72 Classic: Lifting Leeds

AFTER winning the 1969 Football League Championship, Leeds United pursued every trophy possible in the only way they knew how – with intensity, with total focus and with little regard for how the rest of football saw them. They were supremely “professional”, using every trick in the book to gain an advantage over their rivals. Some considered them a “dirty” team, sly in their approach and capable of employing underhand tactics that were more frequently seen in continental teams. It was true that the likes of Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles were hard players, but they were also gifted individuals.

Leeds’ lack of popularity may also have owed much to the fact they were “Johnny come latelies”, a club that had enjoyed very little in the way of success before arriving in the first division in 1964. Football rarely welcomes teams that challenge the status quo and Leeds, a young side built by Don Revie, were just that, and they upset the established leaders of the English game. Along with Tommy Docherty’s Chelsea, they represented a new order that was confronting the likes of Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United.

Leeds’ title win in 1969 was notable because they won more points than they scored goals – 67 points, 66 goals. They won 27 of their 42 games and lost twice, conceding just 26 goals. They epitomised an era that had drawn influence from clubs like Inter and AC Milan of Italy and also England’s 1966 World Cup winners. Revie based his team on an iron-clad defence, which didn’t win many friends, but it was ruthlessly effective.

For the next season, Leeds changed their approach, as evidenced by the signing of the coveted Allan Clarke, for whom Revie paid £ 165,000 to Leicester City. Clarke had been instrumental in Leicester reaching the FA Cup final, but his team was also relegated to the second division. He was not going to hang around long at Filbert Street.

Accompanying this bold acquisition, Leeds adopted a passing style that hinted at the so-called “Total Football” movement being championed by the Dutch, and provided a more entertaining style. Leeds went into the European Cup and reached the semi-final where they would face Celtic. At the same time, they fought their way to the FA Cup final. Everton had proved too strong for Leeds in the championship, but fixture congestion did little to help Revie’s side. They scored 84 goals in 42 games, but finished nine points behind Everton. Between April 1 and 29, Leeds played eight games and won just one, losing twice to Celtic and finally capitulating to Chelsea in the FA Cup final replay. Leeds, after initially chasing a treble, ended with nothing. It was heartbreaking for a team that had given everything, but fighting on multiple fronts arguably needed a squad with greater strength in depth. Revie knew this and started fielding weakened teams in the league as he threw the towel in, a strategy that earned the club a fine from the Football League and aggravated the relationship between Revie and league secretary Alan Hardaker.

Leeds remained totally focused in 1970-71 and fought-out a title race with Arsenal. But every setback seemed to be amplified and enjoyed by Leeds’ opponents. In the FA Cup, they were surprisingly and dramatically beaten by Colchester United of the fourth division and then in mid-April, they were victims of a dreadful refereeing decision by Ray Tinkler, which allowed West Bromwich Albion to win 2-1 at Elland Road. The incident resulted in a pitch invasion, for which the club was punished at the start of 1971-72. Despite beating Arsenal in the penultimate game of the season, Leeds were denied the title by a single point. The Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup was won, but it was scant consolation for a team that, for two seasons, had deserved far more.

Norman Hunter (l) heads the ball behind for a corner, as teammate Billy Bremner (r) ducks out of his way. Photo: PA

The question was, how would Revie and his backroom team lift a team that must have felt the whole world was against them? This was, after all, the 1970s, when men were men and emotions were never discussed. The psychological damage done by two seasons of near misses was considerable, but few would ever admit it. Revie would argue that in order to fail, you had to be involved in the latter stages of a competition and that’s all his team could do – keep fighting, keep trying and keep together. And nobody could ever deny that Leeds United were a tight unit. Team spirit was never a problem and that was down to Revie and his all-consuming approach to building a club. His players loved him and the affection was mutual. They were his lads, hence when he departed in 1974, many found it difficult to function.

Leeds had to play their opening home games away from Elland Road, the punishment for the crowd trouble against West Bromwich in April 1971. This undoubtedly affected their early season form, but they were not the only club who had been forced to play away from their home ground – Manchester United had to play their first two home games at Liverpool and Stoke after knives were thrown at fans in the away section at Old Trafford during the 1970-71 season.

While United picked-up maximum points from their travels, Leeds stuttered a bit in the early weeks of the campaign, winning one of their first four and drawing two of their “home” fixtures at Huddersfield and Hull. They were also beaten 3-0 by newly promoted Sheffield United, after which the local media asked the inevitable questions about the decline of Revie’s little changed side. “Are they growing old?”, asked one scribe, pointing out that both Jack Charlton and Johnny Giles were getting long in the tooth. Just before the season kicked-off, other segments of the press had also cast doubts about Leeds’ ability to win the title – Goalmagazine, for example, predicted Tottenham to win the championship and added that the 1971-72 season might be the final throes of Leeds’ current team.

Certainly, the enforced exile meant it was hard for Leeds to set the early pace. That role went to Sheffield United, who were inspired by players like the head-banded Trevor Hockey, future England star Tony Currie, Stewart Scullion and Alan Woodward. Nobody really expected the Blades to make such an impact in those early weeks, but their results were no fluke. Unbeaten in their first 10 games, they had played four of the top six of 1970-71 and beaten both Arsenal and Leeds United. They were three points clear at the top of the table, with Manchester United breathing down their neck.

It was something of an “Indian Summer” for two of United’s star names, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, while George Best, still in his prime, had netted seven goals in 10 games. In fact, between them, United’s holy trinity had scored 15 goals in the league already. After three fairly miserable seasons, United fans were hoping that under Frank O’Farrell they were on the march again.

Talk of a title challenge were a little premature, however, and far more solid teams were waiting to pounce. United ended Sheffield United’s unbeaten start to the campaign with a 2-0 victory at Old Trafford on October 2, with Best in irresistible form. Apart from a home defeat at the hands of Leeds, United established the momentum to top the table and at the turn of the year, they were three points ahead of neighbours Manchester City.

Sheffield United’s early season effervescence had started to go a little flat, although they did beat Ipswich Town 7-0 at the end of November. If nothing else, Sheffield United’s first half of the season provided the cushion they needed to ensure survival in the first division. When 1971 became 1972, the Blades were still in fourth place, ahead of more celebrated teams like Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, the latter showing signs of rejuvenation thanks to the arrival of the relatively unknown Kevin Keegan.

Arsenal had started the season well against an out-of-sorts Chelsea, but the tough underbelly had somehow been pierced, possibly because their ultra-efficient coach Don Howe had departed for West Bromwich. In 1970-71, Arsenal had lost just six games and were unbeaten at their Highbury home. In the first half of 1971-72, they had already been beaten eight times, including home setbacks against Sheffield United, Stoke City and Manchester City. Arsenal, perhaps due to the gargantuan efforts made in winning the “double”, were showing signs of burn-out and needed fresh impetus.

Tottenham and Chelsea had also started to look a little stale, although Spurs had signed Ralph Coates from Burnley and had focused their efforts on the UEFA Cup. Chelsea, who started the campaign poorly and even placed their talismanic striker Peter Osgood on the transfer list (a game of bluff if ever there was one), had cheaply relinquished the European Cup-Winners’ Cup they had won so impressively in 1971 and had signed Chris Garland and Steve Kember from Bristol City and Crystal Palace respectively. Neither side could be considered title contenders, but their reputations as cup-fighting teams were still intact for now.

Leeds, meanwhile, had regained their mojo and were next in line, increasingly playing an exciting, more expansive brand of football. There were still occasions, such as in a bruising encounter with old foes Chelsea in London, where they would take no prisoners.

Aware that some of his squad were not as nimble as they once were, Revie tried to add some younger talent and a midfielder in the mould of Blackpool’s Tony Green was on his shopping list. Other players, such as Nottingham Forest’s Ian [Storey) Moore and Burnley’s Steve Kindon were also linked with Leeds. After two years of disapapointment, Leeds needed to bolster their squad, especially after losing one of their key back-up men in Terry Hibbitt, who had decided that he was no longer prepared to live off scraps from the top table. Hibbitt, a skilful player, moved to Newcastle United. Other players, such as goalkeeper David Harvey and England full back Paul Reaney, had also expressed a desire to leave, but both were persuaded to stay at the club.

Revie opted for West Bromwich Albion’s 21 year-old Scottish midfielder Asa Hartford. This took some people by surprise and Revie and his colleagues kept the target a closely-guarded secret, securing the deal in a quiet, out-of-the-way café. The fee was £ 170,000 and it was all settled subject to a medical. And that was where the deal fell apart after it was discovered that Hartford had a hole in his heart. He went back to the Midlands and resumed his career, the condition did not prevent the diminutive Hartford from enjoying a full career at club and international level. Arguably, Leeds made a big mistake in letting him go so easily, but medical knowledge in 1971 was not as advanced as it is today. There were echoes of the aborted attempt to sign Alan Ball a few years earlier when Revie could not get approval from the Elland Road suits. Revie later warned the Leeds public that his team needed rebuilding and tried to manage expectation. He spoke of a possible lean period as the club sought-out three or four world-class players in their early 20s. Revie’s words were quite prophetic, for once the current Leeds squad started to drift away, the club entered an era of steep decline rather than a hiatus.

Leeds in 1971-72, though, were clicking into form, even though their UEFA Cup campaign had ended early in a dramatic collapse at home against Belgium’s Lierse SK and their Football League Cup run was curtailed by West Ham United. It was clear that in 1971-72 they were concentrating their efforts on the league title and the FA Cup.

Leeds ended 1971 by beating Derby County 3-0 at Elland Road. The fans were chanting “Champions, Champions”. The eventual title winners were on the pitch that afternoon, but sadly for Revie’s team, it was not Leeds United – it was Brian Clough’s Derby, who were challenging the old order as much as Leeds had a few years earlier. When the two teams met later in the season, the situation would be very different.

Photos: PA

Coming soon: Enter the little big man

One thought on “72 Classic: Lifting Leeds

  1. “Dirty” Leeds were my heroes.

    I became a Leeds United supporter back in the day in the aftermath of the famous Leeds defeat to Sunderland in the 1973 FA Cup Final. The memorable double save from Sunderland Keeper Jim Montgomery is considered to be one of the greatest saves ever.

    Undeniably Leeds lost more than they won and should have won so much more. But they were addictive to watch. Their skill, tenacity and passion as a unit going forward was in a league of its own.

    My first ever live game of league football was watching Leeds lift the First Division Championship on the Final day of the season in 1974 at QPR courtesy of an Allan Clarke goal. Spoilt for life.

    My favourite Leeds player? No contest. Billy Bremner. I was lost for words the day he died. People often ask me if I still support Leeds. Only the Leeds of the Don Revie era.

    Superb article Neil.

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