Long before its lustre was tarnished by rampant commercialism, television demands and administrative tinkering, much of the FA Cup's appeal lay in its wonderful randomness. George Best and Gordon Banks, for example, never won the trophy, while a winner's medal eluded Stanley Matthews until the age of 38. Milija Aleksic's career as a Football League goalkeeper was condensed into just eight years and 138 games, yet in 1981 he emulated Matthews by helping Tottenham Hotspur defeat Manchester City in a thrilling replay of the 100th final.
The match will forever be remembered for Ricky Villa's slalom through City's defence before the Argentinian completed the scoring at 3-2 in Spurs' favour, but Aleksic, who owed his place to an injury to Barry Daines before the semi-final against Wolves, earned plaudits for his assured displays in both Wembley encounters. In the second game it took another of the great Cup final goals, a ferocious volley by Steve MacKenzie, and a Kevin Reeves penalty to beat him, only for Spurs to shrug off a 2-1 deficit and recapture the Cup in the Chinese Year of the Cockerel.
Aleksic, a mild-mannered character, took his medal back to his old school in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and to the nearby fire station, where old classmates worked. They, better than anyone, knew his night of glory was the culmination of an arduous journey that had begun more than a decade earlier when Sir Stanley Matthews, as he had become, recruited him to the youth set-up at Fourth Division Port Vale. However, Matthews had resigned as general manager by the time the 17-year-old Aleksic, with a handful of reserve outings behind him, was summoned by manager Gordon Lee in 1968 to face Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup. Vale's first-choice custodian was injured and the loan replacement had been recalled by his club.
The rookie survived his difficult baptism, Shrewsbury being despatched in a replay, though if Aleksic hoped the experience would lead to further first-team involvement with the Potteries club, he was mistaken. His father, a Serbian emigré who had married an English woman and ran a taxi business in the area, was keen for him to learn a motor mechanic's trade, prompting Lee to suspect that his focus may not have been entirely on football, and he released him in spring 1969. Aleksic, teased by less diligent colleagues for the habit of washing and ironing his bootlaces, turned out for local club Eastwood Hanley before a few dozen spectators in the West Midlands League, also showing the agility that earned the nickname "Elastic" with spectacular slip catches for Silverdale cricket club.
A three-match trial with Torquay United reserves, in the Western League, came to nothing before Stafford Rangers gave him the opportunity to play in the Northern Premier League. His displays during their FA Trophy success of 1971-72, when they beat Barnet 3-0 in a Wembley final, brought him to the attention of League clubs, and in March 1973 a £3,000 fee took him to Plymouth Argyle. His debut was an unusual affair, Aleksic coming on as substitute in an exhibition match against the Brazilian team Santos before 38,000 at Home Park. Almost his first touch for the Third Division side was to retrieve a Pele penalty from the net.
Despite a belated first League appearance in 1974, six years after his Cup bow, and Second Division combat after Argyle's promotion, Aleksic struggled to convince manager Tony Waiters, a former England keeper, of his right to be No 1. Loan spells at Ipswich Town and Oxford United ensued before a permanent transfer to Luton Town late in 1976. Now aged 25, he began to show a maturity to complement his athleticism, and within two years the Spurs manager, Keith Burkinshaw, paid £100,000 to take him to White Hart Lane, where Daines and Mark Kendall were competing somewhat unconvincingly for the mantle of Pat Jennings.
Aleksic would make only 32 senior appearances for the north London club, the first coming (in keeping with his affinity with the competition) in an FA Cup replay against Altrincham at Manchester City's ground. A year later, in January 1980, he was back in Manchester for another replay, against United at Old Trafford, when his reflex save to deny Sammy McIlroy was voted Save of the Season on the BBC. Later, a robust aerial challenge by United's centre-forward Joe Jordan led to his being carried off with fractures to the jaw and collarbone, but Spurs, with Glenn Hoddle going in goal, scored the only goal through Ossie Ardiles deep in extra time.
His on-off romance with the FA Cup had a happy ending the following season after Burkinshaw resisted the claims of a fit-again Daines in his testimonial year. That summer, Spurs paid Liverpool £300,000 for Ray Clemence, Peter Shilton's rival for the England jersey, after which Aleksic played only six more League matches (four on loan to Luton) and never appeared in the Cup again. His next and last club was Barnet, back at non-League level, and he later emigrated to South Africa, playing for Wits University before working selling golf equipment in Johannesburg.
Milija Antony Aleksic, footballer: born Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire 14 April 1951; played for Plymouth Argyle 1973-76, Luton Town 1976-79, Tottenham Hotspur 1979-82; died Johannesburg 17 October 2012.
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