Lethal Highland League striker John McLeod has switched his sights from scoring goals to scouting after hip problems put paid to his chances of a playing return.
The 32-year-old scored 46 goals in season 2016/17 to help Buckie Thistle win the title.
That same season, McLeod was in the national spotlight thanks to his sparkling hat-trick for Buckie in the Scottish Cup rout of BSC Glasgow. The year before that, he scored five in a crushing victory over Gretna 2008.
In the 2017/18 term, McLeod was in pain, but still bagged 15 times before November. Later that month, a goal in a 4-1 defeat against Nairn County was his last for the Jags.
Five years ago, McLeod was riding on the crest of a wave, but – after four years out injured and with his contract at Victoria Park having run out in May this year – he has admitted defeat in his attempts to get into a condition good enough to play once more.
Two surgical procedures on his right hip and one on the left has led to a long road back for McLeod, who even this year still had ambitions to make a return.
However, the popular former Fort William and Brora Rangers forward called time on his playing career when Covid curtailed the 2020/21 Highland League season.
In a Facebook post, he said: “Another new pre-season has started and I’m devastated to say my hips have defeated me on any return to action – not without trying. Massive thanks to Buckie Thistle Football Club for everything they have done to help me.
“Massive thanks to the Buckie supporters who have been incredible throughout my playing time and supporting me when I’ve been recovering from ops, they have all treated me like family.
“I would have loved to score one more goal to celebrate it with them, hopefully I can return to the club to help in some way.
“Gutted to be finished through injuries, but looking back I was blessed to have played in so many top clubs with so many top players and managers.
“I know I’ve not been the best to manage due to my hate of training, but I appreciate all guidance everyone has given me over the years.”
British tennis stars have toiled with same hip agony as McLeod
McLeod’s troublesome hip problems are the same kind as tennis stars Andy Murray and Laura Robson have toiled with over the years.
McLeod explained failing to get to the bottom of the issue is doubly frustrating as he tackles daily pain.
He said: “I’ve had three operations and I still have ongoing pain and seeing specialists. I got a cortisone injection a few weeks ago.
“It should settle down and I’m doing physio, almost strengthening the areas again. If that makes no difference, I will go back and see the specialist again and get more scans to see what’s going on.
“They thought it was maybe arthritis on the hips and it would deteriorate over time and it might require hip replacement, so it’s not great.
“When you get an operation, you assume that it’s going to make it better. Looking back at the operations on my hips, if anything the pain wasn’t as bad.
“It has made it unbearable. It hasn’t helped.”
He added: “You look at the likes of Andy Murray and Laura Robson, for example, they have gone through the same process, but they can dedicate full-time physio and exercises towards the recovery.
“For me, when you are working all day, you are tired and you have kids at home and you don’t have that focus to do it. It is so hard, so difficult.
“The hardest part is, even to this day, you’re not fixed. You don’t know what’s going on.
“Yes, I’ve had operations, but I’m still not in a position where I know how to make this better.”
Buckie dug deep to help with ops
McLeod remains grateful not only to the Buckie fans for their relentless support, but the club for digging deep to allow private treatment on his hip when it mattered most.
He added: “Buckie pushed for me to see a private specialist and they allowed me to pay it back through my wages, which was really good of them.
“Given the costs of the operations, I don’t think I’d have been able to afford that, so it was really good of Buckie they allowed me to do that.”
Scouting more realistic target for McLeod with ongoing hip pain
A move into coaching is an avenue McLeod has looked at, but ongoing hip pain makes that a weaker option than scouting, which he concedes is a more realistic goal and is an area in which he already has experience.
McLeod explained: “I have done level one in coaching and I am on to level two with my scouting. I am not sure what way I want to go yet, but the scouting is perhaps more appealing.
“Even standing up for an hour or two is hard. It gives me a lot of pain, so if I had to coach for an hour-and-a-half, I would be going away in such a lot of pain.
“If I was scouting in the Highland League or a higher level, I could sit down and enjoy the game and still be making a contribution towards football. Scouting teams or players is something I’m quite excited about.
“At the time when I was doing it with the SFA, they were scouting Croatia, which was really interesting.
“With coaching, you are having to train two nights a week, take the games and you are away a lot. But if I was able to go to say Clach or Elgin under-19s, for example, it is local, but you can also enjoy it more.”
Did huge amount of games catch up with Jags stars?
McLeod’s red-hot form in front of goal helped Buckie win the league and the Aberdeenshire Cup in 16/17, while they enjoyed adventures in the Scottish and Betfred Cups, too, during that season and the season which followed.
However, the goal-grabber believes, with the likes of Kevin Fraser and Sam Urquhart also sidelined at Buckie for some time in the months and years which followed, the packed schedule of games caught up with them.
McLeod said: “That first season, when we had so many good achievements, we were playing in the later rounds of the Scottish Cup, then the year after that in the Betfred Cup, we had four games against full-time teams in nine days.
“When you think about the amount of games I played over those years, it must have been between 80-90 games. That’s more than a full-time player. I suppose it is the downside of being so successful.
“We had a few injuries at the time and I think it was related to part-time players playing full-time schedules. That was always going to be hard on the body.
“The injury came in the November, yet I think I had already played around 30 games. Most players would be delighted with that in an entire season. The schedule is always heavy at the start of the season to get as many matches in before the winter.”
‘I’m still young and you ask yourself why you can’t do that any longer’
A regular scorer at struggling Fort William, McLeod was snapped up by Brora Rangers in the winter of 2015 by then boss Richard Brittain.
After a promising start, he struggled to stay in a team packed full of top players such as Stuart Kettlewell, Grant Munro, Steven Mackay, Zander Sutherland, Gavin Morrison and Paul Brindle.
While playing alongside Brora’s big-hitters was great, the fun had gone when he dropped out of the team and the following summer Buckie boss Graeme “Spider” Stewart took him to Victoria Park.
McLeod explained: “When I went to Brora, Richard Brittain and Grant Munro were there and they wanted me. It was too big an opportunity to turn down.
“I got something like 11 goals in my first seven or eight games, including scoring two on my debut against Buckie. In the end, the fitness told and I fell out of the starting 11.
“There’s so much talent up there. When I went to Buckie, Steven Mackay and Paul Brindle were injured, so that gave me the chance to play.
“Richie lost his job and there were a few quick managerial changes up there. Buckie were still interested and I wasn’t enjoying my football when I was mainly on the bench.
“The Brora experience was different for me, because I was alongside so many players who had just been full-time.
“When I was at amateur level or at Fort William, I felt guilty because I never needed to do much pre-season. I was scoring goals and enjoying it.”
McLeod said reflecting on a career of bulging the net brings mixed feelings.
He added: “I got into the Scottish Cup team of the year two years in a row, which was great, and I have been top scorer in the Highland League. It’s quite nice looking back at those pictures.
“It’s also hard to look back at pictures of me scoring goals or the big moments – I’m still young and you ask yourself why you can’t do that any longer.”