Leeds United usually seem to be around when some epochal achievement is recorded – or at least, they used to be. They won the last ever old-style Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1971, beating Juventus on the away goals rule. They won the last ever old-style Football League Championship in 1992, leaving Fergie’s hapless Man U team gasping four points in their wake. They were also perched proudly at the summit of English football as the millennium clicked over its four digits from 1999 to 2000 – a historical landmark that all of the tabloids had been eagerly talking up for the Pride of Devon. And, forty-two years ago today, on the 6th May 1972, Leeds United won the Centenary FA Cup Final at Wembley, beating Arsenal 1-0 with a classic diving header from Allan “Sniffer” Clarke.
It was a triumph that pre-dated my active support for Leeds United by two or three years, so it’s one I’ve only been able to savour in retrospect. But the images of that day are as clear to me as if I’d actually been there – a sneaky Leeds arm reaching around the back of a defensive wall to tug at Charlie George’s long hair, Paul Reaney stalwart on the line to block a fizzing shot from Alan Ball, the Leeds attack swarming around the Arsenal goal as they sought the vital breakthrough. And, of course, Mick Jones, hurdling McNab’s attempted challenge to get to the byline, pulling back a quality ball which dipped down around the penalty spot – and Clarke, stooping to conquer, arrowing his legendary header past ‘keeper Geoff Barnett, into the corner of the Arsenal net.
Leeds had known only heartbreak in FA Cup finals before this day – and they would know more the following year. In addition, they were shamefully to be compelled by unsympathetic authorities to play a League Title decider at Wolverhampton only 48 hours after this Wembley battle against Bertie Mee’s uncompromising Arsenal troops. Imagine that happening today. It was a task too much for Revie’s shattered warriors, bereft of the injured Mick Jones. Blatant penalties denied them, they slipped to a 2-1 defeat at Wolves and, instead of celebrating their sole FA Cup triumph, the whole club tasted the bitter fruits of disappointment – yet again.
The game itself was typical of a meeting between the two sides who had dominated the start of the Seventies. The year before, Arsenal had won the “Double” – becoming champions with a win at Spurs despite having lost an epic encounter at Elland Road shortly beforehand. So it was the reigning Title and Cup holders Leeds were up against at Wembley that day, but in a less than classic Final, there was really no doubt as to which was the better team.
The fact that this 1972 triumph remains Leeds United’s solitary FA Cup success is somehow symptomatic of where they fell short in those trophy-hunting decades of the Sixties and Seventies. The best team normally wins the League – that was the case anyway in those level playing field years before it became a case of who had the most money. But to win a Cup requires that bit of luck, a few breaks here and there. Leeds have only won one League Cup too, though even then it was a landmark one – the first at Wembley. We were indisputably the best team around for many years in that Revie reign – but we were never the luckiest nor were we all that fairly treated and, even in the league, we were denied on a few occasions by teams we should have been looking down on from the top.
Still, the fact is that, today, the two domestic Cups offer themselves as the best chance for re-emergent clubs to break into the honours-winning clutch of successful teams. Titles these days are the preserve of the mega-rich – those who argue that Leeds United are the last genuine Champions do rather have a point, as we were the last club to taste success on a reasonable budget as compared to the bulk of our rivals. If Leeds were to get back into the big-time sooner rather than later, then a realistic aim would be to consolidate top-flight membership, and look for silverware to the League Cup or – preferably – the FA Cup. That has been the path followed by Swansea City, an excellent example of a club climbing from the lower reaches of the league ladder, brilliantly managed to tangible success. And, of course, Hull City will shortly appear in their first FA Cup Final. Now if they can do it…
I have been lucky enough to see my beloved Whites win the Football League Championship, and that’s something I’ll never forget – but realistically, I don’t think it’s a thing I’ll see again in my lifetime. But I’m grateful for having witnessed it, it’s something I can add to the legacy and history of what was a magical Revie-fashioned squad, Super Leeds. That era is the heritage of all of us, something we can all be massively proud of. But it’s nice to see the odd honour added to the club’s record with your own eyes – so the ’92 title and even the Charity Shield that followed both mean a hell of a lot to me.
Maybe I will yet see the heroes in the white shirts add further to the list of honours won by my club. It’s wonderful to think I might – and a repeat of the Wembley triumph of that day forty-two years ago at any point over the next few years would do very nicely indeed. McCormack or Smith with a diving header to nick the Cup 1-0 for Leeds again? You never know.