Leeds United: Lucas Radebe interview

YEP football writer Phil Hay caught up with Leeds United legend Lucas Radebe.

The scars on Lucas Radebe's body are a road map of his life as a footballer. He can account for every one of them, give or take and never tires of showing them off.

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"I've got scars everywhere," he says. "They're like my war wounds, picked up in battle. I say to people 'this scar on my face was from a clash of heads with Les Ferdinand; this one on my leg was done by Roy Keane or whoever'.

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"Most of the marks on my knees are from operation, and you'd wince if you saw them. But they mean a lot to me. When I look at them, I know that I've lived."

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Living is Radebe's raison d'etre and life experience his personal obsession. It was why, in his early 20s, his first journey outside his native South Africa took him to an English county he had never heard of, with weather he could not abide. Homesick and isolated, his first year in Yorkshire was to be the first of 11.

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"Winter in South Africa is warmer than summer in England," he jokes. "But it's my only complaint."

Yorkshire today is Radebe's second home and Leeds United his second family. The strength of those associations makes him grateful for the adventurous streak he seemed to inherit at birth.

Radebe's life has been charted for the first time in an authorised biography published this week.

Lucas: From the Streets of Soweto to Soccer Superstar is precisely

that: the story of how a black South African boy who carried a knife and stole cars – a typical youngster in his world – became a national icon and a treasure of Leeds.

It is as well that the book was not self-written; Radebe is too modest to describe himself as either.

When he phoned from South Africa to discuss the biography, I asked him how it was that he made his transfer to Leeds United work.

He was, in effect, the by-product of a scouting trip in 1994 which concentrated on compatriots Phil Masinga.

Geoff Sleight, the scout concerned, travelled to South Africa to analyse Masinga but flew back with news of a player named Radebe.

The reports were such that United's manager, Howard Wilkinson, paid 250,000 for the defender without seeing him play. A deal for Masinga was also concluded.

The players, as fellow South Africans, shared a close and valuable friendship but both felt isolated in Leeds.

Radebe's biography tells the story of the pair hoarding 50 pence pieces to make sure they could always contact their families from the payphone at their lodgings.

His mother recalls "heartbreaking calls where Lucas would be crying and saying he wanted to come home" and "just wanted to hear our voices".

"I'd never been out of South Africa before," Radebe says. "Not even on holiday. I'd never heard of Yorkshire and I didn't know what was waiting for me.

"I felt homesick at first and not too sure about how I'd cope. It's an adventure, yes, but you still have days when you think 'what am I doing here'?

"I'm so in love with Leeds now that I often forget what a strange experience it was for me as a young South African man to arrive there overnight.

"But the experience was what I wanted. It was a chance to be a professional footballer, to make life better for me and my family and to do something that wouldn't be offered to me again.

"If I seriously dreamed of playing at the highest level, my moment had come. It was a case of do it now or don't do it ever.

"As a person I wanted to grow and as a footballer I wanted to be the best. When someone asks whether you want to play in one of the biggest leagues in the world you'd be crazy to walk away. It's an experience and I love experiences.

"Even when injury made me retire (in 2005) I told myself 'don't be greedy now'. Yes, I was sad but I'd had all the chances I could ever want with a club which I felt part of.

"In the past, I've seen footballers as good as me in South Africa who were hurt or killed before they were able to do anything with their talent. I was never knocked down in the street, never stabbed. I had my time."

Never knocked down and never stabbed; merely shot in the back. The miracle of Radebe's stellar career with Leeds United was that he came to the city alive.

He was driving through Johannesburg in 1991 when a bullet struck the base of his back and lodged in his thigh, crucially missing his organs. The shooting appeared to be random and was never properly investigated.

It was hardly an uncommon crime in the South African townships.

"I thought I was finished," Radebe says. "Definitely as a footballer, possibly full stop. It could have been fatal.

"I got lucky and it was one of a few occasions that taught me to appreciate life – to enjoy the time you have, to treat the chances you are given seriously and to realise that every day could be your last.

"I had weeks of pain at Leeds after injuries and operations but it was always worth it.

"If you fought the pain and accepted the surgery, it meant that your career was still alive. When you give that up, it never comes back. And trust me, you can't have too many years with a club like Leeds."

Three facts about Radebe are notable in the biography: his irrepressible patriotism as a South African; the staggering number of injuries he dealt with at Elland Road, where medical staff nicknamed him The Warrior; and, not least, the class of footballer he represented while at the height of his talent.

The chronology of Radebe's career speaks of an exceptional defender with few peers. Coach after coach refer to him in reverent terms as Leeds progress towards the peak of 2001, the year of their Champions League semi-final appearance.

"Everyone should be interested in Lucas," said Alex Ferguson at a time when transfer speculation raged. Fabio Capello's Roma most certainly were.

The "bumper pay deal" of 20,000-a-week that Leeds later tied him to is laughably cheap by today's standards.

But money never troubled Radebe greatly. Celebrity for him was more of an opportunity than a luxury, a means of assisting the many charities and community projects he agreed to support.

On a recent visit to Soweto, he was asked why he had come without bodyguards.

Radebe was surprised by the question. "I lived on those streets when I was young and it's my home," he says. "You don't want bodyguards in your home.

"I feel safe with my own people and in my own community. If I went there with bodyguards, what would they say? 'This Lucas Radebe, who does he think he is'?

"I did the same things as them when I was young – walked the same streets, ate the same food. Those are my roots."

Roots or not, Radebe is permanently enchanted by the thought of moving

back to Yorkshire.

His relationship with Leeds and Leeds United in particular, was a source of great comfort during a devastating period in which he dealt with the death of his wife, Feziwe, and his father, Johannes.

The bereavements threatened Radebe's health and he was treated for a heart complaint shortly before Christmas 2008. Twice he was declared too unwell to travel to functions arranged in his honour by Leeds.

What touched him was the volume of messages of condolence and support sent from friends and admirers in the city.

"I think that's why I'm still standing up today," he says. "They kept me going. When you lose your wife, your partner, it's like losing a limb."

The mental scars are like the physical ones – memories for Radebe of all that he has been through in 41 short years.

"I never use the word lightly," said Terry Venables, United's former manager, "but the Chief is a champion both as a sportsman and as a person."

One of the few nails at Elland Road which Venables hit on the head.

Lucas: From the Streets of Soweto to Soccer Superstar by Richard Coomber is published by Great Northern Books and will go on sale on September 25,

Yorkshire Evening Post readers can order a copy of the book at the special reader price of 14.99 plus postage 2.75 (saving 2 on the RRP of 16.99).

Ring our order line 01748 821122 Mon-Sat 9am to 5pm. Or to order by post, send a cheque or postal order, payable to Yorkshire Books Ltd, to Yorkshire Books Ltd, 1 Castle Hill, Richmond, DL10 4QP. You can also call in at our reception at Wellington Street, Leeds, LS1 1RF.