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What can Sheffield United or Millwall expect from unsettled Southend midfielder Ryan Leonard?

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Southend United player of the year Ryan Leonard has submitted a transfer request and rejected an offer of a new contract at Roots Hall, Essex Echo reporter Chris Phillips has confirmed. The Essex Echo believe that both Sheffield United and Millwall are interested in the central midfielder.

Phillips believes that Sheffield United have already had a bid worth £500,000 rejected this week, but it seems unlikely that it has been enough to deter Chris Wilder in his pursuit of the former Plymouth Argyle youth product. Southend club chairman Ron Martin is determined not to allow him to leave, according to boss Phil Brown, but it seems it is only a matter of time until an agreement is reached.

Leonard has spent six years in south Essex since joining on a free transfer, and has come on leaps and bounds as he has developed from a weak right-back to a dominant central midfielder. First pushed into the middle of the park under Paul Sturrock, Phil Brown has brought his game on and deployed Leonard in a holding midfield role where he has had a huge influence over games.

There has been a change in style in Leonard’s game across the years, despite winning the club’s player of the year award on a record equaling three occasions. In 2013/14, Leonard focused his game around trademark driving runs forward from deep, looking to move his team forward or pounce on loose balls in and around the box. Along with that came a number of spectacular goals and an all round midfielder.

In more recent years, Leonard has seen his role become more defensive minded. Operating alongside Anthony Wordsworth, Leonard has protected his defence and allowed his midfield counterpart the freedom to roam forwards. Whilst the driving runs may be reduced, Leonard has shown himself to be one of the best in the Football League at breaking up attacks.

A real athlete, with high fitness levels and a great reading of the game, Leonard cuts attacks out and immediately looks to get his side forward. He is tactically astute and intelligent both on and off the ball, happily filling in for team-mates such as marauding right-back Jason Demetriou.

There is little doubt that Leonard can take his skills and apply them in the Championship. Despite having played just two seasons at League One level, the 25-year-old has already made himself one of the best players in the division. If he can replicate that kind of improvement in the second tier, it could only be a matter of time until he’s moving on to the Premier League.

It may not be easy for either Sheffield United or Millwall to agree a fee with Southend, with a bidding war not likely to help matters. However, Leonard does have just one year left on his current contract and has clearly had his head turned by interest from the newly promoted duo. Once a deal has been agreed, which seems highly likely, the victor will be getting a very reliable, very consistent and very effective player who will boss the midfield even at Championship level.

Featured Image: All rights reserved by SONICA Photography.

Sam is a Southend United fan and student based in the South-West. He has previously worked for various publications, including FourFourTwo magazine and ITV. Sam also has an extensive knowledge of Spanish football and has previously lived and worked in Spain. Find Sam on Twitter at @samleveridge.

FA Cup

Tottenham vs Milwall: FA Cup match preview, likely line-ups and score prediction

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With FA Cup fixtures mixed in with Premier League ties this weekend, Sunday’s two o’clock kick-off sees Tottenham take a break from top-flight action to host League One side Millwall. It promises to be a feisty occasion, as the two London clubs face each other for the first time since 1990.

Despite being second in the Premier League, Spurs must not show any signs of complacency as they could well become the latest side to succumb to another FA Cup upset. Mauricio Pochettino will be hoping Harry Kane, who once enjoyed a loan spell at Millwall, can take Tottenham through to the semi-finals.

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The Lions have done very well to get to this stage of the competition by beating Premier League sides Bournemouth, Watford and most recently Leicester and they now find themselves up against Tottenham, one of the biggest clubs in English football.

Recent Form

Spurs come into the game in decent form, having recently beaten Stoke and Everton at home, scoring seven goals in the process. They did, however, draw to Gent at Wembley in the Europa League which knocked them out of the competition. Pochettino’s men will be desperate to perform against Millwall to progress in the FA Cup and maintain their chances of securing silverware this season.

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As for the League One side, they sit sixth in England’s third tier of football. Much of their lofty position is down to a fantastic February in which the Lions won six out their seven league games. They have been performing well under manager Neil Harris and are currently on a 17 game unbeaten run, which they will be hoping to extend against Tottenham.

Predicted line-ups

Tottenham predicted starting XI               Millwall predicted starting XI

Team news

Mauricio Pochettino has very few concerns with his squad, with the main absentees being Danny Rose and Erik Lamela, both of whom have had recent injury problems. The rest of his Spurs side is fully fit and ready for Sunday’s tie.

As for Millwall, Jordan Archer, their first-choice keeper, remains a doubt. Tom King is expected to keep his place in between the sticks.

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Match prediction

Despite this clash featuring two clubs from different leagues, it will not be a complete turnover like many might expect. Neil Harris’ side will be high in confidence due to the run that they are on and will have the full support of the Millwall faithful who have sold out their ticket allocation. It will a physical, aggressive and close-fought game but Tottenham should prove too strong.

Score prediction: Tottenham 2-0 Millwall.

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How vital is it for Millwall to keep hold of marksman Lee Gregory?

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For a League One club to turn down a bid from the top two divisions for a player, you could be forgiven for thinking they were somewhat audacious. It’s a different story however for one of League One’s proverbial bigger fish in Millwall, who have recently rebuffed Rotherham United ‘s approach for last season’s 27 goal top scorer in all competitions, Lee Gregory.

The 27 year old has been the subject of much speculation ever since the end of the season, as Millwall fell at the final hurdle, losing the playoff final 3-1 to Barnsley and missing out on promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt.

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Gregory’s Non – League background has already drawn comparisons to his former teammate at Halifax, Jamie Vardy, with the Millwall hitman tipped by some to reach similar heights later in his career. Though after Millwall ‘s failed bid to get back into the second tier last year, Gregory’s contribution of 21 league goals means that he is an asset that Neil Harris’ Millwall logically cannot afford to lose.

League One was unique last season in that there was no real “big club” figure whose financial punch and large fanbase consequently meant that they took the League by storm, unless you consider Wigan Athletic within that category. They however took time to get their game going, and with the upcoming season’s so called “big fish in a small pond” in Bolton and Charlton both in precarious positions regarding finances and ownership, the Lions will be licking their lips at the prospect of challenging again and this time being successful.

Fighting tooth and nail to keep hold of Gregory is a signal of that intent. Rebuffing a bid believed to be in the region of £1.2million from an up and coming, somewhat ambitious club in Rotherham may be seen as bold, but Harris and Millwall fans will know that no money can replace the man whose goals got them so far last season.

As well as his goal tally, his movement off the ball and the way he pulls players out of position is vital for Millwall ‘s creative force. He holds the ball up well and doesn’t shy away from physical centre halves, and when he is presented with a golden chance is a reliable finisher and unselfish in front of goal when necessary.

The fact he is a nuisance for defenders both on and off the ball shows his importance to his team in open play as well as his personal goals contribution. A player of such impact in the forward line who is so prolific is always a rare commodity and a difficult one to replace in the lower divisions, and since financial restrictions are no object, Millwall from a fans’ perspective must hold firm in turning away further interest since any potential void fillers capable of matching Gregory’s tally are in worryingly short supply.

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Were Millwall to keep their man, he could easily be expected to plunder as many goals as the previous season, if not even better his tally from what was his most prolific season in the Fooball League having netted 29 goals in the National League in 2013-14 for Halifax. Millwall subsequently snapped him up for a fee of £250,000, and his current manager Neil Harris has confirmed interest from the Millers but also stated his intent to keep his man:

“Rotherham have bid for Lee, who had an exceptional season last year. There is going to be interest in our players, because we have got very good ones.

“But the club have turned it down. And just as importantly – more importantly – we have 100 per cent not received any transfer request from Lee Gregory.

“Lee is a boy who wants to play at the best level he can. He is happy playing for us. I had an excellent relationship with Lee last year and found a way to get the best out of him. I’d like that to continue next season”.

For now, Millwall fans will be hoping he’s scoring goals in a higher division in their colours, having already scored a hatful in the Championship with 9 goals in 2014-15 which ultimately proved fruitless  as the South East Londoners failed to stave off relegation.

Though another year in the third tier stands between them and that vision, and Gregory will be just as integral in getting them there as he will be in aiding Millwall in the Championship, if they can keep hold of him. But there is a long time to go until the transfer window slams shut, and it will really test Millwall’s ambition if an offer that they cannot refuse is in the pipeline.

For them, however, he is priceless, and if their resolve here is anything to go by, do not be surprised to see him in a promotion winning side at the end of next season.


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Exclusive: Millwall’s Lee Gregory discusses play-off hopes, goal scoring and Jamie Vardy

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While the fairytale narrative of a former non-league striker excelling in the Football League has been commonly associated with Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy this season, comparisons could be drawn with one of his former team-mates: Millwall frontman, Lee Gregory.

The 27-year-old, who once partnered this 2015/16 Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award winner during their days at Halifax Town, has been making quite a name for himself in the third tier of English football throughout the current domestic campaign.

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Gregory took his tally to 25 in all competitions this season after scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over play-off chasing Gillingham on the final day of the regular season. The striker’s penalty at Priestfield on Sunday helped the Lions secure a dramatic win, while condemning the hosts to League One for another season.

While the Gills missed out on the top six, for Millwall, a fourth place finish means promotion is still on the cards. A two-legged play-off tie against Bradford awaits, in which an aggregate victory would set up a dream trip to Wembley on Sunday 29th May – an experience that Gregory “would never forget”. When discussing the occasion, he said the following:

“Getting to a Wembley final will be right up there with anything I have achieved in my career so far. If we did get there, which we’re not even thinking about yet, then it would be a great achievement and one we would relish.”

Goals come naturally to a player like Gregory, who’s link-up play and ability to compete in the air make him a living nightmare for defenders to play against, and as such, he has been key to Millwall’s success this term. When asked about his knack in front of goal, he confidently stated:

“As a striker you want to score as many goals as you possibly can, no matter who you are playing against, or in what competition.”

He is well within his right to be so assured in his ability. He joined The Lions, who were in the Championship at the time, under the management of Ian Holloway in June 2014, after scoring an impressive 35 times in 39 games for Halifax the season before –  a tally that took his overall record for the non-league club to 89 goals in 135 appearances.

Although he didn’t set the world on fire in his first season at The Den, netting just nine times in 41 appearances, he did finish the campaign as the club’s top scorer. The club found themselves relegated at the end of the season, but the experience the Englishman gained will prove invaluable should they achieve promotion this term.

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“The whole season was a real learning curve for me,” he said. “The Championship was a big step up from the level I was playing at with Halifax so I had to adjust to that both technically and physically, which was always going to take some time.” He continued:

“I believe I did OK in difficult circumstances. Scoring the goals in the Championship gave me added belief that I could perform well at the higher levels of the Football League.”

Although The Lions ended a difficult campaign facing life in League One,  it is fair to say that rarely could a relegated club have had such an air of positivity about it. That positive attitude is not just held by the management and staff, but extends to the players too, as Gregory was quick to emphasize:

“As a squad we get on really well with each other, which is so important for team spirit and togetherness. There’s a great mixture of youth and experience among us and that has helped to get us where we are now.”

With a strong playing squad and a clear harmony among the players, Millwall’s current position is therefore unlikely to come as a surprise. While Neil Harris, the man who replaced Holloway as permanent manager last summer, would have been vying for promotion  through the automatic route this term, the competition in League One has been far greater than first anticipated.

After a 2014/15 campaign dominated by Bristol City, Preston and MK Dons, the third tier lacked a clear favourite heading into the current campaign. Nonetheless, several sides, including Gary Caldwell’s Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion, now under the stewardship of Nigel Clough, have rallied to assume a commanding position at the summit of the table.

Indeed, the play-offs seemed a long way off for Millwall at the end of August, when they’d taken just four points from the first 15 available. However, steady progress under Harris saw the Lions climb the table and, despite a run of five defeats in seven from the end of November, a strong second half to the season saw them fall just four points short of automatic promotion.

When discussing the quality on show in League One, Gregory was quick to highlight Champions Wigan, while he also reserved praise for fellow play-off contenders Walsall. Led by caretaker manager Jon Witney, the latter could be the final obstacle between Millwall and a return to the Championship at the first time of asking.

“The quality is really high in the division and I’ve been impressed with all sorts of teams and players”, Gregory said. “Naturally you look at Wigan for what they have achieved – when they came to The Den they defended really well with 10 men to get a 0-0 draw.

He continued, “Walsall were also very good when they beat us at home, but then we went to their ground and won 3-0, so it shows that we have been one of the best sides too.”

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Gregory joins a host of former non-league players who are now enjoying successful stints in the upper tiers of English football, but he believes his current career trajectory has been helped by the fact he is a goal scoring centre-forward. Undoubtedly, there remain plenty of unearthed talents plumbing the depths of the lower tiers, but the 27-year-old suggests they are not being ignored.

“A lot of clubs are scouting in non-league and have done so for many years, so it is great when you see bigger clubs taking the plunge to sign players and give them an opportunity. I was lucky because I’m a striker and it’s not hard to look up which forwards are scoring goals, no matter the level. It’s more difficult for midfielders, defenders or goalkeepers to get noticed because their stats stand out less, but they are still being looked at and long may it continue.”

Naturally, a higher level of football brings comes with a higher standard of facilities, as well as increased expectations from both supporters, management and the media.

“The differences are huge and you notice them straight away. The training facilities are obviously much, much better, as is the general professionalism around the place, in terms of nutrition, sports science and with other areas. The media attention is obviously different, but you get used to everything really quickly because it becomes part of your day-to-day routine.”

Recent Premier League winner, Jamie Vardy, is a player for whom media attention has become part and parcel of daily life. The Leicester City striker, who has become a somewhat unlikely national hero throughout the past 12 months, once formed half of a lethal Vardy-Gregory Halifax Town partnership.

Indeed, the duo fired the West Yorkshire outfit to the Northern Premier League division title in 2010/11. Vardy finished the campaign as the club’s top goal scorer, while Gregory finished third on the list. At the end of the season, Vardy had done enough to attract the interest of Fleetwood Town of the Conference National, while Gregory remained with Halifax, until June 2014.

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In the following three seasons, the Sheffield-born frontman established himself as a prolific goal-scorer at The Shay Stadium. He holds numerous records at the club, including the most league goals in a season, most goals scored in a single game by a player, and the most goals in the club’s history – marking a rather successful three and a half year spell at the club.

Reflecting on his time playing alongside Vardy, Gregory suggests that The Foxes striker always look capable of being a hero.

“It doesn’t surprise me because Jamie [Vardy] stood out as an outstanding player when I was with him at Halifax. He had ability where he could be quiet for 80 minutes, and then out of nowhere he would score a couple of goals to win you a game.”

Vardy has certainly shown a knack for winning games during his time in the top flight. With 24 goals to his name, just one behind international team-mate Harry Kane heading into the final game of the season, he stands in good stead to battle for the highly-coveted Premier League Golden Boot award.

Gregory continued in his praise of the England international, revealing the secret to the excellent progress he has made during his time at the King Power Stadium. As you may have imagined, it took more than just lightening pace and an eye for goal for Vardy to reach the position he finds himself in today.

“His progress has been unbelievable, but that is down to his work ethic and determination to succeed, and I’ve got nothing but praise for him for what he has achieved.”

Having seen his former team-mate lift the top flight trophy, it would be natural to assume that Gregory holds aspirations to achieve similar success, but level-headed as ever, the Millwall front-man refuses to look too far into the future:

“As for me, I’m not one to look too far forward. I’m just focused on the here and now, which is trying to get Millwall into the play-off final.”

With the play-offs at the forefront of Gregory’s mind, the Englishman will be fully focused on Millwall’s visit to Valley Parade to take on Bradford on Sunday.

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The Lions come into this game in fine form, having won five of their previous six games, while they have scored the most goals of all the sides left in the play-offs. Nonetheless, the 27-year-old recognises that, for all teams involved, previous form is now a mere formality.

“There’s a long way to go and a lot of football to be played. Rather than being like regular league games, the play-offs are more of a cup run and we will have to be right on our game in every fixture”

“Hopefully we play three play-off games and win at Wembley,” he continued. “That’s the dream for all of us and it would be a great achievement, but the other teams who finish in the top six will believe they can do it, too. We just need to continue our momentum and confidence and hope that we perform when it comes down to it.”

Will Gregory and co. achieve success in the play-offs? Millwall fans will certainly hope so. For a striker who has made the transition from non-league to League One with relative ease, he will be hoping a weekend trip to Bradford is just the first step on the road to the upper echelons of the Football League.

With the success of his former team-mate, Jamie Vardy, providing added inspiration, the ex-Halifax Town front-man will be safe in the belief that anything is possible.

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