When We Were Good: Leeds United In 1968

October 1968 and only weeks after defeating Ferencvaros in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a packed Elland Road awaits Leeds' latest European campaign...
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The evening of Wednesday 23 October 1968 was cool, damp and slightly foggy. Under the piercing floodlights of Elland Road, the warm breath from 24,178 expectant spectators looked like smoke as they waited for the domestic start of another European campaign for Leeds United.

Only a few weeks before Don Revie’s side had confirmed its status as a new power in the footballing galaxy when it lifted its first European trophy by defeating Ferencvaros of Budapest in the two-legged final of the 67/68 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (a competition that was transformed into the UEFA Cup some years on). Bizarrely, the two decisive games of the tournament were held over from the previous season due to fixture congestion. Leeds beat the Hungarians 1-0 at Elland Road on 7 August, courtesy of a Mick Jones goal. At the Nep Stadium on 11 September, in front of 76,000 fans, Leeds held on for a 0-0 draw, thanks to heroics by their Welsh international ‘keeper Gary Sprake.

The slim and fluted Inter-Cities Fairs Cup stood in the trophy cabinet at Leeds alongside the squat tri-handled pot that was the League Cup. The Whites had won it, their first significant trophy, at Wembley on 2 March against Arsenal in a match that was dire to watch. But it brought silverware to Elland Road, and that was what mattered.

So on 23 October Leeds were defending champions in the second leg of the first round of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup 68/69. The opponents were Standard Liege of Belgium, a team most of the Yorkshire faithful had not heard of until Leeds had battled out a 0-0 draw in the away tie on 18 September. The Belgians had proved themselves a handy side at home, but they would be no problem at Elland Road, would they?

Even before the kick-off, however, the feeling on the night was not good. Liege kept Leeds waiting for five minutes before they appeared and then trotted out wearing an all-white strip – just like the home side. After 15 minutes of ridiculous squabbling, Leeds had to give in to the Belgians’ demands that the hosts change into an all-blue strip. The visitors – whose normal strip comprised red shirts and white shorts – had brought only all-white to Yorkshire.

So off we went, 20 minutes or more late, with Leeds in all blue and Standard in all white. Confusion turned to consternation a minute before the end of the first half when Standard scored. Six minutes in the second half the lead was doubled and mighty Leeds, barely a month after lifting the Fairs Cup, looked like they’d lost it.

But forty minutes is a long time in football and the fans in their white scarves with the blue and gold bands were about to be treated to a fight back that left me, then a 13-year-old lad from a council estate in Osmondthorpe, south-east Leeds, with memories of the most exciting match I ever witnessed. Jack Charlton, United’s gangling centre-half, got a header in the net soon after Standard’s second. After 70 minutes Peter “Hotshot” Lorimer, the Scot with the hardest shot in football at the time, rifled in a 25-yard free-kick. Swept on by the baying Elland Road crowd, Leeds frantically pressed forward. In the 88th minute a Lorimer corner was nodded down by Charlton and United’s talismanic captain, Billy Bremner, put the ball over the Belgian line. The place went mental. I feel sad that kids at footie today will never experience the amazing energy of a crowd spilling in delight down a concrete terracing.

With my nervous system overloaded with anxiety that had been turned into euphoria, I felt the need to walk from Elland Road into City Square. I got on the No. 54 bus home much later than usual. Still buzzing with excitement, I arrived home at just before midnight, probably a good 90 minutes or more later than expected. I hadn’t even thought to telephone home and my father was waiting up to give me possibly the only bollocking of my well-behaved teenage years. I didn’t really listen to what he was saying. All I could respond with was: “But, Dad, you should have been there”.

I feel sad that kids at footie today will never experience the amazing energy of a crowd spilling in delight down a concrete terracing.

That unforgettable night against Standard Liege represents the essence of Don Revie’s Leeds United in the “glory years”. They did seem dogged by ill-fortune and to be the victims of unsettling quirks of fate. How often, for example, does the other team turn up in your strip? They also made life hard for themselves too often by giving away goals (and games). Yet they could drag up from within an extraordinarily strong team spirit the skill and the will to triumph over adversity.

Leeds United are the Marmite team of the 1960s and 1970s. They rarely attract neutral admiration; you either love them or hate them. I genuinely still do not understand why they were branded Dirty Leeds in an era that had such robust practitioners as Chelsea under Ron “Chopper” Harris, Arsenal with Peter Storey, Man U with Paddy Crerand or Liverpool with Tommy Smith. Amid all the talk of Leeds kicking their opponents off the park, it is usually forgotten that the first PFA Players’ Player of the Year 1974 was Norman “Bites Your Legs” Hunter, Leeds’ fearsome No 6. Clearly his peers didn’t think he was dirty.

Yet despite the Olympian heights Leeds United scaled, despite the gorgeous flamboyant football they played particularly in 1972 and 1973, we Leeds fans must look back with a gnawing feeling of what might have been. Don Revie took over as Leeds manager in March 1961 and narrowly avoided seeing the team drop into the Third Division for the first time. Having changed Leeds’ traditional blue and gold strip for the all-white that emulated Real Madrid, he steered them to the top tier in 63-64. Between 1965 and 1974 Leeds United never finished lower than fourth and won League Championships in 1968-69 and 1973-74, the FA Cup in 1972, the League Cup in 1968 and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups in 1968 and 1971. In their victorious 68-69 season they lost only two games.

Tragically, however, during the same 10 years, Leeds were runners-up in the League five times, losing finalists in the FA Cup three times, runners up in the Fairs Cup once, and lost 1–0 to AC Milan in the European Cup-Winners Cup final.

This roller-coaster performance was achieved with a relatively small squad of largely home-grown players, virtually all of them internationals. The starting line-up against Standard Liege in 1968 was nearly, but not quite, the perfect Leeds team. Gary Sprake, Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper, Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter were the peerless sextet wearing shirts 1 to 6. On the forward line that night, however, some key names were absent as Mike O’Grady, Peter Lorimer, Mick Jones, Paul Madeley and Terry Hibbitt lined up. Most importantly, Johnny Giles, Leeds’ incomparable No 10, was out injured. Allan “Sniffer” Clarke would not be signed from Leicester to wear the No 8 jersey until 1969. Eddie Gray, the first-choice No 11, appeared only as a 70th-minute substitute for Hibbitt.

The Super Leeds line-up of legend was Sprake, Reaney, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles and Gray, with on the bench the inestimable utility man Paul Madeley, who played for Leeds in every position apart from ‘keeper. It is worth noting, however, that less-well-remembered names like Leeds lad Mike O’Grady (signed from Huddersfield, where he had been signed by Bill Shankly), Terry Hibbitt, Rod Belfitt, Jimmy Greenhoff, Mick Bates (who replaced Terry Cooper at half-time versus Liege) were fine, reliable players, fully qualified to wear the white shirt which in the late 1960s sported an owl borrowed from the Leeds city coat of arms.

If you want to see Leeds United turning it on in majestic style, check out the video below which features the legendary 7-0 demolition of Southampton on 4 March 1972 and a display of showboating that the current Barcelona team would be proud of. And just remember that a few weeks earlier at Fortress Elland Road they had hammered Man U 5-1 and a few weeks later Arsenal were sunk 3-0. Glory, glory Leeds United. That’s when we were good.

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