The Brighton & Hove Albion defender talks about his admiration for Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, settling in with the Seagulls and, of course, that goal against Crystal Palace.
You grew up an Arsenal fan, didn’t you Leon?
It was mainly because of Thierry Henry as I loved his style of play. He was so elegant in the way he moved for a tall striker, which fascinated me, and of course he scored so many fantastic goals. To this day he is my all-time favourite player and idol as well – I’ve read his autobiography and I wear the number 14 shirt because of him. I also liked his celebrations; they were arrogant in a way but you still loved him for that. He’s the reason why Arsenal caught my eye as a youngster, but of course I also enjoyed watching their other great players like Dennis Bergkamp, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira. They had a great team back then.
Did you get to watch them much growing up in Germany?
Not really. Back then the internet was not as fast or as good as it is now, so I only saw a few highlights on my PC or got to watch their goals on YouTube videos. The only time I really saw them on TV at my parents’ house was in the Champions League, but not so much in the Premier League.
Given the goal you scored against Crystal Palace, would it be fair to say you were a budding Thierry Henry back in the day?
Before I knew about Thierry I was actually a striker. I played for my first club as a nine-year-old and for the first two years I played up front, but then they moved me back into the defence! Even though I’ve played all my professional career as a defender, I have always admired skilful players: Ronaldinho and Zidane back in the day, the Arsenal players I mentioned, and now Neymar, [Kylian] Mbappe and, of course, [Lionel] Messi.
Was your Palace goal a training ground move?
I think Solly’s [March] corner was supposed to travel further, but I’ve always been quite good at anticipating where the ball is going to drop. If you watch closely, I sensed that the ball would get deflected but, of course, you also need a bit of luck to see the ball come your way. I was very happy with the finish though and it was amazing feeling, especially as it was in the derby. It also came at an important stage in the game, having just gone down to men and knowing they would come hard at us after the sending off.
What was it like playing such a big game with ten men?
Personally, the main challenge was to get into the game because I came off the bench completely cold. Usually around that time in the game you would start your warm-up as a sub, have a little jog, just to get the circulation going again. But we hadn’t reached that point yet so when I went on, I never really felt as if I got into the game at the level I would have liked. As far as the game was concerned, much of the time it was all about clearing our lines and smashing it clear as they came at us in the second half with wave after wave. It was tough but experiences like that, when you win, brings you closer together and stronger as a unit.
You also came off the bench to make your debut against Manchester United – and looked like you’d played there for years!
I obviously arrived at the club as an experienced player, which helped me that day, but this was a very, very good group to come in to, very welcoming, and from the first day training with the squad it felt as if I had been here for two years. It’s also part of the job to be ready to come into the team at any given time and to be mentally ready so you don’t have to make a big adjustment. I was in the right condition to play and I think that showed.
We won that game 3-2 so did that show you that this is a team that can compete with the ‘big boys’?
It was an amazing feeling to come off the pitch having won and with the performance we had and with the atmosphere in the stadium, I couldn’t have wished for a better welcome to the Seagulls family. To beat one of the top six teams was fantastic for us and I think it suits us to play the top sides because there is no expectation on us to beat them. If we lose it’s what everyone expects to happen, but if we win it feels twice as good. Saying that, there are never any easy games and we don’t underestimate any team in the Premier League.
With Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk established in central defence, how hard has it been to be stuck on the sidelines?
I’m not going to lie, it’s never easy, but as I said, you always have to be ready to play. All I can do is show my levels in training on a consistent basis, which I think I have done, and what that has done is also force those two to up their games as well – that’s been my way of contributing to the team even when I’m not playing. That’s been a positive because for me, the team always comes first. It’s not nice to be on the bench, but I’m experienced enough to deal with that and there are other areas where you can help, maybe as a mentor to the younger players and to encourage the whole team in the dressing room. Whatever position I’m in, whether I’m on the pitch or on the bench, I always give it 100 per cent.
What would you say are the main differences between the Premier League and the Bundesliga?
I would say tactically there’s a big difference. In Germany there is a lot of tactical play, where games for the fans can sometimes get boring, but for the players it’s very intense as you’re looking to see what the opposition will do next. The coaches on the sidelines are battling against each other and if a plan doesn’t work, they will have another plan, and another, whereas in England it’s more exciting with more action up and down the pitch and the tempo is quicker. The individual class is definitely higher in the Premier League and if you watch every team, there is so much individual quality. For that reason, any team can win on any given day – and you can even make the top six teams struggle.
Finally, how’s it going on the international front with Nigeria?
We’ve qualified for this summer’s African Cup of Nations, which is the most important thing because we failed to qualify for the previous two tournaments – having been winners in 2013. There would have been an outrage if we hadn’t qualified again; we are a nation of 200 million people and although we have our problems, football brings everyone together and so we have a responsibility beyond football.