The Great European Cup Final Robbery occurred exactly forty=one years ago today – half a lifetime’s distance in the past – and yet this, more than just about any other of the many injustices suffered by that legendary team, still sticks in the collective craw of Leeds United fans, many of whom weren’t even born on that balmy May night so long ago. It still rankles with us, to the extent that it defines how we feel about our much sinned-against club to this day. So, 41 years on, we still sing “We are the Champions, Champions of Europe” in ritual protest – but in our hearts, believing, knowing it to be true.
The story of this match may be summed up in a series of snapshots; incidents that told us, ever more clearly as the game progressed, which way the wind was blowing. There was a pair of blatant penalty shouts in the first half, the guilty man on both occasions being Franz “der Kaiser” Beckenbauer. First he handled obviously and unmissably in the area, and then followed that up by perpetrating an illegal “scissors” tackle on Allan Clarke, inside the box on the left – you wondered how anyone could possibly fail to give either decision, unless they were irretrievably, foully bent. But the corkscrew-straight Michel Kitabdjian unblushingly neglected his duty on both occasions, earning himself a permanent place in every Leeds fan’s Little Black Book.
Before these vital non-decisions, Terry Yorath – the first Welshman to play in Europe’s biggest match, before Gareth Bale was even a twinkle in his dad’s eye – had sailed into Bayern’s Björn Andersson in what team-mate Uli Hoeness described as “the most brutal foul I think I have ever seen”. The only question arising out of that first period of play was whether Leeds United’s card was marked by the ref from the time of that 4th minute assault by Yorath – or whether, indeed, the matter was decided long before kick off.
Leeds were completely outplaying Bayern, drawing sympathy even from the English TV commentator who was bemoaning the lack of a more even contest. Then, in the second half, the ball fell perfectly for Peter Lorimer just outside the Bayern penalty area. Lorimer timed his volley superbly, and it flew into the net, beating Sepp Maier all ends up. Immediately, all was confusion as the goal seemed to be given, until Beckenbauer urgently directed the ref to speak to his linesman. More confusion – and, scandalously, the goal was disallowed. Bayern scored twice against a demoralised Leeds near the end, and the European Cup was snatched from the hands of Revie’s old guard; the triumph that was to crown their magnificent careers torn away in the most dubious fashion imaginable.
It was the second of a hat-trick of sketchy triumphs for Bayern from 1974-76, at a time when the German influence in UEFA was as strong as that of the Italians (whose Milan side had taken the Cup Winners Cup from Leeds in an even more bent match two years earlier) – and far, far stronger than that of the unpopular English. This defeat of a gallant and far superior on the night United side was probably the luckiest Munich victory of the three – but a year before, they’d been on the point of losing to Atlético Madrid before a last-gasp equaliser enabled them to win in a one-sided replay. And, in 1976, Bayern were outplayed by St Etienne, but managed somehow to prevail for a third year on the trot.
Leeds fans will always look at the collection of stars emblazoned arrogantly over the Bayern badge – and we will always say: one of those should have been ours. May 28 1975 was one of those pivotal nights in United’s history and, as happened frankly far too often, things turned against us – setting us on the low road when we should have been triumphantly plotting a course onwards and upwards. Things were never the same for Leeds United afterwards; Johnny Giles played his last game in a white shirt that night, which signalled the start of the break-up process, under the continuing stewardship of Jimmy Armfield, for Don Revie’s peerless Super Leeds team. How different things might have been – but that’s the story of our great club’s history; fortune has rarely smiled upon us and justice has usually gone AWOL at the crucial moments.
So it was then, so it has been ever since and so, doubtless, it will continue to be for Leeds – who always seem to cop for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to a pitilessly unfair degree. Still, that’s why we love ’em, and that’s why we so relish the hate of others. But if there could have been one night when things went right – when we actually managed once to get our just deserts – then really it should have been that evening in the Parc des Princes in May 1975. Not for me, not for you – but chiefly for those white-shirted heroes who had waited so long to be acknowledged as the best in Europe, and who had proved it by outplaying the favourites – before being gruesomely cheated yet again.
Leeds United – Champions of Europe. We all know we have a right to sing that song, loud and proud. Long may it continue to serve as a reminder of the night that the “Der Kaiser & Kitabdjian” double-act robbed The Greatest of their rightful crown.