Interview: Jim Leighton, former Aberdeen and Hibs goalkeeper

Jim Leighton after the Scottish Cup victory over Rangers (1982/83)
Jim Leighton after the Scottish Cup victory over Rangers (1982/83)
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Stretchered off in a cup final and axed from the club he loved, there is no keeping a good man down

They could renovate Hampden Park a hundred times and they would still be finding bits of Jim Leighton in the turf. He knew how to put his body on the line for both club and country.

Jim Leighton: Gave his all for both club and country

Jim Leighton: Gave his all for both club and country

Most memorably, he was transported from the field by stretcher rather than on the shoulders of team-mates just 90 seconds into his last ever game of competitive football. “It was broken here and it was fractured there,” he says, pointing to various places on his face that became acquainted with Rod Wallace’s knee that afternoon, as the millenium Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Aberdeen was quickly reduced to farce.

It was a piece of wood Leighton had needed to touch after telling reporters during the pre-match press conference – held in the room at Pittodrie where we are facing each other now – that he intended to be the last man off the pitch that afternoon. “I was planning to soak up as much as I could,” he says.

If you want to give God a laugh, tell Him your plans. Instead, they were mopping up Leighton’s blood in the penalty area. Rather than saluting Aberdeen’s Red Army, he was wheeled out of Hampden with a towel over his head in an effort to remain incognito.

“I was told afterwards that the photographers were waiting because they knew where the ambulance would be,” he says. This was just another episode to file in his crammed drawer of grievances with the media. But it was nobody’s fault that he had come to grief while contesting a 50-50 ball. There is, though, some frustration. On Ebbe Skovdahl’s tombstone, it will read: Why didn’t I name a substitute goalkeeper on the bench? In those days, just three substitutes were allowed, with no obligation to include a goalkeeper.

Jim Leighton after signing for Hibs in July 1993

Jim Leighton after signing for Hibs in July 1993

Leighton told Skovdahl he thought he “might be making a mistake”. Nevertheless, the man once memorably described as “the gloomiest Dane since Hamlet” elected to become a hostage to fortune and named three outfield players, one of whom was the unpromisingly diminutive striker-turned-goalkeeper Robbie Winters.

The resultant 4-0 defeat felt like a minor triumph in the end, not that Leighton was keeping score. The 41- year-old’s career had already been counted out.

By ending up at the Victoria Infirmary, he had gone out the way he came in at Hampden Park. The first time he played at the stadium, he broke the wrist of his writing hand while playing for Eastercraig against Queen’s Park in the Scottish Amateur League. It was the night before his English O Level exam.

His last visit as a player left him with some mementoes at least. “I have metal plates inserted that will always stay in,” he says. “There is no point going through an operation to have them taken out.” The one consolation is that he had already long since sacrificed his looks for the cause. “Jimmy Nicholl used to say to me: ‘never trust a good-looking goalkeeper. See you Leighton, I would trust you with my life’.”, he smiles.

Perhaps only Zinedine Zidane’s career finale can rival the shocking manner of Leighton’s exit from football. He could not even play in his own testimonial at the start of the following season. Leighton, though, has become used to disappointment. That is mild compared to what else he has had to withstand. What’s missing out on a testimonial, even your own, when compared with the FA Cup final?

The most wounding blows have been mental ones, of course. The most recent setback left him staring at the wall – or, more worryingly, at re-runs of a sitcom set in a small-town café in Nazi-occupied France. “I didn’t see it coming, it was the last thing I expected,” he says of Mark McGhee’s decision to sack his former team-mate as goalkeeper coach on his ill-starred return to Aberdeen as manager, in July 2010.

An earlier reference during our conversation to a spell on loan at Reading, under “McGhee”, has already signalled an unresolved problem in the relationship between two heroes of Gothenburg. Leighton never walked back into the main office area at Pittodrie, never popped his head around the door of The Jim Leighton Lounge. He came and went by the media gate when fulfilling punditry duties for BBC Radio Scotland. Just a few days after his broken jaw at Hampden, he was holiday-bound on a plane to Florida, the beneficiary of modern surgery techniques. The hurt he felt at being dumped by Aberdeen was longer-lasting, and more damaging in its own subtle, crippling way.

“He [McGhee] made the decision that he wanted someone else in,” says Leighton. “If that’s a football decision, you have to accept it.

“Even to the day I came back here [he was re-appointed by Craig Brown, McGhee’s successor] it’s something I never, ever got over. I was away for 16 months and it was the longest 16 months of my life. It was a tough part of my life. My wife wanted me to go and see the doctor. She felt I was getting depressed. She was right but I would not admit it at the time.

“I left school at 16 and worked in the civil service for two years before coming into football,” he continues. “I have always worked. It was the first period in my life when I didn’t work. So I found it very difficult. I had the dogs walked and had my breakfast by 9am, because I am always up early. Then I would wonder: what am I going to do now?”

What he did, against his better judgement, was tune in to day-time television, that last refuge of the malcontented soul. “My wife knew it was bad when one day she was off work and I told her: ‘Oh look, there’s a double bill of ’Allo ’Allo coming on UK Gold’,” he recalls. “That’s when I knew I had hit rock bottom.”

Not for the first time, he resolved to pick himself back up off the floor. “I went to here,” he says, pointing to the name of the sponsor on the front of his Aberdeen training top – Team Recruitment. “I asked them: ‘Can you get me a job?’ The woman said: ‘Well, give me your CV’. I had to tell her that it is only a football CV.”

And yet, what a CV, what a story. From Gothenburg glory with Aberdeen to becoming down and out in Manchester and Dundee. Then later came career redemption with both Scotland and Hibernian, whom Aberdeen meet in the William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final this afternoon. Along the way, he has made significantly more friends than enemies.

Considering he played football until 2000, it is remarkable to consider that the last time Leighton won a major honour was 14 years earlier, when Aberdeen defeated a beleaguered Hearts team in the final of the Scottish Cup. He doesn’t count a First Division title won with Dundee, perhaps because he only featured in the last dozen league matches.

And he most certainly doesn’t take any glory from Alex Ferguson’s maiden success with Manchester United, having been cast as the fall-guy after the 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final of 1990.

On the night of the replay, he looked on numbly from the stand, barely believing the chance to go down in history had been snatched from him.

“It’s different now. They are expected to win the league,” says Leighton. “Back then it was 20 years since they last won it. Everyone wanted to be the first striker to win the title for Man United, the first centre-half, the first full-back. I wanted to be the first goalie. Unfortunately it never happened.”

Peter Schmeichel would earn that status three years later, while Les Sealey, who was a dear friend until his death in 2001, replaced Leighton for the second match at Wembley, later offering the Scot his winner’s medal. “I said to him: ‘see if it was round the other way, you wouldn’t accept it, would you?’ He said ‘no’. I said: ‘well, I am not interested’.”

He actually qualified for a medal in any case, having played in the first match. However, he instructed the Old Trafford club to send it back to the Football Association. Leighton later returned the gesture of deep friendship from Sealey by helping carry his coffin following his death, at the age of just 43, from a heart attack. “That hit me hard, that one,” he says now.

Ferguson only trusted Leighton to play one more match, in the League Cup against Halifax Town, then placed 92nd in the English league and where his opposite number was a young Jonathan Gould. Fast forward nearly two years, and he is feigning delight at winning a First Division title with Dundee, where it all soon went wrong for him again. At Edinburgh airport, en route to Dundee, his agent delivered the news that Werder Bremen, whose goalkeeper had been injured the previous night, wanted to sign him. “I ended up keeping my word to Dundee,” he says, noting that Werder Bremen had gone on to lift the European Cup-Winners’ Cup months later. “All I got was broken promise after broken promise at Dundee. They told me that every player who came in after me would be an internationalist. Instead, they arrived from places like Montrose and Meadowbank.

“Everything went seriously south for a while,” he adds, describing life post-1990, when he also received criticism for failing to hold a shot which led to Brazil’s winner against Scotland, on a greasy surface in Turin during Italia ’90. In actual fact, a temporary move south actually provided some respite. It’s often forgotten now, but Leighton spent several months on loan with Arsenal at the end of the 1990-91 campaign. “It was the best club I have ever been at,” he reflects. “The team spirit amongst the players, I have never known anything else like it. At the end of the season, George Graham came to me and said: ‘We are going to Singapore for a week. As a thank-you for what you have done we’d like to take you away for a week’s holiday’. I said: ‘done you a favour? You have taken me away from United, where I could not get a game for the Under-11s’.

“There was no chance of me staying there, however,” explains Leighton. “I wanted to play and I wasn’t going to oust David Seaman. I would have been in the same situation as at Manchester United. At that time, though, it was the perfect tonic. They won the league that year, and I was invited to go to every celebration. I never kicked a ball, never put on a strip, and never even did a warm-up. Yet they treated me like I had played in every game.”

The contrast is obvious with United and, later, with Dundee, where a nadir was finally reached: “It’s one thing being dropped by Manchester United, but, without being disrespectful to the club, or to Paul [Mathers, the goalkeeper who took his place and who remains one of Leighton’s closest friends], it is a different thing to be dropped by Dundee,” he says, reasonably.

Iain Munro signed both him and Simon Stainrod in a 48-hour spree, and they were unveiled at the same press conference in a move designed to show the extent of Dundee’s ambitions.

“Two big names, one ego,” notes Leighton, dryly. “It is common knowledge that Simon and myself didn’t get on from day one.” Munro was sacked barely a fortnight later. Only Alex Ferguson’s appointment as replacement could have dismayed Leighton more than news of Stainrod’s promotion.

The goalkeeper feared he had become associated with failure, a crazy state of affairs when you consider that, between 1982 and 1986, he won every Scottish honour, and a European one for good measure. When Hibs came in for him “there were no other options”, so there was no choice to make.

Almost immediately, he knew it was the right move for him. Leighton rose again at Easter Road. “Those four years that I played at Hibs, they were the best I ever played in my life,” he says. “I never played to that standard before and I never played to that standard afterwards. I love the club.” Joining Hibs at 35, Leighton appeared to prove the theory that a goalkeeper’s prime years are in his late thirties. He collected over 20 of his 91 caps during his time at the Edinburgh club, whom he also helped get to the final of the League Cup in 1993. “A lot of people thought I would not be able to recover from the knocks that had happened to me,” he says. “Thankfully Alex [Miller] gave me the platform to come back and do it again.”

Leighton rates Miller as the second-best manager he has played under. Even though they might have had their troubles, you do not need to ask who comes in at No 1. But it’s clear Leighton is just as grateful to Miller for saving his career as he is to Ferguson for having helped launch it. “A lot of the Hibs fans have a lot to thank Alex for,” he says. “I don’t know whether it was the Rangers connection, but they never quite took to him. They always used to say he was a negative manager, but when I went there he signed Keith Wright, Darren Jackson, Pat McGinlay, Kevin McAllister, Michael O’Neill. Not one of them could tackle a fish supper. And yet everyone says Alex was negative.”

Leighton himself is often perceived as slightly defensive. It is perhaps understandable if goalkeepers prove un-cooperative. It is their natural reaction, after all. Their job is to block, frustrate. Leighton, the stories go, is a thrawn character, not known for giving too much away.

He doesn’t dispute that he is a reluctant conscript when it comes to media appearances. His reaction to his man-of-the-match appearance against Sweden in November 1996, on his return to international football after being left out of all three Euro 96 matches? “I waited until Tuesday, then I changed my home phone number,” he shrugs.

Since Leighton rarely grants interviews, it seemed unlikely there would ever be a chance to revise this perceived view of him as a difficult customer. In person, though, he proves engaging company, entertaining too. Back when they were still talking, he recalls Ferguson telling him about the time Dave Smith, on the first day of another false dawn at Dundee, had phoned the Manchester United manager to ask him, in all seriousness, to name his price for Bryan Robson.

The laughing between Leighton and his former manager has had to stop, however. The brutal cup final demotion was compounded by comments Ferguson made in his autobiography, and now the pair have ended communication to the extent that they avoided each other four years ago at the match held to mark the 25th anniversary of the Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph over Real Madrid. “I get a lot of criticism for it,” he says. “But it is on both sides.

“If people want to give me stick for it, then I couldn’t give a toss. He is not interested in speaking to me, I am not interested in speaking to him.” It’s clear, however, that the goalkeeper shares an unbreakable bond with others he has met along the way, including Jim Stewart, who was in the opposite goal when Leighton made his debut for Aberdeen against Middlesbrough, and Maurice Malpas, whom he might have joined at Dundee United had Jim McLean not pulled out of a deal to save the ’keeper from his Old Trafford torment.

These are the people Leighton would trust with his life, just as it’s possible to imagine that they would happily put their life in his hands. Following almost two hours of conversation with one of Scotland’s greatest ever goalkeepers, it is easy to understand why.