As alternative sporting histories go, this is The Big One. Every Leeds United supporter knows that we are the Champions, Champions of Europe – we sing about it virtually every week. It’s not self-delusion, nor yet is it hubris; it’s a 42 year old sense of outraged injustice and the knowledge that if our victory in 1975 was merely moral, Bayern’s was emptily pyhrric. The WACCOE song is a continuing protest against the conspiracy of circumstances that, aided and abetted by lavishly bent referee Michel “Corkscrew” Kitabdjian and Bayern Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer, robbed United of their rightful final accolade. But now, in a well-written and entertaining reimagining of history, author Simon Turner has provided us with a taste of karmic retribution.
The book is called“If Only – an Alternative History of the Beautiful Game”and at least that one chapter is indeed beautiful, for Leeds fans of a wistful or maybe vengeful disposition. Simon doesn’t go for the easy option of “if onlying” the 1975 Bayern robbery, perhaps with a “what if Lorimer’s goal had stood” device; he leaves that sad chapter of history to stand as the injustice it was, opting instead to imagine revenge as a dish served cold 26 years later in 2001. I’ll avoid too many spoilers, because this is a book well worth reading and enoying and I hope you’ll do just that. But imagine the sweetness of Bayern losing out despite being the better side and because, in large measure, of refereeing “blunders”. A mirror image of ’75, in other words – and that works so much better than simply making believe Billy Bremner‘s boys had won as they undoubtedly deserved to.
I must admit, I bought the book for that Bayern/Leeds rematch alone; but I did read the first chapter (Scotland as World Champions in 1930) as a sort of hors d’oeuvre before skipping on to my main course of Schadenfreude mit Sauerkraut, as O’Leary‘s babies vanquished the Whites’ teutonic arch-nemesis. After that feast, even I didn’t need dessert, so the rest of the book is still awaiting my attention. But, having read those two chapters, I’m confident that the rest of the fare will be of like quality, and I’m looking forward to it very much.
Alternative histories are usually entertaining, whatever the variable quality of the writing, but this one really is a tour de force – well researched, brilliantly imagined and, at least in the case of the Leeds chapter, deftly using the actual history of one era to spice the alternate version in another. It’s a fine piece of work, and I strongly recommend it. Clicking on the link above will provide purchase details; the book is also available for Kindle devices (that’s the format I’ve got).
I’ll quote in full the “about the author” paragraph: “As a long-suffering supporter of Walsall Football Club, Simon Turner has witnessed countless ‘if only’ moments over the years. He lives in Lichfield with his wife Val, daughter Ellie, who has the good sense to follow athletics rather than football, and son Edward, who deliberately annoys him by supporting Aston Villa“
For a Walsall fan to have written such a therapeutic piece, as far as Leeds fans with long memories are concerned anyway, is praiseworthy indeed. I certainly wish I’d written it, but reading it – and getting just that tantalising hint of feeling just how it would be if we really could get revenge for an ancient robbery – well, that was definitely the next best thing.
Yorath avoids a red card – but nothing else went right for Leeds United
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.
Lorimer’s greatest goal that never was
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.
Bremner disbelieving after Leeds’ “goal” chalked off
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.
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 CupSemi-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.
The more I see of football these days, with all of its allegedly “world class” stars, the more I think of the guy who scored the first goal I ever saw Leeds United score – in the flesh, so to speak. His hair was red and fuzzy and his body black and blue, and his name was Billy Bremner. God alone knows what he’d be worth today – sadly, he hasn’t been around since that awful time, eighteen years ago exactly, when football was deprived of a legend and Leeds United began to come to terms with the loss of a man who embodied everything that the Last Champions were all about, at their very, very best.
On the 7th December 1997, two days short of his 55th birthday, our greatest captain Billy Bremner died following a heart attack after a bout of pneumonia. The Leeds United world was plunged into shock and mourning at the death of a true hero, and the game’s great and good attended his funeral in Edlington. The tiny church, packed to the rafters with household names, was resounding testimony to the respect in which the wee man was held by all who knew the legend. Old comrades and old foes alike were there to say goodbye to an icon who had left us tragically young, but who had emblazoned his name across an era not wanting for stars.
Scoring for Leeds
Billy Bremnerwas quite simply a phenomenon. From the earliest days of his Leeds United career, once he had recovered from a bout of home-sickness for his native Stirling in Scotland, he was an automatic selection for the first team, unless injury or suspension ruled him out. He was a warrior, despite his diminutive size, but he was blessed with all the other attributes needed for a central midfielder on the battlegrounds of the English First Division. Skill, courage, “workrate” – as it’s known these days – were combined with sheer guts, tenacity, will to win – and that indefinable x-factor that ultimately set him apart from other gifted performers. A ball-winner, a talented user of the ball once won, a relentless harrier of the opposition for the full ninety minutes plus of each gruelling game – and a scorer of great goals too. Bremner was a big occasion man, a serial winner of semi-finals (Man U being his favourite victims), a man who unfailingly stepped up to the mark when his team-mates and fans needed him. He was utterly self-effacing in the interests of what was best for the team.“Side before self, every time“was his motto, and he lived up to those words for as long as he was involved in football.
Some called him dirty. And he was as capable as most other combative central midfielders of a bit of feisty skullduggery – but to define him by his occasional sins would be short-sighted in the extreme and would display, moreover, a lack of awareness of exactly what his game was all about. A consummate passer of the ball – with the neat reverse pass a speciality, flummoxing and wrong-footing many an international-class opponent – Bremner was the epitome of Don Revie‘s Leeds United, a team who said “If you want to play, we’ll out-play you; if you want to battle, we’ll out-battle you.” They usually out-thought and out-psyched the opposition as well. Many a visiting player was artfully allowed a glimpse as they passed by of the sign on the home team dressing room wall at Elland Road. “Keep Fighting”, it said – which was what Leeds United, guided by Don Revie off the field and Billy Bremner on it, did – and they did it better than just about anybody else.
Leeds United hero
The Sunday Times perhaps summed-up Billy Bremner as well and as succinctly as anyone. “Ten stone of barbed wire” they called him – the image of a spiky, perilous bundle of energy conjured up in five telling words. I saw an old clip on YouTube recently, grainy black and white footage of some or other game back in the day, and there had been an incident that set the players en masse at each other’s throats. Bremner – unusually – must have been some way off when the flashpoint occurred, for he was nowhere to be seen with the melée already well established. And then, from the right-hand margin of the screen, came this white-clad, unmistakable figure, tiny but fierce, hurtling towards the centre of the conflict with the desire to weigh in on behalf of the team writ large in every line of his being. He was a frenetic mixture of Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil, plunging into the fray like some one-man whirlwind, wreaking his own inimitable brand of havoc. Bremner was famous, even notorious, for this – for his battle-cry of “cut one of us, and we all bleed.” Billy shed blood in the United cause – usually, it must be said, not his own. But a thug he was not, and any team, any time, anywhere in the world would break the bank to have a Billy Bremner in his prime among their number. Fortunately for Leeds United, he loved the club and served it for sixteen years, becoming synonymous with the famous Whites of Elland Road. As Leeds fans, we could nominate no better candidate for the honorific title of “Mr. Leeds United”. Only the great John Charles, operating in a much less successful era at Leeds and destined to win his medals on foreign fields, could come anywhere near.
My second match as a Leeds United supporter was the European Cup semi-final, first leg againstCF Barcelona, Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens and all. Those two Dutch masters, with all the other glitterati of the Catalans’ world-class line-up were expected to have too much for a United side on the cusp of just dipping over the hill. The previous Saturday, I’d made my first visit to Elland Road and had seen us lose to Liverpool. I was all agog at the atmosphere, and didn’t really care about the result – I just wanted more.
BBC Commentary, Leeds Utd v Barcelona 9.4.75
So it was that my first ever Leeds United goal came to be scored by Billy Bremner himself, the greatest player in the greatest team United ever had. A long ball from Johnny Giles, headed down by Joe Jordan, found King Billy in enough space on the edge of the area at the South Stand end. He measured the situation, took aim and rifled the ball superbly, well wide of the helpless keeper, into the top left-hand corner. The din was deafening, like nothing I’d ever heard before, and rarely since. “Elland Road erupts” intoned David Coleman for the BBC, when he could make himself heard. The image of the small, red-headed giant belting that ball home will live with me to my last day. I’ve always been proud that my first goal was scored by King Billy. I feel as though, in a funny way, I own that goal.
Leeds United’s first match after the death of Billy Bremner was away to Chelsea, the kind of fixture that Bremner used to relish. It turned out to be a game that couldn’t have been more of a tribute to the departed Billy if someone had designed it so. United had two men sent off in what might be termed a lively encounter, and with nine warriors left, inspired by the memory of The Greatest, they battled, scrapped and fought their way to a 0-0 draw in the finest traditions of the Leeds United of old. The travelling hordes in Leeds colours were fully awareof the significance of the occasion. “Nine men and Billy….we’ve got nine men and Billy!“, they sang, loud, proud and raucous. “Billy Bremner’s barmy army” got many a refrain as well. The fans had said farewell to the Captain of the Crew in a manner hugely identifiable with the man himself and with the fighting traditions of the great side he led with such distinction. As far as these things can be, it was deeply fitting, and those who remembered Billy gave a knowing nod of appreciation.
RIP Billy Bremner. Departed far too soon, and greatly missed still. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have another quite like you.
Malcolm Allison – “Big Mal”, as he was known – knew a thing or two about football. An innovative coach and tactician, he achieved great success at Manchester City, working in harness with Joe Mercer in one of the great coaching partnerships. I was lucky enough to meet him once – without his fedora hat – when I attended the launch of a book on Billy Bremner. Talking about football, who he hated and who he rated, he was mesmerising.
For Big Mal, Leeds United were simply The Best. Jimmy Greaves and Co may have thought differently – but you didn’t see Jimbo getting far in coaching – did you?
A fairly routine win against Millwall wouldn’t normally be the stuff of reminiscence, but this was no ordinary match. On this Saturday, we were at Elland Road to say “Goodbye” to Gary Speed, who many of us remembered as a bright new talent, nobbut a lad mind you, but promising plenty as he made his mark on United’s promotion charge in 1990. The memories he left us with from that point on are many, and they’ve been relived over and over in the two years since his untimely death.
Enough, surely, has also been said about the circumstances surrounding the manner of Speedo’s departure – so here I’ll just remember how it was when the crowds gathered early by Billy’s statue, which was festooned with flowers, shirts, flags, toys, all manner of tributes to a great man taken far too soon. It was a spectacle alright, a reverential throng stood there around the statue, deep in thought, each still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had happened. The atmosphere was eerie and yet respectful, sad and yet full of memories and the hushed talk of happier times.
Tributes to a late hero
The match that followed happened to be against Millwall, normally a lively encounter on and off the pitch when the Londoners bring anything like decent numbers. That doesn’t happen often these days, security concerns having led to a reduction in the away support due to the annoyances surrounding Police restrictions on how the stadium may be approached. But whatever the history between United and Millwall, it should be said that those fans who had travelled north conducted themselves impeccably, both during the pre-match on-field ceremony when the remaining three of that fabulous early nineties midfield quartet laid a wreath in memory of Speedo, and afterwards during a game which seemed like a meaningless appendage to the sad, real business of the day.
For the record, Leeds won the game 2-0 with second-half goals from Rob Snodgrass – one special shot and one very good header. Good as the goals were, welcome though the three points undoubtedly felt on the day, I had forgotten the details of the game itself. The images that remain in my mind are those in the images that accompany this article, scenes I’ll never forget. Some things transcend mere sport and mere tribal rivalry.
After all, the sudden shock of Speed’s death had left its mark on fans everywhere, not just at the clubs he had served with such distinction. Everywhere. You only had to look at the bewildering array of tributes around Billy’s statue to know that, Leeds, Newcastle, Everton and Bolton, naturally they were represented. Sheffield United and the proud national colours of Wales, too. But also Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, Huddersfield – the list of old foes grew as you walked around the flower-strewn base of our late, great skipper’s statue.
When you think about it; what a great addition that legendary figure of Billy Bremner has been to Elland Road, what a proud focus for everything that Leeds means to its fans – and significantly, what a natural place to gather when we have good news to celebrate or bad news to mourn. Billy is always there when he’s needed, frozen in time, arms raised in triumph as when he walked off the field at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, knowing that he was in the greatest club game of all, at long last. It’s an inspiring, iconic work of commemorative art, and it provides such an appropriate backdrop when, as two years ago today, we had a more recent hero to pay our respects to, and for whom we had gathered to say our last farewells. It’s a place that conjures up a feeling of immense togetherness and solidarity, of what it means to be Leeds, in glory and in tragedy. It’s a sacred place, like that.
I’ll forget all about that game again, now that this piece is done. It was just another result, albeit one we’d normally savour, with fierce rivals beaten convincingly. But the atmosphere that day, the tangible tributes left by so many fans of so many other clubs, the dignity of the pre-match proceedings, the laudable and much-appreciated respect shown by the away fans – all of that will stay in the memory long after Snoddy’s two cracking goals have faded away. It was a sad but a special day, and surely Speedo could not have wished for a better farewell at what was his spiritual football home, the place that made him one of the Last Champions. It was tragic, awful, a needless waste the way Gary died. But when it came to saying goodbye to him, on this day two years back, Leeds United – and Millwall, and all the other clubs and fans – did it right.