Not many players can say they made their debut for their boyhood club in Abu Dhabi but that was exactly what Greg Leigh did four years ago. The left back was 19-years-old when he came on as a substitute for Gaël Clichy during a 3-0 win over Al Ain in a post-season friendly for Manchester City. That appearance came ten years after the young defender first joined his local club. It’s fair to say a lot had changed at the club during that time.
“It was definitely interesting being involved with the club at the time of the change,” says Leigh about the takeover of the club by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008.
“It was slow at first but more noticeable after four years. The equipment became more modern and specific and more staff were employed for specific jobs all to help the players.”
Having joined City as a nine-year-old, after being scouted playing as a striker for amateur side Sale United, Leigh was converted to left back and would make four appearances for the first team during the summer of 2014, playing in friendly wins over Dundee, Hearts and Sporting Kansas City as well as the aforementioned game in the UAE. That summer though, would turn out to be the closest he would make it to a senior debut for City. “I was hoping at the time [to be more involved in the first team]. Obviously when City became able to buy whoever they wanted to for the youth team and the first team, it looked at lot less likely.
“However being heavily involved in training and post and pre-season, I was hoping to have a small involvement maybe in a cup game, which I almost did, but wasn’t to be.”
After his busy pre-season, Leigh would eventually make his professional debut but for Crewe Alexandra after he joined the League One club on a season-long loan spell in August 2014. He would go on to make an impressive 42 appearances in all competitions in his first season of senior football but it was not enough to convince his parent club and he was released at the end of the season.
A move to Bradford City then followed before spending the last two seasons with Bury, where the 24-year-old made 100 appearances, hardly missing a game in his spell at the Greater Manchester club.
It was no surprise that the Shakers offered the full back a new deal in the summer but following their relegation, Leigh would be playing in very different surroundings than in League Two, he’d be playing in Holland.
“I hadn’t actually considered playing abroad and didn’t even [consider it] when it was brought to my attention,” he says. “I wasn’t keen at first but obviously came round to it in the end.”
The offer that was brought to his attention was a move to Eredivisie club NAC Breda. The club, who finished in 14th place in the Dutch top flight last season, have a partnership with Manchester City and have loaned several players from the Premier League side in the past and it was through this link with his former employers that the left back would make the move abroad for the first time.
“The move to NAC was through the partnership with City but was [more specifically] through the database created at City to help with recruitment. They send players on loan to Breda and in return help with this side of things.
“I subsequently ended up on the database because of my age, academy background and amount of games played and they then sent this through to NAC.”
Breda liked what they saw and signed up the full back on a three-year deal, meaning he would be leaving English football behind after four seasons in League One. Having previously only played for clubs in the north of England, the move represented something entirely different for the former England under-19 international.
“To be honest, it [settling in] has been quite easy for me. There’s been a couple of down days here and there but my teammates have made it easy to settle in, which can be the tough part.
“My friends back home have been good with it and I speak to my family often. It’s been a lifestyle change but not too different to life at home – maybe a little quieter!
“No-one moved out here with me but I’ve been lucky enough to have people come out and stay with me for a few days here and there, which is always nice.”
Although it didn’t take too long to adjust to living abroad, finding somewhere to live was not so simple initially.
“I have an apartment in the city at the moment but it was a bit of a nightmare at first because I had to move,” he says. “I found this apartment myself though and the club helped sort the rest.”
Ten games into the season and Leigh has spent as much time on the pitch as off it, starting five games and being an unused substitute in the others. Despite this, the former Bury man has been able see the positives.
“It’s a new experience for me compared to the last couple of years where I played most of the games but it’s a challenge and that’s what keeps the game interesting.
“I have always found that when I’m challenged is when I’m able to raise my game so it’s a good test.”
From the matches he has featured in, it has not taken long for him to appreciate a change in the type of football played in Holland.
“There is a massive difference in the style of play. As cliché as it sounds, it’s more continental football and a slower pace of game. The players are definitely more technical here on the whole.
“However, this contrasts with the training, which I’ve found to be harder, although I’m not sure if this is necessarily typical of the Eredivisie.”
NAC are currently second bottom in the Eredivisie and are winless during the games which Leigh has been on the bench for. This could mean a recall for the former Manchester City man could be on the cards, which could then play a part in reaching the goals he has set for himself.
“I’ve always wanted to play as high as I can,” he says. “It’s frustrating that I haven’t been able to play my best football here so far but my ambition has been to be in the Championship by the time I am 26-years-old, which gives me three windows to do so.”
It’s been a difficult start to the season for NAC but Leigh is undoubtedly competing at higher level than he previously has been, which can only be good for his development. He is a determined character and knows what he wants to achieve in football.
Don’t bet against him reaching his goals soon.