I used to hate letting goals in – now I just score them... and I’m a golden boot winner

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With an incredible 38 goals in 44 games this season, Crawley Down Gatwick’s Oli Leslie is the Southern Combination League premier division golden boot winner for 2023-24. We caught up with him to find out about his football career, how he’s won the award and what lies ahead for him.

Give us a little background on your career so far, Oli - who have you played for since youth team days? And have you always been a striker?

I started at Horsham Sparrows in 2002. Then I went to boarding school (Lancing College) and boarded from 13-18 (2004-09) playing football for the school on weekends. I was actually a goalkeeper at this point.

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Then went to uni aged 18-21 (2009-12, Hartpury University) and changed to centre forward.

Oli Leslie in Crawley Down Gatwick action | Picture: Tony BrownOli Leslie in Crawley Down Gatwick action | Picture: Tony Brown
Oli Leslie in Crawley Down Gatwick action | Picture: Tony Brown

I hated letting goals in and found out I loved scoring them and getting more out of football doing this even though I wasn’t as good outfield.

I got into their academy as well as my first taste of men’s football at Cinderford Town, also in the West Country.

I finally returned home and joined Horsham YMCA for one season but featured mainly in the reserves (Suburban League, 2013-14).

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In order to get more first team action I dropped down a league to Billingshurst for 2014 -15 where I was top goalscorer for the club, plus players’ player and manager’s player of the season.

Oli Leslie in scoring form for Crawley Down Gatwick | Picture: Tony BrownOli Leslie in scoring form for Crawley Down Gatwick | Picture: Tony Brown
Oli Leslie in scoring form for Crawley Down Gatwick | Picture: Tony Brown

It was a real step that I could play this level of men’s football and higher. I then got signed by Crawley Down Gatwick inthe summer of 2015 just as they got relegated into County Division 1.

It took us one season to get back into the premier division and I have been at Crawley Down Gatwick since. This was my ninth season.

I’ve played 313 games and scored 175 goals, with 80 assists.

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What was your best tally before this year, and did you expect this season to go so well?

Other than the season we have just played I have only ever had one season where I made it through without injury and that was the first season we got promoted with CDG.

That was in the SCFL premier in 2016-17 where I scored 29 league goals and narrowly missed out on the golden boot.

This was also a sign that I could mix it with the big boys in the SCFL.

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CDG had a decent season but were a little short of finishing in the play-offs - what was the aim at the start of the season?

The aim is always challenging for the league or at least play-offs and a good cup run.

It was always going to be tough after coming so close last year when we finished second in the league.

To try to go one better this year was tough. The main issue this season was the inconsistancy of our squad.

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We were really injury-hit, more so than in a usual season, so lacked strength in depth which is ideally what you need to challenge for the league.

Ironically I wasnt injured for a change so could actually hold down my spot in the starting line-up.

I played the most out of any CDG player – 44 games, including 37 starts, and 38 goals and 10 assists.

Looking ahead do you expect to be at CDG again next season - and if so will you set yourself a similar goal target to this season?

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I now find myself in new situation. I never got brought up with the whole nonsense of moving for the brown envalope and purely playing for money.

I always loved just playing and enjoying football with the lads and putting the ball in the back of net.

I have had that at CDG every year so I've never really looked elsewhere.

Moreover I've never really had any other clubs come properly chasing for me so never really thought about moving or starting fresh.

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However, since this season has finished, I have had multiple clubs get in touch with me asking to talk and offering stuff I've never been offered before, including teams in the leagues above.

So at the very minimum it’s great for the confidence to be a wanted man after a decent season on a personal level but I have so many reasons to stay and continue my journey at CDG.

A part of me is interested in a new challenge but I'm 32 now and very happy where I am. I don't see why I would risk ruining that for a bit of money and a new challenge.

CDG have also just appointed a new chairman with the aim to really go for the title next year and that has rejuvinated a freshness in the club to push on.

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I'll never say never but if we keep the core of the squad and get a couple decent signings in, we will be looking to challenge next year for sure.

I'm going to enjoy the break but already looking forward to next year.

I've been told the target in now 40 goals!

Anyone to thank?

I’d like to say a big thank-you to Paul Cooper who signed me for every club I played at and moved to (YM, Billingshurst then CDG) along with James Day who took over from Paul at CDG and believed in my ability to push on when I would lack belief in myself sometimes.

I also want to thank the awesome group of lads, some of whom I've played with for nearly a decade, for doing everything they could to set me up for the goals.

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That was especially so during the run-in when it became apparent that I had a real chance of going for the golden boot.

The lads would do all they could to either win me a penalty or selflessly set me up at any occasion. And it paid off for me!

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