Still stuck in post-festive torpor and suffering with a heavy cold besides, I was watching “The Dam Busters” on Channel Five this afternoon, marvelling at the unaccustomed use of the “N-word” in reference to Guy Gibson’s dog, which rejoiced in a name even Nigel Farage would baulk at these days. Well, possibly. Much more to be marvelled at was the reckless bravery and absolute lack of fear among the aircrew charged with delivering the Barnes Wallis “bouncing bomb” against three dams in the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany, the Ruhr Valley. The mission was a significant success in terms of its objective, if not so much when judged by the number of lives lost. Over fifty men died as eight of the nineteen bombers failed to return.
It felt like the weirdest of coincidences, then, that the first news I heard after the last strains of Eric Coates’ “Dam Busters March” faded away was of the death of Leslie Silver OBE, former chairman of Leeds United AFC and a past hero of Bomber Command, completing over forty ops in Europe and twenty in the Far East, where he was involved in dropping supplies into the infamous Changi gaol. Silver left the RAF at the age of 22 in 1947, having served four years during which he flew the full quota of 250 operational hours with four different squadrons. In 2013, he was awarded the Bomber Command Clasp at the age of 88.
Clearly, no ordinary man was our Mr. Silver. Having served his country so auspiciously in wartime, he then set about creating the business empire that would eventually make his fortune as well as contributing in large measure to the revival of a moribund late-eighties Leeds United. As a highly successful businessman in his fifties, Silver had been awarded the OBE in 1982, a year after joining the United board and a year before becoming Chairman, a position he held until 1996.
Leslie Silver’s time as Chairman at Leeds United encompassed the second most successful period in the club’s history, overseeing a rise from poverty at the foot of Division Two, with a disastrous relegation into the lower reaches of the league beckoning, to top-flight promotion, European campaigns and, of course, the immortal title of the Last Champions. Leeds took that final honour by four clear points in 1992, just before the restructuring of English football on a “greed is good, might is right” basis before the altar of satellite TV.
It goes without saying that Silver’s wealth, his business acumen and his vision were driving forces behind the meteoric rise of Leeds in the late eighties and early nineties. The amazing surge to success was even more abrupt and stunning than that of Don Revie’s white machine a quarter of a century before. Chief Silver and his chosen NCO, Sergeant Howard Wilkinson, plotted a path from the basement of the second tier right up to the ultimate prize in just under four years; it took Revie and Alderman Percy Woodward half as long again to make a comparable journey in the sixties.
That Silver had the vision to identify and recruit his man, and then the courage and grit to back him financially, is something for which all Leeds fans should be forever grateful. He embellished our history with a second era of glory by his astute choice of manager and his unswerving loyalty and commitment to the Wilko plan. When Silver stepped down, it was the end of sustainable success for Leeds; beyond lay only “living the dream” and the subsequent nightmare we’re all too painfully aware of today.
Leslie Silver deserves to be remembered as a major, pivotal figure in the history of Leeds United, as well as, of course, one of those long-ago heroes from the dark days of global war seven decades back. In later life, he also became the first Chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, these days known as Leeds Beckett University – and a faculty of that institution now bears his name.
For an unassuming war hero who died with the world still riven by strife – and for the modest mastermind behind the renaissance of a sleeping football giant, who leaves us as that giant slumbers once again – the reminder of his contribution to learning in Leeds may yet be the tribute he’d have prized above all others.
Leslie Silver, 1925 – 2014. Alav HaShalom.