“If You Give Leeds the Ball, They Will Make You Dance” RIP Johan Cruyff   –   by Rob Atkinson


Two late greats: Bremner and Cruyff

On April 9th, 1975, four days after my Elland Road debut as a match-going Leeds fan, I was given my first taste of a European night under those towering floodlights, as United faced the cosmopolitan might of Barcelona. The occasion was the European Champions Cup Semi-Final first leg. The challenge for English champions Leeds United was to overcome the Catalan artistry of Barça, the Spanish title holders, who were inspired by the presence in their ranks of more than one Dutch master. The headline act though, without a doubt, was a slim genius by the name of Johan Cruyff.

In the build-up to the game – and having seen United beaten by a Keegan-inspired Liverpool on my “home debut” the Saturday before – I was gripped with fear as to what the Barcelona stars, Cruyff in particular, might do to my heroes in white. Despite the talents of fellow Dutch star Johan Neeskens, Cruyff’s was the name on everybody’s lips, his consummate skill, his ability to “read” the game, the world-record price tag (almost a million pounds!) on his head. The advance publicity was scary, to say the least. But there was also the warmth of respect from the man himself towards Leeds United, a club more usually reviled at home and abroad. Cruyff’s warning to his team-mates and fans about the threat from Elland Road was concise and lyrical. “If you give Leeds the ball,” he remarked, “they will make you dance”.

Leeds dance

This phrase has passed into Leeds United fan folklore, coming as it did from a true world star and a man to strike fear into the heart of any opponent. In the event, United prevailed over two legs of this semi-final, winning the home game by 2-1 and hanging on with ten men for a 1-1 draw in the Nou Camp. But the class of Cruyff was evident to the 50,000 fans inside Elland Road that April evening, as well as to millions more who saw highlights later on TV. He just seemed to have so much time, and I vividly remember him bringing the ball down the centre of the pitch, with the air of a man walking unchallenged on his own back lawn. I saw my first ever “live”Leeds goal that night, fittingly scored by the other late legend in that picture above, Billy Bremner. Sniffer Clarke provided the winner in the second half, and we had that narrow advantage to defend a fortnight later. But few who were there would ever forget the privilege they had of seeing Holland’s – indeed Europe’s – finest ever player, strutting his stuff in grim old West Yorkshire.

Johan Cruyff died last week at the age of 68. A lifelong smoker, until heart problems forced him to quit in the early nineties, it was lung cancer that finally claimed a true legend. His career encompassed great clubs, World Cups, success as a player and a coach. He will always be remembered for his bearing on the pitch, for the élan with which he plied his trade and scored his goals – and, maybe above everything else, for that sublime “Cruyff turn”, so brilliantly and appropriately replicated, as if in tribute, by England’s Harry Kane in the national team’s victory over Germany on Saturday in Berlin. And as this fine young England side prepare to face Cruyff’s Holland on Tuesday night at Wembley, it seems highly apt, if rather poignant and sad, to be paying tribute now to the Netherlands’ greatest ever star.

The memories recalled above are the kind of memories left behind only by players of the very highest quality and reputation. Cruyff was finally awarded the accolade of Europe’s greatest ever player in 1999, and there can be few who would dispute that title even 16 years into the succeeding century. But, as far as Leeds United fans are concerned, we shall remember him above all as the genius who knew that we still had a team to reckon with at Elland Road, kitted out all in white and having long ago superceded Real Madrid. A team who were indeed the real deal, a team of all talents worthy of a place right at the top of football’s Hall of Fame. A team who, given the ball… would make you dance.

Johan Cruyff (1947 – 2016) – RIP

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13 responses to ““If You Give Leeds the Ball, They Will Make You Dance” RIP Johan Cruyff   –   by Rob Atkinson

  1. Scally Lad

    Will Massimo and Paunch Evans leave us with such glorious memories as this? I think we know the answer, on the heels of being reduced to play against, and being topped by, the likes of Huddersfield. Massimo and Evans out! And now! MOT

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  2. Richard James

    I was stationed in the UK ( 1974 – 1975 ) and was lucky enough to get a ticket to the match. It was a magical night and being able to see 2 incredible teams for 90 minutes. Every player on Leeds was a full International. What a spectacular team. I still follow the team, but from a distance now – New York State.

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  3. sniffershorts

    Am in Fearby near the dales was very sad to hear the passing of the maestro my own football proess was built round sniffer and The Maestro the dribbling of Eddie and the lofty passing of Johnny Giles RIP the Maestro ……..to all those non believers Yorkshire truly is gods own country spent five days in around Fearby and Masham home of theakstons and the black sheep brewery what a county the moors impressive but the North Yorkshire dales ruddy outstanding I now consider myself a Tupp Tyke ….. But then I always was following LUFC for thy pains …. Nice to see us beat he Hun in their own back door … Looking forward to Euros may be just may be … To all my fellow compatriots you alright ….. Please let next year be different for us a little success would be just right MOT

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  4. wetherby white

    RIP Cryff – what a player. Its sadly a long time ago that anyone would say anything similar about a Leeds team. Still we can live with the great memories. Anyone remember the text book tackle by Reaney on Cryff, which fat, puffing (and probarly bent) ref gave a free kick from which they scored off? Well the crooks failed that night but succeded in Paris. Sorry Rob, getting bitter in my old age while waiting for something good to happen at ER.

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    • We’re all getting bitter, mate. And we’ve every reason to.

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    • Pre–Achilles heel, Harry Kewell cluld be special – remember how he got his right foot behind his left one to chip a cross while standing virtually on the left by-line that skimmed the bar ? Or was that just after his return from injury ? Snoddy could thrill too.

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  5. Excellent. I saw the L’pool game, but two matches in a week for father and son was beyond the means of fledgling Uni lecturers in the mid ‘seventies. Cruyff’s tribute is on a par with Pele’s to Billy whom he faced in the 1974 World Cup. I don’t recall if Neeskens was chosen for the team of the First Round, but Billy was – a fact we should out loud whenever Dirty Leeds comes up.

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  6. Super Leeds , barca and Liverpool all in the same week , it doesn’t get much better in those days rob , I make no wonder you’re nuts about Leeds…

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    • I remember my dear old Dad producing the tickets as a surprise, enthusing “Biggest two games of the season”. He was right, and the memories are clear over 40 years on. Great days, Mr. O!

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  7. belfastpete

    Great write up and great memories of a great player…

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  8. ‘Only just read this fitting, touching tribute to Johan Cruyff. Thanks Rob.

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