Gary Sprake was the weak link of Don Revie's all-conquering Leeds United. Nonsense, says John Tandy
It’s almost as though the sniggers are a part of the name. In a verdict of history as unfair as any since Canute it seems that Gary Sprake will always be The Keeper Who Made Mistakes. When you ask for the evidence, they’ll tell you that in December 1967 he threw the ball into his own net against Liverpool. And in the 1970 FA Cup final he let Peter Houseman’s shot go under his body. And... well, that’s about it, really.
Against this you could maybe argue that if you can measure the size of the events against the notoriety they accrue, you would conclude, with Sprake himself, that FA Cup finals can have a way of “redirecting” goalkeepers’ careers (Jim Leighton would surely agree too) while an own goal in front of the Kop is maybe not the best way to maintain a low profile. And this was at a time when only the biggest games gained much publicity at all– these days it would have been just one of half-a-dozen appearances that month on Sky.
The Anfield error was an attempt to avoid throwing the ball to a team-mate he’d only just realised was marked (he’d have looked almost as daft going through with the throw). As for the Wembley goal, let’s face it – no other keeper in history has ever been deceived by the flight and bounce of the ball. And the pitch was in a terrible state.
On the other hand, how many players get picked up by a club after their very first game of football? Young Gareth was a rugby lad (this was south Wales) and had never played football in his life when he agreed to stand in goal as a favour for a friend whose team was short of numbers. He was spotted at that match by a scout and signed by Leeds United.
If the rest is history, it’s a history that needs retelling to give some balance to the picture. Sprake kept goal for Leeds for 12 seasons from the age of 16, making his debut in a team struggling to avoid relegation from the Second Division. In all but three of those seasons Leeds finished in the top four of the First Division and in one of the others they were gaining promotion.
In the championship year of 1968-69 they conceded 26 goals, only nine at home. In 1971-72 they conceded 31 and only eight at home (where they were undefeated) and finished second. In only one of the 12 years did the Goals Against column reach 20 at Elland Road. And while it takes a decent team to get results, it also takes a decent keeper to make a good team great. Just ask Liverpool.
Sprake has made the ninth highest number of appearances in a Leeds jersey and his 37 appearances for Wales made him his country’s first choice keeper for a hefty chunk of his career. Then you could look at the save of the match in the 1968 Fairs Cup final against Ferencvaros, the European honours, the League and FA Cup medals, and so on.
Speaking recently, Sprake admitted he had not been to Elland Road for a match in over 20 years. “I’ve had invites,” he said, “but I was never much for watching from the stand even when I was a player.” Sadly, he doesn’t seem to have much contact with his former colleagues either: “I suppose you drift apart.”
It may seem surprising that more has not been said in Sprake’s defence by his old team-mates, but relationships appear to have soured when he contributed to allegations that his mentor Don Revie had been involved in attempted bribery. He was the only member of the great Leeds sides not present at a final reunion with their former manager shortly before Revie’s death.
When I knew him, briefly, he was a quiet, unassuming sort of bloke. You’d have to coax him to talk about football – hardly the type to set the record straight by blowing his own trumpet. Perhaps it’s time someone else it for him.
From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month