By Ken Pendleton - EUGENE, OR (Dec. 22, 2005) USSoccerPlayers – Between 1964 and 1975, Leeds United, a club that had never accomplished anything of note, won two First Division titles, two European trophies, one FA Cup and one League Cup. Yet, despite all this improbable success, one cannot help but feel that Leeds should have accomplished so much more. They finished second in the league five times, lost three FA Cup finals, and three European finals, including the 1975 European Cup final to Bayern Munich.
The feeling of disappointment – bitter disappointment – is not down to the facts alone. It’s the deep sense of injustice, the conviction that they really were victims of their own success, and the possibility that they were sometimes their own worst enemy.
Leeds was equal parts commitment and skill, style and stiletto.
Their manager, Don Revie, was greatly influenced by being raised during the depression,. No talented team ever worked harder. The goal, as the Irish player and pundit Eamon Dunphy pointed out, was to wear down their opponents:
What a terrible team to play against. A pain. You try and take a throw-in. They have got everybody picked up, a man in front of the winger, a man on you. You can’t even take a throw-in. It demoralizes you. After half an hour you think, ‘Oh hell, we can’t even take a throw in and get the ball.’ It is terrible, especially for the skillful midfield players.
Jack Charlton, their ostrich-like center-half, would jump up and down and try to obstruct the goalie every time Leeds won a corner and one of their forwards would make sure that the keeper had to punt the ball with his off foot if he gained possession. They defended up top, forcing defenders into hurried clearances, and when a pass somehow found an attacker, he knew that a swarm would soon arrive or that Norman Hunter, the other center half, would come crashing in. It is, Dunphy, claimed “like some fellow running up to your desk or work bench all day and sticking a pin in you then running away. The cumulative effect is drastic.”
This was and is the way English soccer is played by the Sunderlands of the world, but Revie was able to convince a team full of accomplished internationals to adopt this approach.
First they destroyed your will and then they set about playing you off the pitch. It seemed like every player could pass, possessed an assured touch, and, since virtually the entire squad remained unchanged for the better part of the decade, they seemed to have an almost telepathic positional understanding.
In the 1970 FA Cup final against Chelsea, who finished third in the league that season, they must have had two-thirds of the possession and it was the rare move that did not materialize in formidable attack.
It seems almost unfair to single out players on such a balanced team, but the heart of the team was their central midfielders, Billy Bremner, a Scot, and Johnny Giles, an Irishman. Both were but 5’5′, but it was the rare game they did not command.
Even though Bremner did not have a real weakness, it was his hardness and heart that stood out. He never gave a quarter and played through horrible injuries. During the 69/70 campaign – a war of attrition that would force Leeds to play more than 60 matches, including four in one six day period – one writer likened Bremner to a boxer who should be deemed unfit to fight. Bremner himself admitted that there were times when he simply should not have played:
I did my knee ligaments at Southampton the previous Saturday . . . On the morning of the game Les Cocker gave me a fitness test and gave me a couple of block tackles that almost killed me. I said that there was no way I could play. But the boss (Revie) said he would rather have me with one leg than anyone else with two, to gee the other lads up.
Giles was the perfect contrast to Bremner. He certainly never shirked his responsibilities, but his prime responsibility was to scheme. Although he started out on the right wing, Revie quickly realized that his strength was orchestrating their moves and making incisive passes. He had the ability to settle any ball and buy all the time he needed survey his options. As I said, it seems unfair to single out anyone because it was the collective effort that caught the eye. It was the sustained possession and the patient probing, which some critics claimed bordered on being sadistic. The way their left winger Eddie Grey danced around opponents without seeming indulgent like George Best. The powerful shots by the right sided midfielder, Peter Lorimer. The defenders, especially the left back Terry Cooper, were often willing to join the attack and the attackers themselves. Mick Jones – who provided the muscle and hard work – and Allan Clarke, who, as one writer described, retained “composure in so aloof a manner whatever the pandemonium surrounding him,” were remarkably selfless.
So why didn’t they win more trophies? Part of it is down to incredible bad luck and, to put it kindly, controversial officiating. For me, the moment that will symbolize Leeds’ qualified success is their 72 FA Cup final over Arsenal. They entered the game with a chance to win the League and Cup double, something only two other teams had done that century. On the verge of a 1-0 victory, Jones dislocated his elbow after stumbling over the Arsenal keeper. They held on to win the Cup, but how can you enjoy it when your teammate is writhing in agony, and you’re not going to have him two days later when you have your chance to complete the double. As it turned out, they fought to the last but didn’t get the required tie, perhaps because they were denied three penalty claims. The FA Cup victory was little consolation. As club biographer Andrew Mourant explained, “The celebrations of Saturday had turned into a wake.”
Leeds fans like to go on and on about the disallowed goals in the ’67 FA Cup semifinal, the ’75 European Cup final, which led to a full-on riot, and especially the offside goal by West Brom that was allowed to stand. The Leeds players were all in the attacking half when a ball was played over their heads to a West Brom player. The linesman quickly flagged for offsides, but the referee, who was twenty yards behind, overruled and West Brom walked the ball into the net. Bremner and other teammates confronted the ref and dozens of fans ran on to the field, but even the BBC announcer felt that the form of their vehement protest was justified: “Leeds are going mad, and they have every right to.”
These incidents may account for some of their dramatic failures, but surely not all of them. So much success was part of the reason for their struggles at-the-last-hurdle. Given the unparalleled energy they expended and the amount they won, most years they were competing for more than one trophy and some years as many as three. By the time they got to the closing stages, they were simply no longer at their irresistible best. Geoffrey Green of the Times of London summarized their problem well: “They say they (Leeds) relish hard work; that the expense of energy seems an eternal delight. But surely there must be a limit.” Most great teams conserve energy and pick their spots, but Leeds tried to be all things and emphasize every aspect of the game. Playing against them was no doubt demoralizing, but playing for them must have been nothing short of exhausting.
Some critics have suggested that part of Leeds’ problem was a psychological or moral failing. They wanted to win too much – Revie has been accused by many of trying to buy matches = they overanalyzed their opponents, rather than playing to their own strengths, and were prone to an overly cynical, European style of play. Bremner confirmed the latter charge:
We thought a lot about our game and picked up traits from the continentals. What we called cynical in this country was called professional when the Italians played it. We picked it up from them how they would just walk out to take a corner or feign injury if the game was becoming a bit heated.
This did not exactly win Leeds a lot of neutral supporters, especially in a country that prides itself on certain Victorian virtues.
On the other hand, they were sometimes accused of letting personal vendettas get the better of prudence. Charlton was known for keeping a black book, which contained the names of opponents he felt he had a score to settle with, and some Chelsea players claim that this is why they leveled the ’70 FA Cup final with five or so minutes to go. Chelsea had a free kick, and the eventual scorer, Ian Hutchinson claims that he would never have scored “if Jack had gone for the ball instead of my head.” Charlton, while never addressing the specific incident, did confess to Hutchinson’s striking partner, Peter Osgood, that he had scores to settle: “‘It’s not for you, it’s for that t**t next to you.”
During the 1971/72 season, when it looked like the Double was on and Leeds was playing football that, in the words of one match reporter, “was breathtaking in its scope and fluency, alive with dazzling improvisations,” they were compared to the Real Madrid side that had won the 1960 European Cup final 7-3 over Eintracht Frankfurt. This was Revie’s dream. He had in fact changed Leeds’ strip to all white like Real when he was hired as manager, but the results rarely matched when it mattered most.
Still, like with Arsenal a few years ago, one cannot help but wonder if results don’t largely miss the point. Many forgotten teams have won trophies, but we always remember the teams that capture our imagination.