Tag Archives: Champions

A Merry Leeds Utd Christmas And a Double Birthday Bonus – by Rob Atkinson

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Merry Christmas from The Best English Club Team Ever

First things first; a very Merry Christmas and/or Holiday Greetings to all readers of Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything. I hope that you’re having a great day, whether you celebrate Christmas or not. Many of us will already be focusing on tomorrow’s live TV date at Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion, the victims of an outstanding home performance from United earlier this season, when we recorded a 5-0 win, Pierre-Michel Lasogga scoring a rather lovely brace.

On Christmas Day it’s always worth sparing a thought or two for those unfortunates who share their birthday with a world-wide splurge of significant consumerism and therefore rather disappear into the background when it comes to celebrating their own special personal anniversary. Still, they’ve never known any different – and they’ve only got their parents to blame for being bored, cold, or just plain randy the March before. We have two of these Christmas Birthday sideshows in Leeds United‘s recent history, two midfielders who, each in his own way, made telling contributions to our last two Championship titles, one of the second division and the other of the entire Football League itself.

Chris Kamara

Chris Kamara

First then, a Happy Birthday to Chris Kamara, who is better known these days for his Lionel Richie tribute act as he banters his way through various Sky TV football shows, not least Soccer Saturday where he crops up every two minutes to utter the immortal words “Unbelievable, Jeff!” Unbelievable it certainly is that Kammy is actually 60 today, and you have to say he’s taken damned good care of himself. He still looks fit enough to play, and the memories are vivid of the days in which he used to strike fear into opposition hearts wearing the white shirt of Leeds United. Kammy it was who, famously, bent an outside of the foot pass into the run of the late great Gary Speed for the youngster to get the fourth against Sheffield United as we stamped our authority on the promotion race of 1990. Kamara’s contribution that season was a highly positive influence in midfield, breaking up play, finding a fellow United man with accurate passes and cropping up with the odd goal. As with all of those heroes who ended the Eighties Exile, Kammy is a true Leeds Legend.

Gary McAllister

Gary McAllister

Today’s other birthday celebrant is Gary McAllister. Gary first came to my notice as I stood on the Kop watching Leeds play Leicester City in a vital promotion game in that 1989/90 season. We were 1-0 up through Mel Sterland‘s powerful cross shot, when McAllister decided to do his best to ruin things. First he blasted home a terrific equaliser that left Elland Road stunned – then he threatened to inflict further damage, hitting a shot of equal brilliance which – fortunately – thudded against the woodwork, leaving us weak with relief. Leeds won eventually through Gordon Strachan‘s legendary strike near the end (Have you ever seen a better goal?  Or one better timed??) – but Gary McAllister had single-handedly come close to shattering our hopes and destroying our season. As I gazed balefully at his departing back, I hoped it would be a while before we saw him again.

History tells us, of course, that Gary Mac went on to become one of the greatest Leeds United midfielders of all, in one of the game’s truly great midfield quartets, the legendary Fantastic Four of Strachan, Macca, Batty and Speed. It’s also worth remembering that he turned down a move to Clough’s Notts Forest in favour of joining Wilko’s Leeds revolution. The memories are many of Gary’s superbly-struck goals and fine performances in a Leeds shirt. He went on to serve Liverpool with equal distinction, as well as starring for Scotland, before returning to Elland Road for an initially-promising stint as manager. Sadly, labouring under the merciless regime of Bates, Gary’s spell in charge of Leeds was not to be a success – but his place in the United Hall of Fame is assured.

Gary is 53 today and is now involved in media work connected to football after several unsuccessful attempts to return to football management. Surely, he still has much to offer – although I’d have willingly seen him far from Elland Road on that day we played Leicester City with so much at stake, Gary has proved himself to be one of the game’s nice guys. Always a professional down to his toes, he had to overcome personal tragedy with the loss of his wife Denise to cancer in 2006. In an age when there are so many in the game who are impossible to admire, it’s sad that a man like McAllister is not more involved.

Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas to our two midfield legends – and Seasonal Greetings to everybody.  Cheers!

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Tottenham as Champions? Even Leeds United Would be More Authentic – by Rob Atkinson

Spuds

Spuds – boiled twice until soft and mushy

If Tottenham Hotspur finish this season in a Champions League qualification place and – more importantly, in the eyes of many of their fans – above loathed North London rivals Arsenal, then this season will be deemed by the vast majority of those fans to have been a resounding success. This, despite the fact that, having failed last year to take their most realistic chance in over half a century to finish as Champions of England, they are about to repeat that failure. And that is why Spurs, despite their superficial glamour and appeal, cannot be regarded as a big club.

This might sound strange coming from a fan of 21st Century also-rans Leeds United. But, for all their recent woes and the chaos that characterises life at Elland Road under Bates, GFH and Cellino, Leeds remains a big club. The expectations are still there, the voracious hunger and imperious demand to be up there with the best. At some point, those demands will be met – because the expectations and desire of the fans are what, ultimately, define the size and potential of a football club. Leeds have all that – Tottenham simply don’t. A cursory scan of their Twitter feed, when Spurs capitulated last season, was ample illustration of this.

I was really expecting to find anger, dismay and deep, deep hurt among the Spurs Twitteratti, at the careless throwing away of a once in a lifetime chance. It wasn’t there. I thought too – equally erroneously – that there would be angst and an abiding sense of betrayal. I based this on an empathetic knowledge of how I or most other Leeds supporters would feel – how it would leave us bereft and fuming to see such a rare opportunity passed up. But then – we’re Leeds, and these people were merely Spurs. There’s a big difference.

Last time Leeds joined the big time, back in 1990 – and the time before that, in 1964 – the Whites wasted no time merely admiring their surroundings or being overawed by their new peers. They took a brief, almost scornful look around, allowed themselves the barest of minimum settling-in periods, won their opening fixture back at this new, rarefied level – and proceeded to dominate proceedings thenceforth. Don Revie’s wonders went within a whisker of the double first time out, and were the best team in Europe within five years. Sergeant Wilko’s Warriors were Champions inside twenty months. This is the mettle and appetite of a big club. “Keep Fighting” was and remains the motto. There is no fear and mighty little respect in the staff and players. There is an abounding self-belief and naked ambition among the fans. So it was with Leeds United. So it will be again.

There is none of this with Spurs, not last season and not this one either. Despite the excellence of their squad, they lack the inner conviction and the aspirations of Champions. At its heart, the club is effete and decadent, content to play pretty football while perceived lesser mortals – the Leicester City of last season being an excellent example – scrap and fight, working hard, giving no quarter, exerting every fibre of their being in the pursuit of victory. In a game of fine margins, it is this muck and bullets approach that can close the quality gap and make the difference when the prizes are handed out.

On the evidence of social media reaction, the Spurs fans are as much to blame as the soft centre of their club. It’ll be nice to finish second, they trilled last season (they actually finished third in a two-horse race, surrendering runners-up spot meekly to Arsenal with a thrashing at relegated Newcastle). We’d have snatched your hands off for the chance of finishing higher than Arsenal, they simpered (maybe this season then, lads). We’ll be favourites next year, they crooned, hopefully. But next year never comes – not when the real big boys can be counted on to wake up from their one season slumber.

Thinking back to the early nineties, when Leeds were the hungry new kids on the block – we hoped and craved for a chance to be the best again. Whether we really expected it to come along so soon is a moot point. But we were raucously demanding of it. And when that chance presented itself – especially at the expense of our most hated foes – there was no suggestion of “well, it’d be nice, but second wouldn’t be too bad either”. We’d have been gutted to the depths of our very souls, if our heroes in White hadn’t seized the day. It would have been impossible to express the wretchedness we would have felt.

The Spurs fans by contrast, with their mealy-mouthed acceptance of failure and honeyed words of congratulations to conquerors Leicester, betrayed their club and showed themselves, as well as their beloved club, unworthy of being regarded as champion material. It was a sickening sight to see, a betrayal of that competitive spirit that gives a vital edge to proper contenders.

In the end, any league gets the champions it deserves and, barring last-gasp miracles or Chelsea calamity, it’ll be no different this year. Spurs will have shown again why they haven’t been The Best since 1961, when JFK was president, the Beatles were playing beery dives in Hamburg and I was only just seeing the light of day. Chelsea, with their juggernaut self-belief and determination to make the most of every opportunity under the brilliant guidance of Antonio Conte, will thoroughly have deserved their Premier League Title. They will be deserving Champions, by far the best team in the land.

Leicester City, Chelsea, Leeds United – Champions of England. Each has a ring of authenticity to it that’s been hard fought for and deeply merited when it’s come about. Whereas “Champions Spurs”? – well, it just doesn’t sound right. It sounds instead faintly ridiculous, like cheap fiction; and, as long as the club and the fans retain their current losers’ mindset, that’s just how it will remain.

Leicester City Are on the Brink of Doing a Leeds… In a Good Way   –   by Rob Atkinson

 

The Last Champions


The Premier League season, which has been simmering away for the past eight months or so, is now coming nicely to the boil – and it looks set fair to produce quite the most appetising and satisfying feast of the Murdoch era so far. Not for over twenty years have we seen such unlikely and thrilling Title winners as Leicester City would be. Back in 1995, Blackburn narrowly won the crown of Champions, just pipping Manchester United. But they did it by out-spending the big spenders – and it was their third year back in the big time. Leicester are threatening to be top dogs on a budget – and in only their second season at the top table.

Many pundits are going back years before Blackburn’s success in an effort to find a precedent for what the Foxes seem likely to achieve in this momentous campaign. As far back as 1978, the Nottingham Forest of Clough and Taylor won the old Division One title in their first season after promotion. Forest took the league by storm, with a thrilling brand of football based on neat passing, hard work, collective responsibility and a pulsating team ethic. The parallels with this Leicester side are easily drawn – but again the timescale was different for Forest, as was the whole vista of English football compared to the moneybags Premier League of today.

The closest resemblance to the scenario now panning out for Leicester was the very last Football League Championship campaign in 1991/92, when Leeds United took the title in their second season after promotion, precisely the situation that Claudio Ranieri’s men are now attempting to bring to fruition. Leeds had gained promotion in 1990, and had finished a respectable 4th in their first elite season. Leicester, on the other hand, struggled badly first season up, and were bottom of the Premier League exactly a year ago. But they performed spectacularly to avoid the drop, and they have carried that form over into what appears more and more likely to be their debut season as English Champions.

The similarities between Leeds of 1992 and the modern day Leicester are persuasive. Leeds relied on a fast-paced approach, closing down the opposition to win the ball back quickly, creating mayhem with a strong and talented midfield and reaping the rewards of some lethal strikers up front. Most of Leeds’ strength 24 years ago was in their midfield, where Strachan, MacAllister, Batty and Speed were a potent engine room. In Leicester’s case, Vardy up front has been a revelation, and not only for his goals. This is a player who has shone in Leicester’s hard-working team plan, running the channels tirelessly, never giving defenders any peace, always pulling them around and disrupting many a rearguard for the benefit of his team-mates – and to show off his own clinical finishing.

Both Leeds and Leicester were unfancied for title success (Leicester were 5000-1 against at the start of this season) – both faced main rivals of historical pedigree who had yet failed to win the top prize for far too long. In Leicester’s case, they are looking to deny Spurs, a club with no titles to its name since 1961, the same year Don Revie began his masterful process of creating a Super Leeds machine. Spurs have won a few cups since then, but have never threatened to top the poll. Now, just as they seem better equipped than for decades past to do just that, they could be fated to fail again, as a nerveless Leicester side simply keep on grinding out the results that are inching them towards the ultimate success. Leeds performed similarly in 1992, appearing destined to lose out to a Man U side looking for their first title in 25 years. But Leeds hung in there, waited for the weaknesses of their rivals to show – and then mercilessly exploited the situation to emerge winners by four clear points.

As a Leeds United fan with vivid memories of that last old-style title campaign, I can easily understand the feelings of all connected to Leicester City right now. I remember turning up for games towards the sharp end of that season with nerves stretched taut, utterly unable to enjoy myself until the points were won. And I remember being glued to the radio, waiting and hoping for news of a slip-up for the boys in red. It was exhausting, exhilarating, devastating and miserable by turns; for every upturn on that roller-coaster of a run-in, there was a downturn that had you tearing your hair out. When I watch the Leicester games now, all of them under the microscopic gaze of the Sky cameras, I see the close up shots of fans suffering those same agonies and exulting just as we did when things go well. The animated faces are the faces I remember from almost a quarter of a century ago; the despair is the same, as is the delight.

Whether the outcome will be the same remains in the lap of the Gods – or, at least, the Spurs. But I wish Leicester well, as they try to finish off the job I can so well remember my heroes in White doing all those years back. It would be wonderful for the game if Leicester could do it – just as I understandably feel it was brilliant for English football that Leeds United were the last old-style champions. Not many agreed with me back then; we celebrated riotously, but in a vacuum of indifference and resentment. Then again, Leeds never were everybody’s cup of tea. And that’s one major difference with Leicester. The whole country outside of North London is rooting for them to secure the first League title in their 132-year history.

Doing a Leeds” has negative connotations, more to do with a precipitous fall from grace and financial collapse than any sporting success. So, if Leicester can close out this season as Champions, perhaps we can rightly say that they’ve “done a Leeds” in a good way – as no club has really managed since those dear, daft days of the early nineties. If anything, Leicester’s achievement would be even greater, a marvellous, unprecedented thumbing of a poor man’s nose at all the sleek moneybags types they’ve left struggling in their wake.

All the very best to the Foxes, who could conceivably find themselves a whopping ten points clear with only 5 games to play after this weekend. We’ll look forward to raising a celebratory glass to you, when you can finally call yourselves Champions.

Birthday Boy Strachan’s Crucial Rocket for Leeds United Against Leicester – by Rob Atkinson

"Have you ever seen a better goal?  Have you ever seen one better timed??" John Helm, YTV

“Have you ever seen a better goal? Have you ever seen one better timed??” John Helm, YTV

On the occasion of Gordon Strachan’s 59th birthday – and by the way, many happy returns, Sir – I thought I’d look back to what was possibly his defining moment as the man who did more than just about anyone to reinvent Leeds as a post-Revie force in English football.

It had been a long time coming since Don’s Glory Boys dispersed to pastures new and a Golden Era faded into the dim haze of memory. We had been eight years in the second division doldrums and had almost forgotten what it was like to be a top team. But – finally! – it looked as though the nightmare was ending as Sergeant Wilko and Captain Strachan were set to lead United back to the Promised Land at long last. A home fixture against Leicester City was the penultimate hurdle to overcome, and expectations were soaring at Elland Road.

Twelve days before the Leicester game, United had appeared to strike a decisive blow, battering closest rivals Sheffield United 4-0 at Elland Road. But any hope that promotion could be clinched early was dashed over the next two fixtures, a draw at Brighton where the lead was squandered to sacrifice two points, and then a home defeat to a relegation-threatened Barnsley who even then had the ability to put one over on us with an inferior team. So the nerves were jangling for this home date with the Foxes.

Leicester breezed into town with no pressure on them at all as they bobbed about serenely in mid-table, but Leeds just had to win. A victory could possibly clinch promotion; anything else and we would be relying on others to give us that final leg-up – not an attractive prospect. The atmosphere at Elland Road that day was something to behold as 32597 packed the stands and terraces, the Kop a seething mass of bodies, a solid wall of sound. If the weight of support counted for anything, then it seemed Leicester might just as well turn around and go home – but to their eternal credit they fought the good fight and played their part in a memorable afternoon.

It all started well. Leeds pressed hard – this had been their preferred approach all season long. No opponent was allowed the luxury of untroubled possession as Leeds snapped at ankles and harried the enemy, hungry for the ball and well able to use it productively. At their best, United had proved a match for any team in the Division; as ever though it was the off days that had let us down. On this particular occasion, attacking the Kop End in the first half, the forward momentum seemed irresistible. Before long, the overlapping Mel Sterland fastened on to a ball at the right corner of the penalty area and fired low and hard into the net to open the scoring. The overwhelming relief was as evident as the unconfined joy around the packed stadium; surely now United would go on to consolidate their advantage and seal the promotion we’d wanted for so long.

Frustratingly, it was not to be. Despite further pressure, Leeds failed to make another breakthrough before half-time and Leicester – relaxed and pressure-free – were looking more and more ominously like potential party-poopers. These fears solidified in the second half as the away side pressed an increasingly nervous Leeds back, and eventually – inevitably – they drew level. The blow when it came was struck by a rumoured transfer target for Leeds, promising young Scot Gary McAllister. He proved that he packed some punch by belting a fine strike past veteran Mervyn Day to shock the Kop rigid and momentarily silence Elland Road.

Worse was so nearly to follow as McAllister almost did it again, another superb shot coming within an ace of giving Leicester the lead, something which would doubtless have produced the unedifying spectacle of grown men crying in their thousands. It may well be that McAllister sealed his move to Leeds with this performance and those two efforts, but I could have seen him far enough from LS11 that day. Leeds were rocking, looking at each other, scratching heads and clenching fists in the time-honoured “come on, let’s bloody sort this out” gesture. Slowly, by sheer force of will, the lads in White regained the initiative and it looked at least as though the danger of further damage was receding. The football was still nerve-shredding stuff, all urgency and little fluency, a desperate battle to eke out the extra two points that would make promotion so much more likely.

Time was ebbing away fast now, as Leeds hurled themselves time and again into the defensive barrier of red Leicester away shirts. Panic was setting in, the biggest enemy of constructive football. It was looking like a draw, which would not be enough. Then, a throw halfway inside the Leicester half in front of the West Stand, under the eyes of a bleakly worried Wilko. Sterland gathered himself and hurled a massively long throw deep into the away penalty area, only for it to be headed out from around the near post. McAllister attempted to complete the clearance with an overhead effort to get rid, but the ball hit Gordon Strachan to bounce back into the box. And there was Gary Speed to lay that ball back instantly to the still-lurking Strachan who simply lashed it, left-footed, into the net. The ball had gone in like a bullet; Strachan – too tired to control it and try to work a yard of space to dink one of those cute little far-post crosses as he might normally – settled instead for catching the ball right on the sweet spot and it arrowed home to a positive explosion of noise from all around Elland Road – the sudden release of what had been unbearable tension produced a massive roar to buffet the ear drums of innocent bystanders miles away.

It was one of those occasions when several things seem to happen at once. The crowd behind the goal at the South Stand end seemed to boil with passion and relief, a maelstrom of delighted celebration which was echoed across the whole stadium. Strachan himself ran to the byline, face contorted, weary limbs pumping in triumphant exultation as he took the plaudits of the faithful. A lone copper is visible on the TV footage between Strach and the cavorting hordes, a grin on his face as he moves to quell any ambitious pitch-invaders. In the commentary box, John Helm unwittingly propelled himself into immortality, not for the last time that afternoon. “Have you ever seen a better goal?” he demanded. “And have you ever seen one better timed?” It was a good question, and right then, right there, I doubt you’d have found a Leeds fan to answer “yes” to either part of it. The rest was a blur; Leeds held out, and we had won – and seemingly gained promotion. Rumours were flying around that Newcastle had failed to win, sending us up. But John Helm was at it again, more iconic words: “Is that confirmed…?” When the confirmation arrived, it was of a late Toon win; we still had it all to do at Bournemouth the following week. But Strachan’s late cracker had kept us in a race that we were ultimately destined to win.

My final memory of that day is of walking down off the Kop and onto the pitch as the masses there were starting to disperse. We crossed the hallowed turf from goal-line to goal-line, eventually exiting the ground into Elland Road at the south-west corner, where the big screen now stands. I can still remember the heady scent of stud-holed mud and trodden turf, my head was still buzzing as I walked over the spot where wee Gordon had made that perfect half-volley contact to send us all into delirium. It had been an atmosphere the like of which I have rarely seen before or since, only the mayhem at Bramall Lane when Gayle scored that own-goal title-clincher coming anywhere near, or maybe that ankle-busting semi-riot of a celebration when Dave Batty broke his long goal drought against Man City in 1991.

For the sheer relief of it however – the absolute nerve-shredding, tension-breaking release of it – this was definitely THE one. Without Strachan’s sublime strike, we could well have missed out on automatic promotion, and we all know only too well that there’s a law against us succeeding in the play-offs. Gordon’s Golden Goal had kept the dream alive and made possible all that followed up to the League Championship triumph two years later. Make no mistake – it was THAT important.

Thanks, wee man, for the brilliant memories. Have a brilliant birthday.

Forty Years Ago Today: Getting Bitten by the Leeds United Bug – by Rob Atkinson

Billy and CruyffAuthor

When I was just a little boy I asked my mother, what should I be? Should I be Chelsea? Should I be Leeds? Here’s what she said to me…

Of course, it wasn’t like that, not for me – nor was it for thousands of others like me. For the vast majority of us, Mum was blameless; our Dads were the ones to thank – or blame – for starting an obsession that would run through the rest of our lives. Yeah, cheers, Dad. Every time you took the mick after another grisly home defeat, or rolled your eyes and intoned: “Never again”, I felt like snapping back and reminding you that it was your bloody fault in the first place. All those dreadful defeats and Cup exits. But there were also some good times…

Football support is such an individual thing, yet there are themes which are surely common to all football supporters. Over a period of years, seasons, decades of loving a football club, there will have been hot-blooded highs, and there will equally have been the coldest of despairing lows.  This will be so, whatever the size of the club we love, however successful or otherwise they may be.  It’s certainly the case for me – I can look back over my forty year love/hate affair with Leeds United, and there they are, all the memories, all the feelings, all the good and the bad that an obsession can visit upon a hapless fanatic. My Dad didn’t quite make it to my 40 year anniversary – he died in February, just in time to avoid a home defeat against Watford. But I will still have him to thank, when the good times roll around again. So, watch this space, Dad.

My Leeds United era started on April 5th 1975, timed to perfection for me to witness the death agonies of what was then still Don Revie’s great team, which had dominated English football for over a decade – albeit now under new management in the urbane form of Jimmy Armfield. This says all anyone needs to know about my fatally flawed sense of timing. During those years of success and near-success, when I could have been sharing the roller-coaster ride with my younger brother as he accompanied Dad on so many Saturday afternoons at Elland Road – what was I doing?  Why, I was curled up with a book, or watching some elderly MGM musical on BBC2 with Mum, completely unaware of the appeal, the magnetic attraction of Leeds United. How could this be?

In retrospect, it seems amazing that I should have missed out completely on the most sustained period of success United ever knew. But I was always a bookish lad, and I leaned far enough towards home and hearth, and far enough away from the Big Lads’ Club relationship between our kid and my Dad, to be happy with my nose in the goings-on at Greyfriars, or sampling the adventures of dare-devil astronauts on a Journey to Jupiter. On the day in 1972 that Leeds United won their only FA Cup, I was at the Town Hall in Pontefract winning second prize for poetry at the annual Music Festival. I wuz bloody robbed out of first place, too – on one of the few occasions when United weren’t.  But them’s the breaks, and it’s not as if I was straining at the leash to be off to t’match.  I just had no idea of what I was missing, and my treacherous brother and father didn’t see fit to enlighten me.

I really should be bitter about this – even now, my brother seeks to claim the moral high-ground as the one who saw Big Jack and Top Cat Cooper play, the one who saw us torturing Southampton with a cruel bout of possession at 7-0 up, the one who saw, for whatever it was worth, Georgie Best – on the few occasions he emerged from Paul Reaney’s back pocket. But the fact is, I’m not that bitter. I’d have liked to have seen for myself some of the vintage Glory Years stuff, and some of the Osgoods, Laws, Greaves and St Johns of the opposition; but it seems to me now that so many who witnessed all that were spoiled by it, and lacked the character to see it through when the good times stopped.  It was never easy to be a Leeds fan – even then in what we may fairly call glory, glory days, we had far more than our fair share of disappointment and defeat, and we reaped the bitter fruits of hatred, from all sections of the game, not least the referees – as I’ve ranted about elsewhere.

So, it was clearly no cakewalk even at its best, but still a time to be envied and marvelled at by those of us who came afterwards, and who had to starve for success until Sergeant Wilko stomped through the door. The thing is – not having seen the hits and near-misses of those days – I and many more like me were better able to subsist on the poor diet of the late seventies and especially the eighties. Many of the relatively success-sated Revie period fans fell by the wayside during these barren years, my dad and sibling included, and the essential character of the fan base changed from almost complacent to virtually feral.

So, there I was, thirteen years old and still a Leeds United virgin, slouching happily home from school one weekday evening in March 1975, and never a suspicion that my life was about to change.  I’d have had homework on my mind, quite possibly – a French translation to do, or some equations to balance. First it’d be tea: burgers peas and chips or something equally mundane, with Nationwide on in the background, then the homework, then some telly and whatever book I had on the go.  I was a happy and grounded child, in those pre-football angst days.

When I got home on this particular day, though, Dad had a surprise for me.  Off you go upstairs, he said, look in our bedroom and tell me what you find. I was more intrigued than fired with enthusiasm by this – what was I expecting?  A new book, maybe. A tube of Smarties and a Milky Way, perhaps. Anything, I’m sure, but the six oblong pieces of stiff paper on my Dad’s side of the counterpane.  Two tickets each for Dad, me and our kid, Liverpool at home on Saturday, and then – the biggest game on the planet that next Wednesday evening, Barcelona at home, Cruyff, Neeskens  and all, in the semi final home leg of the European Champions Cup.

Dad beamed over my shoulder as I stared at the tickets.  Biggest two games of the season, those are, he said. I remember I nodded my head, the idea not growing on me as yet, but somehow aware that this was a grand gesture on my dad’s part. Unwilling to disappoint him with apathy, I turned, smiled and said, great – thanks Dad. Now, of course, I know that it was a watershed in my life. Then – well, I just wanted to catch the last bit of Hong Kong Phooey, before carrying on with my familiar evening routine. And so, the last few days of my innocence passed, before it was time to get into the car and be taken to Elland Road football ground for the very first time.

It’s surprising what stays with you, years and years later.  So many of the countless games I’ve seen at Elland Road, and at other grounds at home and abroad, have faded into blurry anonymity.  I suppose my first game was special just because it was the first; and the second – that European night – had a magic all of its own, which was apparent even to a rookie such as me.  I can recall little of the Liverpool match itself. The colours were vivid – we didn’t have a colour TV at home at that time, and I think I imagined that football was a grainy experience, a mixture of grey and darker greys.  The Technicolor reality of it hit me with an impact I can readily bring to mind even now.  The field seemed to be vast, and brilliantly green, but the ground itself, viewed from under the pitched roof of the old Lowfields side, wasn’t as huge as I’d imagined it.

The strongest memory is still that of the Bay City Rollers’ “Bye Bye Baby” being played over the tannoy (they were tannoys in those days, none of your fancy PA systems). That one naff record is a massive reminder of that day, even now, and it remains one of the guiltiest pleasures on my nostalgia playlist. The green of the pitch, with the all-white strip of our lads, and the all red of Liverpool, the composite sound, Dad’s loud pessimism against a background of the grumbling roar of the crowd, the smell of tobacco and the taste of hamburgers and onions washed down with Bovril – and the pressure of the crowd behind, in front, everywhere – this was the assault on all my senses that blew away any thought of resistance as I entered a whole new world.

Already, I was hooked, and I knew it. We lost 2-0, but I was far too lacking in cynicism or expert discernment to let that detail bother me. Dad and our kid were sulkily disappointed, having seen it all before, and seen far better, but I loved it, loved the whole thing. If I’d known at that moment that I was in for a string of league defeats, and not even a league goal to cheer until the first day of the 76-77 season – well, would I have wanted to carry on?  I would have, I’m emphatically sure.  I loved Leeds United, completely and uncritically, and I was champing at the bit to get back to Elland Road.  And CF Barcelona, with their galaxy of exotic stars, were just four days away.

Over the next year or so after these initial matchday experiences, I was taken to a few, carefully selected games, something I settled for willingly, rather than going back to being completely excluded. I don’t remember if Dad’s pattern of support was dwindling even then, or if perhaps he still preferred to go as the original dynamic duo with my brother, the anointed “favourite son”. Whatever the reason, it soon became a standing joke that my visits to Elland Road were guaranteed something-nil defeats. I saw the Liverpool game the following season.  We lost, 0-3.  I saw us play Norwich towards the end of that season, when we were actually handily placed near the top of the league, with games in reserve. We lost 0-3 again. There was a growing desperation that I should break my duck, so the next game chosen was Sheffield United, who were already relegated. We contrived to lose that one as well, 0-1 with the grey-haired Alan Woodward scoring for the Blunts.

I was obviously a Jonah, carrying the can for the team’s inability to live up to the recent glorious past. I would never see Leeds win, or even score, not if I went along to Elland Road till I was ninety.  Or that’s how it felt.  Of course things did improve, but I’ve never quite been able to shed the Jonah part of my make-up, and many is the game I’ve cost us, simply by being there and wanting too much for us to win. Or maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s just Leeds. Whatever the case, it was an inauspicious start – in the league at least.

That European campaign though was different.  The whole city, the whole county it seemed, was buzzing with excitement, and the feeling that Don Revie’s Champions of Europe dream was about to be realised was irresistible. After the hors d’oeuvre of the Liverpool game, I was ready for my Catalan main course and, despite my début defeat, I just knew we were going to win. With the all-consuming passion of the new convert, I anticipated the game, how the arena would look under the floodlights, packed to the rafters with hysterically expectant Leeds fans. Cruyff, the Dutch master, the most expensive player in the world (nearly a million pounds!), would not, could not, stand in our way. We beat Barca over the two legs and, in my naivete, I was sure we would now be unstoppable. Bayern Munich were ours for the effortless taking in Paris. We were going to win the European Cup.

And that peak of optimism prior to crushing disappointment was as good as it got for me and for Leeds United, for the next 15 years, anyway. As any Leeds fan of a certain age will be aware, there’s a whole separate blog in what happened next at the hands, not primarily of Bayern, but mainly of a bent French ref acting in the best traditions of the game’s masters. Having hit the heights against Barcelona, we were to be cast down yet again, and it was the end for Revie’s boys. For me, however, it had barely yet begun…

The Revie Boys: Super Leeds One to Eleven – by Rob Atkinson

Super Leeds

Sprake, the Viking, error-prone
Costly gaffes are too well-known
But brilliance too, in Budapest
Gritty show, Fairs Cup conquest
Outside the fold now, Judas jibes
Allegations, fixes, bribes

Reaney, swarthy, lithe and fine
Clears a rocket off the line
Always there to beat the best
Georgie, Greavsie and the rest
Speedy Reaney, right full back
Repelling every new attack

Top Cat Cooper, number three
Once a winger, then set free
From wide attacking, made his name
The best left back of World Cup fame
Scored at Wembley, League Cup dream
Got the winner for his team

Billy Bremner, black and blue
Red of hair, Leeds through and through
A tiny giant for the Whites
Semi-final appetites
Beat Man U, not once but twice
Billy’s goals, pearls of great price

Big Jack next, our own giraffe
World Cup winner, photograph
With brother Bobby, Wembley day
The lesser Charlton many say
Was Jack; but for the super Whites
He gave his all and hit the heights

Norman Hunter, hard but fair
Tackles ending in mid-air
Studs on shinpads, bone on bone
Take no prisoners, stand alone
With enemies strewn at his feet
Angelic Norm, that smile so sweet

Lorimer, the rocket shot
Lethal from the penalty spot
Lashed the ball from distance great
Fearsome pace he’d generate
90 miles an hour clocked
Keeper left confused and shocked

Clarkey next at number eight
A predator to emulate
The  greatest strikers anywhere
On the ground, or in the air
One chance at Wembley, snapped it up
Leeds United won the Cup

Mick Jones, the workhorse, brave and strong
Graft away the whole match long
But frequently a scorer too
A hat-trick blitzing poor Man U
Five-one, in nineteen seventy-two

The Irishman at number ten
Giles, a leader among men
Skill and strategy, world class
Struck a devastating pass
John and Billy, midfield twins
Hard as nails – for who dares, wins

Eddie “Last Waltz” Gray out wide
Beats three men in one sweet stride
Jinks and shimmies, deft of touch
Didn’t seem to matter much
Who might face him, come what may
Eddie beat him anyway

Eleven players, clad in white
Internationals, as of right
Ready to play, and battle too
Many the victories, losses few
Leeds United, Revie’s boys
Strength and power, skill and poise

Left with just sweet memories now
But even critics must allow
A squad of many talents great
Where every man would pull his weight
Cut one and find the whole team bleeds
A club United; Super Leeds

 

 

Former Leeds Man Sabella Outwits Man Utd Boss van Gaal in World Cup – by Rob Atkinson

Alejandro Sabella - formerly of Elland Road parish

Alejandro Sabella – formerly of Elland Road parish

So we are to be spared a rerun of the 1974 World Cup Final, when a technically superior Holland contrived somehow to lose to those pesky, arrogant Deutschers. Instead, it will be a best of three decider as Argentina and Germany, tied after the tournaments of 1986 and 1990 at one head-to-head World Cup apiece, do battle in Brazil for the title of ultimate Champions 2014 style.

In truth, all that will be decided is who is the best of an indifferent bunch at this over-hyped, over-rated tournament. Germany booked their Final place on Tuesday, beating a Brazil side of whom their angry fans could with justification sing “It’s just like watching Barnsley”. The Germans had nowt to beat, as we say in God’s Own Country, but they will find Argentina a much tougher proposition. To Messi and his men falls the responsibility of preserving South American infallibility where tournaments held in the Americas are concerned. No European side has ever won the World Cup over there – can a good but by no means brilliant Germany really be the first?

The second semi-final saw Holland keep up their own 100% record of World Cup failure. Having confirmed his position of World’s Best Coach, in the eyes of the Man U-obsessed British press at least, by a quirky goal-keeping substitution against Costa Rica, Pride of Devon manager-elect van Gaal then brilliantly decided to stick with his number one No. 1 Cillessen for this shoot-out. Predictably, his confidence affected by that bizarre substitution, the poor lad didn’t get near most of the Argentinean penalties, as erstwhile super-sub Krul sat despondent and abandoned on the bench. So Holland are out, their Manchester-bound coach out-foxed by honorary Yorkshireman Alejandro Sabella, once of the Sheffield Blades and, more pertinently, the Whites of Leeds United.

Who, then, will emerge victorious now? Germany will be on a high after their candy-from-a-baby beating of the Worst Brazil Side Ever. But they’re not anywhere near as good as the hosts made them look – and, if Messi can put in just one truly Messi-esque performance, Europe will be left waiting for its first Americas Cup. That’s the prediction of Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything. Argentina to win, without the need for extra time or a penalty lottery – Germany to be left reflecting that you get nowt for being second, as the Greatest Club Captain of all once said. It’s going to be World Cup glory for ex-Leeds Man Sabella – and with an enviable pedigree like that, will it really be a surprise?

Leeds Title Retrospective: Villa & Hammers Could Still Make Liverpool Champions – by Rob Atkinson

The Last Champions

The Last Champions

The more years that pass since Leeds United’s 1992 title success, making them the Last Champions – it’s 22 years now – the more the myth is perpetuated by the Man U-friendly media that it was the collapse under pressure of the Pride of Devon that year which denied them the ultimate accolade.  In short – and as echoed in Alex Ferguson’s bile-ridden summary of the season – Leeds United didn’t win the League – Man U lost it.

There had been a lot of talk throughout that last season of pre-Murdoch football about how “fitting” it would be for Man U to at last end up as top dogs after 25 years of hurt (or amusement, depending on your point of view).  There was nauseating speculation about the date that the title would finally “come home to OT”.  Somewhere in Greater Manchester, there is, in all likelihood, a warehouse which still contains souvenir candles, t-shirts and sundry other tawdry tat, prematurely commemorating the 1992 Championship success that never happened for Ferguson’s nearly men. There was a fair degree of confidence in the air, as you can see.

In the end, it wasn’t fitting – because Man U weren’t good enough and Leeds claimed a deserved honour.  The Whites finished top by four clear points, having won most games and lost fewest.  They scored the second-highest number of goals and conceded the second fewest to end up with the best goal difference overall.  Any way you care to look at it, Leeds were worthy champions – but that doesn’t stop the media and others from pushing the “unlucky Man U” myth. And the fact is, as well – the winning margin for the Champions could – and should – have been far greater.

Setting aside the well-remembered banana skins that Leeds contrived to skid wildly on away from home as the season got to its final act – those thrashings at Man City and QPR and a pallid defeat at Oldham – Leeds also managed to let slip four seemingly-vital points at fortress Elland Road, to mar an otherwise unstoppable progress in their home campaign.  In the last eight home games, Leeds won six and drew two.  The only teams to escape from LS11 with anything at all were Aston Villa and West Ham – coincidentally the two clubs Liverpool are now relying upon to upset the Manchester City apple-cart, and deliver a long-overdue title to Anfield.

Those two 0-0 draws at Elland Road served, at the time, to increase the conviction that we were destined to fall short at the end of the season. They were games of missed opportunities, including a rare missed penalty by the normally infallible Gordon Strachan – and those four dropped home points could well have been fatal in the final reckoning.  But as things turned out, the two agonising draws served only to limit the final margin of success, proving that then, as now, it was impossible to call correctly the twists and turns of a title head-to-head.

In the end, it was Man U that bottled it – as Liverpool appear to have done at home to Chelsea and at Crystal Palace – and it was Leeds United who finally held their nerve to close the season out with a series of coldly nerveless performances, culminating in that crazy, decisive match at Sheffield United.

Now, in the moment of Liverpool’s blackest despair, it is those two claret-and-blue clubs which hold the key to the Reds’ remaining shreds of hope. Manchester City have to face the challenge of obtaining four points from the two home games left to them, and thereby clinch a title that was Liverpool’s to lose until these last couple of weeks.

City may well be without their talisman Aguero, but of course they have a squad packed with quality even without the quicksilver Argentinian.  But in his absence, City always seem that bit more more ponderous in attack, that few percentage points less lethal than when he is in there and performing at his best.

Neither Villa nor West Ham have anything to play for other than pride; nor indeed do they have anything to fear.  They may well set out to frustrate the home team in these two Etihad encounters – and in both games, the longer it remains goalless, the more Manchester City would become nervous and doubtful.  The fans would sit there, getting edgy – thinking “typical City”. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible.

Liverpool, ultimately, will have only themselves to blame if they do end up missing out on what was a golden chance to be Champions again – after so long a time without that once perennial accolade.  The defence has not been good enough and there has been, at times, an unforgivable naivety of approach made worse by shattering individual errors.  A draw was good enough at home to Chelsea, but it was thrown away.  A 3-0 win at Palace would have put the pressure on Man City – but a gung-ho quest for even more goals opened the back door, and the Pulis-inspired Palace nipped in three times to deny the Reds that victory.

It would take a heart of stone not to feel regret and sympathy for the sobbing, devastated double Player of the Year Suarez; he deserves far better from what has been a magical season for him.  And Gerrard, too, deserves more than he looks likely to get.  The list of mediocre players with Premier League medals is a long one, the list of greats who lack one is somewhat shorter.  The injustice of that will not be lost on Gerrard, a player whose fierce desire to be the best has been etched in every line of his being lately; but who is likely, in a vicious twist of fate, to be the man who carries the can for Liverpool pulling up short of the line.

All these players and their team-mates can do now, is wait – and hope.  If Aston Villa – notorious for blowing hot and cold this season – can turn it on at City and claim a highly unlikely win, then the Reds’ fate would be back in their own hands come Sunday.  They would be one home victory over Newcastle from recapturing the Holy Grail; given that vastly improbable last chance, you sense they would not squander it at any price.

Now that Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has played his last card in the game of raising the pressure stakes, by publicly conceding the title, City will be as well aware as anyone that a banana skin awaits them on Wednesday, with another beyond that on Sunday.  They’re the same two home-ground banana skins that Leeds United so nearly slipped up on all those years ago in 1992. Can Villa and the Hammers throw a spanner in the works for real this time?  

When the Anfield Kop Saluted our Leeds United Champions – by Rob Atkinson

Leeds United's Champions take the tributes of the Liverpool Kop

Leeds United’s Champions take the tributes of the Liverpool Kop

Each of Leeds United’s three Football League Championship titles was clinched at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC.  In 1992, the Reds were good enough to beat a demoralised Man U 2-0 which, added to our earlier triumph at Bramall Lane, saw us as Champions by 4 points in the last ever proper old-style league competition.  In 1974, Liverpool obliged at Anfield again, losing at home to Arsenal to ensure that they couldn’t overhaul us at the top.  I remember a TV programme going to an ad break and then an information board coming up which read “Football result: Liverpool 0, Arsenal 1 – LEEDS UNITED ARE THE CHAMPIONS”  That simple memory still sends a tingle down my spine, even forty years on.

And of course – probably best of all – Leeds United’s first ever title success at the top level of the game came after a showdown between the two deadly but mutually respectful rivals on April 28 1969 – almost exactly 45 years ago. Leeds had come to Anfield knowing that a point would clinch the league, and they set out their stall as only they could to obtain that point, in the toughest place possible.  They would go on to beat Nottingham Forest in the last game of that season to reach a record 67 points – a mark that wasn’t beaten until Liverpool themselves recorded 68 points, ironically with a 3-0 win at Elland Road, in their fabulous 1978/79 Championship year.

That legendary Leeds United squad of the sixties and seventies hung on Don Revie’s every word, they would follow him into the pit of Hell itself and they trusted him implicitly.  This was the cornerstone of the relationship between team and boss; the unit thus formed was formidable indeed and, on their day, there was no-one to touch them.  It was often said of that Leeds side that if you cut one, they all bled – and then you’d better watch out, because they’d be after you as one man to seek retribution. They would do anything for each other and anything for the legendary Don – but on that historic night at Anfield 45 years back, they must have come as near as they ever came to saying “You what, gaffer?  Are you bloody sure??”

On the final whistle, as the Leeds players cavorted with joy in front of their delirious fans at this first delightful taste of being The Best – and as the weary Liverpool troops, having given their all in vain, sportingly congratulated the new Champions – Revie came over to Billy Bremner and confirmed to him that he was to lead his team over to the Kop. This, remember, was at a time when crowd violence was becoming very fashionable.  A similar gesture at the Theatre of Hollow Myths down Trafford way, and sundry other less-than-welcoming grounds around the country, might very well have got you a crack on the head with a pool ball or a dart in the eye. It did rather seem to be pushing things a bit – but Revie was insistent, and he was very definitely The Boss.

So it happened that Billy Bremner, captain of champions Leeds United, gathered his players together and led them on a long, slow walk to the legendary Anfield Kop.  When it was realised what was happening, a hush fell on the ground.  In near-silence, the heroes in white walked on, nearer and nearer to the most iconic terrace of them all.

On the night, Bremner had won the toss for Leeds, and had elected to make the Reds attack the Kop in the first half; a tactical ploy that went against the home side’s preference for a second half onslaught on their favourite end. So the Leeds players had to walk nearly the length of the pitch to approach the massed Liverpool fans behind the Kop goal, and with every passing second, the silence became more loaded – almost a solid thing you might cut with a knife.  Leeds United were asking for it – what would they get?

What they did get is now the stuff of legend and has passed deservedly into United and Liverpool folklore.  As the triumphant yet apprehensive Leeds warriors finally neared the Kop, the long silence was finally broken as the first cry of “Champions!” went up, swiftly echoed by others on the still-packed terrace – until finally the whole 27,000 population of that mighty hill were acclaiming the title-winners with the same shout, over and over again: “Champions! Champions! Champions!!”

This was completely unprecedented; a moment unparalleled before or since, something to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, the ultimate acknowledgement of respect and admiration even out of defeat – and a massive credit to the football fans of Liverpool FC.  It was the epitome of true rivalry between two crack teams, forged out of one of the grisliest on-field battles any football ground had witnessed for many a long year.  No finer tribute could have been paid by any fans, anywhere – and the Leeds players stayed out there, in front of the Kop, for a good quarter of an hour or more, paying their respects to both sets of fans.

Later, in the dressing room, Leeds celebrated anew with champagne provided by Bill Shankly, whose quote was short and to the point: ‘Leeds United are worthy champions,’ he said. ‘They are a great side.’  Revie responded by praising Liverpool, the club, the fans and their fine team. ‘The reception given us by the sporting Liverpool crowd was truly magnificent,’ he acknowledged, ‘and so, for that matter, was our defence tonight. It was superb in everything.’  The conduct and bearing of both managers was a mark of the relationship between the two top clubs in the land – and a marked contrast to the ungraceful reaction of Alex Ferguson at the same venue 23 years later, after the Leeds of 1992 had pipped his charges to the Last Championship Title and he, characteristically, dripped bile and acid all over the occasion.

Looking back from today’s perspective, with managers bitching about each other, players diving, cheating and trying to get each other into disciplinary trouble – and the stench of filthy lucre all-pervading – it seems far longer ago than 45 years to that Anfield night when the competition was so unremittingly fierce; white-hot, with no quarter given or asked for.   And yet after the battle was done, all that remained was respect from the teams for each other, of the staff for their opposite numbers, and of both sets of fans for an epic battle well fought.

Sadly, those days are gone, never to return.  But for those of us lucky enough to be able to remember, those images will never fade, the sound of those tributes can still be heard ringing out across the years.  It was a night of triumph and disaster, as these decisive nights tend to be, depending on whether you were White or Red; but it was also, let us not forget, a night of dignity, respect and utter, unalloyed class – not least from those 27,000 Liverpool fans on the Anfield Kop.    

Will Everton Make a Title Gift to Liverpool? – by Rob Atkinson

Chelsea’s immaculate win at Anfield sees them hang on in the Premier League title race but, in truth, it’s of more real use to Manchester City than it is to themselves – despite another touchline scamper of triumph from The Poorly One, Jose Mourinho.

Though City won at Palace today, they will still need to get a result at Everton, who are themselves clinging on to receding hopes of Champions League qualification. This is assuming, of course, that Liverpool can now win their last two matches of the season.

It may very well be that, if Everton can deny City at Goodison, they will have gift-wrapped a 19th top division title for their deadly local rivals. How that would go down in the Blue half of Merseyside is anyone’s guess.

I’d still back Liverpool – and I’m sure that if they do need a massive favour from the Blues – then the Reds will be suitably grateful.