Monthly Archives: December 2015

Sam Byram Should Put Himself First; and Stay at Leeds United   –   by Rob Atkinson

Sam Byram: learning his trade at Leeds United

Sam Byram: learning his trade at Leeds United

Wolves 2, Leeds United 3

Sam Byram is already a very good footballer as well as a tolerably wealthy young man. These twin attributes should see him able to set himself up for life by the time those distant days of his mid-thirties are upon him. Given ordinary luck, he will then be able to look back upon a long and successful career with the security of a good few million in his Post Office Savings Account. All of which means that the contract decision he is now in the process of making is unlikely to have major long-term financial implications. What Byram really needs to consider is where best to spend the next few, still formative, years of his football education. And, despite the lure of fatter contracts elsewhere, it may well be that those long-term interests will be best served by remaining at Elland Road for the immediate future at least.

The wisdom of this could be illustrated by considering the differing fates of those who have previously struck out along the path to fame, fortune and some Premier League giant’s reserve side, as opposed to the more cautious types who stuck with their club of origin until a degree of maturity grew about them. There’s no hard and fast rule here, and no real need to name names. But let’s do so anyway – take the example of our own Gary Speed, who stayed with Leeds and built a firm foundation for a lengthy career that now sees him venerated as a legend, a status that owes little if anything to his tragic early death. Speed enjoyed the fruits of success at several other top-flight clubs after putting in the years at Leeds, not incidentally picking up a Title-winner’s medal while he was here. His mark on the game was made indelibly before he secured a move to his boyhood heroes Everton

Consider also the case of Aaron Lennon, a teen speed machine at Leeds who was sold early to Spurs when the Ridsdale house of cards came tumbling down. It was crisis time at Leeds, and Lennon’s move to London was inevitable – but if he’d had the chance to follow Gary Speed’s example, might he not have made slightly more of an impression later on in his career? There is the air of potential not quite fulfilled about Lennon – and who knows what a few more years in his formative environment might have done for him? No matter, you might say – he’s still loaded and made for life. But, even today, football is not all about money. Byram will wind up extremely wealthy whatever path he takes, barring some unforeseen misfortune. Short term financial gain should, perhaps, take second place to his prospects of securing for himself a place in football history. 

This was really the theme of United manager Steve Evans‘ post-match remarks after United’s 3-2 success at Wolves, in which Byram returned to the starting line-up and scored twice. If the lad wants to stay and play for a club and manager that appreciates him, earning “decent money”, then he’ll have a chance of being part of whatever Evans and Leeds can achieve over the next few years. “We’re trying to build something here”, says Evans – and as we all know, if you build something at Leeds United, then the world sits up and takes notice. 

Byram’s choice is not really about money at all – it’s about how best to ensure the game will remember him after his playing days are over. Terrific prospect though he is, it’s quite possible that Leeds could be the biggest club Byram ever plays for. Where else might he end up? Norwich, like Jonny Howson? Hull, like Rob Snodgrass?

For all but the very best, the only way from Elland Road is down, whatever the league tables might temporarily say. And it will be a few years yet before we can say with any certainty whether Byram is out of that very top drawer. If he is, then he might have his choice of big clubs in his mid-twenties, at home or abroad. The sky could be the limit. And if he’s not – well, then, he might be ushered out of Leeds United anyway. Better, surely, to stay with an indisputably massive football institution while he can, buckle down and learn the rest of his trade – and see where the journey takes both himself and the club. Byram has the luxury of time and an enviable situation. He must be sure not to fritter either away.

This blog is on record as stating more than once that Sam Byram is not indispensable as far as Leeds and their battle to achieve top-flight status are concerned. I stand by that. If the club can get decent money for Sam – and reinvest it – then the loss of one precocious talent need not prevent the club returning to its natural level. And even if he were to go for a song – the club is still bigger than any one talent. Leeds will be back anyway, sooner or later.

It is probably fair to argue, as this article has set out to do, that Byram needs Leeds more than Leeds United needs Sam Byram – certainly at this point in his development. A few years on, the shoe might very well be on the other foot. Who knows? But, for the time being, Sam’s best bet could be to put pen to paper, get on with his work – and do his best to reward the fans who have supported him so well and with such pride thus far in his fledgling career. 

Do yourself a favour, Sam. Put your own best interests first. Stay at Leeds United, stay true to your roots – and help restore a true giant of the game back to its proper place. Deep down, mere considerations of pounds and pence notwithstanding, you must know it makes sense. 

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The Day We Lost Billy Bremner, a Superstar to Eclipse Any Today – by Rob Atkinson

The more I see of football these days, with all of its allegedly “world class” stars, the more I think of the guy who scored the first goal I ever saw Leeds United score – in the flesh, so to speak. His hair was red and fuzzy and his body black and blue, and his name was Billy Bremner. God alone knows what he’d be worth today – sadly, he hasn’t been around since that awful time, 21 years ago exactly, when football was deprived of a legend and Leeds United began to come to terms with the loss of a man who embodied everything that the Last Champions were all about, at their very, very best.

On the 7th December 1997, two days short of his 55th birthday, our greatest captain Billy Bremner died following a heart attack after a bout of pneumonia. The Leeds United world was plunged into shock and mourning at the death of a true hero, and the game’s great and good attended his funeral in Edlington. The tiny church, packed to the rafters with household names, was resounding testimony to the respect in which the wee man was held by all who knew the legend. Old comrades and old foes alike were there to say goodbye to an icon who had left us tragically young, but who had emblazoned his name across an era not wanting for stars.

Image Scoring for Leeds

Billy Bremner was quite simply a phenomenon. From the earliest days of his Leeds United career, once he had recovered from a bout of home-sickness for his native Stirling in Scotland, he was an automatic selection for the first team, unless injury or suspension ruled him out. He was a warrior, despite his diminutive size, but he was blessed with all the other attributes needed for a central midfielder on the battlegrounds of the English First Division. Skill, courage, “workrate” – as it’s known these days – were combined with sheer guts, tenacity, will to win – and that indefinable x-factor that ultimately set him apart from other gifted performers. A ball-winner, a talented user of the ball once won, a relentless harrier of the opposition for the full ninety minutes plus of each gruelling game – and a scorer of great goals too. Bremner was a big occasion man, a serial winner of semi-finals (Man U being his favourite victims), a man who unfailingly stepped up to the mark when his team-mates and fans needed him. He was utterly self-effacing in the interests of what was best for the team. Side before self, every time was his motto, and he lived up to those words for as long as he was involved in football.

Some called him dirty. And he was as capable as most other combative central midfielders of a bit of feisty skullduggery – but to define him by his occasional sins would be short-sighted in the extreme and would display, moreover, a lack of awareness of exactly what his game was all about. A consummate passer of the ball – with the neat reverse pass a speciality, flummoxing and wrong-footing many an international-class opponent – Bremner was the epitome of Don Revie‘s Leeds United, a team who said “If you want to play, we’ll out-play you; if you want to battle, we’ll out-battle you.” They usually out-thought and out-psyched the opposition as well. Many a visiting player was artfully allowed a glimpse as they passed by of the sign on the home team dressing room wall at Elland Road. “Keep Fighting”, it said – which was what Leeds United, guided by Don Revie off the field and Billy Bremner on it, did – and they did it better than just about anybody else.

Image Leeds United hero

The Sunday Times perhaps summed-up Billy Bremner as well and as succinctly as anyone. “Ten stone of barbed wire” they called him – the image of a spiky, perilous bundle of energy conjured up in five telling words. I saw an old clip on YouTube recently, grainy black and white footage of some or other game back in the day, and there had been an incident that set the players en masse at each other’s throats. Bremner – unusually – must have been some way off when the flashpoint occurred, for he was nowhere to be seen with the melée already well established. And then, from the right-hand margin of the screen, came this white-clad, unmistakable figure, tiny but fierce, hurtling towards the centre of the conflict with the desire to weigh in on behalf of the team writ large in every line of his being. He was a frenetic mixture of Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil, plunging into the fray like some one-man whirlwind, wreaking his own inimitable brand of havoc. Bremner was famous, even notorious, for this – for his battle-cry of “cut one of us, and we all bleed.” Billy shed blood in the United cause – usually, it must be said, not his own. But a thug he was not, and any team, any time, anywhere in the world would break the bank to have a Billy Bremner in his prime among their number. Fortunately for Leeds United, he loved the club and served it for sixteen years, becoming synonymous with the famous Whites of Elland Road. As Leeds fans, we could nominate no better candidate for the honorific title of “Mr. Leeds United”. Only the great John Charles, operating in a much less successful era at Leeds and destined to win his medals on foreign fields, could come anywhere near.

My second match as a Leeds United supporter was the European Cup semi-final, first leg against CF Barcelona, Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens and all. Those two Dutch masters, with all the other glitterati of the Catalans’ world-class line-up were expected to have too much for a United side on the cusp of just dipping over the hill.  The previous Saturday, I’d made my first visit to Elland Road and had seen us lose to Liverpool. I was all agog at the atmosphere, and didn’t really care about the result – I just wanted more.

BBC Commentary, Leeds Utd v Barcelona 9.4.75

So it was that my first ever Leeds United goal came to be scored by Billy Bremner himself, the greatest player in the greatest team United ever had. A long ball from Johnny Giles, headed down by Joe Jordan, found King Billy in enough space on the edge of the area at the South Stand end. He measured the situation, took aim and rifled the ball superbly, well wide of the helpless keeper, into the top left-hand corner. The din was deafening, like nothing I’d ever heard before, and rarely since. “Elland Road erupts” intoned David Coleman for the BBC, when he could make himself heard. The image of the small, red-headed giant belting that ball home will live with me to my last day. I’ve always been proud that my first goal was scored by King Billy. I feel as though, in a funny way, I own that goal.

Image of the significance of the occasion. “Nine men and Billy….we’ve got nine men and Billy!“, they sang, loud, proud and raucous. “Billy Bremner’s barmy army” got many a refrain as well. The fans had said farewell to the Captain of the Crew in a manner hugely identifiable with the man himself and with the fighting traditions of the great side he led with such distinction. As far as these things can be, it was deeply fitting, and those who remembered Billy gave a knowing nod of appreciation.

RIP  Billy Bremner. Departed far too soon, and greatly missed still. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have another quite like you.