With a club that has the proud stature and backstory peppered with luminaries and glorious occasions – it can be forgiven for the majority to disregard certain former players and consign certain matches to the part of the brain that is covered by a shroud which makes recollection difficult.
Much has been written and spoke of regarding our goalkeepers of late, with the esteemed Petr Cech finally seeing sense and ridding himself of the shackles from west London. Comparisons inevitably are drawn up against our former glove incumbents – and what a glowing list we can boast of.
David Seaman, Jens Lehmann, Pat Jennings, the wonderful Bob Wilson, Jack Kelsey just to name a few. These names dovetail with success and are synonymous with the club we all adore.
As moments go, there are few that can match May 26, 1989 at Anfield. Forever entwined in our lore, with a quite excellent book and film to highlight just how momentous the match and season really was, there can be no doubt that all who were involved throughout that domestic campaign and especially during those fraught ninety minutes in Merseyside should have their names permanently etched into our tapestry.
One name does not quite linger though. Seeing as he didn’t miss a single minute of that history-making season, most would suggest dismissing such a player would mean that he was a comedy figure, a cult hero that is only mentioned when supporters are conversing over hilarious faux pas or how ridiculously woeful they actually were.
Step forward John Lukic.
Whenever fans group together and ensconce themselves within a comforting blanket of nostalgia, former heroes are discussed and memories replayed. The thriller that played out on the pitch at Anfield is always mentioned – and for good reason. The names of Mickey Thomas, Rocky Rocastle, Bould, Smith, Dixon et al are bandied around as our recollections make the yellow on their shirts more vibrant, their skills more breathtaking. The name of John Lukic is a rarity within such a confab. He resides on the fringes for most, but the lucky ones who witnessed him play have no illusions as to how big a part he played during his two tenures with the club.
Lukic started his career at Leeds United. The fact his story began exactly where another of our goalkeepers started is something that recurs throughout both of their glittering years. Lukic stayed for a far longer stint than his understudy did though – five years – before deciding to up roots and continue his employment at Arsenal in 1983. He was signed with the intent of replacing yet another goalkeeping dignitary – Pat Jennings – but it wasn’t instantaneous. It wouldn’t be until halfway through the next season before Lukic could enjoy Number One status. From there, his ability and rocksteady dependability meant that he would be first choice for his club until his eventual departure in 1990.
The three years from ’87 – ’90 were the jewels in his crown. An ever present, a stalwart in the side who could always be relied upon. The rapport that was built with the defence and his leadership in the box was the foundation on which Arsenal began their slow ascent back to the pinnacle of the English game.
The League Cup triumph in 1987 – inspired by Champagne Charlie – was a far bigger talking point than it is currently. Often derided in the modern game, but in 1987, the club and fans greeted the silverware with welcoming arms. It was Lukic’s first honour and for the majority of the squad – they shared losing their trophy virginity together. The squad was strong and Lukic was a cornerstone of this.
Arsenal were on the up and the 1988-89 season was the culmination and pinnacle of many years graft by George ‘Stroller’ Graham and his squad. Of course, the toughest part of the season and the most memorable was the last game against Liverpool, but just as overlooked as Lukic himself was a match perfectly summed up by a friend of mine and a quite excellent Arsenal related author, a certain Jon Spurling.
”Martin Hayes, brought out of cold storage at Highbury, replaced Merson and convinced most of us that George had settled for a goalless draw. As the clock ticked towards full time, Hayes followed one of Lukic’s monstrous punts, slid in and steered the winner past Kevin Poole.”
That winner meant one of our most celebrated decorations in our past was possible. Without John Lukic and his ability to distribute to breathtaking distances, Anfield ’89 would be just another game. We would be bereft of perhaps our most famous moment if it weren’t for him.
As mentioned above, his talent for making the ball travel extraordinary distances was integral to the way the team set up. The team was drilled to the highest level, all players could do their job without fear of their colleagues letting them down. The fact Lukic could convert defence to attack so effortlessly was a vital arrow in a quiver that was effective but sparsely populated.
Lanky John eventually left to rejoin his boyhood club Leeds in 1990. Gaffer George Graham maintained that Lukic was still an excellent goalkeeper, but his replacement – who was Lukic’s No 2 at Leeds – was the best. David Seaman replaced Lukic at Arsenal which once more showed both careers shared certain traits.
A fans’ favourite, they were upset that the goalkeeper who would often wave to fans during games if requested, had been mercilessly chopped. Their outcries were soon forgotten as the now heroic Seaman went on to convince supporters of his credentials.
Lukic earned himself another League title accolade whilst at Elland Road and continued to ply his trade well during his six years in Yorkshire, but a call from Highbury in 1996 was enough to see him return at the age of 35. That season he was back between the sticks for a north London victory – the first in five years at Highbury – due to Seaman being injured. He applied himself seamlessly into the side.
One part of his career that didn’t share symmetry with David Seaman was his international career. Much like the great Geordie Armstrong, he was criminally left out of England recognition. Despite other goalkeepers being included who couldn’t match John’s experience and skills he could only watch as Euro and World Cup tournaments passed him by. He would only ever have England Under-21 and England ‘B’ appearances.
He made 238 appearances for Arsenal in his two spells. He was at one time the holder of the record for ‘Oldest player to play in the Champions League’ at the ripe age of 39 years and 11 months – which was in turn his last game for Arsenal before retiring in 2001.
He can also boast to be one of only four players to have played in the English top-flight spread over four decades - the others are Steve Ogrizovic, Peter Shilton and Sir Stanley Matthews.
None of these compare to his coup de grace though. The feather in his cap. The 1988-89 season was written in part by an awkward looking goalkeeper with telescopic legs who could punt the ball farther than you could see. He started the move which led to Mickey Thomas pilfering what was ‘up for grabs’. He made his errors but all goalkeepers are scrutinised more than outfield players.
So, Lukic and his gangly limbs helped us write the greatest script ever played out on a football pitch, he aided the team when they finally brought the club back from the shadows in 1987 and he held records like Roy Castle was his brother.