“Magnificent” Two-term Highbury Hero John Lukic

For the latest Highbury Hero I’m setting the time machine’s dial back to 1983 when Terry Neill bought a goalkeeper to understudy and eventually replace the great Pat Jennings. He is also part of a very select group of just four players who’ve played top flight football in four different decades. The other players being Steve Ogrizovich, Peter Shilton and Stanley Matthews. It’s the ever dependable John Lukic.

John was an excellent goalkeeper and at six foot four inches tall he was an imposing figure in the Arsenal goal. He was a superb shot stopper with great reflexes. He could also kick a ball great distances which helped set up attacks, with Alan Smith usually getting on the end of them. Some said he was weak on crosses but I can’t remember him fumbling that many.

Lukic points the way to success

Lukic points the way to success

In fact Tony Adams says in his book “Addicted” “John Lukic in 1989 was magnificent, coming for every high ball, which as a defender is what you want from your goalkeeper. At that he was almost in the class of Bruce Grobbelaar, whom Alan Hansen must have loved because he never had to head the ball”.

Bob Wilson as his goalkeeping coach knew John better than most and said this about him in his book “Behind the Network” “John arrived at Highbury with a view to becoming Pat Jennings successor, an aim he achieved plus a lot more. An amazingly hard worker, John had a style that mixed intensity with intelligence and a marvellous understanding of the goalkeeping art. He was by no means a natural. In two spells at Arsenal, John was always receptive to my advice and new exercises. He needed and wanted to work all the time. He was a perfect student”.

John with his coach Bob Wilson

John with his coach Bob Wilson

Like Bob Wilson himself John wasn’t a naturally gifted keeper like Pat Jennings or David Seaman. But like Bob he worked and honed his game to became a top class goalkeeper. I think there’s no doubt that working under Bob’s guidance helped John to become a better all round goalkeeper. If John had been suspect in his younger days on crosses that flaw was no longer in his game by the time he replaced Pat Jennings as Arsenal’s number one keeper.

John Lukic was born on 11th December 1960 to Yugoslav parents, at Chesterfield, the same place as Bob Wilson was born. So let’s start by clearing up one urban myth once and for all. John’s mother was not pregnant with John that night on the plane that tragically crashed wiping out most of the Busby Babes in the Munich Air Disaster. John explains “There was a stewardess called Lukic, and this is where the urban myth has come from. But I can categorically say that I was not on the aircraft in any shape or form. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work it out. I was born in December 1960 and the disaster happened in February 1958, so it must have been the longest pregnancy in history!”.

John signed for Leeds United as a schoolboy in 1975, when a lot of the great Leeds side such as Billy Bremner and Alan Clarke were still there. John made his debut in 1979 and become the successor to David Harvey. He played 165 league games for Leeds and one of John’s understudies was none other than David Seaman. This was the first of a few occasions where their careers were entwined. In July 1983 Terry Neill swooped to bring John to Highbury. He was bought to understudy Pat Jennings with a view to succeeding him as Arsenal’s number one keeper.

In March 1984 Pat Jennings was injured playing against Coventry City at Highfield Road and John came into the side for four games, making his debut on 7th April 1984 against Stoke City at Highbury in a 3-1 win.

John's about to launch one of his monster kicks downfield

John’s about to launch one of his monster kicks downfield

The following season on Halloween night ironically Pat had a bit of a horror show against Oxford United away in the League Cup, where we got knocked out 3-2 and Big Pat was dropped for one game and John came in to replace him and though Pat returned for the next three games, John came back into the side and played every game for the rest of the season, nailing down the number one keepers spot.

In 1985-86 John missed just three games in all competitions and in 1986-87 he clinched his first winners medal, when he was part of the side that defeated Liverpool, in the Littlewoods Cup Final, coming from behind to win 2-1 with two Charlie Nicholas goals, on a beautiful day at Wembley. It was also the first time that Liverpool had lost a game when Ian Rush had scored the first goal. John had a fine back four in front of him that day consisting of Kenny Sansom, David O’Leary, Tony Adams and Viv Anderson. It was George Graham’s first season and was a taste of what was to come. The chant of “Arsenal are back” was sung loud and proud from the Arsenal end as we ended an eight year wait for a trophy.

Arsenal win the Littlewoods Cup in 1987 at Wembley

John celebrates winning the Littlewoods Cup with his team mates

John celebrates winning the Littlewoods Cup with his team mates

John had spent the whole of that season on a week-to-week contract. When George Graham arrived at Highbury John was one of several players whose contracts were up for renewal. John said that “George made the point that he was new to the club and he wanted to assess everybody. There would be no exceptions. That was fair enough and I did a whole season week-to-week. You can say I was obstinate. But I was only doing what I believed is right for me and my family. You’ve got to remember that, while I could have walked out at any time, they could have gone out and bought a new goalkeeper. The boss asked me at some stage whether I wanted a month-to-month. I declined. There are those who will say it is par for the course for me. That I was just being awkward”.

“I really don’t know what others thought at the time. I know I didn’t ever ask for a transfer. The stand I took was no more than exercising my right to freedom of contract. All I was doing was not signing a contract I didn’t think was right. Obviously, I felt I was worth more than the club were offering. It didn’t bother me what anyone else in the side was on. I know what I felt I was worth. In the summer of 1987 I signed for two years. I got what I considered a fair deal, near enough to what I felt I was worth. In 1989 I signed for a further two years. A lot of people, even inside the club had forgotten I was ever on weeklies”.

“Why did I sign for two more years? Well, basically, we were going for the title and it was the closest I had ever been to winning a championship medal. Also, with the squad of players we had. I felt we could go and win the League and progress still further from there. I had no regrets. There are not too many Arsenals in the game”.

In 1987-88 John was ever present playing in all 52 matches Arsenal played that season including the return trip to Wembley against Luton Town to defend the League Cup. That day still grates with me that we lost. I couldn’t believe it when Nigel Winterburn stepped forward to take the penalty, which would have put us 3-1 up and killed the game. Fair play to Nutty for stepping up to the plate. But there were other more likely candidates that should have stepped forward. As it turned out Nigel’s penalty was saved by Andy Dibble. It lifted Luton and they went on to score two goals and lift the cup.

However there were better days to come for John and Arsenal in 1988-89. Arsenal were on fire and John played his full part in it as he played every minute of every game that season. In November the team had an almighty battle in the League Cup with Liverpool before eventually unluckily losing 2-1 in a replay at Villa Park. On Boxing Day 1988 we beat Charlton Athletic away 3-2 and went top of the table, staying there for the rest of the season. Arsenal were going toe to toe with Liverpool in the race for the title and we were ahead on points. We were in the home straight and I remember listening to the car radio as a Martin Hayes goal secured the three points at Middlesbrough. Surely it was going to be our year.

But with the title seemingly in the bag with two home fixtures at Highbury against Derby County and Wimbledon Arsenal’s young relatively inexperienced side began to feel the enormous pressure and faltered. We lost 2-1 to Derby County and drew 2-2 with Wimbledon. I remember walking out of Highbury that night thinking we’d well and truly blown it. As well as dropping five points in those two games. Liverpool smashed five past West Ham. My mind was scrambled and I said to my mate at work that’s it we’ll never beat Liverpool 4-0 at Anfield! No he said you’ve only got to beat them 2-0. My hopes rose a little. We could still do this I thought but it was still a very daunting task to go into the cauldron of Anfield, the home of the Champions and possibly the finest team in Europe and win by two clear goals. What’s more we hadn’t won up there since 1974, when Liam Brady scored and Bally got a brace in a 3-1 victory.

I wasn’t one of the half a million Arsenal fans that claimed to be at Anfield that famous Friday night on the 26th May 1989. I was at my brother Tony’s house in Collier Row. We’d been at White Hart Lane together in 1971 the last time we’d won the title and it seemed fitting that we should be together again to witness this title decider as well.

Our eyes were glued to the TV screen with butterflies churning in my stomach as TA led the team out with them holding bouquets of flowers. A touch of class from The Arsenal. George sprung a surprise by including David O’Leary to give extra protection for Tony Adams and Steve Bould. We started well with an early chance for Bouldy who headed it wide. Half time arrived and the game was still 0-0.

In the second half Nigel Winterburn swung a free kick into the Liverpool box, TA makes a run Smudger comes in behind him and glances the ball home. Our celebrations are muted as the Liverpool players converge on the referee. “F*** off we scream at the Liverpool players on the telly! It’s given and it’s game on!

The second half is passing in a flash. Micky Thomas has a great chance to score but it’s saved. It’s almost over Steve McMahon was going round to the Liverpool players with his forefinger raised and saying one minute. David Pleat says “If Arsenal don’t win the championship it’s poetic justice that they’ve won one nil on the night” F*** off Pleat” we shout at the TV again. Brian Moore rightly tells Pleat that won’t be much consolation to Arsenal. John Barnes stupidity but fortunately didn’t head for the corner to see the game out. He went towards our goal and Kevin Richardson dispossessed him and played the ball back to John. “Just kick it John, for f**** sake” Tony Adams yelled at him. But instead of unleashing one of his monster kicks up the field John decided instead to throw it to Lee Dixon.

Lee surprised to find the ball at his feet hit a lovely ball up to Smugger who controlled and played the ball through perfectly for Micky Thomas charging through on goal. Time seemed to stand still as Micky waited for the perfect time to slip it past Bruce Grobbelaar and into the back of the net. It was such a euphoric moment and we celebrated as wildly as the Arsenal fans up at Anfield and then we headed off to the pub to carry on celebrating our famous victory against all odds. We were 16/1 to win 2-0 up there.

That dramatic night up at Anfield

1989-90 was John’s last season in his first spell at the club. For the third season in a row he played in every single Arsenal match. But in March of that season on transfer deadline day John’s phone rang at eight o’clock in the morning and it was George Graham on the blower and he told John “I’ve signed David Seaman and I’m happy for you to go on loan to QPR until the end of the season” John thought sarcastically how noble of him and actually I don’t really fancy that. There was no way John was going to be palmed off to QPR and he told George he didn’t want to go there and the deal was off. This pleased the Arsenal office staff immensely who the next day thanked John as they’d had to polish off all the food that had been prepared for the press conference that had been arranged to announce the signing of David Seaman!

The inevitable happened and George Graham paid a record £1.3 million fee for a goalkeeper to bring David Seaman to Highbury at the end of that season. John decided to move back to Leeds United for a million pounds, which was a massive profit on what Arsenal paid for him in 1983. The Arsenal fans weren’t happy though. John had become a real favourite of the fans and there was a big backlash against the decision to sell him and bring in David Seaman. John said this on leaving The Arsenal “I don’t think I let anybody down in my time at Arsenal. In the end though, it is others who make that judgement. The supporters at Highbury were always marvellous to me. I will never forget them – or the reception they gave me at the end of our final home game of the season against Southampton. I can only hope I get a similar response from the Leeds public”.

George Graham says in his book “The Glory and the Grief” “The Arsenal fans could not believe I had found somebody I preferred to their hero John Lukic. John was a very good goalkeeper. David Seaman, I knew, could and would become a great one. I might not have pursued my interest in Seaman had John Lukic been prepared to give long-term commitment to Arsenal. But every contract negotiation was like pulling teeth, and John would never agree to commit himself long-term to the club”.

John went on the win a second League Championship winners medal in 1991-92. The only keeper to win the title with two different clubs since the war. It was also the last League championship before it changed to the Premiership. John stayed at Elland Road for six years playing 265 league games for them. He also played in another League Cup Final in 1995-96 but Leeds got beat 3-0 by Aston Villa at Wembley. By the end of that season Nigel Martyn had replaced John and he returned to Highbury in July 1996. Things had gone gone full circle with John being the cover for David Seaman, when all those years earlier at Leeds it had been the other way round with David being the understudy to John.

John playing for Leeds United

John playing for Leeds United

It looked as if John had never been away as he filled in seamlessly for David playing 17 games in all competitions in 1996-97. After Arsene Wenger signed Alex Manninger John’s appearances dried up as he became Arsenal’s third choice keeper. But due to Alex being injured John was on the bench for the 2000 UEFA Cup Final against Galatasaray in Copenhagen, which Arsenal lost on penalties after extra time.

John in his second spell with The Gunners

John in his second spell with The Gunners

In 2000-01 Arsenal had a goalkeeping injury crisis and John stepped in to play away at Lazio in a 1-1 draw with Robert Pires scoring for us. John was just a month shy of his 40th birthday to become the oldest player ever to play in the Champions League up to that time. He also played three games in the Premiership and kept a clean sheet in each of them. The last of which a 0-0 draw at Highbury on 11th November 2000 was John’s final appearance and he hung his gloves up at the end of that season.

John played for England at Youth, Under 21 and B level but like so many Arsenal players didn’t get the international recognition he deserved. He remains one of the finest English goalkeepers never to have been awarded a full England cap.

These days John does some part-time goalkeeper coaching and also does some after dinner speaking. John made 298 appearances for Arsenal and I feel that because his first spell at Arsenal was sandwiched between two of the greatest goalkeepers of all time in Pat Jennings and David Seaman John didn’t get the acclaim he deserved. It doesn’t seem like three decades ago when the Arsenal fans would sing “Johnny Johnny do the twist, Johnny do the twist” and he’d respond by doing his little trademark wiggle for the fans. Thanks for the memories John.

John doing a spot of after dinner speaking

John doing a spot of after dinner speaking

As always thanks for reading. They’ll be another Highbury Hero along shortly.

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One Response to “Magnificent” Two-term Highbury Hero John Lukic

  1. Mark B February 13, 2019 at 11:34 am #

    Great read, thanks!

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