Forty-two years ago today, one of the most notorious injustices in the history of European Football competition was visited upon the hapless heads of Leeds United at the European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final in Salonika, on 16 May 1973. There seems little doubt that the Greek referee, one Christos Michas, was bribed by Leeds’ opponents on the night, AC Milan. UEFA acted in the wake of this tawdry sham, banning Michas from officiating – a tacit admission that something about the match was very wrong indeed. This appeared to be a view shared by the crowd which attended the Final all those years ago; they roundly booed the Milan team as they sheepishly paraded the trophy, showing great sympathy to the unfairly beaten Leeds United team.
The game was littered with what might charitably be called dodgy decisions by Michas – fouls not given against Leeds, whose every little transgression was rigorously punished. Milan, it seemed, could do no wrong – Leeds were up against impossible odds, to the outrage and disgust of the largely neutral crowd. A Leeds player uninvolved through injury that night, Johnny Giles, had overheard enough before the match to glumly inform his team-mates in the dressing room that they “would not be allowed to win”. Not the best motivation, perhaps, but borne out in the end by the events which unfolded on the pitch.
An attempt at overturning – indeed reversing – this shoddy result took place in 2009 when Yorkshire & Humber MEP Richard Corbett gathered the support of over 12000 people for a petition he presented to UEFA on the 36th anniversary of the 1973 Final. UEFA refused to act on the petition, addressing a long-winded response to Mr Corbett, but failing utterly to expunge from their record such a shameful incident. Milan are still recorded as the 1973 Cup Winners, a situation so bizarre as to be frankly laughable.
At a time when the fortunes of the Elland Road club are once again at a low ebb, there’s frequently some comfort to be had in looking back at what has, at times, been a glorious and trophy-laden history for Yorkshire’s premier football outfit. But some anniversaries – this is one, and there’s shortly to be another when we remember being robbed in Paris in 1975 – simply remind us of how much more that great team could have achieved on a level playing field – if they had not been thwarted at every turn by incompetent or bent refereeing, official intransigence by the Football League, the FA and UEFA – or a grisly combination of all these negative factors.
The European Cup Winners Cup Final in Greece 42 years ago today goes down in history as yet another occasion when Leeds United were the bridesmaids and not the brides – the bald facts of the matter will record Leeds as big-time losers once more, sadly, when the real story of that game goes far beyond the result into very murky territory indeed. Leeds fans will quite rightly see their team as the moral victors on a day of disgrace for UEFA. Tragically, the surviving warriors in white from that May evening so long ago will almost certainly never see matters put right – and so the winners’ medals will continue to adorn trophy cabinets that are shamed by their presence there.
On a day when we yet again face an uncertain future, and when the prospects of more silverware for our great club seem very distant indeed, we salute the real winners of the 16th May 1973 – Leeds United.