Malcolm Allison – “Big Mal”, as he was known – knew a thing or two about football. An innovative coach and tactician, he achieved great success at Manchester City, working in harness with Joe Mercer in one of the great coaching partnerships. I was lucky enough to meet him once – without his fedora hat – when I attended the launch of a book on Billy Bremner. Talking about football, who he hated and who he rated, he was mesmerising.
For Big Mal, Leeds United were simply The Best. Jimmy Greaves and Co may have thought differently – but you didn’t see Jimbo getting far in coaching – did you?
A couple of weeks ago, I came not to bury Greavsie but to praise him. The article I wrote was a thrilled response to the fact that Jimmy “Jimbo” Greaves – a known Leeds-hater from way back – seemed to have seen the light, acknowledging United legend John Charles as the greatest British footballer of all time, ahead of George Best, Bobby Moore and – well, everyone else on a list of fifty. It was such a surprise, such a welcome oddity coming from Greaves’ usually poisoned pen where the Whites are concerned, that I failed to look beyond the headline. Silly me.
When I finally did read the rest, I was less surprised – but I was utterly disgusted and amazed that somebody who had the honour to share a pitch with (and be heavily defeated by) Don Revie‘s Super Leeds could be so bitter, such a small-minded little man. For genial Greavsie, that impish cockney bundle of fun, had included in his Top 50 British Greats not one member of that fabulous Super Leeds side which dominated football for a decade and which regularly finished above the teams for which so many of Greaves’ Chosen Ones had played. And there I was, just a few short weeks ago, saying nice things about the little bugger. Well, I take it all back. Today I come, not to praise Greavsie, but to bury the sod.
It simply makes the mind boggle. Not one Leeds player from that Glory era of Bremner, Giles, Gray, Clarke, Lorimer et al. Not a single, solitary one. John Charles, of course, the Jimmy Greaves choice for number one, played at Elland Road in his first spell with Leeds before the Revie years, making a brief but only moderately successful comeback in the early part of the Don’s reign, before heading back off to la dolce vita. King John’s honours were won on foreign fields; he was not part of the Leeds success story. Did this exempt him in Greaves’ tiny and still semi-pickled mind from the hatred and disrespect with which he has always referred to the great Leeds side? Was there some envy there?
Greaves, let us not forget, for all the praise heaped on him as a natural finisher, didn’t win all that much in his career. You could fairly say he bottled it. No League Titles, just a cup or two. He missed out on the World Cup Final in 1966 due to injury, making way for one Geoff Hurst, who fortunately had a fair old game that day. You have to admit that Leeds, for all their talent, were underachievers (largely due to some corrupt refereeing) – but Greavsie out-shone them in that. Perhaps this explains some of that elderly bile and bitterness?
It’s not an unknown phenomenon, this steely determination to ignore Leeds United when the plaudits are being handed out. It’s sadly quite common and, despite the fact that it reflects ill on those who perpetrate the omissions, exposing them for the petty, shallow revisionists that they are, still they queue up to overlook that great side, and to be seen doing so. It’s as if there are brownie points to be collected somewhere for the person or persons who can show that they possess the biggest pair of anti-Leeds blinkers in the whole media. What a sad indictment of supposedly impartial coverage – and the ostensibly most impartial of them all, the good old BBC, are among the worst offenders.
A little while ago, I wrote – well, ranted – about the BBC’s determined stance on ignoring Don Revie when they put together a montage of legendary managers. It was laughable. There were managers in there who’d hardly won a bean – good sound men, but not in the same class as the Don, a man who built a European superpower from a provincial nonentity of a football club, scorned by many in a city devoted to Rugby League. The worldwide fanatical following that United have, even today, have their roots in the miracle wrought by Revie, the greatest manager of all time. So, I complained to Auntie Beeb, and got the standard fob-off response, naturally. The complacent pillars of the media don’t like being challenged in their cosy little ivory tower funk-holes, they would rather you just concentrate on what they’re saying and not try thinking for yourself too much.
There’s no need for me to start in on correcting Greaves’ list, or indeed the BBC’s laboriously-constructed montage of managers – either would be an exercise in the bleedin’ obvious. I’m simply happy to get this off my chest, to point out what smug, self-satisfied hypocrites and charlatans these people are, who feel that they really can reinvent history and expunge a whole, massively-significant part of it from the public consciousness. It’ll never happen, too many of us out here remember all too well who the top dogs were back in the day – and more and more of us are stomping our way into print, the better to emphasise exactly what was what. So you may take your heavily-edited version of history, Messrs Greaves, Lineker, Hansen and Shearer, and you may stick it where the monkey stuck its nuts.
The truth after all is out there, the evidence is easy to find, and even though some of the men so cruelly overlooked – Bremner and Revie for very obvious examples – are no longer around to defend themselves, there are plenty out here only too eager to do it for them. Say what you like, Greavsie, but we were there too, we remember and we know better.
One of the best atmospheres ever at Elland Road was reserved for the club’s last top-flight home match for over eight years, as relegation was just a few days away for Allan Clarke‘s men, ending a First Division stint that went back to 1963. But for those few days, it seemed that escape from the drop was possible, as goals from Gary Hamson – a spectacular thirty-yarder – and Kevin “Jasper” Hird saw United come from behind to defeat Brighton. Elland Road rocked, with a noisy mixture of hope and relief. The hope was in vain as it turned out, but this match, this nail-biting comeback, was a fitting swan-song for Leeds who, when they eventually came back, showed that they meant business under Wilko. Watch below as an era ends.
That sad date has rolled around again; it seems to do so with increasing frequency as the years go by and time hurries along, ever quicker. On the 9th December 1997, two days short of his 55th birthday, our greatest captain Billy Bremner died following a heart attack after a bout of pneumonia. The Leeds United world was plunged into shock and mourning at the loss of a hero, and the game’s great and good attended his funeral in Edlington. The tiny church, packed to the rafters with household names, was resounding testimony to the respect in which the wee man was held by all who knew the legend. Old comrades and old foes alike were there to say goodbye to an icon who had left us tragically young, but who had emblazoned his name across an era not wanting for stars.
Scoring for Leeds
Billy Bremner was quite simply a phenomenon. From the earliest days of his Leeds United career, once he had recovered from a bout of home-sickness for his native Stirling in Scotland, he was an automatic selection for the first team, unless injury or suspension ruled him out. He was a warrior, despite his diminutive size, but he was blessed with all the other attributes needed for a central midfielder on the battlegrounds of the English First Division. Skill, courage, “workrate” – as it’s known these days – were combined with sheer guts, tenacity, will to win – and that indefinable x-factor that ultimately set him apart from other gifted performers. A ball-winner, a talented user of the ball once won, a relentless harrier of the opposition for the full ninety minutes plus of each gruelling game – and a scorer of great goals too. Bremner was a big occasion man, a serial winner of semi-finals (Man U being his favourite victims), a man who unfailingly stepped up to the mark when his team-mates and fans needed him. He was utterly self-effacing in the interests of what was best for the team. ”Side before self, every time” was his motto, and he lived up to those words for as long as he was involved in football.
Some called him dirty. And he was as capable as most other combative central midfielders of a bit of feisty skullduggery – but to define him by his occasional sins would be short-sighted in the extreme and would display, moreover, a lack of awareness of exactly what his game was all about. A consummate passer of the ball – with the neat reverse pass a speciality, flummoxing and wrong-footing many an international-class opponent – Bremner was the epitome of Don Revie’s Leeds United, a team who said “If you want to play, we’ll out-play you; if you want to battle, we’ll out-battle you.” They usually out-thought and out-psyched the opposition as well. Many a visiting player was artfully allowed a glimpse as they passed by of the sign on the home team dressing room wall at Elland Road. ”Keep Fighting”, it said – which was what Leeds United, guided by Don Revie off the field and Billy Bremner on it, did – and they did it better than just about anybody else.
Leeds United hero
The Sunday Times perhaps summed-up Billy Bremner as well and as succinctly as anyone. ”Ten stone of barbed wire” they called him – the image of a spiky, perilous bundle of energy conjured up in five telling words. I saw an old clip on YouTube recently, grainy black and white footage of some or other game back in the day, and there had been an incident that set the players en masse at each other’s throats. Bremner – unusually – must have been some way off when the flashpoint occurred, for he was nowhere to be seen with the melee already well established. And then, from the right-hand margin of the screen, came this white-clad, unmistakable figure, tiny but fierce, hurtling towards the centre of the conflict with the desire to weigh in on behalf of the team writ large in every line of his being. He was a frenetic mixture of Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil, plunging into the fray like some one-man whirlwind, wreaking his own brand of havoc. Bremner was famous, even notorious, for this – for his battle-cry of “cut one of us, and we all bleed.” Billy shed blood in the United cause – usually, it must be said, not his own. But a thug he was not, and any team, any time, anywhere in the world would break the bank to have a Billy Bremner in his prime among their number. Fortunately for Leeds United, he loved the club and served it for sixteen years, becoming synonymous with the famous Whites of Elland Road. As Leeds fans, we could nominate no better candidate for the honorific title of “Mr. Leeds United”. Only the great John Charles, operating in a much less successful era at Leeds and destined to win his medals on foreign fields, could come anywhere near.
My second match as a Leeds United supporter was the European Cup semi-final, first leg against CF Barcelona, Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens and all. Those two Dutch masters, with all the other glitterati of the Catalans’ world-class line-up were expected to have too much for a United side on the cusp of just dipping over the hill. The previous Saturday, I’d made my first visit to Elland Road and had seen us lose to Liverpool. I was all agog at the atmosphere, and didn’t really care about the result – I just wanted more.
BBC Commentary, Leeds Utd v Barcelona 9.4.75
So it was that my first ever Leeds United goal came to be scored by Billy Bremner himself, the greatest player in the greatest team United ever had. A long ball from Johnny Giles, headed down by Joe Jordan, found King Billy in enough space on the edge of the area at the South Stand end. He measured the situation, took aim and rifled the ball superbly, well wide of the helpless keeper, into the top left-hand corner. The din was deafening, like nothing I’d ever heard before, and rarely since. ”And Elland Road erupts” intoned David Coleman for the BBC, when he could make himself heard. The image of the small, red-headed giant belting that ball home will live with me to my last day. I’ve always been proud that my first goal was scored by King Billy. I feel as though, in a funny way, I own that goal.
Leeds United’s first match after the death of Billy Bremner was away to Chelsea, the kind of fixture that Bremner used to relish. It turned out to be a game that couldn’t have been more of a tribute to the departed Billy if someone had designed it so. United had two men sent off in what might be termed a feisty encounter, and with nine warriors left, and inspired by the memory of The Greatest, they battled, scrapped and fought their way to a 0-0 draw in the finest traditions of the Leeds United of old. The travelling hordes in Leeds colours were fully aware of the significance of the occasion. ”Nine men and Billy….we’ve got nine men and Billy!“, they sang, loud, proud and raucous. “Billy Bremner’s barmy army” got many a refrain as well. The fans had said farewell to the Captain of the Crew in a manner hugely identifiable with the man himself and with the fighting traditions of the great side he led with such distinction. As far as these things can be, it was deeply fitting, and those who remembered Billy gave a knowing nod of appreciation.
RIP Billy Bremner. Departed far too soon, 16 years ago today, and greatly missed still. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have another quite like you.
Young prospect Alex Mowatt: new long-term deal at Leeds United
The news that young Alex Mowatt has signed a contract extension with Leeds United, only eight months or so after turning professional, is another massively positive sign that this is a club that is going places. Mowatt, 18, has seized his chance this season and has turned in a series of fine displays, nailing down for himself a regular first team spot well ahead of schedule. His is a classic example of the old saw “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough”, and Leeds have acted fast to tie the youngster to a deal that now extends until 2017.
Mowatt himself is enthusiastic about his situation at Leeds: “I’m really pleased to have signed,” he said. “I’ve been at the club since I was six and this is where I want to play my football. This season has gone really, really well so far and I just want to keep working hard, keep improving, and play my part in helping Leeds United get where we want to be.” As it seems certain that there would be no shortage of interested parties, Premier League clubs among them, if Mowatt were to fancy a change of scene, it’s vastly encouraging for United and the club’s fans that such a hot prospect has no qualms about committing himself for the long term.
As with Sam Byram and to a lesser extent Chris Dawson before him, Alex Mowatt has emerged from the shadows of junior and development squad football at Elland Road and has immediately looked like the real deal. In looks and playing style, he has reminded many good judges of a young Gary Speed. Ex-United skipper Brendan Ormsby has said of him: “He reminds me of Gary Speed with the way he moves and uses his left foot. I like the look of him. Although it’s a silly thing to say, he looks like he can play! At 18 years old, Alex looks like he has a good future ahead of him. He will be a very good player if he carries on this way.”
Looks-wise, Mowatt reminds me more of Lyndon Simmonds, a young lad who shone brightly for a short while nearly thirty years ago, but who then faded away, moving on to Swansea and then Rochdale. Ormsby’s judgement commands respect though, and you can see what he means in terms of the similarities of paying style, based in both cases on a fabulous left foot. But Speed’s are big shoes to fill, and the lad will doubtless prefer to be recognised as the first Alex Mowatt, rather than the next Gary Speed. As comparisons go, though, it’s not a bad or an unflattering one, is it?
Leeds United is a bit of a good news factory at the moment. These things are strictly relative, of course, and after some of the bad times we’ve had over the past decade or so, the mere absence of calamity and disaster (and Ken) are ample justification for dancing in the streets. But it does rather feel as though better times are on their way back to Elland Road. The laughter and chat, audible behind Jason Pearce‘s post-match Radio Leeds interview after the Wigan victory, spoke of a good atmosphere around the squad and a bond between the players. These are essential ingredients for a successful squad, and it seems that manager Brian McDermott is wisely nurturing a feeling of unity and positivity in a tight-knit group of players. He’s been there and done it all before has Brian, and it would take a rich and foolish man to bet against him doing it again. With bright young stars like Byram, Dawson and Mowatt once again rolling off the Elland Road production-line, his task will be easier than if he were just to rely on the transfer market. But if that, too, can be exploited to United’s benefit in the January window, then the club might just really be going places – and sooner rather than later.
As a Leeds United fan, it amazes me that a player of the sheer quality – and breathtaking ability to entertain – of Luis Suarez hasn’t been better appreciated in the country where he plies his trade. Last night at Anfield, he gave a performance in Liverpool’s 5-1 demolition of Norwich City to make any fan of the game thank their lucky stars that certain parties didn’t manage to drive the Uruguayan from these shores. It must have been a mighty close thing, such was the vitriol poured upon his head by various holier-than-thou types who would evidently be quite willing to see such virtuoso talent lost to English football. And this, mainly, because a silly molehill was made into a ridiculous mountain called Evragate.
The issues surrounding that shoddy affair have been gone into, not wisely but too well. A lot of ignorant and uninformed opinion conspired to have Suarez painted as an out-and-out villain and a racist to boot, whilst anointing Patrice Evra, Man U’s typically dislikable defender, as Saint Injured Party of Dakar. Neither conclusion stands up to intelligent analysis. The cultural mores of Uruguay make Suarez difficult to convict on the evidence of what happened in this case, while Evra’s tendency to make trouble and exploit situations will invariably speak for itself.
Less easy to dismiss was the bizarre incident when Suarez decided to take a chunk out of the arm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanović. Any supporter of Suarez would have shaken his head despairingly at that one – it was inexcusable. But by this time, Suarez was cast ineradicably in the public eye as A Nasty Man – and sometimes that kind of thing can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, with the subject of all the negative attention liable to crack under the strain.
I have to confess that I would instinctively defend Suarez over Evragate, even if the deeper issues didn’t support the view that he’s not quite the despicable git he’s been painted. Evra is an unpleasant individual with a track record of winding up opponents in the approved Man U manner. As a Leeds fan, that is anathema to me. But the way in which Suarez was hung out to dry, vilified by people who evidently couldn’t have cared less about the positives the little South American brings to our game – to me, this was shocking and uncalled-for. I felt then and I still feel now that he should have been cut some slack and certainly not hounded as he was. Maybe then there’d have been no biting incident. Who knows? Luis Suarez is a volatile character. It’s part of his make-up, and he’s most definitely not alone in that. But so is sublime talent an integral part of the Suarez package, as he so extravagantly demonstrated last night.
Players score great goals sometimes, occasionally hat-tricks and sometimes even more. Our own Ross McCormack rattled up a four goal haul at Charlton recently and that was an outstanding performance. But it was as water unto wine when compared to the Suarez Masterclass which saw Norwich slaughtered by the world-class talent of a Latin magician.
You’d have to go a long way to see goals of greater quality than three of the four that Suarez scored last night. The fourth was merely very good, and Liverpool’s fifth was served up on a plate for young Raheem Sterling by … Luis Suarez. If ever a man took on and routed an opposing team of eleven helpless men, with only incidental help and support from the ten bit-part players on his own side, that man was Suarez. He was that good.
Looking at the four goals he scored, all showed exemplary technique, reflexes, balance, artistry, sheer star quality. Three were blinding efforts that would have graced any game of football ever played, any time, anywhere. The body shape of the man as he dispatched each chance with exactly the right contact to send the ball fizzing into the Norwich net told of a very special talent in the person of a natural athlete and superb technician. These were special goals in a fabulous performance; Suarez has been building up to this ever since the delayed start to his season, after suspension for the Ivanović incident and a summer of speculation as to whether he would be part of the English game this season. Even when it seemed that the danger of him being lost to our game was past, speculation was still rife about interest from Arsenal – and what an addition the Uruguayan would have made to that outstanding team.
What was made finally, undeniably clear at Anfield last night was that to even risk harrying Luis Suarez out of our game would have been the most arrant folly. Players like that come along once a generation; the Evras of this world are ten-a-penny stuff by comparison. The goals that Suarez scored against Norwich will be talked about, admired and replayed for years – decades. You don’t ever forget quality, genius like that. And that quality, that genius, could so easily have been lost to the game, just because an ignorant cabal of self-appointed judges got bees in their bonnets when they felt that precious Patrice Evra had been insulted. It was a disproportionate, foolish and unwarranted reaction and – in talent and entertainment terms – it could have cost us dear.
Look at those goals, and marvel. Watch them a few times over – you won’t regret it. Luis Suarez, Superstar. It’s about time we all focused on the immense positives he has brought to our game, and started to appreciate the worth of the man. He sparkles, he entertains – he even plays the game with a smile on his face – mostly. There’s plenty you can’t say that about. Thank heavens that Anfield’s magician was not lost to the game of football in England.
Carlsberg don’t make Wednesday evenings, but if they did…
Victories don’t come much sweeter than a triumph over the Cup holders, with the decided bonus of a home defeat for the champions thrown in. Like it or not (and I’m aware to my bafflement that taking pleasure from a Man U defeat is scorned by some of my more joyless fellow Leeds fans) – any Leeds win is a heightened pleasure when it’s accompanied by a defeat for Them. When they lose at home, to their new manager’s and “star” striker’s former team, to the misery of their legion of armchair fans from Torquay to Singapore and back to Milton Keynes, then it’s several shades of sweet. So slag me off all you like, you puritanical killjoys, I couldn’t care less. I was in a fine mood at United’s victory over Wigan – historic in its own right as we shall see – but news of a defeat for The Greatest Club in the Universe™ at the Theatre of Hollow Myths itself – that was the cherry on the icing on the cake.
Back to Leeds’ own fine win, and several “firsts” came along all at once tonight at Elland Road. Our first league goal against Wigan Athletic, scored by – who else? – Ross McCormack. The first time we’ve avoided defeat against the FA Cup winners, having lost our only two previous league meetings to nil. And obviously, our first league win against the lancastrians, ending a 26 year wait for a victory of any sort since goals from Micky Adams and John Stiles (now, as then, a comedian) gave United a 2-0 win at the dilapidated old Springfield Park on the way to the 1987 FA Cup semi-final.
So, it was a great night at Elland Road, the fifth home win on the trot as United seek to make Elland Road the fortress it will have to be if we’re to challenge seriously this season. It had been a worrying midweek thus far, a trend being established of clubs who have just sacked their managers achieving unlikely wins. Wigan of course had just dispensed with the services of Owen Coyle. Could they, wondered the football world hopefully, maintain the pattern and win at Leeds?
In the event, Leeds won decisively, before a decent midweek crowd of 25,888, although not without having to deal with a fair amount of pressure from visitors who had more than a fair share of possession. But they didn’t have a Ross McCormack and that was the difference. One goal in the first half and at the very least an assist for the winner after the break, and McCormack continues to demonstrate just how vital he is to this Leeds team. One priority in January has to be the recruitment of an alternative source of goals – just in case disaster should strike and our major threat should be unavailable, whether through injury or suspension. As for the possibility of losing Rossco in that transfer window – well, it just doesn’t bear thinking about. His recent form will have seen his price rocket skywards, but it might be a price some are prepared to pay.
But enough of such paranoid gibberings. McCormack must know he has the chance to write himself into the Leeds United history books as the natural successor to Jermaine Beckford, architect-in-chief of our last promotion. And now – in stark contrast to earlier in the season – the league table demonstrates quite clearly that it’s all up for grabs for Leeds, only a whisker outside the play offs and, with 28 games to go, a mere nine points off the very top of the league. Whatever the doom-and-gloom pessimists might say, that is not an unbridgeable gap, and there will be a few anxious glances being cast back over shoulders by the top few clubs as they hear the sound of Leeds United on the charge from the rear of the field.
After the “blip” at Blackburn, this win was as badly needed as it was efficiently executed. Now, attentions must switch almost immediately to a Watford side who have lacked this season the con brio approach they showed last, when they were operating as the Italian B side in the English second tier – only to suffer the play-off disappointment so familiar to us Whites. Beat Watford, and we’ll be looking well set. This group of players is showing all the signs of togetherness and good team spirit and, all of a sudden, Elland Road may be seen as the place to be for good players looking for a good move in January. That promises to be a very interesting month, but the priority now must be to make sure that December continues in the way it has started.
Whisper it softly – Leeds United are on the promotion path. This could yet be a memorable and historic season.
He’s a rum cove, that El-Hadji Diouf. You don’t get many like him to the pound. At first glance, his link-up with Leeds United seemed like a match made in hell. He was signed by a manager in Neil Warnock who had previously referred to Diouf as “lower than a sewer rat.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m sure I’ve heard more sparkling endorsements than that – even from the notoriously uncouth Colin.
For a while there, we very probably had the most gleaming, five-star example of the full set hate-wise. The most hated club, with the most hated Chairman, the most hated manager, the most hated fans and the most hated player. It rather made your heart swell with pride, and you felt that if Dioufy could be taken to anyone’s hearts, then perhaps Elland Road was the most likely place. We are rather fond of our villains down Beeston way.
The down side of the former Liverpool man – other than his alarming tendency to get involved in trouble at the drop of a blob of phlegm – is that he doesn’t look the fittest of lads. He’s not yet 33, and he’s got undeniable pedigree – but you’re not going to see him running past opponents too often. His main contribution to the Leeds team last season seems to have been an ability to hold the ball up in confined spaces, draw a foul and win a free kick. There was an early flurry of goals, but it was this ball retention ability that really shone in a team which appeared quite inept in that regard.
Sadly, a few live games in the first half of the season were characterised by the commentator making a fuss about this facet of Diouf’s play, and refs seemed to be on the lookout for any possibility of being hoodwinked by the wily Senegalese schemer. Give a dog a bad name, eh? There were certainly quite a few occasions that I noticed where Diouf would go down with a pained expression on his face, only for the ref to airily wave play on, to approving noises from the gantry. This detracted greatly from his general effectiveness, but he still contributed to some reasonably encouraging performances in that pre-Christmas part of last year’s league programme.
Overall, I think I would say that it remains doubtful we have anyone else on the books who can use the ball in a confined space, under pressure from close markers, as Dioufy can. Time and again, he can either slip the attention of a couple of defenders to find a man in relative acres of space, or (more often) he would gain one of those free-kicks. Both of these gifts were invaluable to last season’s Leeds side which otherwise appeared to regard the ball as a bit of a hot potato. It’s only that telling lack of pace which limited his overall contribution.
In the home match against Brighton late in the last campaign, Diouf managed to get himself sent-off in the aftermath of a successful penalty conversion. It appeared that he’d taken some stick from Brighton’s rather over-sensitive away support, and responded in sign language involving a too-public manipulation of his genitals, to shocking effect as far as the away crowd and sadly also the ref were concerned. A little surprisingly, this was Diouf’s first dismissal since he joined the club. We were told that he was sorry, and that he remained committed to the Leeds United cause coming into this season (but as it’s turned out, we’ve hardly seen him since.)
So should we hang on to this mercurial talent, or not? He’s been this season’s forgotten man and yet, since signing an improved contract, he’s taking more out of the club by far than when he was making a real impact on the first team. I would cautiously vote to retain him, unless the rumoured influx of cash really does turn out to be enough to buy someone as good as Dioufy – and maybe younger and faster. If that turns out to be the case, then sadly it’ll be a no-brainer. All’s fair in football and war – and there’s precious little room for sentiment.
What do other people think? Keep him or get rid? And if he goes – just who are the likely candidates to replace him, depending on whether we have a Red Bull sized budget, or just a tidgy little David Haigh one? Answers on a virtual postcard, please…
A fairly routine win against Millwall wouldn’t normally be the stuff of reminiscence, but this was no ordinary match. On this Saturday, we were at Elland Road to say “Goodbye” to Gary Speed, who many of us remembered as a bright new talent, nobbut a lad mind you, but promising plenty as he made his mark on United’s promotion charge in 1990. The memories he left us with from that point on are many, and they’ve been relived over and over in the two years since his untimely death.
Enough, surely, has also been said about the circumstances surrounding the manner of Speedo’s departure – so here I’ll just remember how it was when the crowds gathered early by Billy’s statue, which was festooned with flowers, shirts, flags, toys, all manner of tributes to a great man taken far too soon. It was a spectacle alright, a reverential throng stood there around the statue, deep in thought, each still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had happened. The atmosphere was eerie and yet respectful, sad and yet full of memories and the hushed talk of happier times.
Tributes to a late hero
The match that followed happened to be against Millwall, normally a lively encounter on and off the pitch when the Londoners bring anything like decent numbers. That doesn’t happen often these days, security concerns having led to a reduction in the away support due to the annoyances surrounding Police restrictions on how the stadium may be approached. But whatever the history between United and Millwall, it should be said that those fans who had travelled north conducted themselves impeccably, both during the pre-match on-field ceremony when the remaining three of that fabulous early nineties midfield quartet laid a wreath in memory of Speedo, and afterwards during a game which seemed like a meaningless appendage to the sad, real business of the day.
For the record, Leeds won the game 2-0 with second-half goals from Rob Snodgrass – one special shot and one very good header. Good as the goals were, welcome though the three points undoubtedly felt on the day, I had forgotten the details of the game itself. The images that remain in my mind are those in the images that accompany this article, scenes I’ll never forget. Some things transcend mere sport and mere tribal rivalry.
After all, the sudden shock of Speed’s death had left its mark on fans everywhere, not just at the clubs he had served with such distinction. Everywhere. You only had to look at the bewildering array of tributes around Billy’s statue to know that, Leeds, Newcastle, Everton and Bolton, naturally they were represented. Sheffield United and the proud national colours of Wales, too. But also Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, Huddersfield – the list of old foes grew as you walked around the flower-strewn base of our late, great skipper’s statue.
When you think about it; what a great addition that legendary figure of Billy Bremner has been to Elland Road, what a proud focus for everything that Leeds means to its fans – and significantly, what a natural place to gather when we have good news to celebrate or bad news to mourn. Billy is always there when he’s needed, frozen in time, arms raised in triumph as when he walked off the field at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, knowing that he was in the greatest club game of all, at long last. It’s an inspiring, iconic work of commemorative art, and it provides such an appropriate backdrop when, as two years ago today, we had a more recent hero to pay our respects to, and for whom we had gathered to say our last farewells. It’s a place that conjures up a feeling of immense togetherness and solidarity, of what it means to be Leeds, in glory and in tragedy. It’s a sacred place, like that.
I’ll forget all about that game again, now that this piece is done. It was just another result, albeit one we’d normally savour, with fierce rivals beaten convincingly. But the atmosphere that day, the tangible tributes left by so many fans of so many other clubs, the dignity of the pre-match proceedings, the laudable and much-appreciated respect shown by the away fans – all of that will stay in the memory long after Snoddy’s two cracking goals have faded away. It was a sad but a special day, and surely Speedo could not have wished for a better farewell at what was his spiritual football home, the place that made him one of the Last Champions. It was tragic, awful, a needless waste the way Gary died. But when it came to saying goodbye to him, on this day two years back, Leeds United – and Millwall, and all the other clubs and fans – did it right.
John Stiles: scored the only time Leeds beat Wigan Athletic
Next up for Leeds after the disappointment at Blackburn is a team we’ve met in the league before – but we’ve never beaten them, we’ve never actually managed a draw – we’ve never, shameful though it might seem, even managed to score a league goal against these giants of the game. Then again, we’ve only played them twice in league games.
It is of course the mighty Wigan Athletic we’re talking about, denizens of a town best-known for pies and rugby league, in that order – with the football club still the poor relation of those three preoccupations. Still, the Latics are not to be sniffed at these days – they come to Elland Road as FA Cup holders, still campaigning on the continent in the rarefied atmosphere of European football and of course they’re one of those big boys lately of the Blessed and Stardusty Premier League, with playing staff and parachute payments to match. So we’d better not under-estimate them then, right? Right.
Wigan have actually been a little disappointing so far this season, given high expectations of a swift and trouble-free return to the top-flight. The early optimism seemed justified when they travelled to Barnsley on the opening day and stuffed them 4-0. The Championship settled back and prepared to watch the Cup-holders disappear over the horizon at the top of the league, but it hasn’t worked out like that. Results since then have been patchy with bright spells and Wigan will need to buck up their ideas soon if they’re not to endure a long and frosty winter. The bleak situation culminated this week with the dismissal of manager Owen Coyle, so yet again Leeds are to face a team bereft of a permanent manager, and looking to prove a point or two perhaps.
Leeds have historically fared best against the Latics in Cup competitions, winning at the old and decrepit Springfield Park in the FA Cup 6th Round of 1987 and then achieving two creditable draws against notionally superior opposition in the 2006 competition, Wigan going through on penalties after the Elland Road replay. But all was misery in the league for United in our only season of level-par competition with the Lancastrians, the Pie-munchers running out 2-0 winners in LS11, and dismissing us 3-0 in the return. The aim will have to be the old Wilko battle plan for every campaign – let’s get our first goal, first point, first win – ideally all of them in the same game. Such will be the objective on Wednesday night when a crowd swelled by some freebie tickets should provide plenty of vocal backing – nothing gets a Yorkshireman (or woman) so ready and raring to go as summat for nowt.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Leeds may well have just a little too much for their trans-pennine foes in this latest meeting. Late injury/recovery news will have a big say in how matters turn out – but barring any unforeseen calamity (fingers crossed Rossco is fit) – I can see Leeds winning by the odd goal in three. And who knows – as that seasonal magic begins to gather about us all, maybe Luke Varney will grab a goal as he did at Bolton, to win another Roses battle. Stranger things have happened.