The Gypsy Curse Of Elland Road That Haunted A Leeds United Legend

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The media never needed much of a stick with which to beat Don Revie’s unpopular team, and much collective derision was brought upon the club by the players’ own actions. One more direct aspect of Revie’s management that the media used to undermine him, however, was his perceived obsession with rituals and superstition.

This was brought into the most high-profile focus in 1971 when the famously exhaustive and meticulous manager attempted to lift a curse believed to have been left on Elland Road by gypsies.

Looking back at Elland Road’s potted history up to that point, indeed there had been the death of David Wilson, the extinction of Leeds City through war-time mis-payments, FA Cup Semi-Final chaos, numerous fines and perceived Football League and officialdom mistreatment and a fire destroying the main stand and all the club’s records and equipment, not to mention little success on the pitch, much of which was deemed to be the result of sheer bad luck. Whether that list equates to the vague ramifications of a gypsies curse is open to question, but certainly Revie was of a belief that his team deserved way more than they were actually achieving, and looking at football results and trophies alone, it was hard to argue with that.

One person who knew the Don’s character very well was Dave Cocker, son of Revie’s coach Les: “Don wasn’t really that superstitious in a way. People are, everybody goes to a game and they’ll wear their lucky shoes or lucky coat. A lot of people do don’t they? But we were in a situation where there were a lot of things that had happened that weren’t good. If you look at what happened at the FA Cup Semi-Final (versus Chelsea in 1967 when Peter Lorimer had a last minute free-kick disallowed in bizarre circumstances, for alleged encroachment) at Villa Park, we knew straight after the game what that was through, with the referee Ken Burns. The police were then trailing the Kray twins (who incongruously were West Ham fans) and they were speaking to Ken Burns outside the ground before the game. Then you had other refs, Tinkler and everybody else. If you look at what happened in Greece, I went to that game in Salonika (the European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final versus AC Milan in 1973), I was there, and we knew, we all knew that that game had been fixed at 1 o’clock that afternoon. It all just got to Don really. He never discussed it with my Dad, it’s just something he did himself.”

So whilst Dave believes much of what can be termed as ‘bad luck’ occurred simply through officials’ mistakes or the alleged intervention of third parties, and in other words they were explainable occurrences beyond the players’ or Revie’s control, Revie himself still felt tortured by what he believed was more than just the acceptable kind of misfortune that will and does occur on a football field.

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Revie spoke in a television interview in the late 1970s about his ritualistic practices and how he was approached with a potential solution to the continuing ills that were befalling his team: “Gypsies used to live on Elland Road before it was a football ground,” said Revie “and I got this letter one day saying that there had been a curse put on the ground by the gypsies when they were moved off for it to become a football ground, and the only way I could get the curse removed was to get a practicing gypsy to come to the ground. So to cut a long story short, I sent a car to Blackpool to bring Gypsy Rose Lee to the ground. She shifted everybody from the ground except me, the office staff, the groundsman and the cleaning women. She went into the ground and stood in the middle of the pitch, scratched the grass and threw some seeds down, then went to each corner flag and did the same. Then she came to my office for a cup of tea and said ‘now you’ll start winning things’, and we did from that year on.”

That year was 1971, when Leeds won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in a two-legged final with Juventus having, admittedly, suffered some shocking bad fortune during a fallow period since winning the league championship in 1969. It should also be noted however, that despite winning the FA Cup in 1972, Leeds were not exactly devout in their belief that karma had been restored after the twin catastrophes of 1973. Though maybe simply lifting the curse on Elland Road didn’t necessarily change the club’s fortunes away from home?

There is no record of gypsies inhabiting Elland Road prior to its 1897 full-time occupation by Holbeck Rugby Club or before that by Bentley’s Brewery. It is known though that travelling communities have and still do frequent the area around LS11. The derelict site of the old Wallace Arnold depot adjacent to Gelderd Road has seen gypsy communities temporarily decamp there in recent years, and a site further up Gelderd Road passed Churwell Cemetery has also been well-used. Whether that practice was the same in the late 1800s is difficult to prove and unlikely to be found on any official records. It is possible the story was a complete fabrication and the fruits of the creative mind of an opportunist preying on Don Revie’s famous paranoia. Nevertheless, keen to leave no stone unturned in providing his players with every possible opportunity to perform to their utmost, evidently the Don went ‘what the hell!’

“I’m a superstitious man,” Revie explains in a different TV interview “I have the same routine that I’ve had since the first day of the season, the same lucky tie, one or two lucky charms in my pocket. I walk to the traffic lights every morning, turn round and walk back to the hotel.” The accompanying film shows him doing exactly that. It is clear that Revie’s obsession with the preparation for games extended to his own rituals, which became a mild form of the common obsessive-compulsive disorder, and while he was a slave to routine and they were seen as eccentric, they were really just his way of ensuring his players were exorcised of all elements of bad luck that might adversely influence their performance.

Revie’s observance of rituals and practices were by no means a secret, and his players were well aware of what he did and why he did it. All-time Leeds United leading goalscorer and Revie disciple, Peter Lorimer also spoke in a television interview: “The (lucky) suit he wore was blue mohair, and you could see his underpants through it, it was so worn on the backside, but he wouldn’t change it. It was quite embarrassing and I think he had to wear his coat even in summer to cover it up, but obviously in the dressing room when he took his coat off and turned round it was threadbare, but he wouldn’t change that suit.”

Terry Yorath also speaks of a number of Revie’s superstitions in his autobiography ‘Hard Man, Hard Knocks’. These included a fear of ornamental elephants and the well-known bird phobia which lead to Revie changing the club’s badge from the owl to the ‘LUFC’ script, also in 1971. As Yorath was a habitual substitute during his Elland Road career he was well-placed to see many of Revie’s superstitions and rituals first hand, such as taking only three puffs on a cigar before sucking on a mint for one minute, then swapping it for gum, which he chewed for ten minutes.

This apparently continued throughout the game in a strict cigar, mint, gum order. Yorath also speaks of having to go with Revie back to the manager’s home from the team hotel in Leeds when he forgot one of his dossiers. Yorath was brought along because Revie wouldn’t go back into his own home himself, as “you should never go back in the house once you’ve left it”. Yorath also had to stand outside the away dressing room at Derby County and count to ten, before going inside to retrieve a player’s spare pair of boots upon Revie’s instruction. Other rituals included rubbing Terry Cooper’s back with liniment before every game.

It is fair to say that while Revie’s ways may have appeared irregular, his influence was such that the whole club got caught up in it, and many critics believe Revie’s psychosis and his almost neurotic pre-occupation with the opposition began to affect his players, particularly on the big occasions. Jack Charlton insisted on being the last player to run out of the tunnel before games. Charlton and his centre-back partner Norman Hunter had to head the ball back and forth to each other 20 times before leaving the dressing room. If the team won a game, the entire squad had to wear the same suit and tie to the next game. On the face of it, these are harmless practices common throughout the game, but they can very quickly fester into all-consuming anxieties when things are going wrong.

What is for sure is that when Leeds were good under Revie they were very good, which was more often than not, even prior to 1971, and hence throws doubt on the consistency of any gypsies curse that was thrust upon Elland Road, whether you believe in such things or not. Meanwhile the club’s bad fortune since the league title win of 1992 is attributed by many to the move to Thorp Arch from Elland Road in 1996, or perhaps the lifting of the curse in 1971 was only actually on a temporary basis?

This is an extract from Jon Howe's new book 'The Only Place For Us - An A-Z History Of Elland Road'

Follow Jon @jonhowe1971

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