Leon Cort talks through a smile, but with a slightly reticent air, seemingly on the verge of disclosing something secret.
His time at Crystal Palace “started very well,” he says keenly, without alluding to how it ended. “It was good for me, personally,” he adds, side-stepping his time more widely. “I felt it went very well,” he repeats, “but it didn’t end the way I wanted it to.
“It all exploded.”
Cort began his time at Selhurst Park as he followed manager Peter Taylor from Hull City to south London. The pair first met when Cort’s older brother, Carl, also a professional footballer, encouraged Leon to join the former England Under-21 manager and learn from his stewardship.
The move proved fruitful, and Taylor trusted Leon to such an extent that in bringing the defender to SE25 in 2006, he registered Hull City’s then-club-record sale.
“He [Taylor] bought me for about £1.2m, so he had to justify why he spent that to the Chairman and the club,” Cort recalls 14 years later. “I didn’t think it would come through to be honest with you, because I knew the defenders they had there: Darren Ward, Mark Hudson, Danny Butterfield.”
But upon arrival Cort found himself playing regularly in red and blue, earning 38 appearances and a Player of the Season award for his first campaign in south London. The towering centre-back was reaching his career’s peak, led by a manager he trusted, and found a rich vein of form that kept his experienced, talented competitors on the bench.
And he brought with him more than one string for his proverbial bow.
Bagging seven goals from defence in 2006/07, Cort netted almost 12% of the team’s goals that year. In fact, such was his tally, the centre-back would have been the club’s top scorer in four of its post-war seasons.
“You see a lot of guys who are tall but can’t jump,” the now-40-year-old explains. “I was always able to jump very high and I used that to my advantage. I’d say to Ben Watson: ‘Just hit an area and hang it for me. I will attack it and I will time it.’ Once I got a jump on somebody, I knew I’d score. That’s not me being big-headed, it’s just I know what I need and what I can do.
“Throughout my career, it wasn’t anything so tactical and so strategic, it was just [managers saying]: ‘Look, get it in this area, make space with runners coming off different areas so Leon can get in there. Once he gets the jump, he’ll get a knockdown or a goal.’ That was the main plan. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, it was pretty simple stuff.”
Cort says today that he “didn’t even think” about his hefty price tag or pre-existing relationship with Taylor but, clearly, the facts weighed heavily on some of his teammates, and the centre-back was under a constant pressure to perform.
“There was competition for places,” he says, “but even amongst the centre-halves, the ones that were left out felt they should be playing ahead of me and that I was only playing because of Peter Taylor.
“That’s probably what made me do well, because I knew if I didn’t do well they’d need no excuse to knock on the manager’s door and say: ‘Look at what’s been going on. I need to be playing.’ So it was a good kick up the backside, really, to perform and stay in the team.”
But there’s a downside to the competition Cort refers to and, treading carefully around “proper seasoned pros” and “really good players”, he reveals a more troubled atmosphere behind the scenes than many fans will remember.
Cort apologises - “sorry, it’s bad to say,” - and, without criticising individuals he clearly respects, goes on to recall: “Everybody thought they should be playing, as you should do if you’re professional and have that ambition. But on the same hand, you have to accept you’re going to be left out of the team sometimes. When that was the case, training would get spoilt by certain players.
“It was bad because there wasn’t the unity there should have been and if there was a unity, we could have really, really done well.
“There was no cohesion... the egos were just too much. The manager was falling out with players, players were telling the manager at half-time: ‘You’re going to be sacked by Christmas.’ The respect wasn’t there at all. It was always going to go one way.
“It was hard. I tried to step-up and say: ‘Boys, we need to do this together.’”
Peter Taylor talks Malcolm Allison, Crystal Palace, Roy Hodgson, Norman Wisdom and more7 July 2020
Mounting discontent out of the public eye and a string of tough results led to Taylor departing the club in October, 2007. And with the manager’s exit, Cort knew his stint in south London was all but over, too.
“It was painful,” he says, audibly distressed to this day. “I called him [Taylor] afterwards and said: ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this.’ I saw how well he was respected at Hull and how the players worked for him and the way he was treated by some of the players wasn’t good enough.
“It was over the top and disrespectful to somebody who was trying to do well, had the right ideas and didn’t have the backing. Whether it be they didn’t like his style of play or whatnot, either way it wasn’t acceptable. He was fighting a losing battle pretty much from the beginning.
“When he left and I found out Neil Warnock was coming in, I always knew me and him were going to clash. When I was at Hull, we used to play the Yorkshire derby against [Warnock’s] Sheffield United. We always used to clash. Even when I went past the touchline, he would say something to me and I would say something back; he was very verbal to me when I was playing.
“So when he came to Palace, I knew I’d be going the other way, even if he wanted me to stay.”
Cort struggles to pinpoint why his relationship began on a sour note and never improved with Warnock, but recalls the experienced coach’s unique man management approach.
“He never fancied me,” Cort says, “and I always said from the beginning: ‘If you don’t like me, just let me go. I don’t want to be here.’
“He was saying: ‘Are you a proper centre-half? Where are the scars on your face?’ He was being very derogatory towards me. He would find reasons to dig me out because he didn’t want me there, which I always said to him was fine.
“He would do things in training, like on a Friday when we’d be practising set pieces. Ben Watson whipped the ball in and I was going to attack it but I pulled out of it because me and Julián Speroni were going to clash.
“Warnock stopped the session and went mental at me for not smashing Julián Speroni in training. I thought to myself: ‘Now you’re just trying to find things to have a go at me about. I’m not to smash my own player on a Friday when we’ve got a game tomorrow.’
“We played Stoke [City] and they beat us 3-1 at home… Neil Warnock came to me a couple of days later and said: ‘Stoke are interested in you. I can’t believe they want to pay the money they want to pay for you, but it is what it is.’” Cort laughs: “Another dig!”
Moses Swaibu on time in prison, PFA work with the Premier League and Crystal Palace22 March 2020
And so the centre-back joined Stoke City on loan - claiming to have had no idea of their interest when Tony Pulis’ Potters visited Selhurst - and eventually signed for the Staffordshire club on a permanent basis.
Cort recorded Premier League appearances with both Stoke and Burnley before winding down his career with a successful stint at Charlton Athletic.
His stories from life in SE25 are mixed, but the one-time Player of the Season still talks fondly of his former club.
“I’m a bit disappointed that we didn’t achieve something with the players we had,” he says. “We had one of the better squads in the division at that time: player for player in every position, Tom Soares, Jobi McAnuff, Clinton [Morrison], Shefki [Kuqi], Mark Hudson, Butterfield.
“So it was disappointing we didn’t achieve anything, but personally I felt in ‘06/07 I did very well for myself, back in London and at a team like Palace who’d just previously come down from the Premier League. To go there and do what I did, I’m really proud of that… I can’t see how you can not enjoy yourself at Palace.”
You can hear more from Leon as he discusses his half-brother, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, in the next edition of 90+7, the club's digital magazine.
Until then, grab the first edition here for Steve Kember's blockbuster account of life in Palace's dugouts, Aaron Wilbraham's hijinks in south London and why Neil Danns saw red for a headbutt just days before Survival Sunday...