Nohan Kenneh reveals why he left Leeds United and opens up on hilarious Kalvin Phillips moment

History is the first word that pops into Nohan Kenneh's mind when you mention Leeds United so it's fitting that he made a little of his own before departing.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 25th June 2022, 4:40 am

Kenneh is speaking to the YEP from his new home in Edinburgh where pre-season is in full swing at his new club Hibs. A day prior he had a double session and on Sunday he flies to Portugal for a warm-weather camp.

Wearing the The Hibees' green and white kit and not the white of Leeds isn't the only reason why things might feel a little strange for the 19-year-old.

Since arriving in the UK as a shivering Liberian refugee at the age of six, the city of Leeds is all Kenneh has known.

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"First and foremost it was cold," he recalls with a laugh.

"It was cold, it was dark early on. I remember at 4pm it was already dark and I was like really? I started school, started getting some friends from football because when you're good at football you get friends quicker, so I got more confident as well. I could speak English, where I'm from they speak English, so it was easy to adapt.

"Leeds was very welcoming. Especially school, everyone said I was part of their little family, so I improved as a person and got a better understanding of how to be a British citizen."

According to his teachers, Kenneh was a delight. A polite young man who paid real attention to his studies and happily took on responsibility. Football was always there, though.

CHERISHED MEMORIES - Nohan Kenneh says he will cherish the memories Leeds United gave him but a desire to play men's football drove him to Hibs in the Scottish Premiership. Pic: Getty

"I was Year 6 or Year 7 when my PE teacher recommended me for a little trial at Bradford but it wasn't even an academy, it was like a development squad," he said.

"The manager of that squad asked me why waste your time trying for Bradford when you can get in at Leeds? He put me on to Terry Potter who I think is still there now, one of the recruitment guys at Leeds, and I had a trial. There was about 50 people there, it was crazy."

Kenneh planned to have the trial at Bradford anyway, as a failsafe, but it wasn't needed. Leeds signed him.

"They signed me for six weeks and I was buzzing," he said.

POPULAR FIGURE - Nohan Kenneh was well liked at Leeds United and the Whites offered him a deal to stay at Elland Road this summer. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

"The rest is history."

Refugee status, his Muslim faith and an ongoing engagement with academia aside, Kenneh's footballing story isn't too different to many of his peers.

It was when he signed his first scholarship deal at Elland Road that the idea of a career in professional football as a real possibility fully dawned.

"I was happy to do my education, I'm still doing it to this day, that's how important it was to me but when I got offered a scholarship I felt like I needed to concentrate more on the football side and I did that, which was good for me because I improved as a player and got more confident on the ball," he said.

"That was the main thing for me. I always loved football and education was there in case I didn't make it."

Football helped bring Kenneh out of shell and Leeds United, Mark Jackson specifically, helped him to grow.

"When I was in the U11s I was quite a shy person, I'm not going to lie," said the teen.

"In 2015 we had a little tournament in Ireland, the Galway Cup and we won it and I won player of the tournament. After that I got more confident in myself.

"Mark Jackson helped me a lot, told me how good I was and to believe in myself. I've been lucky to work under him quite a few times because I used to play up [an age group] quite a lot. He was an U15s coach and I was U13 and he asked me to play with them in the Floodlit Cup, then he went to the 18s and I was U14 and he called me up and it was like that again when he went to the 23s.

"Even when he became first team coach and I was training with the first team and being on the bench. We still talk about the journey we've had together, it was a lucky scenario. He's got time for everyone. He wants you to do well on the pitch and become a good person. I owe a lot to him."

Kenneh feels he owes an improved tactical awareness to Marcelo Bielsa, an 'amazing manager' who showed him the why of his on-field job as much as the what. Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Luke Ayling helped him too, role models who acted like 'friends and brothers' when he became part of the first team squad both at Thorp Arch and on matchdays. In Crysencio Summerville he had a 'proper friend' and Charlie Cresswell was someone he shared a similar journey with.

He was part of a successful 23s side that won the 2020/21 Premier League 2 second tier title and promotion, before making the bench for 14 of last season's Premier League games and securing a unique bit of history with a yellow card at Molineux, without even kicking a ball.

"I don't know what happened, you know?

"We were losing 2-0, they had a man sent off and we managed to make it 2-2 before Luke Ayling scored that goal. Everyone on the bench erupted and everyone went on the pitch. When we were all coming back I saw the referee pointing to me, telling me to come over and he showed me a yellow card. I was like 'what?!' If you're going to show me a yellow at least show it to everyone else! Why was I the only one? I'll take it any day because we were celebrating a massive three points but it was strange that he only picked me.

"Kalvin and I were running side by side, together, on the pitch. Every time he saw me after he was laughing because he got away with it. I'll cherish those memories, experiences that will live with me forever. I'll cherish them, period."

Another big moment he got to share with Phillips and the first team came at Brentford on the last day of the season, when the Whites stayed up, just.

"Jesse told us to relax and I feel like the boys did really well controlling their emotions, even on the last day when things weren't going our way," he said.

"Staying up was massive - Leeds is a big club, they deserve to be in the Premier League."

At Leeds Kenneh found mates, mentors and memories to last a lifetime. The club supported him and made him feel 'important' during Ramadan when he played despite fasting food and water.

"Playing through fasting is hard - you want to have a lot of energy but when you don't have food and water, if the kick-off is 8pm it's obviously difficult but I feel like I get more concentrated," he said.

"The Crystal Palace game I was fasting the whole way through and I felt like it was one of my best games of the season for the 23s, at Elland Road. I was sharper in what I wanted to do.

"Ramadan is massive for me and Leeds really helped me, giving me everything I needed, advice on food. They gave me options, I was really happy. I owe a lot to them."

So why did he leave all that, and the contract offer on the table, behind?

"I wish that I'd played for the first team," he said.

"That's my biggest regret, that I didn't get the chance. I can't control that, I did everything possible, I was on the bench and everything and I felt it was a matter of time. That's the reason I chose to move really, I want to play football.

"They told me they really liked me and wanted me to stay but I felt like for my development I needed to get playing time as soon as possible. It's no good me playing 23s, I want to play men's football. I'm not being arrogant, that should be on every player's mind, to want to play. When the opportunity came with Hibs, it was a no brainer really."

Kenneh spoke to Marsch, to Jackson, his own support network and Hibs boss Lee Johnson and decided to cross the border in search of experiences that Leeds just can't promise him, right now.

"The best thing for me was to come and play," he said.

"I had a lot of offers, abroad as well, but in football terms Scotland is closer in style to England. I think physically and tactically I can get better.

"I'm really looking forward to the physicality. It's one of my attributes, I like to be physical. You want to test yourself against people stronger than you, that improves you as a player. This will be my first season, hopefully, in senior games. There could be big games - Rangers, Celtic, the Hearts derby game. That's amazing. Those games could only improve me.

"It wasn't daunting to leave home, it was just the right time to leave the family in a good spirit. It was time for me to become a man, learn how to cook, see how to live."

Kenneh, who firmly settles the debate over what he is on the pitch with one word: midfielder, will remain a Leeds fan and vows to return to Elland Road to support them.

Leeds United means a lot of things to a lot of people and Kenneh has lived and breathed it for a decade.

"History," he replies without hesitation when asked what it means.

"The fans. Their passion."

But he has a new club, new fans and a new life now. Many at Leeds, where he was a popular figure, will be cheering him on as he tries to make his way in Scottish football, learns to cook and continues his studies, in the form of an online degree in Sports Science through Manchester Metropolitan University.

"I've got so much time off training, having that to keep my brain occupied is good for me," he told the YEP.

"Everyone has their own pathway, I'm not saying everyone has to do university but I feel it's right for me."

Whatever happens at Hibs, Nohan Kenneh is walking his own path. Wherever it takes him, you get the feeling he'll do just fine.