Lukic relies on experience to answer the difficult questions

Phil Shaw talks to Leeds' veteran goalkeeper who has seen the best and worst of times at the club
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The Independent Online
There is a question which John Lukic is forever being asked. Is it true, people want to know, that he was in the Munich air crash as an unborn baby?

"You'd be amazed," Lukic said, shaking his head, "by the letters I get from solicitors and the like, wanting me to confirm it for their quizzes. There was a Lukic involved, a stewardess I think, but all they have to do to see that it's nonsense is look up my birthdate. If I had a pound for every time it's happened...''

The story has assumed the status of an urban myth. But tomorrow, if Leeds United overcome Aston Villa in the Coca-Cola Cup final at Wembley, Lukic really will become the answer to a legitimate quiz question. Who is the only player to earn both a championship and League Cup winner's medal with two different clubs?

The 6ft 4in Lukic was a towering presence in Arsenal's goal when Charlie Nicholas upset the odds and Liverpool in the 1987 final. Two years later he initiated Michael Thomas's title-clinching thrust at Anfield. He was also ever-present as Leeds finished first in '92, a success made all the sweeter when set against the sadness of his first spell at Elland Road.

Now 35 and the steady antithesis of the flamboyant keeper personified by Villa's Mark Bosnich, Lukic goes back a long way with Leeds. To shortly after the Don Revie era, in fact. As a schoolboy being courted by the club, he travelled from his Chesterfield home to watch them beat Barcelona on their way to the European Cup final of 1975.

By the time the England youth international displaced David Harvey four years later, Leeds were in transition, as Lukic politely put it. "The club was living in the past. Everyone thought we had too many good players to go down, but we were relegated in '82. It took years to get over it.''

As a developing talent in a declining team, Lukic was never likely to stay long in the old Second Division. "I played 25 games before it became clear it was best for both parties that I left," he recalled. "I went up with Karen, who's now my wife, to tell Eddie Gray (then manager) I'd decided to go. We were both tearful.''

Leeds lurched from crisis to crisis, beset by poor results, hooliganism and debt; Lukic set about establishing himself at Highbury. After understudying Pat Jennings he became the undisputed No 1, first under Don Howe and then, as Arsenal embarked on a silverware spree, George Graham.

It irks Lukic that the Graham team, particularly its awesome and still- thriving back four, did not receive the credit he feels they deserved. "People called us boring but I prefer to say we were disciplined. If attackers made stupid runs against us, that was their hard luck. But we never practised offsides - it was part of our overall professionalism.''

Graham, ever the ruthless perfectionist, decided to replace his keeper with David Seaman, who ironically had been allowed to leave Leeds when Lukic was ensconced there. "It wasn't a shock," Lukic said, "because on deadline day the previous March, he tried to get David and palm me off on loan to QPR.

"But I declined, and the office staff at Arsenal thanked me the next day. They'd had all this lovely food which was left over from the press conference about David.''

Howard Wilkinson brought him "home" for pounds 1m in 1990, a year after the mother of all championship finales at Liverpool. "My claim to fame is that my throw-out to Lee Dixon started the move for the stoppage-time goal. I was at the Kop end and wasn't sure how they'd react to me leaping about, so I decided to be constrained - then went mad afterwards.''

He left with fond memories as well as medals, not least of a "touching" protest by Arsenal fans against the move to replace him. Yet returning to Leeds was hardly a backward step. "The place had a totally different aura. In effect, I was going to a new club, with a new chairman, new manager and new money. The old one had been swept away.''

Lukic was not surprised when Leeds emerged on top in his second year back. But, the following season, "the wheels came off - no one could explain it". Many who sought to do so pinpointed Leeds' failure against Rangers in the European Cup as the key moment. Lukic, blamed for letting the Scottish champions into the tie, is philosophical about it now.

"I came out for a corner. The ball went off the top of my hand and ended up going behind me into the net. It was described as me punching into my own goal, which wasn't what happened. When I sat down and analysed that night, I came to the conclusion it was just one of those things. You can go through all the top keepers and pick out errors like that.''

Not that he is given to poring over performances. "I don't buy papers except the odd broadsheet for the news, and the only video I've got is in my head. I can tell you exactly what I've done in a game - the significant things - and why I did them.''

Lukic also took the rap when Leeds struggled before Christmas. But Mark Beeney could not stem the flow of goals, which suggested that the problems went deeper than any individual. Wilkinson recalled him last month, since when the impression, confirmed by a stunning save from Stan Collymore on Wednesday, has been one of a player at the peak of his powers.

Just as well, for consistency is not Leeds' strongest suit. "We've been very enigmatic in the League," Lukic conceded, "but steady in the cups. In the past, if we'd gone a goal down at Birmingham, like we did in the semi-final, that might have been it. This year we've dug in."

Form, or rather Leeds' lack of it, points to a Villa victory, although from Lukic's experience - which includes Arsenal's final upset by Luton - "there are no underdogs in a one-off match". Especially when the favourites are facing a forward, in Tony Yeboah, who might have been born to grace Wembley.

"Anywhere's a stage for Tony, but I'm sure he'll revel in the atmosphere. People talk about his spectacular shots, yet most of his goals are cold- blooded, with pace and whip on the ball. In practice games, I try to get on the same side."

Leeds should be thankful Lukic is in theirs tomorrow. His authority and maturity (he does not thank me for noting that he played alongside Frank Gray, whose son Andy is in the final squad) stand out in a team short on Wembley pedigree.

By coincidence, both he and Bosnich have family roots in the former Yugoslavia, and each talks knowledgeably about the conflict. Tomorrow, however, the questions will be posed by lunging boots and foreheads. Lukic is a private person to whom brash predictions are alien, but Leeds can be confident that he will be armed with the answers.

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