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”.
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