Monday, 29 May 2000

Leighton bows out with a bang

 By Bernard Thompson
Published in Irish Times, New Media edition
Leighton is stretchered off after breaking his jaw
only two minutes into the Scottish Cup final

One of the reasons that football keeps us watching is the mystery of it all. It is a game that seems able to defy logic, simply to keep us on our toes. And it is a sport with apparent scorn for the deserts of the individual protagonists. That fact was illustrated in the cruellest fashion to Aberdeen's Jim Leighton, in the Scottish Cup Final.

Ending his playing days in the same week as a 19-year-old keeper lifted European soccer's greatest prize, Leighton had cause to reflect on his own years as guardian of the net. He could not have imagined that the finale to his career would last only two minutes and end with his face being smashed by an opponent's knee.

Before the game, few believed that an, often hapless, Aberdeen side would assist their most senior player to a last badge of merit. But the passing of a player of Leighton's standing is an auspicious occasion and there have been many instances of the old sport seeming to bend its own rules to mark such a date.

This time, however, the fates of the fairytale game were observing the holiday weekend. It was a pitiful end to 23 years that have been as magnificent and desperate as any in the Scottish game.

When, in 1977, the 17 year-old Leighton joined Aberdeen, it was as understudy to Bobby Clark, who was something of a cult figure in the North-East of Scotland. In the era of the slapstick Scottish goalkeeper, Clark was one of Scotland's best, although he tended to remain frozen in the "ready" pose seconds after the ball had passed him.

In those days, the scoffing English media had special slots in their Saturday television shows for Scottish goalkeeping gaffes.

Whereas, England had Clemence and Shilton, Scotland had the uniquely accident-prone Alan Rough. As alternatives, Stewart Kennedy, of the Wembley five-goal fame, remained in favour at Ibrox, save for the challenge of the, often hilarious, Peter McCloy.

Jim Blyth of Coventry City was touted in some quarters, but his part in the most absurd of own-goals, when playing against Wales, did nothing to further the reputations of gloved Scotsmen. Celtic were better served, but by an Englishman, Peter Latchford, and then Pat Bonner.

With Leighton, everything was to change. He was Alex Ferguson's Number One as Aberdeen broke the Old Firm's Scottish dominance and secured the European Cup Winner's Cup in 1983.

Ferguson believed in building on solid defensive foundations and his stalwarts would be Willie Miller, Alex McLeish and Jim Leighton. While playing behind the former two was a help for any goalkeeper, Miller was a captain who demanded the standards of amazing consistency that he produced himself. His close vicinity was no place for fumblers.

However, Leighton was more than an irreplaceable part of that side. His consistency and brilliant save-making gave a new respectability to Scottish keepers in general. The admiration showered on him changed attitudes in Scotland and further south. From there, his potential seemed unlimited.

Following Ferguson to Manchester United in 1988 was a logical move. After 11 years at Aberdeen, the club's great times were clearly behind them. Ferguson rated his most trusted charge as Britain's best in his field and he expressed that faith with £450,000, the highest fee ever paid for a British goalkeeper. But the Renfrewshire man's fortunes were soon to decline.

His performances in England were sometimes magnificent but occasionally erratic. He was not suddenly robbed of skill but, over two years, he lost something more precious than form; the confidence of his team-mates.

The decisive blow came in the FA Cup Final of 1990. An uncertain display and three lost goals contributed to a draw with Crystal Palace. Ferguson - himself under extreme pressure - believed that he had no choice but to replace Leighton with Les Sealey in the replay. An assured victory suggested that there would be no return.

Most observers agreed with Ferguson's decision but, to Leighton, it was an undeserved humiliation. He spent two stifling years in the reserves before being sold to Dundee but a near obsessive faith in his own ability enabled him to revive his career.

A promotion-seeking club in Scotland was a humble venue for his talents but his contribution to their success was noted. A move to Hibs seemed to be a step in the right direction but the success of an international recall in 1994 would lead to further anguish for a man who was familiar with feelings of injustice.

At 35, he won his 60th cap and another 31 would follow. However, it seemed that Leighton was the reliable workhorse for the unglamorous qualifiers while Andy Goram declared injuries that prevented him from playing for Scotland but not Rangers. As Euro 96 approached, there was an ominous feeling that bitter news would be delivered.

In the previous two years, Leighton had been called upon many times and usually played well. However, the fans, the media and, more crucially, Craig Brown, could not be swayed from the belief that Goram was the better player. Scotland's opening match at Wembley would be one of the biggest games the nation had witnessed but Brown dismissed any idealistic notions and gave Goram the nod.

Leighton had every right to feel aggrieved. Goram, it seemed, had no interest in playing against the journeymen of Europe but could expect to take centre stage on the great occasions. Brown, never a darling of the Scottish press, had taken the populist option but Goram's outstanding showing lent no weight to the case for appointment based on principles.

Leighton considered ending his international career then but played on through the World Cup of 1998. Goram's erratic behaviour, and subsequent walkout, gave the older man another chance to play in a major tournament and, buoyed by the experience, he stated his intention to win 100 caps. But after some particularly harsh criticism of his performance against Estonia, he gave up playing for his country, nine caps short of his target.

By the end of the season just completed, he was re-established as Aberdeen' best (and only credible) goalkeeper. Attempts to replace him only resulted in would-be successors floundering with perfect comic timing.

Nevertheless, Aberdeen manager, Ebbe Skovdahl, had made no secret of the fact that he did not wish to have a 42 year-old goalkeeper, who was more apt to making mistakes than when in his prime. Skovdahl's offer of a six-month contract with a coaching role, has, apparently, left Leighton feeling slighted once again.

There is a suspicion that, to Leighton, there will always be another good season left in him, but he would rather retire than accept an offer that he feels is belittling. It is just another example of the self-belief, so fragile in other 'keepers, that has allowed him to defy the doubters.

Ironically, it would seem to be the critics, so despised by Leighton, who have given him the vigour to repair and renew a career that was both glorious and wretched. He deserved better than to end his playing days with a broken jaw and teeth but dealing with pain is nothing new to Jim Leighton. It may even spur him for another season. If so, it must be hoped that the fates are more attentive.

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