Each of Leeds United’s three Football League Championship titles was clinched at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC. In 1992, the Reds were good enough to beat a demoralised Man U 2-0 which, added to our earlier triumph at Bramall Lane, saw us as Champions by 4 points in the last ever proper old-style league competition. In 1974, Liverpool obliged at Anfield again, losing at home to Arsenal to ensure that they couldn’t overhaul us at the top. I remember a TV programme going to an ad break and then an information board coming up which read “Football result: Liverpool 0, Arsenal 1 – LEEDS UNITED ARE THE CHAMPIONS” That simple memory still sends a tingle down my spine, even forty years on.
And of course – probably best of all – Leeds United’s first ever title success at the top level of the game came after a showdown between the two deadly but mutually respectful rivals on April 28 1969 – almost exactly 45 years ago. Leeds had come to Anfield knowing that a point would clinch the league, and they set out their stall as only they could to obtain that point, in the toughest place possible. They would go on to beat Nottingham Forest in the last game of that season to reach a record 67 points – a mark that wasn’t beaten until Liverpool themselves recorded 68 points, ironically with a 3-0 win at Elland Road, in their fabulous 1978/79 Championship year.
That legendary Leeds United squad of the sixties and seventies hung on Don Revie’s every word, they would follow him into the pit of Hell itself and they trusted him implicitly. This was the cornerstone of the relationship between team and boss; the unit thus formed was formidable indeed and, on their day, there was no-one to touch them. It was often said of that Leeds side that if you cut one, they all bled – and then you’d better watch out, because they’d be after you as one man to seek retribution. They would do anything for each other and anything for the legendary Don – but on that historic night at Anfield 45 years back, they must have come as near as they ever came to saying “You what, gaffer? Are you bloody sure??”
On the final whistle, as the Leeds players cavorted with joy in front of their delirious fans at this first delightful taste of being The Best – and as the weary Liverpool troops, having given their all in vain, sportingly congratulated the new Champions – Revie came over to Billy Bremner and confirmed to him that he was to lead his team over to the Kop. This, remember, was at a time when crowd violence was becoming very fashionable. A similar gesture at the Theatre of Hollow Myths down Trafford way, and sundry other less-than-welcoming grounds around the country, might very well have got you a crack on the head with a pool ball or a dart in the eye. It did rather seem to be pushing things a bit – but Revie was insistent, and he was very definitely The Boss.
So it happened that Billy Bremner, captain of champions Leeds United, gathered his players together and led them on a long, slow walk to the legendary Anfield Kop. When it was realised what was happening, a hush fell on the ground. In near-silence, the heroes in white walked on, nearer and nearer to the most iconic terrace of them all.
On the night, Bremner had won the toss for Leeds, and had elected to make the Reds attack the Kop in the first half; a tactical ploy that went against the home side’s preference for a second half onslaught on their favourite end. So the Leeds players had to walk nearly the length of the pitch to approach the massed Liverpool fans behind the Kop goal, and with every passing second, the silence became more loaded – almost a solid thing you might cut with a knife. Leeds United were asking for it – what would they get?
What they did get is now the stuff of legend and has passed deservedly into United and Liverpool folklore. As the triumphant yet apprehensive Leeds warriors finally neared the Kop, the long silence was finally broken as the first cry of “Champions!” went up, swiftly echoed by others on the still-packed terrace – until finally the whole 27,000 population of that mighty hill were acclaiming the title-winners with the same shout, over and over again: “Champions! Champions! Champions!!”
This was completely unprecedented; a moment unparalleled before or since, something to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, the ultimate acknowledgement of respect and admiration even out of defeat – and a massive credit to the football fans of Liverpool FC. It was the epitome of true rivalry between two crack teams, forged out of one of the grisliest on-field battles any football ground had witnessed for many a long year. No finer tribute could have been paid by any fans, anywhere – and the Leeds players stayed out there, in front of the Kop, for a good quarter of an hour or more, paying their respects to both sets of fans.
Later, in the dressing room, Leeds celebrated anew with champagne provided by Bill Shankly, whose quote was short and to the point: ‘Leeds United are worthy champions,’ he said. ‘They are a great side.’ Revie responded by praising Liverpool, the club, the fans and their fine team. ‘The reception given us by the sporting Liverpool crowd was truly magnificent,’ he acknowledged, ‘and so, for that matter, was our defence tonight. It was superb in everything.’ The conduct and bearing of both managers was a mark of the relationship between the two top clubs in the land – and a marked contrast to the ungraceful reaction of Alex Ferguson at the same venue 23 years later, after the Leeds of 1992 had pipped his charges to the Last Championship Title and he, characteristically, dripped bile and acid all over the occasion.
Looking back from today’s perspective, with managers bitching about each other, players diving, cheating and trying to get each other into disciplinary trouble – and the stench of filthy lucre all-pervading – it seems far longer ago than 45 years to that Anfield night when the competition was so unremittingly fierce; white-hot, with no quarter given or asked for. And yet after the battle was done, all that remained was respect from the teams for each other, of the staff for their opposite numbers, and of both sets of fans for an epic battle well fought.
Sadly, those days are gone, never to return. But for those of us lucky enough to be able to remember, those images will never fade, the sound of those tributes can still be heard ringing out across the years. It was a night of triumph and disaster, as these decisive nights tend to be, depending on whether you were White or Red; but it was also, let us not forget, a night of dignity, respect and utter, unalloyed class – not least from those 27,000 Liverpool fans on the Anfield Kop.