Recalling his duels with centre-forwards during his days as captain of Leeds United, Lucas Radebe needs few words to convey the challenge of containing the famously combative Duncan Ferguson. "Difficult – elbows, fists even," says the South African, flashing his trademark smile.
Battles with Big Dunc must have seemed kid's stuff to this one-time gang member who survived a shooting – "the bullet went into my back and out of my thigh and didn't touch any vital organs" – before becoming one of the first African footballers to make a mark on the Premier League.
Even the saga of boom and bust at Elland Road struggles to match his rags-to-riches tale. He grew up as one of 10 children in a four-room house in Soweto and as a teenager got caught up in the fight against apartheid with a gang called the Comrades. "We didn't want government cars in the township so we'd steal and burn them," he remembers. "We were always running. There was a lot of violence and corruption, lots of students died, others were in jail. I managed to live through that until my parents thought I might end up like one of my friends, so they shipped me out."
Sent to continue his schooling in the countryside, he focused on football. The rest is a history retold in Radebe's newly-published authorised biography and his return to Elland Road last week for a book signing drew a queue of fans the entire length of the East Stand.
The South African spent 11 years with Leeds yet his love affair with the club started inauspiciously. "It was so dark and miserable," reflects the 41-year-old, who arrived in 1994 alongside compatriot Phil Masinga.It sounds even longer ago as he recalls how two international footballers would call South Africa on a payphone. "The phone took 50p pieces and we'd open it up and pinch the coins and put them back in. I was homesick – training every day and not getting a game."
George Graham's installation in place of Howard Wilkinson brought a change of fortune. "With Howard I didn't get any joy. When George arrived he said, 'Everyone is going to have a chance. I want people who will work for me'. I never looked back. He worked with the defenders and gave me the confidence I needed. With the training we were doing, I became a good defender." This was significant, given Radebe was a goalkeeper until 18 and only began receiving "proper coaching" on joining Kaizer Chiefs at 20.
When Graham joined Tottenham, David O'Leary stepped up and, with chairman Peter Ridsdale spending lavishly, Leeds chased the dream. "We qualified for the Champions' League and were flying. There was so much confidence in the team and we trusted each other. It was a big family. There were no big-name players and we were all hungry for success." Radebe remembers how for older heads like David Batty, Nigel Martyn and himself, the hunger of O'Leary's "babies" – Paul Robinson, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate – "rubbed off on us".
Leeds were Champions' League semi-finalists in 2001 but the wheels came off after they failed to qualifyagain. There was also the "huge impact" of Woodgate and Lee Bowyer's trial for assaulting an Asian youth. Radebe, who was at the forefront of Leeds' anti-racism campaigning, reflects: "It was said to be racially motivated but I think it was young boys going out and what money does is make you think you arebetter than the next person."
On a similar note, Radebe suggests O'Leary let success go to his head. The manager's book, Leeds United On Trial, did not help. "The timing was wrong and he fell out with players – including me. We did not speak for a long time. The situation got worse, falling out with the players, buying unnecessarily."
As Leeds started selling the family silver, the dressing-room spirit disappeared. It hurt Radebe that other players did not seem to care when relegation followed in 2004. "We were told to defer our wages, players were being sold without the team knowing, there was no team spirit. You can fight as much as you can, but you can't do it on your own."
Bitter experience tells Radebe that football today "is all about money and there is no loyalty". Not in his case. His work for charities and anti-racism organisations earned him a PFA Special Merit award, to add to his FIFA Fair Play award. One of football's good guys, the father of four is now rebuilding his life in Johannesburg after losing his wife Feziwe to cancer in 2008 and his own diagnosis with a heart problem which requires a pacemaker.
He recalls: "Even if you see somebody bed-ridden and close to death, you don't imagine them dying, you think they will pull out. It was good I had a lot of family support, and people from Leeds sent messages. She passed away in October and then I had the heart problem. Doctors put it down to stress. I had an arrhythmia, I could have died.
"Now I live life to the fullest. Now my wife has passed and I was close to dying, I appreciate everything that I have, I appreciate my kids better. I've done the best I can and I am going to continue appreciating life."
Lucas: From Streets of Soweto to Soccer Superstar has been published by Great Northern BooksReuse content