Rangers and Celtic have always dominated Scottish football. It’s been 14 years since a non-Old Firm club won the league. And unless the Old Firm actually make their oft-talked about departure for a North Atlantic super league or SPL matches start being broadcast in Dubai, it’s inconceivable that this will change anytime in the near future.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s, the Old Firm faced competition from Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen and Jim McLean’s Dundee United, nicknamed ‘the New Firm’. Aberdeen won the league in 1985 with a team of players like Gordon Strachan, Mark McGhee, Willie Miller, Alex McLeish and Doug Rougvie. In goal was Jim Leighton.
Leighton was an unfussy and reliable goalkeeper, something that Scotland had been in short supply of over the years. He would spend the bulk of his career at Aberdeen but also played for Manchester United and had a moderately successful spell at Hibs before rejoining Aberdeen in 1997. He was capped 91 times for Scotland over a spell of 16 years and was included in four World Cup squads. The idea of a Scotland team qualifying for a World Cup is almost alien now.
Leighton joined Aberdeen from Ayrshire club Dalry Thistle in 1978 and spent some time out on loan at Deveronvale. He made his Aberdeen debut in Alex Ferguson’s first game in charge of the club against Hearts at Tynecastle. First-choice keeper Bobby Clark was unavailable so the young, inexperienced Leighton was brought in as his replacement.
Eamonn Bannon scored for Hearts after just three minutes, but despite the heavy rain and poor conditions, Aberdeen fought back to win 4-1 with Leighton making a number of crucial saves. He had made a good impression in his first game and would go on to establish himself in the most successful Aberdeen sides of all time. Under Ferguson’s management, the Dons would win the Cup Winners Cup beating Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the process, four Scottish Cups, two League Cups and a league title, Leighton was in goal for all of these triumphs.
As well as being a crucial part of the hugely successful Dons side, Leighton was first-choice goalkeeper for the 1986 World Cup, playing in all of Scotland’s matches. But the tournament was to be predictably disappointing for Scotland, with only one point in a bad-tempered match against Uruguay to show for their efforts.
Leighton’s performances were praised by many who admired Aberdeen’s achievements. His determination and consistency were noted by the great Brian Clough, who described him as ”a rare bird, a Scottish goalkeeper that can be relied on”. Ferguson left to manage Manchester United in 1986 and Leighton was to follow him two years later.
His first season at United was successful and he continued to show the good form that had garnered so much praise at Pittodrie. However, a bad performance in the 1990 FA Cup Final saw Leighton concede three goals. It went to a replay but Ferguson dropped Leighton in favour of Les Sealey. Sealey’s goalkeeping helped United win the cup but, acknowledging Leighton’s work in the lead up to the final, Sealey gave his winner’s medal to his colleague. The FA later gave both of them medals.
Unfortunately, Ferguson never forgave Leighton for his mistakes in the final and he struggled to establish himself in the squad afterwards. He made only one appearance for United following the Cup final. He would go on loan to Arsenal and Reading before returning to Scotland with Dundee in 1992.
In his first season with Dundee they fought relegation as a newly promoted side. With Leighton’s help they stayed up. His confidence was somewhat restored and he moved to Hibs the following year, which marked the beginning in a return to good form. He spent four seasons at Easter Road and missed only one match in his time there.
His performances for Hibs saw him brought back into contention for the national team, and he was first choice goalkeeper for Euro 96. He made a return to Aberdeen the following year and spent his final playing years at Pittodrie. He played in his third World Cup in 1998 and in particular performed well in the opening game between Scotland and Brazil, pulling off a number of good saves before Tom Boyd unfortunately knocked the ball past him.
His final seasons with Aberdeen were in marked contrast to his beginnings with the club. While in the early 80s the Dons were a very real challenge to the primacy of the Old Firm, by the time of Leighton’s return they were a very poor side and would have been relegated at the end of 2000 under Ebbe Skovdahl’s management. As it was, they were spared because Falkirk’s old ground, Brockville, was unfit for the SPL and would be demolished three years later.
They did, however, make it to a Scottish Cup final against Rangers. Leighton would make his last appearance as a professional footballer in this final. However, typical of Aberdeen’s misfortune that season, Leighton was injured in the opening minutes and, with Skovdahl bizarrely having neglected to include a substitute goalkeeper, current Livingston striker Robbie Winters played in goal for the rest of the match. Naturally, Aberdeen were thrashed 4-0.
Following his retirement Jim worked as a goalkeeping coach for Aberdeen before being sacked earlier this year as the club looked to cut costs. He now does occasional work for BBC Scotland as a summariser for football matches.
His long career effectively charts the decline of Scottish football from the 1980s to the beginning of this century. Jim Leighton may not evoke as much affection from fans as Andy Goram, but for a long time he was a steady presence in goal for Scotland and Aberdeen, a big part in presiding over a golden age of Scottish club football in a remarkable time for the national team. Maybe thanks to him, those Scottish goalkeeper jokes are out of fashion now.
Name: James Leighton
Born: 24 July 1958
Place: Johnstone, Scotland.
Clubs: Aberdeen [382 games], Manchester United [73 games], Reading [8 games], Dundee [21 games], Hibernian [151 games].
Internationals: Scotland – 91 Caps.