When Lucas Radebe arrived in Yorkshire he was somewhat of an afterthought in the deal that would bring countryman Phil Masinga to Premier League side Leeds United, the latter having nearly scored at a rate of a goal a game for Mamelodi Sundowns in the South African Premier Soccer League but eleven years later it would be Radebe who would walk out the front door of Elland Road an icon and as one of English football’s greatest foreign imports.
Having started his career playing for local school sides he was picked up by South African giants Kaiser Chiefs where he settled into his preferred role as centre back. His run in the side would be interrupted as a result of a shooting incident that occurred whilst out shopping with family. The bullets hit, with speculation being that Radebe wasn’t an accidental target, but the wounds were fortunately not fatal and after a spell in hospital he returned to action. It left a mark though and the frequent sound of gunfire in the Soweto would become background noise Radebe was happy to leave behind.
When Masinga moved to Swiss side St. Gallen following a two season spell in which he would become the first Black South African to play in the Premier League, Radebe remained. “Phil was a big hit with the team and the players.”, the centre half revealed in a BBC interview, “I looked up to him and I think he inspired me the most. It was absolutely great the way he adapted to the situation.” There were concerns that the sole South African representative in the squad wouldn’t make it, those concerns would prove unfounded.
It wasn’t an easy start though as while Masinga had arrived as a marquee player Radebe spent his first two years at the club trying to win over then manager, Howard Wilkinson. Early chances were limited and it didn’t help that when he did get an opportunity to shine things wouldn’t go his way. His debut appearance as a substitute against Mansfield Town in the Coca-Cola Cup was contested in front of Elland Road’s lowest crowd for 32 years, an upset victory for the visiting Stags compounding the gloom that day. Later in the season he finally lined up in his preferred position of centre half but that appearance against Coventry City would end prematurely, Radebe ruptured cruciate ligaments in his right knee and left the game on a stretcher.
His relationship with Wilkinson was pushed again when Radebe, a proud South African, would be selected for the 1996 African Cup of Nations despite having only just come back from the aforementioned injury and only last minute negotiations between his club and the South African FA saw him take his place in the Bafana Bafana squad. He played very little but was still part of the side that would win the tournament on home soil. It would remain Radebe’s only ever major honour.
His most notorious outing during Wilkinson’s spell came under unusual circumstances against fierce rivals Manchester United. With no substitute goalkeeper to call upon following an injury to Mark Beeney, himself a stand-in, the South African was forced to change his top from white to green and take the gloves for the first time since his formative days at Kaiser Chiefs. In a game in which Leeds would ultimately lose Radebe performed with distinction making a series of saves to deny a United side well into its pomp.
A humbling defeat to United later in the season brought an end to WIlkinson’s reign and saw the arrival of the pragmatic George Graham. The Scot instantly took to Radebe and he was soon the fulcrum of a Leeds United side in need of stabilisation with Radebe’s discipline in man-marking earmarking him for a leadership role under Graham, just one of the many attributes that contributed to his longevity in a white shirt.
Having been a former midfielder, his composure on the ball was before its time, a trait that future defensive partner Rio Ferdinand would build a career on, whilst his sniper-like precision when surveying the landscape in front of him ensured he would snuff out danger before it ever had a chance to arrive. South African journalist Thebe Mabanga reminisced about his talents as a youngster saying, “he is a lanky, flamboyant central midfielder who switched to central defence with ease, snuffing out any opposition threat with exquisite, acrobatic scissor kicks and diving headers, and man-marking the most lethal strikers into silence.”
The stability the South African brought allowed Graham to loosen the reins on what was an effervescent crop of exciting young talent with the likes of Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Ian Harte drawing comparisons with the Class of ‘92. In 1997/98 league season Leeds would score twice as many goals as they had in the previous campaign.
When Graham left to takeover at Tottenham Hotspur his assistant David O’Leary stepped up, slamming his foot on the accelerator as Leeds would reach the heights of a Champions League semi-final in 2001 although silverware would continue to elude them before a much publicised and messy decline.
Having turned down repeated overtures from some of European football’s biggest sides the image of the elegant Radebe marshalling his defence, resplendent in all white, was sadly absent for the bulk of that UCL campaign as years of injuries and long haul flights to and from his homeland started to take their toll but his reduced game time in those final years didn’t matter, his status as a legend had long been assured.
Internationally he led Bafana Bafana to their first World Cup Finals at France 98 before repeating the feat four years later in South Korea and Japan. In their 2002 group clash with Spain Radebe would get on the scoresheet (something he never achieved in over 200 appearances for Leeds) nodding home having been left unmarked at the back post, although the Spanish would ultimately go on to win 3-2. He would be capped a total of 70 times and currently sits 10th on his country’s all-time caps list.
During a 2002 visit to Leeds South African President Nelson Mandela stated “This is my hero.”, while in the presence of the Whites captain, in 2003 he was awarded the Silver Order of Ikhamanga in his homeland for services to sport and in 2004 was voted the 54th greatest South African of all time.
He’s influenced the culture of his adopted home too. Leeds supporting indie rock band Kaiser Chiefs took their name as a tribute to Radebe’s first club. In 2008 a vote by a local brewer saw Radebeer selected as the most popular moniker for their new beer and there are still many young Lucas’ kicking balls up and down the streets of Elland Road to this day. The South African often referenced as the naming inspiration.
Most importantly though Radebe’s legacy at Leeds is built on the humility and honesty with which he represented the side borne out of a mutual affection that endures to this day. In a March 2020 article in the Yorkshire Evening Post he reminisced how during his time there he “was like a Yorkshireman”, and you can see the glint in the eye whenever his time at the club is brought into the conversation and one day, he may return, Leeds and South Africa are the only two sides he said he would ever manage.
Some would label Radebe a cult hero, United fans referred to him as “The Chief” but his impact endures far beyond that. A true trailblazer for black South African footballers at a time when the black population of the rainbow nation were starting to emerge, a wonderfully gifted defender and a leader for both club and country during some of their most exciting recent times. “Hail to the Chief” will forever be the cry.