Sniffer Clarke and Speedy Reaney are doing a turn at the Old Peacock pub opposite Elland Road. Think Morecambe and Wise meets the Damned United. Or Life on Mars crossed with This Sporting Life. They may be two of the hardest players ever to grace English football, but they know how to work a crowd. Especially a Leeds United crowd. They finish – of course – on a song. “And if you know your history, it’s enough to make your heart go oh ooh oooh…” Which I always thought was a Celtic ditty, but we’ll let that pass. All I can say is the death of music hall has been much exaggerated.
For these two are funny. Old-school funny, not alternative comedy funny. “We were away for six-and-a-half weeks for the 1970 World Cup,” says Clarke. “When I got back I booked a holiday for Paul’s family and mine to Malta.” “Correct,” nods Reaney. “So I took him to Malta,” continues Clarke. “He actually did, yes,” says Reaney. Pause. “But Allan fails to tell you that I paid for the holiday.” Boom boom.
Funny’s not a word normally associated with Don Revie’s great Leeds United team. According to popular mythology they were a bunch of humourless robots. The film of The Damned United reinforced this myth. But their stories of studs-up tackles, muddy fields and pulling Charlie George’s famous long hair are hilarious. There is a fair sprinkling of ‘blue’ material – a European adventure involving a stripper and a donkey, what comedian Freddie Starr did in the communal bath, Sniffer and Speedy being mistaken for gay lovers – but most of it is harmless, affectionate, good clean-dirty-Leeds fun. Reaney is a revelation, taking the mickey out of Clarke’s winning header against Arsenal in the 1972 centenary FA Cup Final. “Jonah (United centre-forward Mick Jones) went down the line, beat about three or four men and put it on a plate for Allan. Yet Allan gets all the credit. I don’t know why.” He then explains why one of his rare strikes – also a header – was by far the better goal. “Are you on drugs?” says Clarke. Someone asks if Allan had ever peeked inside Jack Charlton’s notorious Little Black Book, which contained a list of players who had wronged the big man on the pitch, and whom he planned to strike down with great vengeance and furious anger. “Yeah – and I was stunned and shocked to see five Leeds United players in it.”
They have not time to mention all the funny stories, which you can find in their autobiographies – and my own tome, ‘Promised Land: A Northern Love Story’. My favourite’s the one about goalkeeper David Harvey’s suicidal pet monkey. For the real reason we are all gathered here this evening is to honour Revie, one of football’s greatest ever managers. You wouldn’t have thought he was one of football’s greatest ever managers if you watched The Damned United. Whereas Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein are all revered as secular saints, Revie is – to many – the anti-Christ, the devil incarnate, the greedy traitor who defected to the Emirates after a disastrous spell as England boss.
He virtually invented Leeds United, taking a trophyless team from a rugby league city up from the second tier and keeping them in the top four of the old First Division for 10 straight seasons up to 1974.
To Allan and Paul he is simply The Gaffer. They are in their early-to-mid-sixties now but he is still The Gaffer. They never call him “Don” or “Mr Revie” or even “the boss”. Revie’s methods and ideas, they point out, changed the course of football forever. He virtually invented Leeds United, taking a trophyless team from a rugby league city up from the second tier and keeping them in the top four of the old First Division for 10 straight seasons up to 1974. He won two league titles, two European trophies, an FA and a League Cup. He was a revolutionary; his meticulous dossiers, for example, were way ahead of their time, prefiguring Andre Villas-Boas’ micro-management 40 years later. He treated everyone at the club, from the groundsmen to the players, as part of one big family. “He was the first one in, said ‘hello’ to tea ladies, groundsmen and office staff,” says Clarke. “Then we’d come in. ‘Morning Allan’, ‘Morning Gaffer’. He knew the names of everyone at the club. Looked after the tea ladies and groundsmen as much as me or Bite Yer Legs. He wanted everyone to feel part of the Leeds United family.”
“You know our gaffer?” says Clarke – nicknamed Sniffer for his ability to sniff a goal out of nothing. “Well, you’d go through a brick wall for him. If he shouted ‘s***’ you’d get a shovel, like. Outside of Leeds he never got the credit he deserves.” This lack of appreciation extends to the mystifying absence of a statue of the great man outside the United ground. Which is what this evening’s event is all about – raising funds for the 7ft tall bronze tribute by auctioning framed photos of the key moments in his career. One of the greatest moments was that FA Cup victory – and Clarke’s astonishing header.
"I thought I'd better leg it,” says Sniffer. “I remember Jonah taking on Bob McNab and then Pat Rice, the full back, coming across to cover. As the ball's coming over I'm thinking right-foot volley and I fancy my chances. But when it was about ten yards from me it started to lose pace and I'm thinking it ain't going to get to me. Now you've only got a split second to make up your mind, so I think I better take off. So I did." And that was how Sniffer won the FA Cup for the only time in the club's history.
Clarke was the best finisher ever seen in a Leeds shirt, with 151 goals to prove it. He was also an outsider, signed for a British transfer record £165,000 from Leicester City. "I'd been on the other side of the fence. I'd been in opposition changing-rooms with the manager saying, 'Try and outfootball this side and they'll destroy you so rough them up a bit.'" Sniffer was the thoroughbred to Jonah's high-class workhorse. As I point out in ‘Promised Land’, his arrival in 1969 was the beginning of a new, more expansive, more attractive era at Elland Road. The next five years saw the emergence of Super Leeds, one of the most outstanding football teams this country has ever produced. Clarke terrorised defenders with his astonishing skill and deadly finishing. “I was very fortunate,” he declares modestly. “I played for two of the greatest gaffers who ever lived – that’s The Gaffer and Alf Ramsey.”
The Old Peacock has gone quiet now. “When I joined Leeds it was for a British record fee. I wanted to play for Leeds United. I wanted to play for The Gaffer. But these prima donnas today, they are so selfish. Do you think they think like that? The first thing they want to know is: ‘How much are you going to pay me? I remember when I was a player and we did a video once, I think I was about 25 or 26, and I said it felt like I was in a dream and I hoped I didn’t come out of that dream!
“One day I will, like!”
Anthony Clavane’s “Promised Land: A Northern Love Story” won both Football Book of the Year and Sports Book of the Year – and is now out in paperback. To find out more about the Don Revie statue campaign visit www.donreviestatue.com.
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