Earlier this month, Sean met Club Historian John Hutchinson at LCFC Training Ground to speak about his career in football. In part one of this extended interview, he talks about his early days at Peterborough United, his successful career at Preston North End and the reasons behind his move to Leicester City.
Sitting in the coaches’ office in Seagrave, Sean began by describing his football journey.
“I was born in Solihull,” he recalled. “As a youngster I played for a local team in Aston. I was a centre-forward in those days and scored a lot of goals. Then I went on trial with Peterborough and signed for them. I was quite small then and they said I’d be a better player in centre midfield.
“Then I became a defender but as I grew up through Peterborough’s youth ranks, I was small for a centre-back so I had to drop down a year from the under-15s to the under-14s so I was the same size as the other players. I had a year there with Dan Ashworth as my manager and throughout that year I grew and I went back to joining the under-17s and that’s when my apprenticeship started.
“A year later I was able to make my first team debut when I was 18. I came on as a substitute against Wycombe Wanderers. Barry Fry was the manager and he was really good with young players. He showed a lot of faith in me and I went on to play a lot of games for Peterborough.
“I did the hard yards down in League 1 and League 2. It was more common in those days for younger players to play in the lower leagues. The latest good examples of players who started in the lower leagues are probably Jarrod Bowen and Ivan Toney.
“I benefitted from Barry Fry’s management. He was a good motivator. You knew where you stood with him. It was a good time. I enjoyed it.
Preston was where Sean St Ledger initially made his name in the game.
“Peterborough was struggling financially and a TV company made a payment into the club to make a behind-the-scenes documentary with Ron Atkinson called ‘Big Ron Manager’. I learnt quite a bit from Ron. His CV was phenomenal. He’d managed some top clubs and had some really good experience to pass on. After that, I kept in touch with him and had a meal once in Spain with him. At the time of filming, me and another player were getting linked to other clubs so the film focused on us a little bit and maybe my behaviour wasn’t too good on the film.”
In July 2006 Sean signed for Preston North End, who had just narrowly missed out on the play-off positions for a place in the Premier League.
Explaining the move, Sean continued, “At the time I was on trial at Birmingham City under Steve Bruce. They had big names like Emile Heskey, Jermaine Pennant, Mathew Upson and David Dunn. They’d just been relegated from the Premier League and were predicted to go straight back up. I was offered a contract at Birmingham and was about to sign it when Preston offered me one. I felt I would have better first team opportunities at Preston. I had a good feeling about them and that’s why I went up there.
“As soon as you entered Preston, one of the founder members of the Football League, you could see it was steeped in tradition. Tom Finney’s statue is outside the ground and the National Football Museum was based there in those days. It was nice to be part of that.
“Paul Simpson, Preston’s manager at the time told me that I would be behind the two first choice centre-backs, but I didn’t have a problem with that because I was so young and I was eager to learn. During the pre-season, one of the centre-backs was badly injured so I played in the team and the rest is history. I played in nearly every game from then on. We were top of the table for a large part of that season, but we had a big dip in form after January and we ended up just outside the play offs.
“It was a disappointment but in terms of personal development it was fantastic. There were good players in that division like Robert Earnshaw who had really good movement and Clinton Morrison. I had to find ways to use my strengths against their weaknesses. It was a challenge, but I grew as a player and as a person. I could feel that I’d stepped up a level.”
The following season (2007/08), Sean was Preston’s Player of the Year. Paul Simpson was replaced as manager by Alan Irvine who’d been David Moyes’ assistant when he’d been manager at Preston.
“Alan was the best coach I had,” Sean reflected. “He taught me a lot about defending. I was never the tallest of players and he found a way of disguising my weaknesses and helping me in aerial duels. He’s had fantastic top level coaching experience. In my younger days, I’m not sure I’d had much information like this.”
Breaking into Republic of Ireland contention was a source of pride for Sean St Ledger.
The following season (2008/09) Preston reached the play-off semi-finals for a place in the Premier League, only to be narrowly beaten by Sheffield United.
“To get to the play-offs we’d gone on this amazing run,” Sean continued. “There was a critical game against Cardiff who were also in the play-off positions. We beat them 6-0 at home. On the final day of the season Cardiff lost and we beat Queens Park Rangers and got into the play-offs ahead of Cardiff who had the same points and same goal difference. I was able to score the goal against QPR which clinched our play-off spot.
“In the semi-final we went up against Sheffield United who’d finished third. They were a really strong team. We drew 1-1 at Preston but when we went to Bramall Lane there was a difference. They were the better team and deserved to go through. When we went over to our fans at Bramall Lane, I felt that I could have done more. I wanted to repeat the game. It was one of my regrets.”
Four months later in September 2009, Sean joined Middlesbrough on loan with a view to a permanent transfer in January.
“That was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make. I was enjoying life in Preston. Not just the football but in terms of my life. I was settled in the area. I had a house. The training ground was only ten minutes away. I was playing well. Everything was great and then the opportunity to go to Middlesbrough came.
My aim throughout my career was to play at the highest level I could and to play in the Premier League and I thought that at Leicester, I’d be able to achieve that.Sean St Ledger
“I’d had the opportunity to go in the previous transfer window but in the medical they found that something was wrong with my meniscus. They didn’t go through with the transfer. I continued to play for Preston because there were no symptoms. Then I ended up signing on loan at Middlesbrough with a view to a permanent transfer.
“Gareth Southgate was Middlesbrough’s manager and I’d been a Villa fan as a boy when he played for them. He was the nicest man. He was incredible. I thought that it would be a step up for me and that I could learn. Middlesbrough had just been relegated from the Premier League, but they were investing in new players whilst Preston were not.
“Not long into my loan deal, Southgate was sacked. Gordon Strachan was appointed. The good feeling that I’d had under Southgate was not replicated because when you are the manager’s signing you get more chances to make mistakes than you do with a new manager coming in. Strachan was a really good coach and I enjoyed the time I had on the grass with him, but Alan Irvine was still at Preston so I said that I would like to go back there. Strachan was good about it. The money he would have spent on me could now be spent on his own players. I went back to Preston. Everybody won.
“Then, two games into my return to Preston, they sacked Alan Irvine. Alan was a big reason for me going back there. The club knew this and I felt a bit betrayed. This is why when the possibility of me going to Celtic in January (2010) came up I was interested in going there.
“I was intent on going to Celtic because I wanted to play for Ireland, and to play for Celtic at the same time would have been a dream. Their manager Tony Mowbray had his teams playing a really good style of football. They had one of the best stadiums and one of the best atmospheres in football. However, it didn’t happen. Preston were asking for a lot of money for me which they’d have got from Middlesbrough if I’d gone there and the move never materialized in the end. It was obviously a disappointment.”
Sean St Ledger joined the Club as it started to point its focus towards Premier League promotion.
Back at Preston Darren Ferguson was the new manager and the Lillywhites finished the season in 17th position in the Championship. The following season (2010/11) was Sean’s last at Deepdale.
Explaining why he left Preston to join Leicester City at the end of the season, he continued: “Darren Ferguson got the sack in December and Phil Brown came in as manager. I missed a large part of that season due to the meniscus injury. Preston got relegated at the end of the season and there was a financial aspect to consider. I was one of the club’s valuable commodities.
“The move to Leicester came about partly because I was playing for Ireland at the time and the Republic’s manager was Giovanni Trapattoni. He had a connection and relationship with Leicester City’s Manager Sven-Göran Eriksson as they’d both managed in Italy. I think Trapattoni had mentioned me to Sven. Sven rang him up and Trapattoni gave the thumbs up. I’d also played with Paul Gallagher when I was at Preston and he was also now at Leicester. Next thing I know, I’d signed for Leicester City (in July 2011).
“The new owners had been there for a few months and it was clear that their aim was to get to the Premier League. My aim throughout my career was to play at the highest level I could and to play in the Premier League and I thought that at Leicester, I’d be able to achieve that.”
In part two of this interview, to be published in the next-but-one edition of CITY, Sean talks about his time at Leicester City, playing in an FA Cup Semi-Final for Millwall and his experiences playing for Orlando City and Colorado Rapids in the USA. He recalls his international career playing for the Republic of Ireland and playing against some of the best players in the world. He also talks about his current full-time role scouting for Leicester City.
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