Reassuring Radebe still the rock at a hard place

South African role model views Leeds' problems as a test of character. Nick Townsend talks to him
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Once a fabulous treasure island of expectancy, Elland Road has been so pounded by waves of damaging newspaper headlines, player unrest and financial turmoil over the past three years that it has threatened to be submerged by the boiling seas. Yet, as the tempest has raged, one man has remained, through it all, a rock. "The Chief", as he is affectionately known, is the antithesis of those who have cast the club in such a sorry light. While some have been damned as agitators, Lucas Radebe is an acknowledged ambassador.

A past winner of Fifa's Fair Play Award, last season he won the Premier League's Contribution to the Community Award, which recognised the player who had done most to make a difference to people's lives. Back in his homeland, Radebe was defeated only by Nelson Mandela in a poll which asked people to nominate the man they most aspired to emulate.

On the field, the player who retired from international football after receiving a record 70th cap in the game against England will continue to do battle for the Leeds cause this season, despite a long-standing series of knee injuries. At one stage last season the pain was so pronounced he couldn't climb his own stairs. "I said to my girlfriend that I may have to call it quits, because I didn't feel it was worth the suffering," he recalls. "It was a close decision. But I look at my scars and they are good scars, because I've got them doing what I like most."

An honest, intelligent character, the South African prefers to regard Leeds' present plight as an opportunity created rather than the continuation of a crisis. He possesses the authority to make that judgement. In his nine seasons at Elland Road, Radebe has watched them all arrive: two chairmen, four managers (George Graham, David O'Leary, Terry Venables and Peter Reid) following Howard Wilkinson, who signed him in 1994, and an assortment of players. And he has watched too many depart to a cacophony of acrimonious debate.

"I've gone the full circle here at Leeds," he says. "And I regard this as a test of character. This [Leeds' problems] has all been a blessing in disguise, maybe; now we can start again and build up. We've got a lot of good young players going through the academy, although it will take time for them to get experience, so it won't happen overnight. But hopefully we can qualify for Europe."

That may be an immediate ambition even Reid would not entertain, but it is the appropriate one; to regard events of recent years as a catalyst for progress. Time will heal with the changing of personnel; yet today's visit of Newcastle will inevitably rip away the bandages and expose certain wounds. It will be a painful reminder to the faithful of events that have conspired to reduce the club from Champions' League contenders to one now regarded - with glee in some quarters - as relegation fodder. It is the day on which Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer return, the two principal Leeds figures accused at "The Trial", with the former subsequently sold to reduce the club's debts and the latter moving on, after considerable prevarication about signing a new Leeds contract.

You suggest to Radebe that it was the trial that actually started the rot. "Yes, it did," he agrees. "That's what destabilised the club. It was difficult to get things going, mentally and physically. The problems [off the field] crept into what was happening on the field. Players felt vulnerable because of all the rumours. At some point it was going to give, and it undoubtedly affected team spirit. Fortunately, we showed character to avoid relegation."

Despite the trial judge directing otherwise, much has been spoken about the racist nature of the events that led to the arrest of Bowyer, who was acquitted, and Woodgate, found guilty of affray. As a man much involved with eliminating racism from football, was it not an invidious situation for Radebe, particularly where Bowyer was concerned? However, the former Kaiser Chiefs defender insists: "I got on with Bow very well. He used to live near me and I used to see him quite a lot. Lee is one of the nicest blokes I've ever met. We were good friends and we'd often play golf together."

One suspects the Elland Road regulars won't be so forgiving of Bowyer after the manner of his departure. "The way they left the club, well, Woody is all right. His situation was understandable with the club selling him, but I don't know what will happen with Bow. I think the crowd might be a bit harsh on him. But he is a big lad and he's got a good character and I don't think he'll let it get to him. I hope the crowd don't get on his back too much. He's decided what he wants to do and that's his future. Life goes on."

As it also does at Elland Road, where Reid, having witnessed his team beaten by the likes of Shelbourne and Hull City in pre-season friendlies, emphasised that reputations count for little under his stewardship. He has already omitted Danny Mills and Nicky Barmby from his squad to face Sir Bobby Robson's men. "I've asked them [all his players] to do certain things, and the attitude hasn't been right," he says, stressing that attributing poor performances to the financial position which had led tosignificant sales is "a cop-out".

Such criticism cannot apply to Radebe, who wants to go into coaching eventually. He displays no immediate desire to return to South Africa, where it has been suggested he could eventually enter the political stage. "I'm very settled here and people in Leeds are very nice to me. Anyway, there are a lot of candidates for political positions there. Maybe after a few years I'll return and put things back into the country. It depends what happens here." As with everything at Leeds, that remains very much open to question.