This feature originally appeared in Issue 11 of Nutmeg The Scottish Football Periodical
Snarling on the touchline, shouting at referees, the pushy parents of talented footballers are one of the occupational hazards of youth football. But it needn’t be this way.
For Jim Leighton, the ex-Aberdeen, Man United, Hibernian and Dundee goalkeeper, second only to Kenny Dalglish in the list of most-capped players for Scotland, the experience of parental guidance could not have been more positive. Indeed, Leighton is absolutely adamant that the role his dad played at every stage of his career was pivotal to every success he enjoyed.
The goalkeeper’s fondest memories are of father and son tracking down midweek games to watch on the local pitches around Elderslie or Johnstone where they lived, and playing football on the beach in the holidays. And whether Jim was playing for his his school, or the cubs, or running out at at Hampden in Scottish Cup Finals or in World Cup tournaments in Mexico, Italy and France, dad took his place on the touchline or in the stands, looking on.
“My dad worked at Linwood for 35 years, although he never sat behind the wheel of a car. He memorised every bus and train timetable that would allow him to get to my games, wherever I was playing.”
Sam Leighton, who died in November 2018 at the ripe old age of 92, would pointedly never criticise his son during a game and he would always make a point standing on the opposite touchline from Jim’s coaches and other parents so that he wouldn’t intrude in any way.
“After the game when the dust had settled down, we’d go through all the main incidents and he’d pick out instances where he thought I could have done better or he’d praise things I’d done well.
“So for example he’d look at my positioning on the posts or make a note if I was too deep if there was a ball over the top. We didn’t have video then so his eyes were invaluable in helping me improve my game.”
Jim says: “When you are young you play your match and everyone goes home. But you can really learn from having someone alongside you who really knows the game and can talk from their own experience. That’s what I had with my dad. He was my football crutch.”
Leighton, who could count the likes of Brian Clough, Arsene Wenger (who wanted to sign him for AS Monaco) and Peter Shilton among his many admirers, often wonders how his father’s own ambitions might have panned out had war-time national service not intervened, as it did for a whole generation of talented players.
“Just at the same time he was set to sign for Leeds United he got his call-up papers from the army. So, I always got the sense that while he didn’t in any way live through me or my achievements, he was thrilled that I was able to have the life that he’d have loved himself.”
During his national service Sam Leighton featured as a flying, left-footed winger for various forces XI’s in Germany while he was based in Hannover. And he guested for his local side Morton and St Johnstone back in Scotland.
“When he left the army he was probably too old to pursue a career in the professional ranks and he played out his time in the Ayrshire Juniors with the likes of Irvine Meadow and Beith. In fact he was dropped for the 1957 Junior Cup Final and he never played for Meadow again. That obviously, has echoes of my time at Man United and the 1990 FA Cup Final, where I was dropped for the replay.”
Jim says: “But by the time I was a teenager, playing with the likes of Dalry Thistle, he really enjoyed returning to clubs he’d played at with me. You could tell by the fuss that people made of him that he’d been a good player in his day.”
The eagle-eyed reader will already have noticed that the depiction of the Leighton senior as a tricky, 5ft 7in tall, left-sided forward. This is a description that is immediately at odds with the dominant characteristics of the rangy 91-times-capped ex-Scotland goalkeeper.
Jim says: “I had no pace, no left foot, I didn’t stand a chance in terms of emulating my dad as a player.”
He says: “Maybe there wasn’t an obvious physical resemblance. But in every way that matters we were identical, inseparable personalities.”
As he moved up through the ranks, Jim said that his dad was able to take on a role that was part cheerleader and part sports psychologist.
“As I grew up, dad was always there in the good times and the bad. He was the important call I’d make before a game and the first phonecall I’d expect to get afterwards. And that was the same at Aberdeen, at Manchester United, with Scotland or the other clubs I played with right up to end of my career
“Dad was really important when it came to the mental side of the game and in terms of demonstrating the importance of being a good team mate. He would bring me down to earth if I got ahead of myself, and I remember one instance after having made a great save, I jumped up and started pointing the finger at my defenders.
He said: ‘How would you like it trying to do your best and one of them showing off and making a song and dance about things? What would you do?’ I said ‘point taken, dad’. It was something I learned from. Just one of the things that defined how I played, and how I thought about the game.”
A significant stage in his development occurred when Leighton signed for Dalry Thistle, managed by Erik Sorensen the ex-Morton, Rangers and Denmark keeper.
“That really helped with specific, goalkeeper related stuff. I didn’t actually encounter a dedicated goalkeeping coach until I joined Hibs in 1990, believe it or not. They’re everywhere now but they’re a much more recent innovation than people think.”
He says: “So, I was very lucky having Erik as my manager, back in the late 1970s, he was literally decades ahead of his time.”
But as much as the roll-call of success that garnered twelve domestic honours, including two Premier League titles, a Cup Winners Cup medal and a place in Scottish football’s Hall of Fame is the stuff of record, the idea of even a journeyman’s career, was never a given, until a late teenage growth spurt came to the rescue.
“Teams were scared to take a chance on me because I was quite small as a teenager I never represented Scotland schools because I was only five foot four inches tall at 14. Even at 16 I couldn’t run and jump and touch the crossbar. Then within the next 12 months I grew nine inches to a foot and suddenly lots of clubs began to take interest.”
Jim says: “By the time John McNab and Bobby Calder were looking at me for Aberdeen there was quite a lot of interest. So much so that I remember one occasion where Bobby held an in-depth touchline conversation with my dad about me without either man ever once facing in the same direction – so as not to alert the other scouts there of Aberdeen’s interest in signing me.
“Before that whole time dad would be marking off my height on the door frame at home in Elderslie every month, adding a little bit on each time to reassure me that I was still growing. I didn’t fall for it but it was a kind thing to do.”
And later, that same kindness would be extended to offering his son consolation in his greatest hours of need.
“Dad had a way of putting things into perspective for me. I remember the phone call I made to him when I found out I’d been dropped from the 1990 FA Cup Final Replay.
“I was obviously very emotional, very upset. The game was taking place at the same time as the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks in Motherwell and as somebody who had worked in an industrial environment himself all his life, my dad had an acute sense of how those redundant workers would be feeling.
He said: ‘Honestly they are the ones with problems, son. This is a big game in your career but you’ll get over it. When you wake up tomorrow the sun will still be shining and your kids will still love you and you’ll get over this.”
Those that knew Sam Leighton from his support of his son, like Dick Donald and Chris Anderson at Aberdeen, successive Scotland managers that enjoyed his company and the supporters that crossed his path en route to games at far-flung stadia, likely recall a quiet and reserved man, ‘a mild mannered janitor’, with the exception of the hours between three o’clock and 10 to five on a Saturday.
Jim says: “He was a bit Jekyll and Hyde and would get very involved in the game. He told me that he could never ever really relax, and enjoy a performance, because of the position I played in. Even at 5-0 up there was always the possibility that I would make a mistake and lose a goal or let myself down, threatening my position in the team.”
But that would have been a sub-plot in a story that regularly saw Sam Leighton rack up 100 per cent records attending all the games in a season. He watched at least half the games he played for Manchester United. Mr Leighton attended all Jim’s home ties in Europe and many of the away games too – and not just in the final stages. He was in Romania, Poland and his son reckons 15 different countries watching Aberdeen and the national team. He was also in Mexico, Italy and France for the World Cup Finals with Scotland.
Jim says: “Along with milestones like winning my first Scottish Cup medal, getting my first cap and the Cup Winners Cup Final, those tournaments with Scotland were great memories for him and amongst his proudest moments.”
“Towards the end of his life dad and I would often reminisce about his trip to Mexico in 1986 for the World Cup. It was a great time. Someone found out amongst the Tartan Army organisers who my dad was, and they made sure that he was looked after. He made good friends he kept in touch with, there were high spirits but everyone was well behaved, and he got a chance to see me play right at the highest level.”
Looking back, Jim Leighton is in no doubt that he grew up and played in the best of times, a golden era for Scottish football.
He says; “When you are living through it and playing through it, that just becomes your norm. You assume that’s just the way things are. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have seen those great games through a fan’s eyes because when you play football at a good level, for a living, the pressure of playing to your best means it isn’t always enjoyable. I know it is something that my dad felt very priveliged to have experienced, watching me, even if he didn’t have the same opportunities I did.”
And with his father as a constant both men’s different matchday routines were set in stone, even before the player made his Aberdeen debut in a preseason game against Middlesborough in 1978.
“Remember, in those days there were no mobile phones. So, usually I’d meet my dad before a game and exchange a few words as I handed over his tickets. For away trips he’d travel with the players and most of the communication would have been after the game when we would go over what had taken place. And that’s how it was for years.”
He says: “There was one exception, with dad phoning the team hotel to wish me luck before Scotland played Brazil in the World Cup in France. He was on the Champs Elysees in Paris with my son and daughter who were 14 and 15 at the time. As he wished me luck I could hear the Tartan Army and bagpipes in the background. It was a very exciting time for my dad and especially so because he was there with his grandkids.”
He says: “When I was young, life was all about playing and training. At night we’d roam around looking for a local game to watch, there was so much football then, so many pitches. It wasn’t like now where there were live TV games every night, just Scotsport and Sportscene, and the occasional Final. I learned the game watching matches live, at all levels with my dad pointing out little details. There was a sense of things going full circle when my kids were able to enjoy games with their grandad, and he became a great grandad shortly before he died last year, when Francesca was born.”
There’s an ongoing legacy too on the field, as Sam Leighton’s example has influenced his son’s attitude towards coaching goalkeepers.
“I’ve coached players all the way from age eight to international level, and specifically Scotland under 21s. Most of them still keep in touch and will phone me up for advice. I am something of an agony aunt for my goalkeepers but that’s understandable. It is a unique position and really you need to be able to talk to someone that understands exactly what situation you’re in.”
And he says: “In a football sense there’s not many things I haven’t done – both good and bad.”
Leighton says that while Alan Hodgkinson was never his favourite coach after the pair clashed over the Englishman’s preference for keepers from his club side, Rangers, he did create one important legacy for subsequent generations of stoppers.
“By putting a group of Scottish keepers together at the time, and working with them, under Craig Brown, he created the conditions for that generation to bond together, look out for one another and support each other on and off the park. Back then 5-6 keepers brought the best out of each other and it has been carried forward to this day.
“The press would always try and drive a wedge between me and Andy Goram, for example but you’d never hear either of us say anything critical of the other. There’s so much respect between us. Outfield players can never understand the bond that keepers have but that’s just the way we are: we room together, socialise together and even though we’re rivals for the same shirt we’ll always support each other.”
Sam Leighton died in November 2018, aged 92 and he maintained his love of the game to the end. As his grandkids celebrated his birthday, one of the nurses in his residential care home showed him a collection of football cards dating from the 1940s and 1950s.
Jim says: “He was able to reel off the career histories of all these great players of the past, George Young, Harry Haddock and other players, less well-known, from the time he played in. He had an incredible breadth of knowledge of the game and a love of it too, that he past that onto me.
Jim says that he thinks of his dad fondly many times a day and that he feels his loss profoundly. But he is also acutely aware that he has been favoured in enjoying the support and company of his father into his own 60th year.
“I think about that, especially in relation to Alex McLeish whose dad died when Alex was 21.”
He says: “Alex and I played together from the age of 12 at Glasgow United and his father was such a great supporter of both of us, an infectious personality and someone who’d have enjoyed seeing Alex enjoy the career he’s had, just as my dad enjoyed watching me play. He would have loved to see it all and I am sure that absence must be a source of sadness for Alex.
“There must have been a real sense of pride for my dad going into work when Aberdeen had beaten Rangers or Celtic, after a big European night or when we’d won a Scottish Cup final to see his pals who’d been ribbing him all week before the game. He’d have got a real sense of satisfaction if I’d played well and I’m sure he enjoyed the banter that went with it.”
Jim says: “He showed that emotion through the good times as a sense of relief. It would be fair to say that my career has been a rollercoaster for all the highs like winning The Cup Winners Cup in Gothenburg, league titles and World Cups there were also games for Dundee like a 7-0 defeat for the reserves and the 6-3 first team defeat at Firhill in my second last game, that were real lows.”
And given his own experience in the game, Jim has some hard-won practical advice for parents looking to support their children playing football.
He says: “Don’t be pushy. Don’t shout advice or criticism. Enjoy the game and let the coaches coach. You can be a parent again once the game is over and that’s when you can really be of value. Kids will rebel if you push them and especially if your advice is contrary to what their coaches say. They can do without that extra pressure and it is a 100% no-no in my book. Totally counter-productive.
Jim says: “Dad was there for the good or the bad – 5-0 up or 5-0 down really didn’t matter. He was just the same. The best kind of supporter, honest and loyal, always with my best interests at heart. And that’s what I’ve tried to emulate as a parent myself.”
“People would often say to dad: ‘you must be proud what your boy has achieved’. But he’d always say that it didn’t begin and end with football. He’d say: “I’d be proud of my son whatever he was doing, because it’s the person that counts’. And that is truly what he believed.”