Leo Ulloa signed in January 2018 for his second spell with the Albion. However, after Glenn Murray’s great form since the previous Christmas (despite the odd missed penalty against Leicester) it was easy to forget the Albion even signed the striker in the transfer window.
In his first spell with Brighton, Ulloa proved himself to be a talented striker with strength, power and the ability to score goals, scoring 26 goals in 58 appearances. Never more so was this shown than in his first game for the Albion, where he announced himself to the AMEX faithful with a great performance and a goal in a dramatic FA Cup tie against Arsenal, which the Albion ended up losing 3-2.
Following this, Ulloa quickly became a cult figure for the Albion and then went on to have great success with Leicester. That said, that element of his career is well known but we still ask the question; who is that man from Argentina?
José Leonardo Ulloa Fernández was born on 27 July 1986 in General Roca in the Rio Negro province of Argentina. He started his football career in modest settings, playing for a small local team Deportivo Roca and after a short period he signed for Argentinian Second Division club CAI in 2002. A club based in the province of Chubut, some 700 miles further south at the age of just 15. Leo’s first team opportunities were limited due to his age and he only only has one goal to his name from his time at the club.
Being from a smaller less populated province in the south of Argentina and far from the hub of football activity that is Buenos Aires made it harder for Leo to get his break. Furthermore, playing for a team based in Chubut, with most teams in Argentina being based within close proximity to Buenos Aires, means an away trip for CAI would often require a 24-hour coach journey each way.
It’s true credit to Leo though that he was one of the few that made it from outside this Buenos Aires football bubble. He persevered and got his break when one of the Buenos Aires giants of Argentinian football San Lorenzo, signed him 3 years later. There he was part of the team that won the 2007 Clausura Tournament. (Literally translating as closing tournament, one of two league titles on offer each season, at the time. But the complex and ever-changing Argentinian league system nothing lasts very long.)
However, he didn’t settle there and played only 31 times for the club, ultimately going out on loan. First to Arsenal de Sarandí where he won the Copa Sudamericana (the South America equivalent of the Europa League), then to Olimpo de Bahia Blanca where he was part of a team that was relegated from the top flight.
So far it was a start to a career full of swings and roundabouts, with a mere 10 goals to his name from his time playing in Argentina he had not made much of an impression. Therefore, little fuss was made domestically when he moved to Europe and Spanish Second División club Castellon. As a result of his Spanish ancestry, Leo had an easier way in to Europe than some other young South American prospects, which may have aided his move despite his modest record to date.
Whilst at Castellon, Ulloa got regular first team football for the first time in his career and began to show what he was really capable of. He scored 16 goals in his first season and 14 goals in his second. An all the more impressive record considering Castellon’s relegation from the second tier in that second season.
The goals he scored increased his reputation in Spain and his transfer valuation, leading top-flight club Almeria to pay €900k and give him a 5-year contract, a big commitment considering their relatively humble standing within Spanish football. A commitment he quickly made worth while as he continued to score goals and showed more and more belief in his own ability. In his first season with Almeria, the club were unsurprisingly relegated from the top tier but reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, losing only to Barcelona (albeit 8-0 on aggregate). With the club back in the second tier he scored 28 goals in 38 games and those goals meant he drew the attention of many clubs, not just from inside Spain but from all around Europe.
Gus Poyet, the then Brighton manager took a particularly strong interest and Brighton signed Leo in 2013 reportedly for £2m. The express quoted Poyet as saying: “We had competition from a few clubs so we needed to be lucky to get him. Stalking is the word as we were there every day.”
After a successful nearly 5 years in Spain, he’d become a key figure with both Castellon and Almeria. Rio Negro journalist Cristian Helou, who has watched his rise for CAI and followed his career with interest afterward is quoted in the Independent as saying “Everything that didn’t work out for him in Argentina began to work out for him in Europe”.
His successful rise continued at Brighton and Leicester, where he became a cult figure at both clubs. After the success of his first spell with the Albion, with Leicester he continued this success. He was a key part of the team that achieved the ‘great escape’ in hist first season and made some key impacts (though mostly from the bench) as the team went on to remarkably win the league title in his second season and get to the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions League in his third.
Despite this success his reputation in Argentina is still one of relative anonymity outside of his native Rio Negro. During his first season with Leicester, the presence of the veteran Argentina international Esteban Cambiasso’s by far overshadowed his, and even after Cambiasso’s departure the competition for places up front for the Argentinian national team means he was never really on their radar for selection, despite some suggestions at one time that he may be.
That said Leo’s story shows he is a special character. His perseverance and hard work have meant he’s achieved a great deal over the last decade in Europe after a tougher start than most. And whilst the form of Glenn Murray meant his impact in his second spell at the Albion was limited, it was these qualities which lead the Albion to bring him back to the club where he is thought of so highly.