Easy target man Lehmann is planning to have last laugh

A HARSH critic would venture that it has always been harder to pigeon-hole Dirk Lehmann than to mark him. Whether you point to the pirate’s earrings, the gangly playing style or the quaintly lisp-ridden speech, this is one footballer who has eschewed all the cliques and retained a glorious individuality.

But this hasn’t necessarily been a blessing. He might have been stricken by some sore luck along the way, but you can’t help but feel that the failure of Lehmann to truly establish himself at any of the three clubs for which he has played in Britain might have owed something to the fact he has always been the butt of somebody’s joke.

Rule one: Never turn up to training in knee-high biker’s boots. Rule two: If you are a footballer, do not grow a handlebar moustache or sport earrings which you have to cover with plasters for safety reasons during games. Lehmann, to the joy of dressing-room conspirators and the amusement of the rest of us, has never stuck to the guidelines.

Now happily settled in at Motherwell, the German can chortle quite happily about the shenanigans of the past. He recalls with a smile the time at Hibernian when that irrepressible rascal, John Hughes, nailed his boots to the floor. "If it was my Hugo Boss shoes then I would probably have been different. But I took it like a joke, and tried to give it back to him," he says.

Less difficult to shrug off has been the "Porn Star" nickname he gained whilst playing under Kevin Keegan at Fulham. Though he can’t hide from the fact it is a branding most men would cherish, certain incidents render the tag irksome.

"At the start, it was quite hard because people believed it. And still loads of people believe it," he says. "People still call me up and say ‘how many movies did you actually make?’ And sometimes when I’m in the toilet in the nightclub they recognise the face, and try to walk around and look at your best piece."

Sharing a forename with the star of Hollywood’s drama-doc study of the porn industry, Boogie Nights, it is fairly certain that Lehmann would have been singled out as a prankster’s dream even if he had been a clean-shaven Belgian.

Now 30, he may be dressing down slightly, settling for just the two earrings and ditching the boots, but he is not too mature and wizened to give as good as he gets on the banter front. Among peers, he jokes with a sense of humour that belies the stereotypical image of his native land.

"When I used to play in Belgium they said ‘you’re not a real German’, because I knew a joke," he says. "I used to have more earrings, you know. That was my trademark all my life."

The last point trails off a little poignantly. Not because he misses his golden accoutrements - one has now been snugly reinstated into each lobe after the FA banned him from wearing them at Brighton - but because his career seems to have wound its way into autumn without a great deal of golden leaves to recall.

This could be about to change. Lehmann is living alone in Hamilton, but insists he has never felt more at home, having developed a love for Scotland just as strong as he holds for his homeland. More importantly, he has perhaps finally found a club that will suit his needs.

After a successful start to his Hibs career, Lehmann acquired only a bit-part role in the rolling success story of 2000/01. The fact he timed his move to Easter Road to coincide with their finest campaign in three decades was fateful enough, but the difficulties he faced in maintaining a first-team place were compounded by personal grief.

"We were winning most of the games, and my dad started to get ill. I flew to Germany nearly every week; going on Sundays and coming back on Thursdays, training for two days and then being in the squad on Saturday. That obviously hurt my chances of playing from the start.

"That took until December, when my dad died. He never had the chance to see me play in the UK and I promised to arrange it for him, but it didn’t work out. So I was really determined after he died to achieve something, and we finished third, and gave Rangers a big, big challenge." But Lehmann’s varied contribution to Hibs’ cause was not considered by manager Alex McLeish to be sufficiently pivotal, and he was again dealt a cruel hand of fate when he moved to Sussex in the close-season.

Brighton were managed by Micky Adams, who knew the striker from Fulham, and wanted to play him alongside Bobby Zamora, the phenomenon who has scored 25 times this season. But soon Adams left, to be replaced by Peter Taylor, and the new manager deemed the partnership to be untenable.

All of this could have left poor Dirk in a pretty pickle, but there is a tangible feeling that the Motherwell move can be both harmonious and prolonged. Ever since Eric Black expressed an interest in a player whom he may utilise in defence as well as attack, Lehmann claims he has felt right about the whole affair. As he did at Hibs, he marked his home debut with a goal.

But more than anything, this native of Westfalen is soothed to be back in the land of his spiritual calling. Like the man who returns to the scene of primary school tauntings and recounts nothing but happy experiences, Lehmann’s experience of Scotland is bathed in positivity.

"As soon as I arrived at the airport - I was talking to a lady on the plane, and then the taxi driver as well - I just felt like I was coming home," he says.

If Lehmann has a taste for a breath of fresh air, he need take no longer gaze than into his own mirror. Let’s hope it all works out for him.