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 They became the ultimate winners of the old-style Football League, which was superseded but never surpassed by Sky’s glitzy soccer revolution.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.