Brian Clough amongst others used to call them cheats. Nick Varley remembers them for a bit more than that
Let’s play a quick game of word association. Liverpool? Bill Shankly and the boot room. Keegan and Toshack. Barnes and Beardsley. Dominance in the late 1970s and 1980s. Manchester United? Sir Matt Busby’s Babes and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Fledglings. Charlton and Best. Beckham and Giggs. Utter dominance in the late 1990s. And Leeds? The cynical and mean Don Revie. Jack “Little Black Book” Charlton and Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter. And David Batty, the modern reincarnation of the aggression of Billy Bremner. Oh, and the odd trophy in the late 1960s and early 1970s too.
Twenty-five years after the European Cup final in which Revie’s side was cheated of its ultimate success, the myth of Filthy Leeds is still remembered better than the side’s often glorious football. United only need to have a player sent off and the press box is tapping in the word shame and dusting down a few choice anecdotes about Big Jack or mentions of Bremner’s Charity Shield dismissal.
And if you don’t believe me, just look up how many reporters – many of them too young to recall the Revie years – managed to avoid the temptation to turn back the clock when two Leeds players were sent off at Stamford Bridge a couple of years ago. Better still, in a manner of speaking, read the Sun report of the recent match against Sunderland, a unremarkable game which the reporter still managed to use to remember the “despised” Leeds of the Revie years.
Your football thinkers might come up with a couple of theories to explain the lingering notoriety. The first – that it was deserved – is undermined by simply watching matches such as the 1970 FA Cup final replay when Chelsea gave as good as they got on the foul front, especially when Chopper Harris got anywhere near Eddie Gray’s shins.
It illustrates the fact that Leeds were little dirtier than other teams in a take-no-prisoners era. For every incident of Charlton being sent off after chasing opponents around the pitch with fists raised (the Fairs Cup, 1966), there was an equivalent elsewhere (in this case Chelsea’s Eddie McCreadie in the same cup, the same season).
The second theory – admittedly a largely West Yorkshire one – centres on a conspiracy to match the faking of the moon landings, but has more than paranoia to recommend it. It suggests Revie’s success in taking a team from a non-football city from the brink of the Third Division to the pinnacle of the First provoked spite from the usurped big clubs and the media.
Eddie Gray, then a winger who shrugged off defenders as easily as he now dismisses the reputation, says such jealously was a factor. “The reputation doesn’t concern me in the least because I know they were all great, great players in that side. Players at the other clubs realised that too – and that’s why they didn’t like playing against us.
“The thing about the side was that if other sides wanted, for the want of better word, to mix it, we could mix it, and if they wanted to play football, we could play football too. I think that’s what annoyed a lot of people – that they couldn’t intimidate us.
“If we had to go forward to score goals, we could do that; if we had to keep a clean sheet away in a European game we could do that; if we had to retain position of the ball we could do that; if we had to win it back quickly we could do that. It was just a great all-round team – no matter what anyone says.”
The record speaks for itself: First Division champions twice and runners-up five times in ten years, FA Cup winners once and runners-up three times, League Cup winners once, Fairs Cup winners twice and runners-up once, and finalists in both the European Cup and the European Cup-Winners Cup. But none of it would have been achieved – or, too often, nearly achieved – if the creative players couldn’t perform, if the likes of Bremner and Charlton hadn’t won the right to play for the likes of Gray and Peter Lorimer. And any winning side has first to win that right. Just ask Chelsea in 1970 how they stopped Leeds winning the Cup. Or the well-known Anfield debating society of Tommy Smith, Jimmy Case and Graeme Souness. Or Old Trafford’s renowned embroidery circle, led by the ever calm and rational Roy Keane.
I wonder how he’ll be remembered in years to come? And the difference if he’d played for the United on the other side of the Pennines.
From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month