MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF '96: No 1 keeps up his spirits

Stephen Brenkley talks to Jim Leighton, Scotland's goalkeeper
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FOR Jim Leighton, the finals of the European Championships will confirm the glorious renaissance of a career long threatened by a drab existence.

"There have been so many times when I've reached a New Year's Day and I wasn't looking forward to anything in football," he said. "Not a single thing. This is almost a dream. I couldn't ever have expected it to happen. Believe me it's a great feeling."

Leighton, at 37, has re- established himself as Scotland's first-choice goalkeeper, having been selected for the last six of their European qualifying games. He should come to England in June as the man still in possession; he speaks with a combination of bitter experience and renewed vigour which suggests he will not easily be supplanted.

"I have never been fitter in my career," he said. "It's important that I'm training as well as ever. I just don't feel like winding down. I still work as hard as all the young keepers and I'm enjoying playing more than ever."

This is the attitude of one who had it all and then had it all taken away. There were cups and caps in abundance for Leighton at the start. He was a member of the formidable Aberdeen side of the early and mid- Eighties; he followed his manager Alex Ferguson to Manchester United; he played in three World Cup final tournaments. "Everything just came along like that," he said. "It wasn't that I didn't appreciate it; I didn't have time to. I just thought it was inevitable."

It began to go awry in his second season at Old Trafford. In the 1990 Cup final Manchester United drew 3-3 with Crystal Palace and blame was swiftly apportioned. Leighton was dropped for the replay. He was never to play for the first team again. Still the Scotland goalkeeper, he went to the World Cup finals and took his place in their final match against Brazil. This was followed by a season which consisted of seven matches in the Pontin's Central League for United's reserves.

He was dropped by Scotland. He went on loan variously to Arsenal, Reading and Sheffield United. At last, Dundee signed him but that, too, was a brief liaison. Leighton, it seemed, was not the goalkeeper he used to be. And then along came Hibernian.

"I'd be lying to say I wasn't down. Of course, I was down," he said, "and there were times I was as low as it's possible to get when you're a footballer. My family never let me give up though. I looked after myself without ever thinking it would come right but I had a feeling about Hibs from day one."

He never missed a game in his first two full seasons; he continues to flourish in his third. In late 1993 he was back in the reckoning. He has now displaced Andy Goram and has clearly gained the trust of the Scotland manager, Craig Brown. Managers who trust their goalkeepers discard them reluctantly.

Leighton is not foolish enough to suggest that his country can win the European Championships. Many a Scottish hope lies in risible tatters on that particular route but he is not afraid to point to the strong team spirit that has evolved under the meticulous Brown.

"Nobody expects anything. We're better with our backs to the wall and we won't go out without taking a few with us. The England match? I can't wait. They say it matters more to us. Well, I can remember in my Manchester days when England won and Bryan Robson went on about it for months. Mind you, I was in the last winning side as well. I can't tell you the feeling."

That was in 1985 in the hurly-burly of his first pomp. If it happens again, expect Jim Leighton to describe it with the serenity of a man given a second chance.