The Silver Jubilee of Leeds United’s “Last Champions”   –   by Rob Atkinson

Jon Newsome whose goal was so crucial

Twenty-five years ago today, Leeds United became The Last Champions. They became the ultimate winners of the old-style Football League, which was superseded but never surpassed by Sky’s glitzy soccer revolution. There’s even a film about it now, the newly-released Do You Want To Win? Well they certainly did want to win, and I was there that day to see the passing of the old era, and the immortalisation of Wilko’s Warriors.

Parked up in the scruffy environs of Bramall Lane, Sheffield, just about the first thing my mate Dave did as we walked to the ground was to drag me back out of the path of a van as I stepped out to cross a road, oblivious of traffic, lost in thought. We grinned at my narrow escape and agreed: good omen. And then we were high up in the seats of the upper tier behind the goal at the away end of Sheffield United’s quaintly ill-designed stadium. The day was gusty, and so the football would prove to be. It was a match of ebb and flow, the Sheffield United faithful eager to deny Leeds their chance of clinching the title, Leeds fans loud, proud and defiant with self-belief. If we won, and Man U lost at Liverpool later, we were Champions.

You’ll probably have seen the goals from that game hundreds of times. It plays through now, all these years later, in the Football Highlights studio of my mind; joy for the home side as Alan Cork, bald of pate, pokes the ball home to give Sheffield the lead. Then, midfield tussles in the swirling wind, as the Whites try valiantly to come back. A late first-half free kick, which Gordon Strachan races to take before the home defence is ready, finding Rod Wallace who tips the ball past the home keeper’s attempt to save. Defenders scramble to clear, only to hit the late, great Gary Speed who bounces the ball back to ricochet off Wallace – into the net. Cue pandemonium in the away end. Level at half time, we’re breathless with drama and the hurly-burly of it all, raucous with United anthems, nervous of what’s yet to come.  

In the second half, though we don’t know it, human tragedy unfolds: Sheffield ‘keeper Mel Rees, injured in the mêlée leading to Leeds’ leveller, thigh heavily strapped, can hardly move and is hampered for the second Leeds goal as Jon Newsome stoops to head in at the far post. Rees was due a Welsh international call-up the next day, but has to pull out because of his injury. He would never play football again because he was to develop cancer and die a year later, tragically young at 26.

RIP, Mel Rees.

The crazy game continues crazily. A ball across the Leeds box is retrieved by home defender John Pemberton, who turns it back towards the goal-line where Lee Chapman sticks out a leg for an own-goal greeted with horror by the Leeds contingent. We’re level again. But enfant terrible Eric Cantona enters the fray, and within a few minutes he’s chasing a loose ball into the Sheffield half, Wallace scampering alongside and home defender Brian Gayle lumbering back in a desperate attempt to clear the danger. And it’s Gayle, former Man City man, who finally slays Man United. From my vantage point at the opposite end, I see him head the ball, and the action is suddenly slow motion. Poor Mel Rees is stranded far out of goal; the ball is sailing over his head in a slow loop, bouncing tantalisingly towards the empty net…

Then I’m watching at full speed again, as Cantona and Wallace raise their arms in triumph, wheeling away in delight, and even as I wonder what they’re up to, I realise that the ball is nestling in the Sheffield United goal. An ironically red mist descends; I am utterly beside myself in delirious joy, leaping around feverishly, roaring like a demented bull, face congested, eyes bulging, hyperventilating. I grab a helpless wee St John’s Ambulance man by his lapels and scream into his terrified face “Get me some oxygen!!!” The mad moment passes, I drop the ashen medic and some measure of sanity returns, but we’re still cavorting and diving all over each other, a seething, sweating mass of Leeds, because we know it’s over, we know that Sheffield are beaten, and we know that Man U don’t have an earthly at Anfield, not a prayer. We were Champions; on that windiest and gustiest of days, a Gayle from Manchester City has blown Man U away and decided in an instant the fate of all three Uniteds from Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

Leeds United, the undisputed cream of the crop. It all seems so long ago now. Happy silver anniversary, to the heroes – and also to the massive supporting cast of jubilant fans.

14 responses to “The Silver Jubilee of Leeds United’s “Last Champions”   –   by Rob Atkinson

  1. Phil Dodsworth

    Time to celebrate this sides achievements Rob & start singing “We’re the LAST Champions, Champions of England” don’t you think?


    • Brilliant idea. To be the last of anything is iconic, and Leeds did it with the Fairs Cup and the Football League Title, as well as winning the Centenary FA Cup and being top of the pile as we moved from one millennium into another. A proud record indeed.


  2. I have just ordered the special 25 years DVD shown in Leeds a few days ago with all the stars there called Do you want to win. There is a book as well if anyone is interested.


  3. Aah,what day. I still watch that match on vhs occasionally. I must get it transferred to dvd. I must admit I felt for their keeper all through that match bless him and i don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bizarre collection of goals. I remember the Liverpool fans being delighted too for obvious reasons and the post match interviews from Lee Chapmans sofa when Denis Law was very gracious despite his disappointment. What a gent. I think only the Stuttgart 2nd leg at Elland Rd comes close to that as one of the greatest games I’ve seen. Like Don Revie Sgt Wilko was an innovator and just like Revie,never given the credit he so richly deserved.


  4. I actually cried at full time. I tried to bite my lip and stop it but I just couldn’t. Like you, I knew in my heart we’d won the title and the sheer relief, as well as joy, overtook me. I’m filling up again now thinking about it!


    • If I hadn’t been rampaging around like the town bull, I’d have been crying too. I did, later on, when Liverpool got the second against the scum, though I think Ian St. John was crying too at that point 😆


  5. Hi Rob, I spent the day watching the match on TV – well I think I did but it may be that the highlights later blurred into watching it live. I then divided the afternoon between my son’s first birthday party at the village hall and my car radio out in the car park listening from Anfield. “Where’s Dad?” Out in the bloody car again !! He is now a strapping 26 year old today (happy birthday Stewart) and nil points for guessing who he supports. MOT


  6. Duncan Massey

    A lovely piece of writing. Tempered by the sadness of Mel Rees.


  7. glenn lowe

    Rob some of my best memories in my football life at 55 going on 56 the late 60s and early 70s I can remember, but this was in the prime of my life and vhs and Betamax had been invented!!!! to tape games on itv free! On another note today for my first ever attempt I rang our super store to purchase the new dvd “do you want to win” spoke to a brain dead guy who sounded like he had just got out of bed did not want to know,he acknowledged that the dvd was in the shop couldn’t take my order over the phone, told me to book it over the store website, told him it was not on it,then gave me another premium number to ring which I did and after over 10 mins of waiting when they answered they had not yet got it in stock.
    This club treats its fans at times as utter garbage. Rant over


  8. RIP Mel great article Rob. How can we old enough ever forget that day? I just knew the red scum would blow it! What i’d give to see us up there again…


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