Leeds United under the management of Don Revie were a tremendous side over a decade or so, from the mid-1960s onwards.
Perhaps just as famous for the near-misses as for the collection of trophies garnered between 1965 and 1975, nearly half a century later and the Elland Road club is remembered for a myriad of reasons, not all of which are positive.
Their footballing skill never in doubt, Leeds United were far from being universally lauded at the time and the years that have passed have certainly not been kind to their legacy either.
Why, then, were the Leeds United teams of the 1960s and 70s so widespread disliked by the footballing fraternity at large?
Brian Clough was in no doubt of the reasons at the time, famously labelling the players ‘cheats’ and calling for their demotion to the Second Division after they had been fined as a club for the players’ poor disciplinary record.
Certainly no shrinking violets, Leeds had more than their fair share of ‘hardmen’ during the glory years. While it was commonplace for sides to field players who enjoyed the physical side of the game – think Ron Harris at Chelsea, Dave Mackay at Spurs, Tommy Smith at Liverpool – Leeds were unique in the number of such players they had throughout the side.
At the back were Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter and later Terry Yorath adding steel. In midfield players such as first Bobby Collins, then Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles took no prisoners, while up front Allan Clarke and Joe Jordon were more than capable of looking after themselves.
Leeds players themselves at the time and over the years since have indicated that they were no dirtier than the majority of sides at the time and that they were merely sticking up for themselves and ensuring nobody took advantage of them. Be that as it may, but that explanation doesn’t hold water when one examines the make-up of that particular rogues’ gallery.
It is not just the physicality of that Leeds side that others objected to at the time. It was also the abject gamesmanship. Players were seemingly taught to question decisions en-masse a good two or three decades before Manchester United gained notoriety for doing the same under Sir Alex Ferguson.
With Leeds, it seemed that such contesting of decisions was done in an orchestrated manner with players taking it in turns to get in the ear of the referee on an individual basis before getting together for a mass contretemps at least once per game.
Added into the mix were the perceived negative tactics and time-wasting that Leeds would invariably employ once a lead had been taken. Added all together and the reasons the Elland Road club wasn’t everyone’s second favourite side becomes a little clearer.
Revie seemed to distrust his own players at times, and rather than let them have their head and trust in their ability to win matches comfortably, he often over-thought matters. This would lead to the side shutting up shop and playing for simple one-goal victories long before George Graham’s Arsenal turned it into a work of art.
Before every game, players would be presented with detailed rundowns on their opponents and in particular which player they were likely to be up against in their own personal battle. Rather than let the other side worry about them, Revie would sometimes build the opponents up to the degree that the Leeds players were convinced they would be coming up against the future European Champions rather than a rather nondescript mid-table side.
For all of that, however, there was a real unity in the Leeds team. There was a real sense of togetherness and family spirit that saw the team through year after year. It was an atmosphere and spirit that Revie went out of his way to cultivate, reasoning that if the side stuck together off the field then once on it they would be unbeatable.
At times they very nearly were.
The Golden Years for Don Revie and Leeds United were between 1964 and 1974. After taking over a side struggling at the wrong end of the Second Division, Revie led Leeds to promotion in 1964.
Any thoughts that Leeds were looking to consolidate back in the top flight were quickly dispelled as the Elland Road side approached the 1964-65 season with gusto.
As the season raced to its climax, Leeds were in the hunt for the League and FA Cup ‘double’. Eventually missing out in the league to Manchester United on goal average only, it was another disappointment that awaited Revie and his men as Wembley, as Liverpool triumphed 2-1 after extra time.
Although Revie and Leeds never did complete the league and cup double, they were to come mighty close in the decade that followed. This was in addition to the trophies and honours they did win, of course.
By the time Revie left Leeds to succeed Sir Alf Ramsey as England manager in 1974, Leeds had won the league twice, in 1969 and 1974, the FA Cup once (1972), the League Cup in 1968 and the Inter-City Fairs Cup in 1968 and 1971. An impressive haul by any means but once the vast array of runners-up and near misses had been factored in, there was an overriding sense of what could have been.
No less than five times did Leeds finish runners-up in the league in ten years from 1964 onwards under Revie and three times they made the FA Cup Final only to return home empty-handed. Two European finals were also reached and lost, and never did Leeds finish lower than fourth in that time.
Had just half of those ‘near-misses’ been converted into triumphs then it’s fair to say that Don Revie would be heralded as an absolute legend today. Instead, his legacy is one of grudging respect rather than awe.
As mentioned before, the reasons for this could be due to the style of football played by Leeds at times along with the uncompromising attitude and character of pretty much the entire team.
Others might contend sour grapes and jealousy have something to do with the labelling of this particular side ‘Dirty Leeds’, but maybe that is a little too simplistic as other sides have been successful, dominant even, and not attracted such ire and dislike over the years.
For many years there were whispers of something more sinister afoot than simply bad sportsmanship and dour tactics, and there is little doubt that whatever the veracity of these rumours, some of the dirt rubbed off and stuck to Revie and his men.
Long before certain managers were ‘outed’ in the 1990s for taking bungs and other financial irregularities, whispers abounded that ‘The Don’ was somewhat less than squeaky clean in this respect.
The 1960s was a different day and age, and although there was money in the game, it wasn’t anywhere near what it is today. What money there was, players themselves saw little of, with the maximum wage still in operation as the decade dawned. It is fair to say that there was a reasonable amount of skullduggery going on at certain levels of the game, whether this was related to betting scandals, fixing of matches, or illicit payments.
In 1964 a match-fixing and betting scandal was exposed that led to a number of players in different divisions being jailed and banned from football for life. There was no suggestion that anyone at Leeds at the time was involved, but it can be seen as a sign of the times and it was thought to be the tip of the iceberg.
Revie was rumoured to have been involved in two separate attempts to bribe opponents to throw games, and although the allegations were always strenuously denied, the stigma seemed to stick over the years. Certain Leeds players have denied categorically that anything untoward ever happened, while others smile ruefully and continue to sidestep questions on this topic.
Also levied against Revie were the allegations that he had offered illegal inducements to players to sign for Leeds over the years. Again, it must be stressed that nothing was ever proven.
It should also be made clear that Leeds themselves were the victims of some very questionable refereeing decisions over the years that with time look more and more suspicious.
At least two major trophies failed to find their way back to the Elland Road trophy cabinet in the most controversial of circumstances during the Revie era. To this day the name Ray Tinkler is reviled in certain sectors of Yorkshire for his decision to allow a goal scored by West Bromwich Albion’s Jeff Astle to stand in an important 1971 league match.
Seemingly the entire Hawthorns crowd along with all the players were certain that Albion’s Colin Suggett was offside as teammate Tony Brown broke from his own half. Seeing the linesman’s raised flag, Brown stopped play, as did the entire Leeds defence, only to be waved on by Trinkler. Brown then restarted his run and advanced into the Leeds area before squaring the ball to Jeff Astle to knock into the net.
Although Leeds continue to dispute events at The Hawthorns almost half a century ago, few are of the opinion that Tinkler’s decision was a corrupt one. The same cannot be said for the two defeats Leeds suffered in the finals of European competitions in the mid-1970s.
First Leeds played and lost 1-0 to AC Milan in the 1973 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final played in Greece, and then two years later suffered a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final in Paris after Revie had left the club.
Both matches were subjected to some horrific miscarriages of justice refereeing wise. In the case of the ECWC, the neutral Greek crowd reacted to the perceived bias of Greek national referee, Christos Michas, by pelting him and the victorious Milan side with missiles. Michas was later found guilty of match-fixing in a separate case and banned for life.
The 1975 Paris match-up against Munich was similarly disgraceful with Leeds having both the clearest of penalties denied and the cleanest of goals disallowed by referee, Franz Beckenbauer – and, yes, you read that correctly!
Although undoubtedly treated harshly in these instances, some saw it as poetic justice for a side that often took gamesmanship to the very brink.