Football: Leighton's second coming

Phil Gordon talks to the Scottish keeper with a strong sense of history
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The Independent Online
Jim Leighton will be reunited with the past in Gothenburg on Wednesday night but there will be little time for dwelling on his finest hour if he is properly to help seal Scotland's future.

Not that the rejuvenated goalkeeper is likely to allow memories of holding aloft the European Cup-Winners' Cup with Aberdeen 14 years ago cloud his mind when he returns to the Ullevi Stadium. Denying Sweden's strikers is the only thing on his agenda and he has already proved pretty good at that.

Leighton's one-man show against the Scots' Group Four rivals at Ibrox last November had Sweden's manager, Tommy Svensson, shaking his head in bewilderment at a man who had been written off as a relic. The 38-year- old proved instead that he was still vibrant with a series of stunning saves which helped his country to a precious 1-0 win.

Most recently, Leighton followed that up with another shutout in the victory over Austria. It was the 14th in 15 games for Craig Brown's team - only England have breached the best defensive record in Europe. Leighton has played a crucial role.

In England, Leighton is remembered for a tortured time at Manchester United. But the bookends of his career, on either side of his Old Trafford nightmare tell a different story. He wins his 78th cap on Wednesday, making him the second most-capped Scot of all time behind Kenny Dalglish. The first came in 1983, the same season when he was part of Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen team which defeated Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on their way to European glory.

Two World Cups later, at Italia 90 he was made the scapegoat for a Brazilian goal which sent Scotland out of the tournament; coming just weeks after Ferguson had dropped him in favour of Les Sealey for Manchester United's FA Cup final with Crystal Palace. Leighton's life was shattered.

However, he not only rebuilt his career at Hibs but earned a recall to the national team in 1995 and has proved ever since that goalkeepers get better with age.

"I hate talking of shutout records because it is the kiss of death," Leighton said. "Anyway the defenders in front of me deserve every bit of credit, too."

The 3-5-2 system which Brown modelled on Germany is, according to Leighton, something that Scotland's players feel comfortable with.

"Very few players use it at club level," Leighton said. "It's mostly 4-4-2 in Scotland. The main thing that's helped is continuity. We've really used the same three defenders - Colin Calderwood, Tom Boyd and Colin Hendry - all the way down the line, that it has become like a club side.

"We also have a system and everyone in the squad knows it. Our philosophy is that if the forwards close the opposition down, that helps the midfield's job and in turn the defence's. That's what this team is about - there are no ego trips."

That was probably never truer than the game with Holland at Euro 96. Leighton, though, got no closer to the action than a seat on the bench as Brown chose Andy Goram ahead of him.

Leighton was so distraught at another snub that he vowed never to play for Scotland again. "My wife talked me back into it and I'm glad she did. Andy's injuries have let me back in and I would never have had the chance to enjoy this night if I had not listened to her.

"Gothenburg will always be top of my list of memories and it's more special that it's the place I'm taking over from Alex McLeish as the second most-capped Scot, since he was my Aberdeen team-mate on that night in 1983. Hopefully the memory from this trip will be just as precious."

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