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24th January 2020

Environment FA Cup third round: Port Vale captain Leon Legge on living with epilepsy

Environment FA Cup third round: Port Vale captain Leon Legge on living with epilepsy


environment Leon Legge

Leon Legge (centre) will lead League Two Port Vale out against holders Manchester City in the third round of the FA Cup

“I was at my mother-in-law’s house and I stayed up to watch the Tyson Fury fight. I went to sleep and woke up in hospital with doctors around me. It was scary.”

Port Vale captain Leon Legge is recalling one of the countless number of seizures he has endured since learning, 18 years ago, he has epilepsy.

The defender has ended up in hospital numerous times as a result of the condition that affects the brain and remembers in detail the incident in 2001 which led him to being diagnosed at the age of 16.

“I was at a non-league team called Little Common,” Legge recalls. “I’d gone up for a header in training and as I came down I got light-headed. I lost all control of my body and fell back.

“Luckily for me the manager, who had a daughter with epilepsy, knew how to deal with me. I woke up with all the players around me. An ambulance came and I spent the night in hospital.”

On Saturday, Legge will lead League Two Port Vale out at holders Manchester City in the FA Cup third round (17:31 GMT).

“Epilepsy will not get the better of me,” the 34-year-old, an ambassador for Young Epilepsy, a charity which aims to create better futures for young people with the condition, tells BBC Sport.

‘Your body is in trauma’

According to charity Epilepsy Society, more than 500,000 people in the UK have epilepsy with around 87 people diagnosed with the condition every day. Most seizures happen suddenly without warning, last a short time and stop by themselves. Around 600 people die each year because of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP).

At first, Legge’s seizures happened during the day – he was unable to drive until he was 21 – and were triggered by tiredness or when he was ill and his immune system was weak.

Then the seizures developed a familiar pattern.

“I started having them in my sleep,” says Legge, whose wife Christina has been a huge support as he battles the condition. “There’s been times when I’ve gone to bed at home and everything has been OK and then I have found myself waking up in hospital.

“You cannot imagine what it’s like to wake up in a different environment to the one you went to bed in.

“My wife doesn’t really get used to it and she says that it can be scary. She knows what to do and she’s become pretty composed, but when it randomly happens it can be worrying.

“I used to bite my tongue during seizures and I’d get ulcers because I’d also bite the inside of my mouth. Your body is in trauma, it’s not nice, and it’s all a blur. I’ve visited a lot of hospital wards up and down the country as a result of epilepsy.”

Leon Legge trained as a security guard when he was in non-league football in case he did not make it as a professional player

As a non-league player at Lewes and Tonbridge Angels, Legge used to commute by train for trials at Football League clubs that would ultimately end in rejection.

“I had lots of trials and I’m often asked if epilepsy held me back,” Legge, who did not break into professional football until the age of 24, adds. “They’re not going to tell you to your face but I hope it wasn’t anything to do with that.”

Legge has not allowed the condition to become a barrier.

The seizures are not as frequent as they once were, while he has become used to the medication he must take every day for the rest of his life to help control his epilepsy.

Since landing his first professional contract at Brentford, Legge, whose non-league career also featured time at Eastbourne United Association and Hailsham Town, has gone on to play at Wembley in the EFL Trophy final while he is closing in on 350 Football League appearances after spells at Gillingham and Cambridge United.

Although he has not experienced a seizure during a competitive match, there have been instances when he has had to miss games because of the condition.

Last season Legge was unavailable for two Vale games after four seizures in one day while at home.

“While at Cambridge I had one in a hotel room before a game at Accrington. Ben Williamson, my room-mate, rushed to get the physio,” he adds.

“When I was first diagnosed I didn’t really know anyone who had my condition so I faced it alone. Since then I’ve spoken to other players who have had seizures and how they have coped – Matt Crooks [now at Rotherham] being one.

“I want people to know about how to deal with epilepsy. I’m always open to talk about it and I often get asked by parents of children with epilepsy how I deal with it.

“I’ve not had a seizure since last season but they can happen out of the blue. I won’t let it get in the way.”

From chicken nuggets to £300,000 jackpot

Legge will lead out Vale in front of 8,000 travelling fans at Etihad Stadium – almost double the average home attendance of the club based in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.

Despite finishing 20th in League Two in each of the past two seasons, a wave of optimism is sweeping through Vale Park following the arrival of new owners in May who paid slightly more than the reported £4m.

After six and a half years under Norman Smurthwaite, the Staffordshire club is in the hands of husband and wife Kevin and Carol Shanahan, who own an IT firm which employs 350 people next door to Vale Park.

The Shanahans are building bridges and instilling a sense of community after finding a club in a poor state on and off the pitch – and players’ correct diets ignored.

“They were sometimes fed chicken nuggets, chips and beans as a pre-match meal,” Carol, who was brought up in the shadows of West Brom’s The Hawthorns ground, recalls.

Port Vale co-owners Carol and Kevin Shanahan have brought a feel-good factor back to Port Vale

There is a strong emphasis on staff wellbeing.

Members of Vale’s first-team squad each contributed a minimum £10 to pay for Christmas drinks for the non-playing staff.

When 21-year-old midfielder Jake Taylor, who is on loan from Nottingham Forest, had his car broken into and all four wheels stolen in November, the owners quickly organised a new temporary vehicle for him.

“Port Vale haven’t sent out Christmas cards for years so this year we got 500 printed and signed by every player and backroom staff,” added Carol. “It matters. We’re all in this together.”

In 2020, celebrity fan and pop star Robbie Williams will play a homecoming charity concert at Vale Park.

Vale expect to make up to £300,000 from the Manchester City tie, yet Carol admits she will find the occasion a “surreal” experience.

“I’m very much into League Two, I’m an EFL girl,” she adds.

“It’s sad it’s not live on television in the UK. I did ask Robbie Williams ‘could you do a sing-off with Liam Gallagher at the game?’ That would attract the live cameras. It was a non-runner.”

Singer-songwriter and Port Vale fan Robbie Williams acknowledges the crowd during a game at Vale Park on 3 December. Williams is playing a concert at the League Two venue in June 2020

If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, advice and support can be accessed here.


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