’d play every game when I came down to League One because it was my first season in English football, in the EFL. I think I got 17 assists in those two seasons, and I played 105 games, so it was good for me!”
Leahy got another two seasons in League One when he moved to Bristol Rovers in 2019. “We were fourth or fifth in the league come Christmas time, and then obviously our manager left to join another club [Graham Coughlan to Mansfield Town], and we had a really bad two months after Christmas that took us down the league and then COVID hit, so the first season was hit and miss really. The second season, again we had a few managers which was difficult – I think we had four managers during that season – but I was captain of the side and I got ten goals as well so personally it was another good season.”
However, Leahy wasn’t just getting involved on the pitch. During his second season at Rovers, he took up the role of Bristol Rovers Community Trust Health Ambassador. “It was mental health,” he explained, “so it was something I really wanted to get into in the first season I was there but then COVID-19 hit and sort of blew it. But as soon as we came back to pre-season, I said I wanted to get stuck into helping people, especially because of the year the fans had had.
“Bristol is a footballing city, and those fans hadn’t got to see us play during that season, so I wanted to give a bit of that back throughout last season. At the end of the day, fans live and breathe to watch us on a Saturday and it’s not the same on iFollow. It was just a way to let them know that we hadn’t forgotten about them and a token of appreciation for how good their support for us was. Fans are a big part of football and we’re a big part of them because they live and breathe football and they didn’t get a chance to do that last season, so I thought I’d give a bit back.”
His move to Shrewsbury didn’t cease his desire to speak out about mental health and it only takes a quick glance at Luke’s Twitter to see he still uses his platform to try and help people. “I’ve realised in the last 18 months that not a lot of people speak about mental health, so even if it’s just someone coming up to you and asking if you’re alright and how things are going you know, it’s important because no one knows what’s going on inside your head. As a group of players, we’re with each other almost every day, but as soon as we leave the training ground, you don’t know what someone might be dealing with, so that’s why I personally speak to everyone in the squad and try to be a likable character so people know they can talk to me.
“I’ve not necessarily struggled with mental health myself, but I’ve had close friends or family members who struggle with it. I know people who have had mental health problems and that’s what made me want to attack it and talk about it because you don’t really know what everyone’s going through. I just use my platform to help people as best I can, and if one Shrewsbury Town fan reads this and it encourages them to speak to someone about their mental health issues, then that’s job done for me, and this interview has done something good.”