Leeds United: My Whites playing days - Huckerby INTERVIEW

Darren Huckerby in match action for Leeds United back in 1999.

Darren Huckerby in match action for Leeds United back in 1999.

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Darren Huckerby had spells at several big clubs, but his time at Leeds proved far from successful. Leon Wobschall chats with the striker who is now enjoying his retirement in Norfolk. speed merchant Darren Huckerby’s career took him to bona fide footballing giants in Yorkshire, the North East, North West and the East Midlands – with glorious stop-offs in East Anglia, the heart of England and sunny California along the way.

In a dashing career which was most definitely whirlwind in more ways than one, Huckerby had the proverbial joyride, right from the time he left Lincoln City as a teenage prodigy for £500,000 to join a club who were simply box office in the mid-1990s – Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United.

So a breakneck journey began, which saw him later call in at Coventry City, Leeds United, Manchester City, Norwich City and San Jose Earthquakes, along with loan spells at hometown club Nottingham Forest and Millwall.

Looking back, Huckerby – now 35 and settled with his family in Norfolk – insists he wouldn’t change much save for a frustrating spell that never truly got off the ground at Elland Road when he spent so much time on the bench his team-mates would have been forgiven for nicknaming him “The Judge”.

Rated as one of the hottest young talents in English football with a penchant for the spectacular, United forked out a cool £4m to land Huckerby from the Sky Blues in August 1999.

most people thought United were on to a sure-fire winner at an enterprising club tipped to firmly threaten the entrenched top tier establishment of Manchester United and Arsenal at the time.

But not so, with the crowd-pleaser – alerted to United’s attention when he scored a stunning hat-trick for Coventry at Elland Road near the end of the 1997-98 season – starting a mere 15 games for David O’Leary’s buccaneering outfit.

He also made a gargantuan 42 substitute appearances before switching across the Pennines to the blue half of Manchester for £3.4m in December 2000.

United supporters will get their chance to see Huckerby again in the famous white jersey in the Northern Masters later this month, with the quicksilver wing man unquestionably Leeds’ stellar recruit when they take the stage at Sheffield’s Motorsport Arena on June 26.

It’s a fair bet that having just turned 35, Huckerby will give a few oldies the runaround – but expect sage Whites fans present to mutter “if only” if that’s the case.

Huckerby, who spent just 16 months in West Yorkshire, told the YEP: “Considering I started off in the old Division Four, I didn’t do bad and worked my way up to play in the Champions League and scored for Leeds. I’m quite happy with that for a 16 or 17-year career.

“I had good spells at Coventry and then at Norwich at the end of my career, where I think I played my best football. I had a good time at Man City as well, to be fair.

“When I look back at my career, probably my only real regret was not really doing myself justice at Leeds, which is kind of strange, considering the team we had.

“The move came out of the blue. I was playing for Coventry, week-in, week-out and the most difficult thing was going from that, being a regular in the best league in the world to being a bit-part player.

“it was a great time for the club and I played in the Champions League and Uefa Cup. But sometimes, as a player, things just don’t happen for you. I didn’t play as well as I could when I got the chance, although I didn’t get that many! There’s different ways to look at it.

“Maybe we bought too many big-name players at one time. When we were doing well we had a settled side with Bridgey (Michael Bridges) up front and Harry Kewell on the left.

“It was a bit of a feeling at the time of us buying some players just for the sake of it.

“But looking at it, we were a good bunch of young lads who gave it a go against the best, there’s no doubt about it.

“Maybe, we didn’t have enough to beat the Man Uniteds of this world (to win trophies), but we had a good go and you look at how things changed pretty quickly for Leeds after that.

“In my career, I was fortunate to play for some really big clubs, like Leeds and Man City. You look at City now and they have gone on to do something even crazier now!

“It shows what can happen; Leeds will always be a massive club in England because of their history and heritage and one day they will get back to where they belong in the Premiership.”

Settled in one of the most tranquil and picturesque areas of England, Nottingham-born Huckerby is happy to call Norfolk his home, with Norwich fans quickly bestowing idol status on the striker who they soon claimed as one of their own.

A love affair for the yellow-and-green hordes began in September 2003 when Huckerby joined the club, initially on loan, quickly earning the Division One player-of-the-month award.

fans got the perfect belated Christmas present on Boxing Day 2003 when the loan star signed permanently and it proved money well spent with the frontman widely seen as the main reason Norwich won promotion to the Premiership in 2003-04.

The following campaign, Huckerby was named player-of-the-season, scooping the award again in 2006-07, while finishing second in 2003-04 and 2005-06, testimony to the high regard he was held in – and still is – by the Canaries faithful.

Huckerby wound down his career in the states at San Jose and was named MLS Newcomer of the Year in 2008 before hanging up his boots in September 2009 and eventually returning to his adopted home of Norfolk.

His playing career may be over, but Huckerby is living his working life at the same hectic pace that frequented his life on the pitch.

His Darren Huckerby Trust has already raised pots of cash for charities and schemes in Norfolk, with Huckerby kept busy arranging events and publicity, while also finding time to run his own website and take his coaching badges – with the odd bit of recreational football thrown in!

On life after leaving Norwich in the summer of 2008, Huckerby said: “I went over to the States towards the end of my career and it was a good experience. There was maybe even a chance of coming back to Leeds when I got pushed out of Norwich, but I decided to try something a bit different.

“I’ve been lucky enough in my career to play for a few big clubs, but this was something different in terms of trying another culture, although it’s similar to England in some respects. It was quite easy to settle over there and the fans do like their soccer there – the game is coming on.

“After coming back to England after retiring, I started taking my coaching badges and have got a website up and running. I’ve also started a charity in Norfolk, so my diary is pretty full.

“I love it in Norfolk. I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve lived in a lot of nice places, but I’m really settled in Norwich, as are my family.”

Huckerby admits his competitive juices are starting to flow ahead of his debut in the Masters with Leeds, with the Whites also containing one familiar face to him in ex-Sky Blues team-mate and Leeds lad Noel Whelan.

On linking up with Leeds again, Huckerby, one of the youngest players in this year’s Masters competition, said: “Leeds contacted me first, so I said I’d do it.

“Then Coventry asked me just after, but I’d already said I’d play for Leeds and I will! We’ll see how this one goes.

“Noel’s also playing for Leeds and I know him well so it should be good. I’ve seen the Masters on telly before and it will be nice to see Noel for a few days and catch up with things.”

And on whether he still possesses his legendary searing pace, Huckerby said: “We’ll see. It’s good to have something a bit more competitive.

“I’ve played in a few legends matches and bits and bobs and played a bit of five-a-side with a few of the older lads in Norwich, but the Masters seems quite intense and everyone wants to win – I’m sure we’ll be giving it our best.

“I still try and keep in shape, although I don’t think I’m as quick as I used to be!”

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 Picture: Bruce Rollinson

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