It’s tough writing about your heroes. I sat for four hours staring at a blank screen – and not even the Microsoft Word paperclip could help me – before I was finally able to write about my favourite footballer, Lucas Radebe.
It isn’t simply the difficulty of distilling the emotional attachment I have to Radebe down into rational thought. It’s that explaining quite what makes Radebe such a hero – not just to me, by the way, but to Leeds fans, South Africans and even Nelson Mandela (who famously told Radebe “you are my hero” on a visit to Leeds in 2000) – is no simple task.
A cursory glance at Radebe’s footballing CV reveals little about the man, beyond a questionable fitness record. After 155 games for Johannesburg side Kaizer Chiefs, Radebe was brought to Leeds by Howard Wilkinson for £250,000 in 1994 and went on to make just 200 league appearances in eleven seasons.
Brittle knees and bad luck contributed to that low appearance record. He suffered from knee trouble early in his Leeds career. A knee injury he picked up in 2000 kept him out of the game for nearly two years, and it was a torn achilles tendon sustained against Wolves in 2004 which ended his playing career.
Still, when he was even half-fit that £250,000 investment looked like the bargain of the decade.
Pacey and athletic, with positional intelligence which meant he rarely needed to go to ground, Radebe was the archetype for the 21st-century centre half, despite the fact his best years were in the 1990s.
His defensive capabilities are only highlighted by the generally low calibre of centre-back partners he had at Leeds. He had that ability which pundits these days associate with Ricardo Carvalho, the ability to bring the best out of his colleagues.
Playing alongside Radebe, the likes of Robert Molenaar, David Wetherall and Michael Duberry became world beaters. And though I may be biased, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rio Ferdinand or Jonathan Woodgate play as well as they did when standing alongside Lucas Radebe in the Leeds defence.
But the South African’s achievements on the field hardly tell the full tale.
One of eleven brothers and sisters, he was born in the Soweto township and became embroiled in South Africa’s apartheid-era racial politics. At the age of 15, by which time, by his own admission, he was stealing cars and carrying a knife, Radebe was sent out of Soweto by his family to live in a “bantustan”, where it was hoped he would concentrate on his fledgling sporting career.
Aged 21 and back in Johannesburg playing for Kaizer Chiefs, Radebe was shot in the back as he drove through the city. He was lucky, though in his own words, he thought he was finished, “definitely as a footballer, possibly full stop.”
Then there was his transfer to Leeds, the typical footballer story of a foreigner struggling to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings. But, as Anthony Clavane points out in a new book on the club, Radebe was the symbol of a sea change in Leeds’s battle against racism on the terraces.
Radebe was not the first black player to enjoy the adoration of Leeds fans – 1992 Championship winners Chris Whyte, Chris Fairclough and Rod Wallace were real gamechangers in that sense – but he was the first to be given the club captaincy, just over a decade after monkey chanting and banana-throwing had been a feature at Elland Road. He more than any other player made Leeds a club which was truly integrated into the whole community.
Then came the awards. On the pitch there was the captaincy of his country at two World Cups. Off it there was charity work, a FIFA award for his work improving race relations, a FIFA ambassadorship, a Premier League contribution to the community award and honours from the PFA.
And his position as a role model was complete when stories of his loyalty to Leeds began to surface. He turned down moves to Manchester United and Roma, appreciating the opportunity Leeds gave him and the belief they had shown in him despite the injuries. Leeds fans loved him for it.
Radebe’s footballing decline set in around the same time as Leeds’s. Everton visited Elland Road in November 2002 with a certain 17-year-old Wayne Rooney on the bench. Introduced after 73 minutes, Rooney scored a wonderful winner in the 80th, running at the Leeds defence, and with Radebe helplessly back-pedalling slotted the ball into the net. The Chief was on his arse, and the sands of footballing time had shifted.
For me this moment encapsulates where football changed. The talented but modest centre-back, the community-spirited man who had fought social as well as sporting adversity to become one of the best in the game, had been beaten by a younger, lither, quicker striker, who despite all his talents is dogged by adverse headlines, disciplinary problems and a foul mouth.
It’s a metaphor for modern football. And it’s just another reason why there will never again be a footballing hero like Lucas Radebe.