Duncan Young looks back on Leeds' darkest hour
Keith Mincher. Carlisle United fans know who I’m talking about, but most Leeds supporters have never heard of the former youth-team coach who very nearly became manager when Eddie Gray was sacked during 1985-86, which saw the club’s lowest league finish since Don Revie’s first full season in 1961-62.
Leeds had dropped into the old Second Division in 1982 under Allan Clarke and long-time ally Martin Wilkinson. The board showed them the door and, with the club in deep financial trouble, turned to Eddie Gray, an economical and convenient option as he was already on the playing staff.
Gray tried to emulate his former boss Don Revie by nurturing promising youngsters while off-loading highly paid and openly bickering members of the relegated squad. Several of Gray’s protégés, such as Denis Irwin and John Sheridan, would go on to very respectable careers, but indifferent starts had brought three upper-mid-table finishes and, crucially, no promotion.
Gray finally realised that he needed more steel and experience in the Second Division and acquired some cannier, more physical players, but there was a feeling that 1985-86 was make-or-break. An opening day loss at Fulham was followed by two disappointing home draws and a 6-2 drubbing at Stoke. Crisis was in the air by the time the first win arrived, 1-0 at Brighton in the sixth game, the start of a run that would see the team go through September unbeaten. However, another indifferent start had secured a boardroom belief that “Nice Guy Eddie” would never win promotion.
According to Peter Lorimer, by then in his second spell at the club, Keith Mincher was driven by a director to an early October League Cup tie at Walsall, ready to step into Gray’s shoes if, as many expected, Leeds were to lose, having scraped a draw in the home leg and been beaten at Huddersfield the previous Sat urday. Leeds’ comfortable 3-0 victory only delayed the inevitable. Gray was sacked on Friday morning.
Chairman Leslie Silver, already facing abuse from shocked supporters, visited the dressing room with Mincher and the other coaches and was informed of the players’ unanimous refusal to play the following day if Mincher was appointed. Silver beat a retreat and placed popular coach Peter Gumby in temporary charge. Leeds duly beat Middlesbrough 1-0 through a Lorimer penalty that he contemplated missing deliberately as a protest.
Rebuffed over Mincher, Silver recruited Doncaster Rovers boss Billy Bremner, another Leeds hero from the Revie era, who had both management experience and a tough image. Bremner reversed Gray’s journey, relying on established pros and selling off the emerging talent that was still fiercely loyal to Gray. Stalwart goalkeeper Mervyn Day and strikers Andy Ritchie and Ian Baird had arrived during Gray’s late conversion. Bremner added seasoned professionals like David Rennie and Brendan Ormsby, as well as some of his former Doncaster charges, one of whom was already at Elland Road. Ian Snodin, bought the previous season at Gray’s pleading, was promoted to club captain and Lorimer was frozen out.
Between November and early March, Leeds frustrated pools fanatics everywhere, recording seven wins, ten losses and no draws, shipping two or more goals on nine occasions. Relegation was finally averted in a run of eight games with only one loss in the spring. Three defeats in the final four matches left them in 14th place, the same position as at Gray’s dismissal.
The following season Bremner narrowly missed out on promotion and the FA Cup final, but 1987-88 was another average campaign and he eventually lost his job to Howard Wilkinson, who would later bring Gray back to the club in 1995. Keith Mincher finally got his crack at management when he was appointed Carlisle boss in June 1999. He resigned a week later without taking charge of a single game, allegedly unhappy working with his assistant and subsequent replacement as manager.
From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month