After Tony Coton's terrible injury in the game against Southampton in 1996, an unknown, tousle-haired Frenchman stepped into the goalmouth, never to be dislodged as first choice in a league game in all his time with us. An instinctive keeper, wearing his heart on his rolled-up sleeves, his unorthodox style alarmed some but thrilled others. ALS readers voted him Coolest Player and Favourite Player in his first season, and the Fulwell End showed its culture by acquiring a French accent in his honour ('Leeee-on-el!'). Out of contract after the playoffs, he went to Newcastle, and became one of Ruud Gullit's forgotten men. Now wowing the fans at Cambridge, we caught up with him to see how the last few turbulent years have been.
When you came in 1996 you can't have known much about Sunderland. Was it easy to settle in?
When I first arrived in Sunderland I didn't know too much about the city, but as soon as I set foot here, I knew it was the place I wanted to be, and I never had any second thoughts - every day, every hour was something I really enjoyed. The people here accepted me straightaway.
I remember the first game I played in Roker Park against Aston Villa - in the second half I had an important save to make - I dived at the feet of their centre forward, and he crashed into me with his feet, and it hurt. Then I heard all the crowd start to sing my name, and my feeling was to be on my feet and show everybody I wasn't hurt, and I did, I turned round to the supporters and raised my hand towards them to show them I was ready to play again, and their response was brilliant.
After that I met someone who had been into the shop specially after that match to buy a shirt with my number on it - Stephen - he became a good friend, and it was he who told me lots about Sunderland and the supporters.
Any special memories?
My last league game at the SoL, we won 3-0, remember, and I ran into the crowd and I gave my shirt to the lady who was carrying the French flag - that was something very special for me. And I remember my last game ever there, when I made the double save in the play-off semi - well, I don't really remember much about making it, just the feeling, and the atmosphere in the ground - I remember all the happiness there was in that stadium and at Roker Park and I will remember it all my life. I have never been back there - what I would love, would be to come back with Cambridge for a cup match perhaps, and it would be for me a great, great moment.
How important is the bond between you and the fans?
I don't know what the feelings of other players are, but for me I think the supporters give me their enthusiasm and confidence and I give them my passion. It's a special rapport, a relationship between me and the public and no one can explain it, it's something you can feel but not explain. I think the supporters can tell I give my best to win the game, how proud I am to wear the colours of the club.
What were your feelings when you didn't get your contract renewed?
I was very disappointed indeed, because it was never in my mind to leave Sunderland. I want to explain what happened. Four months before the end of the season and the end of my contract, Peter Reid said he wanted to meet with me and my agent to agree a new contract, and that he was going to speak with the French manager, because he thought I could have a chance at International level. So, I was completely confident about signing a new contract, because I didn't want to leave, I love this club. But after that, the months pass, pass, pass and no answer, no meeting, nothing from Peter Reid.
Then one day he came and said: 'I'll give you two years'. To offer just two years - it wasn't a big big deal, and I thought to myself - he doesn't want to keep me. When I arrived, two years was fine, because I'd just arrived, they don't know me - but after two years, after what I'd given to Sunderland, to just propose me a two-year contract and tell me that was the most he could do.
So I suggested longer, but he said - 'no no no - we will see at the end of the season.' And my agent said 'It doesn't look good, I don't think he wants to keep you.' Later I went in Peter Reid's office and I said 'OK, I'll go along with this two years, just give me two years to stay at Sunderland,' and he said to me 'Oh, I'll have to go to the Board and see if they will give you two years.' He never came back.
I knew everybody wanted to keep me, the chairman, staff, everybody in the club except him. Then, on the day after Wembley I knew for sure how things were, because straight afterwards I got the letter from the club saying they didn't want me any more. It was then that Newcastle approached me.
Some of the fans turned against you for going to Newcastle - that must have hurt?
Yes, very much, but what could I do? They weren't giving me another contract. Well, I needed to look after my family, put food on the table, and when Newcastle contacted me, as I loved being in the North East, I decided straightaway to go there, because I really didn't want to leave the area. The fact was I just didn't want to leave Sunderland - I really wanted to stay - but when you're out of contract, you have to look for another club - well, I didn't feel the supporters could blame me, because I wanted to stay, it was Peter Reid who didn't want to keep me.
Wembley - what can you say about that? How did it feel waiting for the penalties?
Wembley, Wembley, it's a great memory but a big disappointment, a big big sadness - what can I say? As we entered the stadium, it was just so full of supporters, it was unbelievable, that was a great memory I will have all my life. I remember when I was waiting for the penalties, in my head I was saying 'Just save one, just save one' and I didn't. And I didn't even hear the noise of the crowd or anything, because I was just thinking, stop just one, just one penalty. Peter Reid didn't speak with me, but I really didn't care because I wasn't playing for him I was playing for the supporters and I was playing for my teammates.
After Wembley we were all crying - crying in the bus and crying in the dressing room - we were so upset for everybody and for Michael Gray. Afterwards, I realised it was the first time I ever cried over a game, and I think it will be the last time too. Because it was so sad, seemed so unfair to lose, and all the supporters crying, and I was very very disappointed, very very disappointed in my last game for Sunderland, to not give them a place in the Premiership.
Do you think if Dalglish had stayed at Newcastle you would have been a regular there?
I think yes, it didn't help me when Dalglish left the club. But in fact from the first day I knew it wasn't a good move for me, because I thought it would be easy to be introduced into the team, but it wasn't. It was my fault, but in fact I was so disappointed to leave Sunderland that I didn't want to play for Newcastle. All the time I was thinking 'Why didn't he give me a contract?' It really affected me, and I was still upset in fact when I start to play with them. I wasn't very good even in training. I'd arrive already feeling tired and I really didn't enjoy it, and when you wake up and you feel miserable you are not good, and I wasn't good, and day after day I was bad and bad and bad and more bad and badly badly badly. I just played in the reserve team. I played very very badly game after game, I was poor and poor and poor and poor because I wasn't very happy. I felt the players didn't like me, I didn't like them, I didn't feel comfortable in the club and the team anyway, but it wasn't their fault, it was my fault, because I wasn't good.
How was Newcastle under Gullit?
I have to say when Gullit arrived it wasn't good for me and for quite a lot of players. It was a fact that we didn't get on with him, and he didn't like England - I don't know why he stayed because he didn't like England so the relationship started badly. If you're manager at Newcastle, well, I think he didn't like Alan Shearer, and Alan Shearer, he's the boss over there, and if you are manager you have to be with him and it wasn't the case. And then there were the English players and the foreign players. I think there were too many there, you can't have a real English spirit if there are too much foreigners.
There were 5 or 6 Frenchmen, and we were together, of course, because it was easier, it's not that we were against the English, it was just easier to arrive and begin to speak French and be together - that's what it was. I think it's good to have some foreigners in a team, but not as many as there were in Newcastle, that was too many.
So, successful loan spells at Scunthorpe and Cambridge - but it must have been a hard decision to leave the Premiership and the North East?
I didn't think I would leave the North East because it was the place I wanted to be in England - it was fantastic there for me because I had very good friends, I knew everywhere in the town, I liked to go out, there were nice restaurants, it was lively, everything was brilliant. But I have to play football. After a year at Newcastle, Scunthorpe had me on loan for three months, then after that I went to Cambridge, at first on loan, then they offered me a contract.
It was such a good feeling to play again, you know me, I love playing football - whether there are 50,000 people or 2,000 people, if the crowd are with me I love it. Of course I miss the big crowds, but I love to wake up in the mornings to something worthwhile. I love playing for Cambridge - I'm sure the supporters know that. Yes, it's perhaps harder, but I enjoy it anyway. I know they make a big effort to keep me at Cambridge and I appreciate that and I try to repay them in the way I play.
And one of the best things about playing regularly again, is that when you arrive at home you are not in a bad mood - you can enjoy your life after the training and after the game. You can enjoy your whole life again.
Do you feel bitter about the way the press wrote about you towards the end at Newcastle - about being paid a lot for not playing, when it wasn't your fault?
I don't care what newspapers say - a long time ago now I decided not to read them - because they never say the truth. I didn't see much of what they said, but anyway it wasn't my fault - I think I was, am still, a good goalkeeper, I should have had my chance, and I didn't.
What is it you like so much about living and playing in England?
I still love my life in England. I'm still glad I chose to come to Sunderland first. I will be all my life a guy from the North East because this part of England accepted me, has given me great love. But I have to carry on and move on. Now we're just enjoying our time in Cambridge, it's near to London, it's a beautiful city, a brilliant lifestyle, everyone riding bicycles. I am absolutely delighted that my two children are bilingual, and they laugh at me when I speak English because they say my English is poor, and I can understand that! They speak English without a French accent and it's absolutely fantastic - they love England and not long ago I said to them 'Are you English or are you French?' and they both said 'I am English!'
Perhaps they do feel more English than French, but I think they might have been having a joke with me! My smaller daughter, she was born in the North East, she is a native North East girl! I go back to France on holiday and I will go there when I retire, but for now I love playing in England, it's been good for me and my family to learn a new language and lifestyle, it's exciting to play in front of so many people, to go out and have a few beers, to live in peace, there seems less pressure than when I was in France. I won't go back as long as I'm playing football.
I see you did a Schmeichel-type run forward for a corner in the dying minutes of a match recently and helped get an equalising goal!
Yes that was a good feeling. We were losing 2-1 and we didn't deserve to be losing - I remember we had a late corner and I came up for it and we scored just then - I was very very happy, and so were the fans - it was like playing in front of 50,000 people, you know.
Do you still roll your sleeves up?
Yes - it just feels more comfortable! And I like to look a bit different for everybody.
On their website some Cambridge fans are suggesting you'd make a great manager. What do you think about that?
Sometimes I feel I could be a good manager, that's right, but at the moment I am a player and I will see after I finish playing if I can be a manager.
You must be really proud of the French team at the moment. Do you know any of the current squad?
I was very lucky because when I played in Bordeaux I used to play with Zinedine Zidane, Christian Dugarry, Bixente Lizarazu and in Nimes I played with Laurent Blanc, and I was very proud and there was perhaps a little bit of envy too because my dream would have been to win the World Cup and I couldn't - and they did - I'm very proud, but at the same time I feel I would have loved myself to hold the cup in the air.
Are you still friendly with any of the Sunderland players?
Of course I'm still friendly - I was good friends with all of them, always will be. I used to love to go in every morning and have a great time altogether, and I think they'll remember me as a good lad - I think of them as good lads. I'm afraid that sometimes I've met them in the street and couldn't speak with them after all those good years in Sunderland, because I wanted to keep in my mind how it was, remember all the friendship we had all those mornings and going out altogether, we had this very special thing, and now if I meet them, we don't have too much to say. But I just wanted to say to them that I still remember, I still love them.
And recently, when I was playing in Cambridge a couple with young children wearing the Sunderland strip came just behind my goal, and they asked me if they could take a picture of me with the children. I was very happy to see them and they said to me they still think about me, and it was very very nice. And it was a good game, we won, and just for a moment I watched them there in the crowd, and they were so happy, they were clapping their hands and jumping around and it was, it was all the things that supporters mean for me.
Do you have a message for the fans?
I want to say to everybody there all the best, you are fantastic fans, and all the best to the team too, and to my old team mates. I hope you do really well this season, and I hope to one day come back to play again in the Stadium of Light.