The idea of Leeds United as a mediocre, mid-table, second-tier team will be as familiar to fans in 2015 as it was throughout the 1980s. The concept of World Cup winners and European Footballers of the Year turning out for the club in front of 13,500 people on a mid-season Wednesday night, however, is a bit harder to get your head around.
But it did happen, in April 1988. The occasion was a testimonial for former Wales, Leeds and Juventus legend John Charles and Scottish midfield general Bobby Collins. Charles was a well-known and much-loved figure at Elland Road, having set goal-scoring records galore in the 1950s before a record-breaking £65,000 move to Juventus. Charles was equally adored in Turin, helping Juventus to three Scudetti in a five year spell. He became known as Il Gigante Buono (“the gentle giant”), and was voted the club’s best-ever foreign player on the club’s centenary in 1997.
Collins had been perhaps an even more pivotal figure in Leeds United’s history. After a successful career with Celtic, 5’3” midfielder Collins played for Everton for four years before Don Revie brought him to Elland Road at the age of 31. As Gordon Strachan did nearly 30 years later, Collins had a catalysing effect on Revie’s squad, inspiring them to the Second Division title in 1964 and to within a hair’s breadth of a League and Cup double a year later. He added indomitable steel to a young United side, inspiring the likes of Billy Bremner to believe they could take on anyone.
Having fallen on hard times, following failed business ventures, divorce and other mishaps, Charles was granted a testimonial alongside Collins in April 1988. The opposition, Everton, were not only Collins’s former team, but also the current League champions. Impressive enough opposition for a testimonial, with a team containing stars such as Neville Southall and Kevin Ratcliffe turning out to help one of their only countrymen to appear in a World Cup.
But the real glamour of the occasion was provided by the galaxy of stars who appeared in the famous white shirt that night. Foremost among these was Michel Platini. Now a Eurocrat who seems to spend his time stalking Sepp Blatter, in 1988 Platini was a recently-retired football genius. He had inspired Saint-Etienne to UEFA glory before a move to Juventus brought him similar success and acclaim as Charles. He scored the European Cup-winning goal in the horror of Heysel, and inspired the French national side to a swashbuckling European Championships triumph in 1984.
In August 1987 Platini had shone in the Football League’s Centenary match against the Rest of the World at Wembley, stealing the show from a booed and subdued Maradona. On that damp April night in West Yorkshire, he strolled around the pitch spraying inch-perfect passes for his temporary team-mates.
Everton’s Derek Mountfield later recalled Platini as the best player he’d come up against, citing this match: “Number one was Michel Platini. When you see him close up, & he's picking players out 40 yards, he really was phenomenal. That was when he was coming to the end of his career. He must have been an awesome player. He impressed me so much. I never got his shirt either!”
The Leeds team that night included not just Platini’s former Juventus team-mate and Italian World Cup winner Gaetano Scirea but also Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush who delighted on being back on British soil in the middle of a frustrating season at Juventus.
Rush famously described his Italian sojourn as “like living in another country”, as he toiled against the catenaccio defences. But on a night when Platini and Dalglish served up the kind of angled through-balls he thrived on, Rush scored a hat-trick against old adversary & team-mate Southall, as Leeds won the match 3-2.
For Leeds fans starved of success in the gory years that followed Revie’s Glory Years, this was a night of rare splendour; a surreal interlude in a dreary decade. To see genuine superstars like Platini, Rush and Dalglish turning on the style alongside the likes of John Stiles and Vince Brockie may have been somewhat incongruous. But to see Leeds outplaying the reigning League champions was a flight of fancy that was as unlikely then as it would be now.
For the young Leeds stars of the time, such as John Sheridan, David Batty and Gary Speed, just starting out on their careers, to share the pitch with such greats was a special moment too.
There were only 13,671 fans there to witness it, and a rather surreal atmosphere around the Galacticos in the gloom. John Charles earned £20,000 from the match, and continued to be vaunted at the club until his death. The West Stand at Elland Road was named after him, as a lasting memorial. Four days after the testimonial, Leeds appeared - very briefly - at Wembley in the Mercantile Credit Tournament. For that illustrious occasion, Scirea was gone and the likes of Jack Ashurst were recalled to the side. But for one utterly magical night, Leeds had dabbled in the European limelight again.