Daily Archives: 11/09/2013

Super Leeds: The Last Champions – by Rob Atkinson

Stand Up For The Last Champions

Stand Up For The Last Champions

If you should happen to be a football fan – as I am, and have been these many years, since days of yore with short shorts, middling ability and long sideburns – then you may well be in the habit of switching on the TV occasionally to watch the glitzy offerings of the munificently funded Premier League.  With its incomparable array of prima donnas and fabulously wealthy superstars, prancing athletically around a pristine and manicured football pitch in the very latest state-of-the-art stadium (constructed courtesy of Meccano Inc.) – it’s a far cry from the heyday of The Football League, Divisions One to Four.

Back then, men were men, refs were nervous and physios routinely cured ruptured cruciates or shattered thighs with a damp sponge and hoarse exhortations to “gerron with it” – or so it seemed.   Full-backs with legs of the type more usually to be found on billiard tables would careen through the mud at Elland Road or Anfield, some flash, quivering, overpaid at £200 a week winger in their merciless sights, destined to be afflicted with acute gravel-rash.  Centre-backs with foreheads like sheer cliffs would head muddy balls clear to the halfway line, get up out of the mire, groggily shake their mighty heads, and then do it all over again – for the full 90 minutes, Brian, giving it 110%.  The good old days, without a doubt.

There is little that the modern game has in common with those far-off, non-High Definition times when some top-flight games weren’t even covered by a local TV camera for a brief clip on regional news.  Now, every kick of ball or opponent is available in super slow-mo for in-depth analysis by a battery of “experts”, from a dozen different angles.  The game today is under the microscope seven days a week, where then it was viewed only from afar, limited to highlights from a select few stadia every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.  Even now, the smell of hot ironing and roast beef with Yorkshire Pud will take me back to Sabbath afternoons sat contentedly before “Sunday Soccer” as Billy Bremner and Co dismantled the hapless opposition.

Leeds United was the team, back then.  On their day, the lads would toy with their rivals as a particularly cruel cat might do with a half-dead mouse.  Many will recall the spectacle of a mortally-wounded Southampton side – already seven goals to nil down near the end of the game – trying all they knew to get a touch of the ball as their tormentors in white passed it effortlessly between themselves, brazenly flaunting their catalogue of flicks, reverse balls and sublime long passing.  The game was long since won and all Leeds’ energies were palpably focused on a very public humiliation of their exasperated victims.  Some thought it was in poor taste, a shoddy way to treat fellow professionals.  Leeds fans remember it 40 years on as the ultimate statement of an undeniably top team, proclaiming to the nation “Look at us.  We are the best.”

This was 1972, when Leeds might well have won pretty much everything, but had to settle in the end for their solitary FA Cup triumph, missing out on the Title right at the death in typically controversial circumstances.  Leeds won far less than they should have done; a combination of official intransigence, their own inherent self-doubt, Don Revie’s crippling caution and superstitions – together it must be said with some shockingly bad luck – limited their trophy haul to a mere trickle when it should have been a flood.  But those flickering images of arrogant dominance and untouchable skill revealed also an unbreakable brotherhood and grisly determination that spoke of a very special team indeed.  The resonance even today of that oft-repeated tag “Super Leeds” says far more about the status of Revie’s side than any mundane tally of trophies possibly could.

In those days, of course, the gulf in ability between Leeds United and Southampton, described by Match of the Day commentator Barry Davies as “an almighty chasm”, was just that.  The gap in class was achieved on merit.  It wasn’t backed up by any such gulf in the relative earnings of the men in white and the demoralised Saints, or players of any other club.  The playing field back then was very much more level than it is now, when the top few clubs – in an apt metaphor for society at large – cream off the bulk of the income, leaving the rest to feed on scraps.  The pool of possible Champions was consequently greater – Derby County won it that year of Southampton’s ritual humiliation, as Leeds faltered when required to play their last League game a mere two days after a gruelling Cup Final.  Imagine the outcry if one of the major teams had to do that today!  And ask yourself if a Derby County or a Nottingham Forest are likely to be Champions again in the near future, blocked off as they are from that status by the oligarchy at the Premier League’s top table.

There aren’t many more hackneyed phrases than “The Good Old Days” – but for those who like their sporting competition to have a wide and varied base, with the possibility of a good proportion of the participants actually having a chance to win in any given season – then the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s take some beating.  Leeds United fans like to refer to their team of 1992 as “The Last Champions”, and a convincing case can be made for this, looking at the transformation which took place shortly thereafter, the explosion in finances for the chosen few, and the small number of clubs – invariably backed by mega-millions – who have been Champions since.  Even the once-mighty Liverpool FC has been affected.  Despite Leeds United’s current problems, they have been Champions more recently than the Anfield Reds.

It’s perhaps fitting that Leeds have a claim to the title of The Last Champions.  As Super Leeds, they dominated English Football for a decade, without ever winning their due.  Now that we can look back with misty eyes to a turning point for the game 21 years ago when the Premier League broke away, and the cash registers started to make more noise than disillusioned fans, we can possibly consider those 1992 Champions, nod to ourselves, and say yes; they were the last of the old guard, the final Champions of the Good Old Days.

As epitaphs go, it’s not a bad one.

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Brian McDermott in Frame For Irish Republic Job? – by Rob Atkinson

With the departure of Giovanni Trapattoni from the managerial hot-seat after the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying defeat to Austria this week, the gentlemen of the Press are busy compiling an initial list of names for an early guesswork list of candidates to replace the Italian. One name that has cropped up in this immediate bout of speculation is that of Leeds United’s still fairly new manager Brian McDermott.

The inclusion of the Leeds boss among the likely lads to succeed Trapattoni will not be welcome news at Elland Road and will revive unhappy memories for United fans of longer duration. Back in 1978, Leeds had dispensed with the services of Jimmy Armfield who had provided some stability after the 44 day maelstrom of Brian Clough. Armfield was replaced by a true legend of the game in Jock Stein, European Cup-winning giant of Glasgow Celtic and seen at the time as a suitably big name to revive United’s fortunes 4 years down the line from the glittering Revie era. But Stein too lasted only 44 days, departing to take over the reins of the Scotland international team after Ally McLeod’s turbulent reign ended in the wake of that summer’s World Cup disaster in Argentina. The loss of Stein hurt Leeds badly – he had started well at Elland Road but there were rumours that his wife failed to settle south of the border.

For Leeds, after Jock Stein, it was a downward spiral, through the tenure of Jimmy Adamson and then Revie old-boy Allan Clarke, to relegation from the top flight in 1982. Who knows what Jock Stein might have achieved with Leeds? He was an institution of the game, right up there with Shankly, Busby and Revie himself. He did well for Scotland right up to his sudden and untimely death at a World Cup qualifier in Wales.

Any attempt by the FAI to seduce McDermott from his burgeoning project at Leeds is likely to be stoutly resisted by United, though it would almost certainly come down to the personal preference of the man himself. Nobody can usefully hang on to an unhappy boss whose heart lies elsewhere, but there has been no suggestion of unhappiness in the Life of Brian since moving to LS11. On the contrary, he appears extremely happy to be in charge at Elland Road, being reported to have thanked Reading FC for sacking him and affording him the chance to take on such a massive club, about whom he has said all the right things since moving into Neil Warnock’s old office. The fans have taken to Brian as he seems to have taken to them – not many managers have stumped up their last 50 Euros on a pre-season tour to buy the lads on the terraces a drink. McDermott seems to relish the task he’s taken on at Leeds United.

It’s to be hoped then that the mention of Brian’s name is based on nothing more than lazy journalism, a concept not entirely unfamiliar where Leeds United reportage is concerned. Truly is it said that the grass is not always greener and despite the possible lure of international football, this applies as much to the Emerald Isle as it might to anywhere else.

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No Wins for Bolton, No Goals for Beckford – Banana Skin for Leeds United at the Weekend? – by Rob Atkinson

Beckford - Eager to Get Off the Mark

Beckford – Eager to Get Off the Mark

The game that faces Leeds on Saturday at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium is the kind of fixture guaranteed to bring out the inner pessimism at the core of the Leeds United fans’ collective psyche. Bolton Wanderers prop up the Championship table, winless and apparently hapless. Jermaine Beckford, a man with a permanent place in the affections of the Leeds support, has made only a handful of appearances in the league for his new club, failing to find the net and looking short on confidence as well as long on nerves. It’s the kind of opening to a season which puts Leeds’ own steady if unspectacular start into context – but are Bolton really that bad? And shouldn’t we maybe worry that the script is written here for Beckford to start endearing himself to a new set of fans?

That’s the glass-half-empty view. Really though, this game should provide a brilliant opportunity for the Whites to build upon a respectable away record this season. The victory at Ipswich was a bit of a smash-and-grab raid, with the home side having dominated plenty of the game. The match at Leicester was a battle of attrition, and both sides appeared that evening more intent on not losing, than inspired by any urgent desire to secure all three points. It’s time that Leeds hit the road with the express ambition of bringing home a victory and motivated to put in an emphatic performance to deserve the win. Brian McDermott has spoken this week of the need for Leeds to express themselves a little more; to get on the ball and “do their stuff”. This sounds like the kind of mindset which could start to produce a few more positive results, though obviously the instruction to start taking a few risks needs to be interpreted judiciously – we can’t afford to start shipping goals.

The prospect of facing Jermaine Beckford again is intriguing. He produced one less-than-committed performance against Leeds in Leicester colours, seeming more preoccupied by acknowledging the tributes from the Elland Road fans than by any genuine desire to score against us. Beckford has been a peripheral figure for his new club but – that Leicester performance apart – there is the feeling that he’s the kind of player who could find extra motivation against former employers. The lure of breaking his league duck for Bolton, giving them their first league victory in the process and easing the pressure on his manager, former Leeds loanee Dougie Freedman, might appeal to his striker’s sense of theatre. Fingers crossed that, if he does make an entrance, he’ll obligingly fluff his lines.

The other figure in the Bolton ranks that will interest Leeds fans more than somewhat would be Matt Mills, linked with a sentimental return to the guidance of Brian McDermott for most of the recently-closed transfer window. If anything, he’s even more of a bit-part player for Bolton than Beckford has been, rolled out only in the direst emergency and it seems certain that his future still lies elsewhere.

Leeds will not be too downhearted by the nature of their defeat last time out to likely champions QPR. Against a collection of players costing many times the value of the Leeds squad, they battled well and it would not have been a travesty had Rudy Austin’s late screamer earned them a point instead of careening off the crossbar. If the Whites can take encouragement from that game into the one at the Reebok, then a three-point haul from this game is distinctly possible, and they may well be worth a punt at realistic odds of 5-2. But still there is that hint of the banana skin about the match. McDermott’s exhortations towards more freedom of expression and a few more risks notwithstanding, Leeds will need to be careful and committed to avoid the embarrassment of falling victims to Bolton’s first win and Beckford’s first league goal.