Leishman's long, winding road leads to Hampden

WHEN Jim Leishman leads Dunfermline out at Hampden Park tomorrow it will be just the latest steps in a journey that started back in the mid-Sixties, when he lugged his schoolbag from Beath High School all the way to East End Park.

Leishman was just a kid but had the presence of mind to support a local club, even if local still meant traipsing a few miles to see his heroes play. It seems to have instilled in him a life-long love of the dusty road. Leishman is now a patron of the Fife coastal path, which stretches for 81 miles between Culross and the two Tay bridges. He hasn't negotiated the entire length of the trail yet but one imagines victory against Celtic tomorrow would make him lusty enough to complete it in record time. That's if he can avoid the back-slapping well-wishers likely to spill out of bars in the fishing villages lining the East Neuk.

Given that his father favoured Rangers and his mother Hibernian, there had been no pressure brought to bear on the young Leishman to support Dunfermline. But there was an attraction in addition to his local ties that had him following the scent of Bovril and tobacco all the way to East End Park, like one of the Bisto kids. The team were one of the finest in the land. Leishman and his fellow pupils hardly needed much convincing that Dunfermline was where it was at.

Even now, when you slide around the corner of Halbeath Road and see the ground come into view, there is something magisterial that calls out from East End Park, complete with its tall, erect floodlight pylons and well-appointed main stand.

Dunfermline have gone the way of the aristocracy now; saddled with large debts, and the weight of a history that makes the mediocrity of the present day so much harder to accept. But back then, back when young Leishman was kicking stones along the Cuddy Road, they were a club as happening as Dylan. Teachers were left to bemoan the club's influence as truancy rates shot up in Fife on the days of big European clashes.

"The Cuddy Road was the road we'd take from my Cowdenbeath school to Dunfermline," recalled Leishman this week. "We used to walk it on a Wednesday afternoon when the team played in Europe, as they did a lot back in that day. We had two periods of Higher History, but we would plug that and start walking to the game. Quite a few of my class-mates at the time were fans. Dunfermline were one of the great clubs."

Not unnaturally, Leishman harboured a dream to play for the team he'd watched dismantle beguilingly-named opponents Apoel Nicosia and Olympiakos Piraeus - scoring 14 goals in successive home matches - in the Cup-Winners Cup, in 1968-69. They made it to the semi-finals, losing out narrowly to Slovan Bratislava. He'd heard stirring tales of wins over Everton, and Atletico Bilbao. And most astonishingly of all, the 6-2 thumping of Valencia after having lost the away leg 4-0. All this was enough to have a giddy Fife schoolboy choosing Bert Paton over his books, although Leishman, despite the distractions, managed to emerge with six O Levels and two Highers, as well as a prefect's badge.

He had watched his first match at East End Park at the age of 12, with Partick Thistle the visitors. Two years later he had signed an S-form contract with the club, one of only four offered. Within another three years he had made his debut, against Ayr United. "It was great," he remembers. "You just felt so privileged. My God, you thought, I am on the road..."

But the fall was almost as swift. Such is the ardour present in Leishman's tone that everything he does is liable to be invested with an element of melodrama, not just his pantomime turns in village halls throughout Fife and beyond. But just as his journey from skiving schoolboy to football prodigy was plied with an undeniable romance, the subsequent misfortune which befell him cannot simply be dismissed as a set-back. It was devastating. No amount of Widow Twankie roles can make one immune to the brutal intrusions of real life.

Already this season he has had cause to stop short questions on the significance of a league loss to Dundee United, gently informing reporters that they were wasting their time if they wished for some quotable anguish over a football result. He had recently experienced a spate of family deaths and, with Christmas looming, he was not about to over-emote about a defeat on a cold December's night in Dundee.

But the leg-break which severely hampered his career deserves to be treated with solemnity. It destroyed his ambitions, and deposited him on another path entirely. The sweet youthful dreams of the Cuddy Road and those secret, extra hours had been swapped for a harsher testing ground of human experience. This was a road that led to nowhere. Or, more accurately, Cowdenbeath.

Unlike those half-remembered lines of poetry that occasionally flash through his head, he remembers the incident vividly. August 21, 1974. Ten to nine at night. A League Cup tie. Hearts were the opponents, and Jim Jefferies the chief combatant. "He just kind of lumbered into me," remembers Leishman. "It was a compound fracture, and I couldn't come back. I joke with Jim about it now, although sometimes it gives me bother. I've got one leg shorter than the other, like."

It is why a more bareheaded and burly Leishman walks the deck of his Fife kingdom with a detectable limp in his stride. It is why his career at Dunfermline was cut short, after just 91 appearances. Midway through the 1976-77 season he moved on to Cowdenbeath, in a swap deal arranged by manager Harry Melrose, and which took striker Bobby Morrison to East End Park. "He was honest enough to say, it's time to move," says Leishman, referring to Melrose. "I was only 20 when I got the broken leg, and towards the end of the rehab I started to think, 'Jim, you're not going to achieve what you set out to achieve, you're not going to be as good as you could have been'. I'd lost a yard of pace, which made a difference. It was such a big disappointment."

As ever, the despair was made deeper still by the progress made by his contemporaries. "I saw boys I had played with, I saw them on the road. I saw them make it. Des Bremner, Alan Evans, Ken McNaught. They all went on in their careers, and all three ended up at Aston Villa."

Evans and McNaught were fellow Fifers, with the former a team-mate of Leishman's at Dunfermline and the latter a colleague in the Scottish Under-18 side. So too was Bremner, who hailed from the north-east and began his senior career at Hibs after a spell with Highland League side Deveronvale.

The trio would see their careers reach an epiphany on the same May night in Rotterdam, when Villa so surprisingly defeated Bayern Munich to win the European Cup in 1982. That Leishman went on to lift the Fife Cup with Cowdenbeath against Burntisland Shipyard is a joke he often tells against himself, but one that might even be true. Whatever happened, his Central Park career was short. He then played for Oakley United for a couple of seasons before ending up at Kelty Hearts, still only in his late twenties.

"I was interesting Birmingham City, Leeds and Newcastle at the time of the broken leg," he points out. "But, you know, if I'd gone down there I might not have been going to Hampden this Sunday."

He's right, of course. And he might not be living in a converted piggery deep in the brown Kelty countryside he clearly adores, where every tick of the village clock has anticipated the moment that arrives tomorrow: Leishman's aces led out at Hampden by the loveable old cove himself. It's a story that deserves an acknowledgement beyond the obvious froth. This is no fairy-tale. He's earned it; every step of the way.

Celtic's new recruits can prove they have winning touch

NO AMOUNT of belittling of the status of a cup is sufficient to dilute the joy of those who lift it at the end of a triumphant final. For first-time winners, the exhilaration can sustain them through an entire career.

If Scottish football's first major of the season, the CIS Insurance Cup, has in recent years actually come to be widely regarded as something of a minor, that will do nothing to diminish the commitment of the Celtic and Dunfermline players who contest tomorrow's final at Hampden Park.

The much-decorated Neil Lennon, for example, retains a deep affection for the trophy, since it was the first he won after joining Martin O'Neill at Parkhead in December 2000. In the event of success on their latest visit to the national stadium, several of Lennon's current teammates will share the sensation.

It is probably an exaggeration to claim that a tournament that no longer even affords entry to Europe will have Roy Keane thrilled to the core. But for Artur Boruc, Paul Telfer, Mark Wilson, Stephen McManus, Shunsuke Nakamura, Maciej Zurawski and Shaun Maloney, victory would be a genuine excitement and, probably, the kind of stimulus that could propel them to future successes.

Dunfermline's players would be rendered exultant by winning the cup, largely on the grounds that they would not be expected to enjoy anything like the opportunities to repeat the achievement that are likely to come the way of their opponents.

The number of players in Gordon Strachan's probable line-up seeking a first Scottish medal, in fact, provide a startling reminder of the extent to which the Celtic team has changed since they last appeared in a final, that of the Tennent's Scottish Cup last May.

Of those who beat Dundee United 1-0 that day, only three - Lennon, Stilian Petrov and Bobo Balde - have a chance of facing Dunfermline. John Hartson, is suspended for the final and of the others - Robert Douglas, Jackie McNamara, Didier Agathe, Stan Varga, Alan Thompson, Chris Sutton and Craig Bellamy - only the out-of favour Varga and Thompson remain at the club.

For the manager, too, of course, the occasion holds deep significance, his first opportunity to prove to a demanding support that he has the capability for delivering what they want. Even the near-certainty of landing the league championship in his first season would not, in the event of failure tomorrow, prevent a rumbling discontent among the substantial number who still pine for O'Neill.

Strachan recognises the importance of this final in relation to the lift it would give his players and, although he would never say so in public, it is not difficult to surmise that he is aware of the benefits that would accrue to himself. Indeed, when pressed on the latter subject, he quickly deflected the issue.

"Since I've been a manager, I've never been into the personal glory thing," he said. "My satisfaction comes from watching others, the players, enjoying themselves and taking great pleasure from doing a good job. The match against Hibs at Easter Road last weekend was a good example.

"They took great joy from winning what we knew would be a very tough game. They deserved that enjoyment, because they worked so hard for it. We knew it would be a hard season, too, and they've deserved the satisfaction they've taken from getting to where they are now, and it is their joy that gives me pleasure.

"The importance of this cup final against Dunfermline is what it can do for the players as a group, especially the new guys who haven't done it before. Remember, we have still to find out if this group can win trophies and this is the first chance we will have had.

"I've been a manager for ten years, but I'm still learning how to be a manager, how to handle it and finding out about all the things that go with the job. For instance, at the start of this season I didn't think for a minute that Shaun Maloney and Stephen McManus could possibly be the influences they have become. They've turned out to be among our best players throughout the season.

"If I had had a barrowload of money, those two might not be anywhere near as influential as they have become. But, in the circumstances that prevailed, they have done exceptionally well."

If Strachan's players have found it tough to establish a 15-point lead in the league championship, the appearance of Jim Leishman's in the final is the more remarkable for the pressure under which they have had to labour. A relentless struggle against relegation rarely involves the kind of joy that has come to Celtic.

The irresistibly likeable Leishman has tried to ditch his image as a folk poet, perhaps realising it was harming his reputation as a manager who should be taken seriously. "For three or four years I told gags and wrote poetry and I think that's why a lot of people saw me as a figure of fun," he said. "If I win the cup, I'll no longer be a figure of fun."

Leishman, unlike Strachan, has serious personnel problems, with Darren Young already out because of injury and his brother, Derek, and Craig Wilson extremely doubtful starters. The problems tend merely to firm up the impression that Strachan and his players will be the ones picking up the scarves during the lap of honour.

GLENN GIBBONS