Brought in to get Malky Mackay’s men over the line back in 2013, Leon Barnett made a greater impression in six weeks with Cardiff than many players managed in six years. Now retired, he here reflects on his time at the club, how a health scare ended his career and his latest venture.
Your time at Cardiff may have been brief, but you managed to make a real impact. It was like a brief love affair! What was your situation, both personally and at Norwich, when you joined?
At the time at Norwich, they were in the Premier League and I wasn’t really playing. I wanted to stay, but the manager said that he would make me available for a loan, so I spoke to my agent and my family, thinking that I’m not sure if the club want me anymore. After a couple of days, I had a call from my agent saying there had been some interest and I said I was happy to go. Then Malky Mackay just gave me a call out of the blue, but I didn’t really understand why they needed me because they were already running away with the league. The job was already done and dusted. I was there to fill a gap and I was more than happy to go there. I’m not sure if they really needed my services if I’m honest.
You were brought in to fill in for Cardiff captain Mark Hudson, who was sidelined, so you had to hit the ground running. How did you find adapting to a new team and centre back partner in Ben Turner, so quickly?
Norwich to Cardiff isn’t the friendliest of trips! I moved right next to the training ground in the Vale Hotel, which was fantastic because they also have a golf course! I settled in quite easily and there were a few people I knew there from Norwich, like Simon Lappin. I also got quite friendly with Ben Nugent, who was coming through the youth team. I was taking Mark Hudson’s position, but he made me feel welcome and Craig Bellamy was also there. They were already doing so well and I didn’t want to be the one to go there and disappoint the team, so my challenge was to do the best that I could and try and keep some clean sheets.
You were a bit of a promotion machine in your career, going up with West Brom, Norwich and Wigan, as well as Cardiff. As you say, most of the hard work had been done by the time you got to Cardiff, but did it feel similar to those other successful sides you were in?
Definitely. The morale of the team and that they used to do stuff together after training, like go for lunch or play golf. There was a positive vibe and they were all happy to be around each other. That helped me to settle in and I never felt like an outcast, there to take someone else’s place. I settled in nicely not just with the players, but also the fans, the staff at the club and at the hotel.
How did you find working with Malky Mackay?
Malky kept it simple if I’m honest and that was my game. Him being a centre half and having an understanding of that position, and I actually played him when I was younger, he just wanted me to keep it simple and give it to the midfielders.
There is an iconic picture of you the night Cardiff sealed promotion, in a sea of fans being held aloft. How did that promotion compare to the others and did you still feel a part of it, despite only being there for a short amount of time?
I definitely felt a part of it. No one can take that promotion away from me and it felt just as good as all the others I had. I enjoyed it because my family were there as well. I know exactly what picture you’re talking about and it brings back memories. I remember that night and it was pretty scary when the whistle went because I was shaking hands with everyone, then I saw all these people running at me! It was a classic night I’ll never forget.
You were then recalled by Norwich, so only spent about six weeks at the club. Were you still around to enjoy any of the festivities?
That was a bit frustrating, if I’m honest. Malky had given us a few days off to recuperate and I got a phone call from Chris Hughton saying he wanted me to come back early. I said to the gaffer that the promotion celebrations were on the Sunday and that I wanted to stay, but he said he needed me for a vital game away at Stoke. I didn’t really want to go back, but had to because Norwich were in a relegation battle. So I went back, assuming that I would be playing, then sat on the bench for the whole season. It was frustrating missing out on the medals and stuff, getting a send-off, but Cardiff were great and sent me the medal with a card saying thank you very much for your services. I appreciated that and I’m glad I did my bit in getting them to the Premier League.
You fall in to the category of players that passed through Cardiff all too briefly, but made a big impact and are fondly remembered. With players like Kasper Schmeichel, Gary O’Neil and Julian Gray. I guess the flip side of that is those sorts of players are also not around long enough to tarnish their time at the club. Were there any talks about returning permanently for the Premier League campaign? I think most people expected you to come back after such an impressive spell.
If I’m honest, I would have happily moved to Cardiff on a permanent deal. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. I wasn’t aware of any interest and players can’t wait around forever. Cardiff went up and Norwich came down, so I had to be proactive and see what was best for my family. There were a few rumours, but nothing come of it. I spoke to Malky briefly, but there were no contract talks, so I moved on really. Wigan was the best offer on the table.
You retired at 32 due to health issues relating to your heart and you were fitted with a pacemaker. How did you discover the underlying problems and how has that since affected your life?
When I got to about 30, I thought that I had better start planning for the end of my career and I wanted to play until I was 35. In the end, I had to stop playing at 32 with a heart condition that was very similar to what Fabrice Muamba had, where if you put your body under too much strain, you run the risk of a heart attack or cardiac arrest.
I’ve done loads of medicals for previous clubs and nothing was picked up. I was playing my second game for Northampton against Wycombe away, running back from a corner and I felt really dizzy. I spoke to the physio about it after the game and he suggested seeing a cardiologist in Birmingham, so they could read the data from my heart. I had a small operation and was out for 10 days, then back in training fitted with a heart monitor. In two or three weeks, I was ready for another game, which was against Bury and I didn’t realise that would be the last game I would ever play.
I had that feeling again at the end of the game, told the physio and he said for me to go back up to Birmingham. They read the data and they said my heart recorded 330pbm. If I wasn’t an athlete used to playing a high intensity sport, they said I probably would have collapsed. I didn’t realise how serious it was until they told me that I would have to retire.
You now have the Leon Barnett Football Academy. How did that come about and was that something you always wanted to do rather than coaching at a club?
I did my UEFA B licence, completing it just after I retired, and I had the opportunity to open my own academy. I know being at school is a stressful time, so it’s good to give kids the chance to express themselves through football. It’s based in Luton for children between 6-12, but we’ve just had a grant to start an Under-19 academy, where they can train and do their studies with us. In the next year or two, the idea is for us to have teams, but at the moment we run camps, work one-to-one and it’s a good chance to pass on my knowledge and experience from football.