Football: Better Leighton than never

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Phil Gordon

looks at the Scottish goalkeeper whose faith has been rewarded

JIM LEIGHTON knows only too well the claustrophobic pressure that notoriety can bring. When Andy Goram eventually comes out of hiding, he would be well advised to contact his goalkeeping colleague to seek advice on how to deal with it.

Not that Leighton knows too much about the lifestyle that saw his friend - dubbed "Gazza with Gloves" by one paper - throw in the towel just 14 days before the World Cup claiming he was being hounded by tabloids about his private life. Goram and Leighton may share a job title, but there the similarity ends. Goram is a bawdy barfly while bespectacled Leighton looks like the economics student that he is in his spare time.

Yet, just eight years ago Leighton's life was in tatters, and his face plastered over the newspapers to such an extent that he felt a prisoner in his own home. That he managed to come through it all and return to the top of his trade where now, just seven weeks short of his 40th birthday, he is preparing to take on Brazil and the rest of the world, should be a salutatory and hopefully inspiration thought to Goram.

Leighton's crime was not one of passion, merely the football kind. In 1990, Alex Ferguson, the man who had brought Leighton with him from Aberdeen to Manchester United, publicly hung his goalkeeper out to dry after a mistake which allowed Crystal Palace to earn a 3-3 draw and almost cost his club the FA Cup. Leighton was not needed for the replay, as Fergie drafted in Les Sealey. "I was shattered," Leighton said, "and I didn't want to face anyone for days."

But if Leighton thought the torture was over, he was wrong. Four weeks later, on a rainy night in Turin, Scotland were within nine minutes of reaching the second stage of the World Cup finals when he allowed a shot from Romario to spin off his chest and watched it slide away to Muller who stole victory for Brazil.

Leighton was out in the international cold for almost four years after that, while clubs treated him as if he had cholera. It took Leighton two years simply to escape Old Trafford's reserves, moving to Dundee and Hibernian while Goram settled into the No 1 shirt for Scotland. But despite Goram's fine showings at the finals of Euro 92 and Euro 96, the Rangers goalkeeper's injury problems and other "unforeseen" absences always kept the door ajar for Leighton.

Now, he has amassed 85 caps, a Scottish total bettered only by Kenny Dalglish, and stands on the brink of a rematch on 10 June with Brazil. He will be the oldest player at France 98, but his form in contributing to a defence which conceded only three goals in the qualifying campaign keeps any age concern at bay. After all, Dino Zoff won the trophy for Italy in 1982 when he was 42.

Leighton appreciates the comparison. "This will be my swansong as far as the World Cup is concerned but if it is anything to do with me, I will not be finished with international football. I like to give myself targets and then go beyond them. Anyway, I'm only a youngster compared to Zoff," he said.

Goram's decision to walk out on his international career this week took the vital decision on whether to play Leighton or Goram at the Stade de France in 10 days' time out of Brown's hands. Two years ago, the Scotland coach solved his dilemma by choosing Goram. Leighton missed the chance to make a Wembley return against England and was crushed. Only the coaxing of his family in the weeks that followed stopped him quitting international football just as Goram has now done.

"It was going to be horrible this time," said Leighton, "whoever was left out. I have experienced it and I would not wish the feeling on my worst enemy, which Andy isn't."

There is no doubt that Leighton will pull the No 1 jersey on against Ronaldo and Co. Neil Sullivan is too short on international experience, while Jonathan Gould is simply delighted to be in the squad. The Celtic goalkeeper drew a wry retort when he told his father, Bobby, of his call- up. "You lucky man," laughed the Wales manager. But Gould's amazing propulsion into the world's greatest show could not be further away from the Bradford City reserve side that he inhabited until Celtic paid pounds 20,000 to help them solve an injury crisis 10 months ago.

Leighton appreciates such humble surroundings. He has seen both ends of the scale, and is keen that Goram returns to the top too. "Hopefully, after Andy has had a holiday and found himself a new club, these things that have upset him will all be in the past and Andy will reconsider. Certainly, he would be welcomed back by all the lads."