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 frames, and then do it all over again – for the full 90 minutes, Brian. 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 Bremner, Giles & 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 passes. 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 on certain big occasions, Don Revie’s crippling caution and superstition – 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 Real 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 accolade of Last Real Champions. As Super Leeds, they dominated English Football for a decade, without ever winning their due. Now that we can look back to a turning point for the game 23 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.
Agree with everything you said again. Between 1967 and 1973 the First Division was won by Man United, Man City, Leeds United, Everton, Arsenal, Derby County and Liverpool. When Leeds won the league again in 1974 they ended a run of seven different champions in seven years. Can you ever think that that could every happen again?
How I miss those days!! I was 11 when we got promoted in 1990 and 13 when we won the title in 1992…it was a childhood full of memories and heroes who to this day, I hold a special place in my heart for. Strachan, Batty, Sterland, Speed, Chris ‘Mamba’ Fairclough (my brother asked him why they called him Mamba, “is it where you come from” ??? He asked !!!…..Fairclough just laughed and said no, ‘”Not quite mate”….great memories!! Even Peter Haddock and Kamara looked like ‘real’ players and when McCallister came to our school, it was a MASSIVE event !! These players had something, charisma?? Heart?? Whatever it was it was special and it inspired me.
I guess what im trying to say is that, although too young to remember the glory days of 1960’s and 1970’s, I was lucky enough to follow a team of real quality which gave me memories I will cherish til the end of my days.
It breaks my heart that today’s 11 and 13 year olds don’t have the same heroes to aspire to be (I actually wanted to be Mervyn Day in the school playground!!!)….i even wanted the Dicky Davies silver quiff !! Can’t see many wanting to be Silvestri and his hair braids can you ??
It was real back then, honest and bloody real….how I miss it. I hope it comes back !!! Marching on together.
I just watched Emre Chan of Liverpool fall over and get a Sunderland player sent off. The Professional Foul Rule was once welcomed, now it’s a millstone around referee’s necks which MAKES them ruin a football match. How good would it be to see Clive Thomas, or George Courtney or Jack Taylor referee today? And how many of today’s prima donnas would last 5 minutes in a game of proper football? Leeds United’s early 70s team were the best club side this world has seen, but today they would end each game with 5 players. A good thing? No – but I’m a Leeds fan, so my opinion does not count
1962 my first trip to the great ER. My stomach used to churn as the match day got nearer.Now it churns for different resons. I don’t like today’s football, its been ruined by money and these guys today would not last two minutes in the 60s, 70s. Every team had real characters, some you loved, some you hated and it was a real mans game. To be fair, today’s generation know no better, its their time now. Sad really.
Mind reader! This would be the article I would write if I could put my thoughts down in words as well as you often do. I have had to explain so many times when asked “Leeds? What do you support them for? M#n U and C###sea are so much better” Then I feel obliged to put them straight, more or less using the words you have written here. Leeds were the best back in those days, no question. But there were others, Liverpool and Arsenal to name 2 . Proper clubs with proper teams and proper fans who UNDERSTOOD what football is REALLY about. Those days have gone and will never return and it’s a crying bloody shame. Well done again Rob. Keep it up mate..
My two lads, one each two years either side of twenty, often say to me, Dad, I wish I had been bought up in the 70’s and proper football. They love watching the old matches on U tube or whatever its called. Games in the snow with an orange ball, games in the mud with the ball stopping dead from a pass. Proper football.
And they get plenty of stories from their old man too! I have been Leeds for over 46 years but I can still name more players from those other great early 70’s teams than I can todays prima donnas. Man City I always enjoyed watching, especially Colin Bell, and even the second tier teams like WBA, Stoke and West Ham had some great players.
And as for that Southampton game. Has there ever been a more perfect display of pure football genius than in that 90 minutes in any match in any league in any country in the world? I doubt it. “Poor old Southampton just don’t know what day it is. Its almost cruel”
Southampton did have a slightly leaky defence that year, I believe this wasn’t the only occasion they shipped over half a dozen. But this was the stand-out demolition, not just for the scale of the victory, but mainly for the way Leeds toyed with them, leaving them utterly demoralised. It was clear that the one thing which hurts a team more than scoring loads against them, is just to deprive them of the ball and keep possession for the hell of it, taunting them – because you can. That’s what this Leeds United team did better than I’ve ever seen anyone do it, anytime, anywhere. The best, simple as.