Lucas Radebe should not be in South Africa right now. While he is physically in the country – conducting interviews for radio, television, print and online media about Leeds United’s long-awaited return to the English Premier League – his heart and mind are not.
Were it not for Covid-19, he’d be at Elland Road with Leeds’ supporters and legends, celebrating an incredible moment in history. After a 16-year absence, his former club is returning to where many feel they belong.
He is, after all, a Yorkshire man. On the day Leeds’ promotion from the Championship to top-flight football was confirmed, the former Leeds captain had to settle for watching the game virtually with some of the club’s supporters.
In a normal world, “The Chief” would have been watching the game from the Radebe Suite at Leeds’ home ground. What a proud moment it would have been for him to see the club, to which he remained loyal for his entire spell in Europe, returning to the big league.
“The scenes were absolutely amazing. We were all on video calls with the guys. It was unbelievable on Zoom and we had WhatsApp video calls, too, while the game was going on. People were sitting in their houses in groups. We spent the time chanting and singing, especially with my friends over there,” said Radebe.
“It was all jubilation and you could see what it means, not just for the players but everyone that supports the club. Fans have not been allowed to go to the stadium [owing to the Covid-19 pandemic], so you can imagine how they were feeling whenever the games were playing. The whole night the fans were at Elland Road, outside. The following day they were in the Millennium Square.”
“Even the Liverpool fans were saying it’s great to have Leeds United back in the Premier League, because the Premier League missed Leeds United. The Premier League missed Elland Road. The time is here. Three ex-players have passed on during this time of Covid-19 and one of them, Norman Hunter, said his dream is to see Leeds United gain promotion, which has happened. But he is no more and may his soul rest in peace.
Radebe continued, “That’s how we all feel about the club we have served with blood and sweat. To see them back in the Premier League is absolutely amazing. It was not just 16 years, it was 16 years of tears, of pain, disappointment. If it was not for Covid-19, I would have been there a week before, just to give them the final push and to celebrate promotion. Unfortunately, we had to succumb to Covid-19 and I have had to celebrate on my own, because they were celebrating like nobody’s business.”
Leeds’ fall from grace
There are days we never forget, depending on the memories they hold, good or bad. Ask Radebe what he remembers about the day Leeds fell to its knees in such infamous fashion in the 2003-2004 season and you’ll realise that he has never quite gotten over how it all came crashing down, just a year after reaching the third round of the Uefa Cup. Leeds lost 21 matches, more than any other club during that campaign, and conceded 79 goals in 38 games.
“We were relegated, I think, on 15 May, when we played the last game at Elland Road. It was a struggle. We were playing against Charlton [Athletic] and it was heartbreaking to see that happen to Leeds United. That week, we lost a few players [to injury]. Every time we went to training, there was a player missing, which was hard for us as a team because it showed that the club was not recovering,” said the now 51-year-old.
“There was dejection. There were tears, obviously. I mean, we were lost in all of what had happened. It was such a tough day and it was unbelievable to think that the following season we would be playing in the Championship. It was a very sad time for us. I went down with them to the Championship, but I did not finish the season. I played a few games, like the first five games, and then I got injured. That confirmed my retirement. I always wanted to retire, but they always said … ‘one more season, please’. I was struggling because I was not really fit enough to play 90 minutes.”
Radebe, like everyone else associated with Leeds, believed it would not take long for them to make a return to elite football. But things went from bad to worse. Three years into life in the Championship, Leeds were relegated to League One. The club had gone into administration after struggling to pay off their debts, incurring a league-imposed 10-point deduction that officially relegated them to the third tier of English football.
“There are a few clubs that have gone the same route and they have never come back, you know. And that’s what I was fearing with Leeds, and I was wondering who would be able to come to the team’s rescue,” Radebe said. “We could not have such a great club going into liquidation, because that’s what I was thinking, or seeing them going to the non-league. I mean, look at Wimbledon. It gets tough. It really gets tough when things don’t go right for us. I was wondering where the team would get to.”
Attempts to buy his beloved Leeds
It was his love for the club that motivated Radebe to form part of a consortium to rescue Leeds in 2014. Radebe was desperate to see the side so close to his heart get back to the top of the game, and was prepared to dig into his own pockets to help. But their attempt to buy the club was unsuccessful.
“That’s one of the things we were looking into. We were wondering why such a massive club has to go down that route, where everybody has lost confidence in them. Obviously, it needed a cash injection to make sure that they came back. We had a strong team, but obviously Andrea [Radrizzani] and [Massimo] Cellino had the money. They had deeper pockets than us and look at where the club is today,” Radebe said.
“As a former player, I know the club and I know what the club needs. And obviously, maybe we would not have been able to get it to where it is now. But at least we were going to get them back into a respectable position in the Championship, to give the club that little boost and give confidence to the fans and give them hope to know that the club is at least on the right track.”
In 2017, Radrizzani purchased a 50% stake in the club from co-owner Cellino and has since managed to turn things around for Leeds, bringing in highly rated Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa. With Bielsa at the helm, Leeds have a coach who can ensure, at least, they do not relegated in their first season back in the Premier League.
“Andrea came in and took over the club and he was very passionate. And that passion filtered through everybody who worked at the club, which was absolutely brilliant for us. We saw the rise, the investment and it paid dividends in a short space of time, because it’s been two or three years since he took over the club. He is there for the love of the club and hopefully the team can play in Europe in the long run. It’s going to be tough for us in the top flight, but I think he has to make sure that he beefs up the squad with quality players that will keep us there for a long time.”
Radebe’s desire to see Leeds back at the top is just one of the many reasons they adore him in that part of the world. The love he has for the club runs deep in his veins and he was loyal to them.
“Leeds introduced me to the Premier League and they looked after me unconditionally, with my family. They showed their appreciation of having me and for my contribution. That’s why I repaid them with my loyalty, knowing that I will grow with the club and I will achieve. It was not a matter of silverware. Getting a testimonial showed just how much they value me, and it showed their appreciation towards my contribution.”
The irony of Radebe being the most respected South African at the club is that when they signed him in 1994, he wasn’t even on their radar. The English side came to South Africa to sign the late Phil Masinga. Radebe was brought in to help the former Bafana Bafana forward, as a familiar face in a foreign country.
“I think he [Masinga] would have been chuffed to see them back in the big time, because we always believed it’s a very special club, with special fans. It’s a club that everyone loved to hate. If Phil was around, the celebrations would have been special. I don’t know if we would have observed the lockdown regulations. It would have been something special for the both of us,” Radebe said, remembering his former club and national teammate.
Radebe lasted far longer at Leeds than Masinga. The former Bafana captain was pretty much married to the club and still is. When life gets back to normal, you can be sure Radebe will be flying to the United Kingdom to finally celebrate the team’s success with everyone at the club.