Football is a game of sliding door moments. A decision, oftentimes seemingly innocuous, can go on to change the fortunes of a side. It may just be a short-term impact, conceding a goal or a defeat in a match. Other times, it can lead to an era-defining change of fortune, a catalyst to creating a legacy that will stand the test of time and instill pride, not just in a team, but also in a city.
At the end of the 1958-59 season, Leeds United parted ways with manager Raich Carter with the side going through a period of serious underachievement. Having sold the talismanic John Charles to Juventus at the start of the season they were always going to struggle, and after a 17th place finish in Division One, the board appointed Bill Lambton as manager for the coming season.
Lambton would prove to be a short-lived appointment, lasting through until March of 1960, yet Leeds fans will always remember the sliding doors moment that would lead to a decade of domestic and continental success.
Don Revie, who was 31 at the time, joined Leeds from Sunderland in a £12,000 deal. In a 12-year career the man who is widely believed to have invented the role of a deep-lying forward had played close to 400 games before making the move to Elland Road. And, although he would only play 76 matches in his four years as a Leeds player, the following decade would create a shadow of success that still casts is spell over the Yorkshire city.
By March 1961, cash strapped Leeds were stagnating in the second division and there was talk of Revie taking on the role of manager at Bournemouth. The club took swift action to avoid this and appointed him as player-manager, replacing Jack Taylor, and laying the foundation for the most successful period in their history.
Things started slowly for Revie but the clubs’ poor financial circumstances – they were reported to be £150,000 in debt – did have one upside. Leeds had around 50 youth players contracted to the club, most of whom were from local sides and would rapidly fade in obscurity. Some, however, did go on to do well for club and country.
Revie’s first full season ended with the club in 19th place, avoiding relegation by three points. It also saw the introduction of the all-white kit with Revie stating he wanted the team to emulate Real Madrid and become a major force in the game. The Chairman, Harry Reynolds was prepared to back Revie, going so far as to re-sign John Charles for a club record £53,000, although he only stayed for 11 games before returning to Italy, with Leeds making a tidy £17,000 profit on the deal.
By the 1963-64 season, Revie’s side was taking shape. Players like Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Gary Sprake, and Bobby Collins provided a strong spine and the signing of Irish international Johnny Giles from Manchester United the side started to fall into place. As did a style of play that relied on huge physical effort and an uncompromising style of pragmatic football. They were prepared to run their opponents into the ground and, to put it mildly, tackle hard.
Bremner even received a suspension from the Football League for his disciplinary issues, which was a rarity back then. Revie’s team weren’t always pretty to watch but they were effective, and they ended the season three points clear of Sunderland, unbeaten at home and back in the top flight after a four-year absence. There was confidence around Elland Road, a communal self-belief that Revie was building something special. It would be hard for even the most irrational fantasist to have predicted just how special the next decade would be.
In the run-up to the new season, many in the press thought that Leeds, unrelenting and unforgiving as they were, would struggle to survive in the top flight and that the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham would be little troubled by the new boys. They started the season with three wins, including beating Liverpool 4-2 in their first home match and didn’t look back. One thing that Revie did so well was the way he would research his opponent. It was a result of early influence from his junior days.
When playing for Middlesbrough the manager, Bill Sanderson, would carry out extreme due diligence on the opposition. The week before they were due to meet, Revie would have sent one of his trusted deputies to compile a detailed dossier about every player playing for the opposition that week. These sometimes excessive reports would then be used to brief the Leeds players before the match. Although his players often thought them unnecessary, they would always pay attention to them and Revie would use the same methods throughout his time there.
There’s always a worry when a player steps into the manager’s role. From being one of the boys to being the man in a position of power, it’s not an easy transition to make. Revie managed it seamlessly. Calling the squad together he told them, “I’m not Don, I’m not Mr. Revie, I’m Boss”
It would be simplistic to summarise Leeds as a one-dimensional side. A team built on grit, gamesmanship and grind yet this is the style of play that led to the phrase “Dirty Leeds” being used for the first time. A derogatory phrase that overlooked the many European influences the side employed, both in training and on the pitch. He introduced dietary standards for the players, went as far as hiring a ballet dancer to improve the players’ balance and, in the words of Peter Lorimer, developed a training regime that was ahead of its time.
Revie’s loyalty to his players, a patriarchal instinct to protect and nurture, to ensure they were in an environment in which they could flourish was one of the more important aspects of the Leeds side he developed. This wasn’t just an act based on the individual, but one that included the players’ families, part of a reciprocal relationship that aimed at making the squad a well-knit group.
This loyalty developed a group that would fight unstintingly for each other and their manager. A slight to one player on the field became one that involved the whole team. Any attempt to intimidate a player would be ruthlessly and often brutally repressed. Leeds were a side that wouldn’t back down, wouldn’t be intimidated and would happily accept the consequences of their actions if it meant the opposition understood that they were on the field to win, nothing else mattered.
They were prepared to play football, to be innovative with tactics but they would not be afraid and they would not back down from a challenge, physical or otherwise.
The combination of shrewd signings, strong youth development and total backing from the board, Leeds were poised to launch an assault on domestic and continental football that was as stunning as it was unexpected.
That first season back in the top flight finished with a second place in the league and an appearance in the FA Cup final. They were beaten 2-1 by Liverpool after extra-time with most commentators calling Liverpool the deserved winners of a boring contest. But the successes of that season would provide the springboard that would see Leeds finish in the top four of the first division in each of the next nine seasons and collect seven trophies at home and abroad
After that triumphant first season back in the top flight, there was a period of adjustment. Their second-placed finish saw them enter European competition via the Inter-Cities Fairs cup but fighting on so many fronts seemed to dilute their effectiveness and they seemed to take on the role of perennial bridesmaids.
Runners-up in the league again before finishing fourth in ’67 and ’68 and twice reaching the semi-final of the FA Cup and losing the 1967 Fairs Cup final 2-0 to Dinamo Zagreb meant that the frustrating wait for silverware seemed almost too much for the club to bear. The naysayers seemed to have found justification for their displeasure at the “Leeds way”. It was effective but only to a point. 1968 would see that change and in a very big way.
On the 2 March 1968, Billy Bremner led out his side at Wembley Stadium for the final fo the League Cup against Arsenal. Around 98,000 people would watch what many would say was a quintessential Leeds performance. Terry Cooper rammed home a 20th-minute goal, firing home from about ten yards out. After that, Leeds put in a defensive masterclass and suffocated any attacking threat Arsenal could muster.
It was a victory that seemed to release a pressure valve that had held them back. As the new season got underway, they completed the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup campaign that began in the previous season with a 1-0 victory in the two legs against Ferencváros of Hungary. A Mick Jones goal at Elland Road and an incredibly confident defensive performance in front of 76,000 people in the Hungarian capital sealing the victory.
The renewed self-belief these triumphs would have instilled in the players will no doubt have acted as a catalyst for what was to follow but possibly of more importance was that fact that there had been a playing and training regime in place for nearly a decade. One that had introduced a specific style, on and off the pitch. The financial issues that had forced the club to look within its junior ranks to fill its first team had a huge influence on the spirit of the club.
As Leeds closed in on their inaugural league title in 1969 they took on their nearest rivals for the title, Liverpool, at Anfield. Of the starting eleven, only three players were signed for the club, Michael O’Grady (Huddersfield), Mick Jones (Sheffield United) and Jonny Giles (Manchester United). The rest had come up through the youth ranks.
Today, many people hold up Manchester United’s Class of ’92 as the premier example of the power of youth development yet Revie’s Leeds were making the most of home developed players long before David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the rest of the crew were born.
That aspect of Revie’s Leeds is often overlooked, that a team built on youth, although sourced from around the country, could turn into a formidable force. That you didn’t need to have a huge financial clout to succeed. It might be a little simplistic to compare them to the Wimbledon side that rose through the leagues many years later, but the basic roots of both teams’ successes were similar. Play to your strengths, play to your capabilities and play for each other.
The way Revie created a real family feeling at the club, not just with his players and staff but with their families increased the effectiveness of the team.
Having won the title by six point two new avenues of competition opened up to them – the European Cup and the Charity Shield. It also saw the arrival of one of the most potent strikers of the era, Alan Clarke, a £165,000 signing from Leicester City. The season started well with goals from Eddie Gray and Jack Charlton giving them a 2-1 win over Manchester City in the Charity Shield, but it was a frustrating one in the other competitions.
A strong start in the league was matched with progress in Europe and the FA Cup but the workload seemed to take its toll. A poor run started in March with only one win in the league and a FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United that took three matches to decide before Leeds finally progressed to the final against Chelsea.
In Europe, there was heartache with a semi-final defeat at the hands of Celtic. By the time they played the cup final against Chelsea the league title had gone to Everton, it had been a tough period.
The 1970 FA Cup final was billed as a clash of styles, the uncompromising Northerners against the sophisticated side from the Kings Road. Leeds, having played 60 matches that season, somehow summoned the energy to take the game to Chelsea twice taking the lead yet were pegged back each time, a 2-2 draw meant a replay at Old Trafford. It proved to be a game to many for the Yorkshire side with Chelsea again coming from behind to win in extra-time.
A treble of trophies had slipped from their grasp, as Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times “At the beginning of March, Leeds looked like winning everything and anything. At the time, they seemed unbeatable, but in the end, a condensed programme of highly competitive fixtures overwhelmed them.”
The following season was a mixed one for the club. Once more, there was the added workload of European football, a return to the Fairs Cup, and once again they would finish the domestic season empty-handed. This time there was no late-season lull in form, just an Arsenal side that was at the peak of its powers.
Although Leeds beat them 2-1 at Elland Road with just two more matches to play, it wasn’t enough to stop the North London side taking the title by a single point. There was solace to be had on the continent but even that was not without its problems. Having reached the final of the Fairs Cup, beating Liverpool in the semi-final, Leeds flew to Turin to face Juventus in the first leg.
A torrential downpour led to the match being abandoned just after the start of the second-half. Two days later, goals from Paul Madeley and substitute Mick Bates, who had only been on the field for five minutes, ensured they returned to Yorkshire on level terms and with two important away goals.
The second leg was played six days later. After 12 minutes, Alan Clarke put the home side ahead only for the visitors to equalize 8 minutes later through Pietro Anastasi. After that, Juventus would resort to the default Leeds setting, the two away goals giving them a valuable cushion. Although both sides had numerous chances to grab a winner, Leeds held on to win the trophy for the second time.
The relentless schedule of playing 60 games a season, competing in Europe and having many players away on international duty started to take a toll. And that was no more evident than in the 1971-’72 season when there seemed to be a rotation of first-team players out injured. Somehow Leeds stayed competitive, playing some magnificent football, a team so close to their collective best that even the media, who were normally dismissive of them, started to give them praise.
The early exit in the newly-created UEFA Cup was probably a blessing as it eased the workload on the players. Heading toward the close of the season, they were locked in a four-way battle for the league title and had reached the FA Cup final. In early May, they sat second in the league, one point behind Derby County, who had finished their league campaign. Before that, there was the small matter of the cup final to get out of the way.
Arsenal awaited them at Wembley, the holders of the trophy and keen to retain it. It was not a classic match, both teams seemed to opt for a more aggressive style of play, Alan Clarkes second-minute booking setting the tone. Clarke would later redeem himself with the winning goal just after half-time. Leeds had finally won the biggest cup competition in the world, 100 years after it was first played.
Brian Clough’s Derby County had given up on the chance of winning the title with both the manager and the players going their separate ways for a summer holiday. Leeds, looking to seal a merited league and cup double were short odds to dispatch their Midlands rivals. To many, the result was a formality.
The team from Yorkshire battered the home team, there were a couple of contentious penalty decisions that went against them, but they couldn’t find the way through and with 20 minutes left they found themselves 2-0 down. It seemed like an injustice for a Leeds side that seemed to be on its last legs. Billy Bremner pulled one back but it just wasn’t to be. Derby won the title as they drank beers on a European beach. Leeds were left with a heart-broken bus ride home and the feeling that the season, even with the FA Cup win, was a disappointment.
Further injuries and the passing of time meant that there was a period of re-building to go through. Trevor Cherry signed from Huddersfield, as the 37-year-old Jack Charlton stepped away regular first-team football. However, this campaign would be quite identical to the previous one. Two more cup finals, two more defeats. Sunderland famously beat them in the FA Cup final and just 11 days later, they lost the Cup Winners Cup final against AC Milan in Greece.
It seemed like Leeds had finally run out of steam, that they had reached the limits of their abilities. Since they won promotion from the second division in 1964, they had won six trophies and played in 10 finals.
Maybe they had just reached the end of the dynasty, all things are finite after all. The press was consistently linking Revie with other clubs. At the start of the 1973-74 season, it was announced that he would be heading to Everton, a move that didn’t transpire. Maybe this was it, the start of a steady decline to midtable obscurity.
It would probably be a disservice to call Leeds’ league showing that year remarkable. It’s doubtful that there is a phrase that could fully do it justice. A 3-0 victory at home to Everton started the season and from there they remained unbeaten in the league until a 3-2 defeat away to Stoke in late February. Everything seemed to click, there was a consistency across the board, injuries were not as impactful as they had been in previous years.
Young Gordan McQueen fitted into the hole left by Charlton. Joe Jordan, signed from Morton the previous season, had started to make his mark and Clarke, Lorimer and Jones were still providing the goals. This was probably the defining team of Leeds golden era. Still adhering to the same principles that had seen them rise to be one of the most feared sides in Europe, but with a little bit of fortune that had deserted them in previous years.
After the defeat at Stoke, Leeds suffered a drop in form, allowing Liverpool to get back into the title race. The pivotal moment came with a 3-2 victory against Ipswich Town, as Liverpool could only manage a draw in the Merseyside derby. And so, in late April, Liverpool hosted Arsenal at Anfield knowing that only a victory would keep them in the title race. Arsenal emerged victoriously and the title was on way to Yorkshire.
It seems fitting that the Championship trophy was presented to Leeds before Billy Bremner’s testimonial match against Sunderland. The man that had been the lynchpin of the side for so long, that had almost come to define what Leeds United were, now had the chance to celebrate a league title on the day the club celebrated him. There can be few more fitting accolades than that, a perfect moment for a stalwart of the club.
As for the title, that moment would slightly be overshadowed by the departure of Revie shortly afterward. The offer of the biggest honour in English football proving too much for him as he would take up the leading role in the national setup. He left a fitting epitaph, a long-lasting legacy and legend as Leeds manager that will probably never be eclipsed.
Revie was replaced as manager by Brian Clough, the man that had been on holiday when Leeds had presented him and Derby County their first league title. It would prove to be a 44-day mistake that would become a thing of legend. Clough was replaced by Jimmy Armfield, then managing second division Bolton Wanderers.
There is always a dip when managerial dynasty comes to an end. You only need to look at the problems Manchester United had when Sir Alex Ferguson stood down to understand that it takes more than great players to make a team click. Armfield’s first game in charge saw Leeds beat Arsenal 2-0 at Elland Road but it would be a season of domestic disappointment.
Inconsistent form in the league saw the season lose meaning long before its conclusion. There was consolation in Europe, where a series of impressive performances culminated in an appearance in the final against Bayern Munich. It was a chance to make up for the disappointment the 1970 semi-final defeat to Celtic.
Leeds were relentless in their approach to the game. Hard in the tackle and constantly pressing the Germans back. There were a couple of disputed penalty claims after potential infringements by Franz Beckenbauer but the referee’s dismissal of the Leeds protests seemed to sum up the fruitlessness of their prospect. In the end, the Bavarians won 2-0, goals from Franz Roth and Gerd Müller and the end of an era was confirmed.
The rise of Leeds United under Don Revie, the incredible transformation from a struggling second division side to one that could compete with the best sides in Europe is one of English footballs more impressive achievements. A club that was virtually destitute, relying on youth players they had sourced themselves to build a team had somehow managed to reap incredible rewards over a decade of sustained success.
They may have upset people, both on and off the field, but this is a team that should be celebrated, one that must count as one of the best sides English football has produced, a team ahead of its time in so many ways but also very much of its time.