The chance of a lifetime

By Drum Digital
27 October 2010

A journalist broke the news to the anxious fans of Leeds United – their manager, Howard Wilkinson, was looking abroad for talent.

Under the heading “United spread the net”, the journalist reported that new chief scout Geoff Sleight had been to South Africa and Australia, looking for players to strengthen the squad.United were a club in transition. After the triumph of winning the championship in 1992, they had slumped to 17th in the table the following season, only two points above relegation. Things had improved since and a three-match unbeaten spell saw Leeds finish the 1993-94 season in fifth place.

But Wilkinson was frustrated that his side had not done better. A new striker was a priority. Wilkinson had money to spend but he needed several players, so he would struggle to match the fees being demanded for quite ordinary players and would have to look further afield. “Buying abroad can be cheaper and sometimes it is warranted,” he said.

On 21 June 1995 it was reported that Leeds United had agreed to a £250 000 deal to sign a top South African striker. Mamelodi Sundowns and Bafana Bafana top scorer Philemon Masinga was on his way to Leeds.

Wilkinson had sent Sleight to South Africa to watch Masinga. Like all the best scouts, Sleight was always looking beyond the immediate targets and when South African captain Steve Komphela told him that Lucas Radebe was the best player in South Africa, he decided to take a look for himself.

“Geoff phoned and said he was impressed with Phil but that he had seen another player he thought was an even better prospect,” Wilkinson said. “That was Lucas.”

Of all the signings he made in his life, the £250 000 Wilkinson paid for Lucas was, without doubt, his biggest bargain.

Lucas had mixed feelings about the move. He had already played 155 games for Kaizer Chiefs and was well established, but he desperately wanted to play in Europe and the new contract would mean more money.

He knew it would be painful to leave his family and friends behind, and he had a new love in his life, Itumeleng Mabalane. They both understood it wasn’t yet heading towards thoughts of marriage but he didn’t relish leaving her behind.

He was also concerned about the attitude of some of the people from Leeds who talked to him as though he was a complete novice rather than someone who had represented his country several times, won a load of medals and been runner up in the Player of the Year awards.

He hardly knew anything about his new club and had no idea where Leeds was. He hesitated for a while but then realised this was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.

Lucas’ father, Johannes, his mother, Emily, his brothers and sisters and some friends went to the airport to see him off. There was singing, dancing and tears. Some were saying “good luck”, others begging “Don’t go, Ntuba. Why are you leaving us?”

Read the full article in DRUM of 4 November 2010

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