Dan Rawley takes a look at Antigua & Barbuda star Mikele Leigertwood’s European adventure…
He may have only won 11 caps for Antigua and Barbuda, but Reading midfielder Mikele Leigertwood has done as much as anyone to boost the tiny nation’s profile and appeal to European audiences.
Born in the London borough of Enfield in November 1982, Leigertwood began his career with capital-based team Wimbledon in 2001. 56 league appearances, as well as a brief loan spell at Leyton Orient, in his three years at the club showed experience and reliability beyond his years, Leigertwood’s spell at Wimbledon was hampered by the side’s financial woes.
Having entered administration in January 2003, the Wombles were forced to flog every first-team player capable of commanding a fee. Although he survived the fire-sale’s first throes, Leigertwood was eventually offloaded in January 2004, joining Crystal Palace for £155,000.
The midfielder became Palace manager Iain Dowie’s first permanent signing for the club, and made ten appearances in the remainder of the 2003-04 Championship season as the Eagles flew into England’s top-flight via the play-offs. Although he was just 21 at the start of the next season – only Palace’s fourth in the Premier League – Leigertwood proceeded to feature in the majority of the club’s league fixtures in 2004-05, even scoring his first goal for the club against Tottenham Hotspur in January 2005 from close range.
Unfortunately, Palace were relegated on the last day of the season, missing out on survival by just a single point. Leigertwood remained at Selhurst Park for 2005-06, and enjoyed increased playing time – 30 appearances in all competitions represented his best return for Palace.
Following the Eagles’ 3-0 play-off defeat to Watford, Leigertwood found an offer from newly-promoted Sheffield United too hard to refuse. He signed on the dotted line at Bramall Lane for £600,000 – a fee only necessary as he was under 24 at the time. 21 league appearances in his debut season for The Blades followed, but, in a scarcely believable development, Leigertwood was once more relegated from the top-flight on the last day of the season – by one goal. It was a relegation Sheffield United fiercely contended, the club infuriated by West Ham’s controversial purchase of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano – the former player scoring the goal that kept The Hammers up at United’s expense.
Despite looking set to remain at Bramall Lane for the 2007-08 campaign, Leigertwood would play just two games of the new season before joining second-tier rivals Queens Park Rangers for £900,000. Although this move looked to be a backward one in some aspects – QPR would finish just six points clear of relegation, while Sheffield United were four points shy of the play-offs – the transfer resulted in more playing time for Leigertwood. The midfielder would play in at least 87% of QPR’s league fixtures for the next three seasons, maturing into a reliable holding player capable at both ends of the pitch: Leigertwood netted 12 times during his stay at Loftus Road, the most he has scored for any one club.
Ironically, having helped stabilise Rangers and establish them as one of the Championship’s better clubs, Leigertwood fell out of favour in 2010-11, the season the side won promotion to the Premier League. Being farmed out to Reading in November 2010, around the time of his twenty-eighth birthday, proved to be a blessing in disguise: forming a central midfield partnership with Jem Karacan, Leigertwood soon proved so invaluable that his loan was extended to the end of the season.
Ultimately, The Royals missed out on following QPR to the Premier League with a play-off final defeat to Swansea in which Mikele played the full 90 minutes. It would be the 2011-12 season, however, in which Leigertwood would really make a name for himself at Reading. Joining the club permanently in August 2011, he became an indispensable fixture in Brian McDermott’s starting XI, playing 41 of Reading’s 46 league games.
With Leigertwood’s permanent services, Reading conceded ten fewer goals than in 2010-11, but it was not just his defensive abilities that shone through. Vital strikes against promotion rivals Southampton, Leicester, Blackpool and West Ham helped his side to the league’s summit, but Leigertwood’s finest moment in a Reading shirt was still to come.
On 17 April 2012, the table-toppers had the chance to secure promotion to the Premier League against Nottingham Forest with three games remaining. A predictably tense match ensued, with only a win being enough to warrant Reading’s planned promotion party. The 80 minute mark came and went with the match still goalless, prompting even the most optimistic fan to prepare themselves for one more nervous game. Promotion banners were folded away, pessimists headed for the exits.
However, one man had other ideas. Just nine minutes remained when Leigertwood pounced to fire home Ian Harte’s free-kick, prompting scenes of pandemonium and jubilation around the Madjeski Stadium. A mass pitch invasion followed; Leigertwood, having been, as BBC Sport called him, “the hero”, was carried off by hordes of grateful supporters. He later told cameras he was “delighted” to have scored the winner and the goal that clinched promotion, calling the amazing scenes at full-time “a crazy situation” and laughing “I got picked up in the air…people were trying to take my boots off me!”
The lynchpin of a team who’s average age is just 24, the 2012-13 season will be Leigertwood’s third in the Premier League. Expect him to play a big role. While his previous career has seen him move clubs frequently, Mikele seems to have found his home at the Madjeski.
Leigertwood was first approached to play for Antigua and Barbuda in June 2008 by then-national team coach Willie Donachie. A former Manchester City left-back himself, Donachie was attempting to bring some much-needed quality to the country’s squad by calling up players of Antiguan or Barbudan descent.
Although he was forced to turn down Donachie’s initial approach due to the team’s fixtures clashing with a wedding he had to attend, Leigertwood was eager to be involved in international football and soon afterwards took advantage of four-match Football League ban during his time at QPR to link up with Antigua’s 2008 Caribbean Championship squad.
Making his debut in a 3-2 loss to Trinidad & Tobago, Leigertwood made sure he was on the winning side on his second appearance by scoring the opener in a 2-1 defeat of Guyana. With the midfielder’s help, Antigua and Barbuda progressed to the finals of the competition after finishing as runners-up of Group H, clinching their spot in Jamaica with a thrilling 4-3 win over St Kitts & Nevis.
Drawn in a tough group containing Cuba, Guadeloupe (both of whom would reach the semi-finals) and Haiti, the squad struggled to compete without Leigertwood, whose league commitments in England had ruled him out of the finals, held in December. Antigua and Barbuda picked up two points in their three games, earning creditable draws against Haiti and Guadeloupe, but were sent home early.
Leigertwood returned to international action in November 2010, helping the Benna Boys reach that year’s Caribbean Championship by playing in a qualification win over Suriname and defending well to earn valuable draws against Dominica and Cuba. Once more, however, he was unable to play in the tournament proper, and once more Antigua and Barbuda were eliminated in the group stage.
The midfielder’s last five national team appearances have all come in 2014 World Cup qualifiers, enjoying slender wins over Curaçao and Haiti, as well as suffering a 2-1 loss to the latter team in November 2011, before returning to the side last month. Although a 3-1 loss to the USA and a goalless draw with Jamaica may not look particularly inspiring results, the Benna Boys have run two of North America’s best teams very close – a position that may not have been achieved without Leigertwood’s experience and leadership.
An article on Reading’s official website expressed the club’s pride in Leigertwood having “ma[de] history for his country” by leading Antigua and Barbuda to the next round of World Cup qualifying, going down in the nation’s footballing history for being part of the country’s squad to do so.
Ironically, Leigertwood’s relative fame means his off-field actions have helped Antigua and Barbuda just as much as his on-field performances. Since Mikele accepted an invitation to represent the country, fellow English-born footballers including Macclesfield’s Kieran Murtagh, Wycombe’s Marvin McCoy, ex-Oldham forward Josh Parker, and, most notably, Leigertwood’s former Championship colleague Dexter Blackstock, have all agreed to join Antigua’s squad.
Blackstock – a Nottingham Forest forward who has scored over 75 goals in England’s professional leagues and cups – will bring goalscoring prowess to the tiny, overachieving country with a population of just 89,000. The other players recruited from the English leagues will not be available all year round, but will make Antigua and Barbuda’s squad more solid and professional.
Having significantly improved a squad that previously only consisted of locally-based players, Mikele Leigertwood has paved the way for European-born footballers to represent Antigua and Barbuda internationally.
His role in the team’s upturn in fortunes should never be underestimated, and, when Leigertwood and his new recruits are all available, Antigua will be able to field a team with six England-based professionals – forming a side that will be a force to be reckoned with.
By Dan Rawley
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