The incredible story of Elliot Kebbie: Leeds, Atletico, illness, Norway & more

Rich Laverty

Elliot Kebbie is only 23 years old, but the former Leeds United youngster already has one hell of a story to tell.

Growing up in West Yorkshire, Kebbie signed for Leeds aged eight and by 17 was one of the most sought-after young players not just in England but in Europe, attracting interest from the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona.

He spent two months on trial at Barça but eventually signed for Atletico Madrid instead, before joining Rangers on loan in 2012 in a bid to kickstart his senior career.

However, Kebbie was soon battling a serious illness which forced him out of the game altogether for 18 months.

He has since worked his way back, spending time with clubs as varied as Premier League Hull City, Norwegian outfit Sandefjord and non-league Billericay Town, and now the flying full-back is fully recovered and desperate to get back into the game he loves on a permanent basis.

Early years

Kebbie played for local teams Brighouse Juniors and Copley until he was seven, when he first caught the eye of professional clubs: Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester United.

“I signed for Leeds when I was eight and I was in their academy quite some time – nearly a decade,” Kebbie recalls.

“Everyone knows Leeds has a fantastic academy and they know how to develop players. Even when they dropped down the leagues they still had that base in place to allow players to come through the system.”

However, as Leeds were relegated from the Premier League and eventually the Championship, things started to go awry behind the scenes, and it played a big part in Kebbie deciding to leave for pastures new as interest from the top clubs came his way.

“It was always up and down,” he says. “Coaches were always coming and going, but we did have a good few years in the academy of Neil Redfearn and Neil Thompson who were solid in terms of looking after the academy players.

“I was training with the Under 18s when I was 14-15, and when I was 15 I’d even had my first session with the first team when Simon Grayson was manager.

“It was difficult because I started getting interest very young from clubs like Man United and Everton. When you’re young your head obviously gets turned, especially when there’s turbulence higher up the club.

“The reason I didn’t stay was a combination of having the bigger clubs having a look and wanting to experience that, but at the same time that turbulence at the club.”

Spotted by Barcelona

Kebbie’s talent was such that the interest came from all around Europe, including Barcelona.

Still only 17 at the time, the right-back went for a trial with the La Liga giants and spent over two months there before eventually signing for Atletico Madrid, who had not long hired Diego Simeone as their new manager.

“Not much went wrong with Barcelona, I was there for quite some time,” Kebbie says.

“It was a combination of either they were looking at a couple of right-backs so they might have preferred someone to me or they might not have been willing to pay the compensation.

“Leeds wanted quite a lot and it can put some teams off a young player, but I wasn’t too fussed because I ended up at Atletico Madrid.

“I didn’t train with the first team at Barcelona, but I did quite a lot at Atletico. It was an amazing experience to be putting crosses in for players like Falcao.

“He was at the peak then, it was almost like it was effortless. He’d get on the end of everything and he wouldn’t just tap them in, he’d fire them in.”

Falling ill

Kebbie was a regular for Atletico’s ‘C’ team, but after six months and no first-team appearances, he returned home for the summer before seeking out a loan move for the 2012-13 season.

He joined Rangers in August, but instantly knew something wasn’t right once he begun training with the Scottish club. He’d felt under the weather for a few weeks leading up to the move, and it didn’t take long for things to spiral out of control.

“Mostly it was my own fault,” he admits. “I was in my off-season and I fell ill. I came home to Halifax, but I knew I needed to get myself in the best condition possible for pre-season at Atletico or going on loan somewhere.

“I kept training while I was unwell. I had typical flu symptoms but thought nothing of it. I couldn’t afford not to train but really, I should have rested. I’m always on it with my fitness and sometimes that doesn’t help me.

“It got to a point where my body couldn’t cope. I went to Rangers and in the first two training sessions I knew something wasn’t right and in the third session I collapsed. I ended up in hospital.

“There’s a couple of viruses that can cause glandular fever, but what I had was Epstein-Barr virus. It was an aggressive form and it can take hold of anyone.”

But it took some time for doctors to diagnose the now the hospital-stricken Kebbie. EBV doesn’t always show up on tests and it took weeks for any conclusive news of his illness.

“They were testing me for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma because my lymph nodes were like golf balls and I had every test done in the book. On the fourth or fifth test they eventually confirmed it was EBV.

Road to recovery

“It was quite a long recovery. It made me lose a lot of coordination, my digestion system was horrendous and I had to completely change my diet because I developed a lot of allergies.

“I was wheelchair bound for two months when I came out. I eventually began to start walking, but then I had to experiment which what I could eat and what I could do.”

The recovery was so long that Kebbie wouldn’t play football again for 18 months, and it had a profound effect on his outlook on both life and football as he faced a challenging period to overcome the illness physically and mentally.

“There was a little bit of depression, a bit of anxiety and thinking, ‘What if it happened again?'” he says.

“I suffered with that for quite some time. From one minute being at Atletico Madrid to being really unwell, my head took a whack through that period of time. It shaped me as a person and a character, I started valuing different things in life and not just football.”

Return to football

It would be tempting to assume Kebbie had simply taken on too much at a young age, but despite his illness and a breakdown in relationship with with dad and his agent, Kebbie has no regrets over his decision to move abroad when he did.

“I don’t regret it because ultimately if I hadn’t have fallen ill I’d still be playing at that level, I truly believe that,” he says.

“In terms of breakdown in relationships with family members and my agent, I think being young you expect to be looked after by an agent a little bit better than I was.

“I felt abandoned a little bit, especially when I went out to Spain. It’s important for a young player going into that to have the right network of support around them, especially when being pulled away from their comfort zone.

“It was difficult for me to settle into Madrid because they’re traditional. They don’t speak English and it was quite a tough time for me off the pitch. But the only unfortunate thing was the illness.”

Over both the mental and physical strain of the illness and time out of football, towards the end of 2013 Kebbie decided to seek a way back into the game.

“I started to contact clubs and went on a couple of trials, but [my history] was difficult to explain to these clubs.

“It’s quite ruthless. All they care about is that you’re ready to do the business there and then. Some clubs didn’t really understand the situation I’d been in and that was difficult for me.

“Some clubs said no so I took a decision to take a few more months out before I signed for Hull. They were the first to put their arm around me, and Steve Bruce and the medical staff were great.

“They saw I’d done well in training and trial matches and they understood my recovery time wasn’t what it was. That was the problem. I’d play in a game and then I’d be knackered for days.”

On the move

After six months at Hull, Kebbie accepted that, despite an improvement in his recovery time, playing for a club of Hull’s level wasn’t right for him at that stage.

But a chance phone call from Derek Langley, then Manchester United’s Head of Recruitment, led to new doors opening.

“This was Christmas 2014 and he asked if I wanted to come and train with them,” Kebbie says. “It led me to going and playing for Salford City for a bit and from them on it was good in terms of my fitness.

“I went to Barnsley and that was a good period, but I just wasn’t getting an opportunity in the first team.

“Then a friend of mine from Leeds United who was working for Sandefjord in Norway rang me and said they needed a right-back and their style of play would suit me.

“I ended up going out there and it was a really positive start. I enjoyed the Norwegian life, it was more relaxed there and they really look after you. It’s a tactical game out there and I enjoyed that.”

Kebbie’s time at Sandefjord was cut short due to the imminent arrival of his first child, however, as he made the decision to come back to England for family matters, a move which saw him joining Billericay Town for a short period of time.

“I’d just become a dad and I needed to come back to support. Maybe if I’d been more selfish I’d still be out there, but I’m potentially going back out there this year or to another club in Europe.

“When I came back I’d missed the chance to sign for clubs within the Football League. Most had sorted out their squads for the season so it wasn’t ideal timing.

“It was a sudden decision to come back so I hadn’t spoken to any managers or clubs, I was left in no man’s land really.”

Regarding his brief time at Billericay, Kebbie admits it wasn’t a “great career decision” given what would transpire.

“I got a call from the CEO who told me what the club were doing and that a lot of money was being put in.

“They were part-time financially at the time so it was good for my family. With a new baby arriving it was an ideal situation, but I was always expecting not to stay very long.

“It’s been highlighted in the press what took place there, not just with me but with other people as well. Hardly any of that squad is there now, players like Paul Konchesky and Jermaine Pennant. I won’t speak for them, but maybe they had some of the difficulties I had.”

The next step

Kebbie is now back home and awaiting to see where the future lies. He has received an offer to go back to Norway, and also has interest from Sweden and clubs in England.

Whatever the 23-year-old does next, he accepts his goals have changed. It’s no longer about being the best or getting to the top, it’s just about being happy.

“It’s a ruthless industry, things can change in a matter of months. When I was young and I was one of the top young players people looked at and I’d never imagined I’d be in the position I’ve been in the last few years where I’m fighting for a contract and looking for a foot in the door.

“You have to accept the situation you’re in, and that’s the reality of my career. I’m looking for opportunities and if I do well then like anybody else there will be someone there at the right time to take a chance on me again.”

After a decade-long period of bad moves, relationship breakdowns and a serious illness, it would be easy to dwell on what might have been for a player who once had the world at his feet, but Kebbie says he can’t afford to look back now.

“If you dwell on it you’ll drive yourself crazy,” he says. “I’ve accepted that things aren’t the way I planned them. But not many things go to plan in life.

“My depression was a little bit of post-traumatic stress I guess. I’d gone from the pinnacle of my fitness to not playing football at that level again.

“It had a massive affect psychologically, but I had help to get me through it. Close friends, family, people that I first met on a professional basis, they ended up being a very key part of my recovery.

“One particular guy, Floyd Woodrow, who worked in the SAS, he put his arm around me and treated me like his own son.

“But I have to give myself a little bit of credit because, ultimately, I pulled out of the torment of going around in circles, a mixture of thinking could I get myself back to that level or even play football at all?

“It was trial an error all the time, one step forwards and two steps back. You have dark thoughts, that’s just natural, it got difficult.

“But I’m here now, I’m happy, I’m fit and ready to go again. Hopefully I can now really focus on a stable career, that’s the key thing.

“I just want to be happy playing football again.”

By Rich Laverty

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