The Granny Killers – The Scots That Built Dirty Leeds

Disparaged and disputed by those still capable of recalling certain events portrayed in David Peace’s The Damned United, Brian Clough’s arrival at Leeds United in 1974 truthfully began ‘with a bang not a whimper.’ Eliot did not foresee the world ending in such a manner. A diminutive factor that hastened an onset decline, Clough’s short spell with the champions of England was not so destructive as to guarantee the eighteen years of barrenness that Leeds were about to embark upon. Norman Hunter, Paul Madeley, Paul Reaney and Billy Bremner, four players who had similarly triumphed with Leeds in the 1968/69 season, were now thirty years or older. John Giles, the ‘anointed successor’ (Wilson, Brian Clough – The Biography, 2011, 308) seemingly overlooked in favour of Clough was one such player also. Discernibly recommended for the position that Don Revie was vacating in favour of the England job, the prospect of Giles as player/manager of Leeds seemed favourable to Revie himself. After all, he had begun the role in similar circumstances. However, that was thirteen years earlier and Leeds United was little more than a blip on the Second Division radar. Let us begin here.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”

Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Sound of Silence’

Acrimony tends to underwrite the eventual development of later success. Although examples of this throughout football are far-reaching, in keeping with our thematic concern, one need look no further than Alex Ferguson, Bill Shankly or Jock Stein to better imagine this process in all its glorious action. Yet, we shall anyway. Don Revie may not have been Scottish, but, his closeness to that nation can be readily explored through the conduit of Leeds United. This, therefore, is not a study of Revie, Leeds United or Scotland in general. Rather, it is my intention to investigate the impact Scotland – through (in)direct means – had on Revie’s Leeds and Leeds United thereafter. There are no analytical attempts made at better understanding the individuals involved – there simply is not enough space to carry this out in a justifiable manner. This is a brief consideration of the ties that bind Leeds United to Scotland.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made

When Revie assumed the managerial role that would be his first and last in English club football in March 1961, Real Madrid were already aware that five consecutive European Cup victories would not become six in May of that year. Scarcely reason enough to question their status as Europe’s premier club, that the fifth of those five successful finals had occurred in Glasgow’s Hampden Park demonstrates what may have been a prophetic moment borne of Revie’s close proximity to the event. Whether he actually attended Madrid’s 7-3 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt is unknown (an estimated 127,000 did; Alex Ferguson being one amongst them). What is certain, however, is that ‘the 1960 European Cup Final…was the first to be broadcast across the continent live’ (Goldblatt, The Ball is Round, 2006, 40). One way or another we can ascertain that Revie did watch the match take place. Heralded as the ‘victory [that] had gone down in football history as their signature performance’ (Hesse, Tor! – The Story of German Football, 2013, 143), the Madrid of Puskás, Di Stéfano, Gento et al drew in Revie like it did everyone else.

Bobby Collins & Denis Law

However many people witnessed Madrid claim el quinto in Glasgow, the city of Leeds was as yet firmly ensconced in its rugby league tradition. Their football club was of very little local significance. Owing to this lack of external scrutiny, Revie’s regeneration of Leeds Untied would forge arch-pragmatism with a touch of footballing idealism. Although he may not have had a Puskás or Di Stéfano, Revie took some solace in attiring those players at his disposal in the same colour kit; Leeds United would now play in all-white too. It was a start. A testament to the standards that Revie sought to instil in the club, their new appearance encouraged the belief that Leeds United were somehow starting from scratch. White may have been the colour of Europe’s greatest club side at the time, but it was similarly a blank canvas upon which Revie could create a team in his own preferred image. Amid the rolling changes that Revie carried out, one player who had briefly been a teammate to the new manager and would remain at the club throughout Revie’s thirteen year tenure was the Stirling-born midfielder Billy Bremner.

In his role as a footballing pundit on Irish television, John Giles once recalled a defining question that a former teammate of his at Leeds would use to judge the effectiveness of a player; ‘Would he kill his granny?’ Bobby Collins, another Scottish great who aided the enactment of Revie’s plan at Leeds, was that teammate. It seems safe to assume that when the prospective result was the winning of a football match, Billy Bremner would duly answer Collins’ question in the affirmative. This proclivity for violence engendered a public perception that Leeds United was a ‘dirty’ team. Many will recall the infamous order from Clough that these players he had taken charge of at Leeds ought to ‘throw your medals in the bin because you’ve never won anything fairly’ (Wilson, 2011, 308). In truth, by 1974 this was an extremely unfair degradation of what Revie had created and players like Bremner exemplified.

They were exceptionally tough yes, but talented to even greater degrees. Collins (1964/65), Bremner (1969/70) and Jack Charlton (1966/67) would each be named FWA Footballer of the Year whilst playing for Leeds United. No other club could match this proportion of individual honours awarded to one team throughout the 1960s. In those formative years before which Leeds would challenge on domestic and continental fronts frequently, an overly physical approach was certainly evident and it was here that the ‘dirty’ tag manifested itself; Leeds became a pantomime villain for English football. Yet, by the time they won the club’s maiden First Division title in 1969, Bremner would feature in each of Leeds’ forty-two league games. The later claim that Bremner would be of no use to Clough or Leeds if he was being continually suspended appears equally misguided. As Leeds claimed their second title in 1974 during Revie’s final season in charge, Bremner once again featured in each and every league fixture.

Billy Bremner

This is not an attempt at espousing Bremner’s undeniable importance to Don Revie’s Leeds, however. Along with the arrival of his national counterpart Bobby Collins and the coming presence of other Scots like Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray, can any correlation be drawn between Leeds’ success and any particular characteristics that one may associate with Scottish footballers? It is true that Leeds’ position as a ‘tough’ team was enhanced by the presence of players like Bremner. Yet, in keeping with English contemporaries like Nobby Stiles, Tommy Smith or Ron Harris, Bremner’s exuberance in the tackle was by no means a unique or especially Scottish trait. What of his footballing ability then? Although Scotland is second only to the host country in terms of the most represented nations with players who have claimed England’s FWA Footballer of the Year award, it would be facetious to assume that Bremner’s talents were the result of or enhanced by his nationality alone. For every Bremner, Collins or Frank McLintock that won the award, there was a Bobby Charlton, Alan Mullery or Ian Callaghan keeping up the native side. It is my contention that an unshakable sense of continually having to prove one’s worth in England underwrites the manner in which certain Scottish players pioneered Leeds’ ascent.

One may suggest that Scotland’s close proximity to England guaranteed a large proportion of Scots would ply their professional footballing trade in the First Division. Be that as it may, a brief look at four of the five teams to win the opening five First Division titles of the nineteen-sixties demonstrates a disproportionate level of importance owed to Scots involved. The Tottenham Hotspur side that would open the decade by becoming the first team in the twentieth-century to claim a league and cup double would do so with the indomitable Dave Mackay a vital component in their success.

As Ipswich Town claimed the club’s one and only First Division title in 1962, Jimmy Leadbetter became the first Scottish player to win the Third, Second and First Division titles with the same club. Furthermore, his importance throughout this astonishing five-year period led his manager at Ipswich (Alf Ramsey) to concede the following whilst discussing Leadbetter’s role in Ramsey’s later formation of his World Cup winning ‘wingless wonders’; ‘Yes, he was Scottish, but I owed him so much.’ Of the Liverpool and Manchester United sides that would respectively claim the title in 1963/64 and 1964/65, both were managed by Scots in Bill Shankly and Matt Busby. Liverpool’s success was the clubs sixth in total, but the first since 1947. It would signal the beginning of a period where the club would become Europe’s undisputed force. 1965 similarly signalled United’s sixth triumph at this level, yet, coming only seven years after the Munich disaster of 1958, the fourth title of Busby’s managerial career at United was arguably the most remarkable to date. Of the playing personnel involved, Denis Law’s thirty-nine goals in all competitions somehow represented a decline on the forty-six he had managed the season before; a Manchester United record that even Cristiano Ronaldo would fall four goals short of. Scottish personnel by no means hold the majority of credit owed to the teams involved. However, it is not chance alone that so many Scots were so instrumental in delivering success where it had not previously been in abundance. This is the key tenet to Leeds United’s Scottish connection.

And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on subway walls
And tenement halls

When Revie departed Leeds United in 1974, the squad he left behind could be broken down into the following chosen nationalities; English (9), Scottish (8), Welsh (4) and Irish (1). Importantly, for each of those eight Scottish internationals Leeds United was the first English club that they had played for. Derby County, Liverpool, Ipswich Town and Everton – the four teams who would finish that season in the top four – could only boast twelve squad members of Scottish extraction between them. Across the remaining seventeen sides that contested the First Division that season, only Birmingham City’s contingent of seven Scots came remotely close to Leeds’ eight. Can this detail be overlooked when seeking an explanation for Leeds United’s prolonged stint as one of England’s leading clubs? Is it merely coincidence? Albeit difficult to determine national characteristics in a manner that refrains from slipping into reductive stereotypes, the highly un-fancied, disliked Leeds team that Revie assembled possessed a sturdy, dare I say, Scottish degree of resilience that could not be assuaged by media scrutiny or a lack of respect from fellow professionals – one need only recall Clough’s vocalised displeasure with Revie and Leeds in the years prior to his taking the job; not that it stopped then either.

Joe Jordan

Although naive to suggest that an intransigent stubborn streak influenced by the Scots present carried Revie’s Leeds’ team through this turbulent – albeit successful – period, a recent Graham Hunter (‘The Big Interview’) conversation with Joe Jordan (Leeds United, 1970-78) highlighted a level of determination that seems fairly consistent in Scottish players who ventured south throughout this era. When questioned about the line of work that men in his family carried out over previous generations, Jordan recalled the fact that his grandfather had died whilst working in the mines of Cleland. Hardship was not unique to the footballers who emerged from Scotland in the 1960s and 70s of course. Yet, for a country whose population was roughly an eighth of England’s at this time, the disproportionate number of Scots in this Leeds side makes plausible the argument that being un-liked, un-fancied and arriving in the country relatively unknown, suited the overall style that Revie sought to imbibe Leeds United with. He needed them to be tough, indefatigable and relentless in the face of what would be a recurring line of setbacks. By and large, they satisfied these criteria seamlessly.

And whispered in the sounds of silence

Of the twenty-two Scottish players selected for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, fourteen would win major European honours throughout their club careers. Neither Italy nor West Germany – the two eventual finalists – could match this broad range of individual distinction. Yet, unlike their English and Northern Irish counterparts, Scotland would fail to progress beyond the opening group phase of the competition, bowing out at the first hurdle with the likes of Peru, Kuwait, Honduras and El Salvador.

After their promotion from the Second Division in 1964, Revie’s Leeds would finish ten consecutive seasons firmly ensconced in the top four of the top division; a consistency unmatched by any other team of this period. However, two league titles, an F.A. Cup, a League Cup and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups mask what one may perceive to have been a significant period of underachievement by a great team. First Division runners-up in 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971 and 1972, losing F.A. Cup finalists in 1965, 1970 and 1973, second place again in the 1972/73 Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1966/67 Fairs Cup, Leeds United’s most successful period to date was rife with disappointment.

The ageing profile of Leeds’ squad upon Revie’s departure in 1974 encourages one to contemplate what his next move may have been had England not come calling. Unlike Scottish contemporaries such as Shankly and Busby, or the intransigent Englishman Clough, Revie’s suitability for the English position made the prospect of continuing his work at Leeds somewhat untenable. While Alex Ferguson would later spend a quarter of a century at Man United for lack of a better national option, Revie could not realistically refuse. Therein remains the irony. Establishing a club that yet still commands national interest in spite of their extended absence from England’s top flight, Revie created a phenomenon that holds true to that Wildean maxim; ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ Although the days of David O’Leary and his ‘babies’ proved a false dawn for Leeds United, their greatest success post-Revie would result in Leeds once again becoming Champions of England in 1991/92. Under the management of another Englishman in Howard Wilkinson, the presence of Gordon Strachan would prove pivotal in a midfield quartet featuring Gary McAllister, Gary Speed and David Batty. Two Scots, a Welshman and a local Leeds man in Batty; Revie would have approved one feels.

Gordon Strachan

Whatever way we choose to regard the unique Scottish influence that pervaded Revie’s Leeds, the broader context from which this massive club emerged cannot be overlooked should we seek to highlight its frailties. Yes, they lost five cup finals and relinquished three league titles by a point or less. However, prior to this period of occasional success and recurring disappointment, the general purpose of Leeds United was to simply exist. Perhaps Revie’s acquisition of numerous Scots was pure coincidence. Maybe, albeit not quite as successfully, Revie’s fondness for the Scottish market demonstrated a degree of insider nous the like of which Graham Carr recently displayed with Newcastle United and their penchant for a French fancy. Yet, it seems unlikely. The relationship between Leeds United and Scotland is worthy of a far greater investigation than this article allows. Comprehensive though a quote from an Irish playwright may not be, Shaw’s concern strikes a chord that may have made sense to Revie; ‘God help England if she had no Scots to think for her!’

ARTHUR O’DEA – @ArthurJamesOD

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