Philomen Masinga, who died of cancer at the age of 49 on Sunday, was not a Leeds United “cult hero” in the standard sense, though that designation was the most commonly applied one because it is difficult to find the right kind of label newspapers insist on having for a player who scored 11 goals in 39 appearances.
Bona fide mavericks have a swaggering charisma or audacious but languid skilfulness that begs the crowd’s indulgence. Or they have a dash of pantomime villainy. Masinga was a far more wholehearted forward than the types who traditionally command cult status – he was admired for his tenacity and positivity, qualities that are genuinely attractive rather than the flashy magnetism of a bag of tricks or an ostentatious bad boy schtick.
Masinga joined Leeds in the summer of 1994, spotted by the chief scout, Geoff Sleight, who had been following up a tip recommending South Africa’s Lucas Radebe. He watched Bafana Bafana twice more over the next fortnight, in the Nelson Mandela Friendship Tournament against Australia in Sydney and Adelaide which Radebe missed through injury, and argued for the purchase of both. Howard Wilkinson agreed without having seen either himself, paying £275,000 for the striker and £250,000 for the defender.
Leeds were experiencing another spell of wild fluctuation in their finances when Radebe and Masinga joined. Eight months before they had sold David Batty to Blackburn Rovers for £2.75m because they needed the cash yet by the summer of 1994, having banked the season ticket money, they were capable of paying Sheffield Wednesday £2.6m for Carlton Palmer.
Wilkinson had bought Brian Deane from Sheffield United in the summer of 1993 and with the FA Youth Cup-winning centre-forward Noel Whelan making express progress in the reserves, Leeds’ need for an out-and-out No9 was not immediately obvious. Yet Deane had struggled as a target man in his first season back at his hometown club. He was a highly effective chaser of passes chipped diagonally into space behind defences or exploiting his speed and strength to burst through the lines to meet angled throughballs (and had a blistering, mule-kick of a left-foot shot). So, too, though, was Rod Wallace which dulled the variety of attacking options. Getting on the end of overlapping full-backs’ crosses was never Deane’s forte despite his height and it was for this that Wilkinson turned to the 6ft 4in Masinga.