‘The doctor said my body reacted to illness like a rat’ - Leon Best
You’re a striker who hasn’t scored a goal in 18 months, you finally score an own goal in a defeat to your former club. So you reach into Football’s Big Book Of Clichés and call that a disaster, a tragedy, even.
But former Ireland international Leon Best has experienced enough in the last year to not let last weekend, when he scored an OG for League One side Charlton in a loss to Blackburn Rovers, make him think that way.
“Since what I have been through I look at life a lot differently. When you have a doctor telling me that I could have died if I hadn’t gone to see him with the infection, you take a different view. I could have died, a million per cent,” Best says, outlining the groin infection, resulting from a hernia operation, which not only kept him out of football for the best part of a year but could have cost him his life.
“The specialist who operated on me described me as a rat. I was like a rat, my body had worked with the infection and got used to the infection and it allowed me to carry on and play football.
“When a rat is poisoned, it becomes immune to the poison it’s been fed and that’s what I was like.”
Despite the lack of goals to date, Best is happy with life at a Charlton side who are in the chase for promotion, hopeful that his short-term contract will be renewed when it expires next month. He commutes to London from his base in Bournemouth and with four kids under the age of six, life is busy. “My missus and my kids have been my strength every day.”
Having reached the heights of senior caps (he played in the ill-fated playoff against France) and scoring in the top flight (Premier League hat-trick for Newcastle in 2011), Best had struggled: over two loan spells in one season he played 33 games without scoring.
Last term played 12 times for Ipswich without a single goal and by January of this year he’d fallen out with Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy but bigger problems were to come.
He’d had an operation on a hernia problem while at Rotherham but an infection had already set in, and it was only when Best - once he was aware that he was not going to play for Ipswich again - went to get his groin complaint sorted in February that the gravity of it all emerged.
“It was a shock as the tests showed I had an abscess ticked behind my pubic bone which was slowly poisoning me,” he says.
Within two days he’d gone under the knife. “I was on two groin pumps for five weeks but the infection didn’t clear so I had to have another op, a laperotomy, like a C-section, they had to cut through my abdominal wall and take out the abscess which was behind the pubic bone.
“They weren’t sure if I would be able to play football again, if they abdominal wall didn’t heal properly.”
He was in intensive care for four days, lost two stone in weight, for weeks was unable to pick up his kids. But a trip to a specialist in the US in June of this year began the healing process and by October, he was fit enough to join Charlton.
“The manager said I could come in and train, I told him I’d not kicked a ball in 10 months but they were very good with me, didn’t push me too hard, I found myself getting fitter, I signed a contract until January and maybe we can look at a contract extension.”
International football has been off the agenda for Best, last capped against Brazil in London (2010). He did ask for a recall when he found form with Rotherham United before Euro 2016, but since then it’s been hard to make a case.
And yet, the Ireland squad is not laden down with strikers of Premier League ability and at 31, Best is only six months older than Shane Long.
But he’s not sitting by the phone.
“The focus for me has to be the club and getting my club career right,” says Best
“The funny thing with my Irish career is that I was playing more for Ireland when I was in the Championship at Coventry than I was when I was scoring goals in the Premier League for Newcastle. That was down to Trapattoni saying I wasn’t working hard enough but then Alan Pardew came out and backed me.
“Everyone has their opinions but it boils down to the opinion that the person in charge has of you. It’s not down to your ability.
“With managers I have had a Marmite reputation. I have never fallen out with one team-mate in my whole career, it’s only two managers that I have had disagreements with. And managers stick together. When I came to Charlton, the manager said he was shocked at how I was as a person because of what he’d heard about me, I had a reputation as a trouble-maker.”
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.