Jock Stein, Don Revie And The Greatest Battle of Britain

Times were simpler in the early 1960s when sixteen-year-old Terry Cooper turned up at Leeds United with his boots in a paper bag, seeking a trial. He duly impressed the club’s coaching staff and was handed an apprentice contract. Initially a left winger, Cooper was later converted to left back – a position in which he would become one of the best in England. In an article for The Guardian, Rob Bagchi writes: “Cooper’s exuberant overlapping and neat link-up play with Martin Peters was a nod to the great Brazilian pioneer of attacking full-backs, Nilton Santos”.

For all his exuberance, Cooper found himself in a world of trouble one April evening in 1970, when a short, ginger-haired winger named Jimmy Johnstone left him clutching at thin air. During the match, Leeds’ tough tackler Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter screamed at Cooper: “Kick that little Scots bastard”, an oft-employed tactic by Don Revie’s infamous Leeds side. The frazzled left back replied: “I would – if I could catch him”. According to Jim Black’s biography of Jimmy Johnstone, he schooled Cooper to such an extent that during half-time Billy Bremner joked there was no point in him playing in the second half.

‘Jinky’ – as he was fondly known – often contributed his most brilliant performances on the grandest of stages. With him in the team Jock Stein’s legendary ‘Lisbon Lions’ won silverware by the score, but in terms of pre-match hype, not even their 1967 European Cup final against Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale could match up to this 1970 European Cup semi-final against Don Revie’s Leeds United. More than 130,000 people crammed into Hampden Park for the return leg, a record unlikely to be ever broken in this era of all-seater arenas. This was the first time a Scottish club had faced an English club in the European Cup: a clash of two of the greatest teams in Europe, each led by iconic managers. It was the greatest of all the Battles of Britain.

Mired in the second division and struggling with poor attendance figures, few Leeds United fans would have dreamt of this prospect when Don Revie took over the reins at the Yorkshire club in 1961. Revie brought holistic changes to the club both on and off the pitch. He was involved in everything related to Leeds, from improving the atmosphere in the stands to changing their strip colour to all-white thanks to the inspiration of Real Madrid. It took a few years for his changes to bear fruit, but by 1964 Leeds were at least back in the First Division.

A combination of a sound youth policy and shrewd purchases propelled Leeds to an instant top-flight impact. They lost the title to Manchester United only on goal average in the 1964/65 season and followed it up with another runner-up finish in 1966, the same year the club got its first taste of European football in reaching the Inter City Fairs Cup semi final. One year later they went a round further and faced Dinamo Zagreb in the Fairs Cup final. Leeds were thoroughly outplayed in the first leg in Yugoslavia, losing 2-0. Any hopes of a recovery at Elland Road went up in smoke when an insipid performance yielded only a 0-0 draw. Revie’s cautious tactics were lambasted and a match report called his team “thoughtless and unsubtle”.

Revie’s acrimonious first European final was in sharp contrast to another British manager who won universal acclaim after his first European final just a few months earlier. 220 miles north of Leeds in Glasgow, Jock Stein was performing miracles with a largely home grown Celtic side. When Stein took over in the summer of 1965, the Hoops were in a rut having not won any domestic silverware since 1957. This situation swiftly changed as Celtic won back-to-back league titles and pegged back bitter rivals Rangers.

A greater reward awaited the Scots in the 1967 European Cup final. Overwhelming underdogs against Helenio Herrera’s double European champions Internazionale, Celtic played with a vivacity and aggression that made football romantics go weak at the knees. Stein’s team battered Inter for almost the entirety of the ninety minutes, laying waste to the Italians’ famed catenaccio system and becoming the first British European champions.

After their maiden European finals in 1967, both Leeds and Celtic continued to accrue trophies and were seen as two of British football’s leading lights. Celtic swept away domestic competition while Leeds won a League Cup before sealing a first ever League title in 1969. The Hoops struggled to replicate the same form in Europe. Their European Cup defence was ended with a first round exit to Dynamo Kiev and the following season they were knocked out by eventual champions AC Milan at the quarter-final stage.

Leeds, on the other hand, bounced back from the disappointment against Dinamo Zagreb to win their first European trophy in 1968. Just as in the 1966/67 edition, Leeds faced an eastern European side in the Fairs Cup final – Ferencvaros from Hungary. This time they made no mistakes and won 1-0 over the two legs. After winning their respective domestic leagues, both clubs qualified for the 1969/70 edition of the European Cup. They had also coincidentally played each other during pre-season in a match which ended in a 1-1 draw.

As English champions Revie aimed for the ambitious target of a treble of League, FA Cup and European Cup, which no English club had done before. Leeds already had a strong defence and midfield and were further strengthened in attack when Revie dished out a British record fee of £165,000 to sign striker Allan Clarke from Leicester City. The Elland Road side began their season with silverware by defeating Manchester City to lift Community Shield. Staying true to their manager’s vision, Leeds were looking well-placed to successfully defend their league title. By the end of February of 1970 the team had lost just twice in the First Division and sat top of the table with a two point cushion over Everton. They were progressing nicely in the FA Cup too and were scheduled to play against northern rivals Manchester United for a place in the final.

Billy Bremner and his teammates maintained this same sparkling form in Europe and rolled on like a juggernaut. Leeds’ first-ever European Cup match ended with a club record 10-0 hammering of Norwegian minnows Lyn – the second leg resulted in another one-sided victory. In the next round Mick Jones scored four times over two legs as Leeds eased to a 6-0 aggregate win over Ferencvaros. Standard Liege, who had knocked out Real Madrid, provided a stern challenge in quarter-final. The Belgian champions proved to be a match for Revie’s side in terms of physicality and the Leeds defence was tested for the first time in the competition. Despite Standard coming close to scoring a number of times in the away leg, Leeds scraped to a 1-0 victory. A nervy second leg at Elland Road followed and Leeds were able to achieve the same result as the first leg thanks to a 80th minute penalty from Johnny Giles.

Don Revie’s Leeds United were not playing like European Cup debutantes having won all their matches in the competition to date, all without conceding a goal. Over the course of the tournament Leeds developed into the competition favourites and, as they reached the semi-final stage, they found themselves drawn with Celtic. Just like Leeds in England, Celtic were crushing all domestic competition north of the border. Jock Stein’s team remained unbeaten in the league between November and March and had strung together a jaw-dropping sequence of seventeen wins and a draw in eighteen matches. In October they had put St. Johnstone to the sword to take the Scottish League Cup, while the Scottish Cup final and a potential domestic clean sweep awaited them. The core of the Lisbon Lions team was still intact and Stein had had to do precious little in the transfer market to maintain this winning momentum.

In Europe the Hoops began their own European campaign with a surprising 0-0 away draw against FC Basel, but were able to remedy this with a win in the return leg. The Second Round brought the formidable obstacle of Portuguese giants Benfica, runners-up in the 1968 Final and an undoubted world-class team, fronted by the legendary Eusebio who was still very much in his prime. Celtic needed a flawless performance in the first leg in Glasgow and they delivered just that. Tommy Gemmell and Willie Wallace put Celtic 2-0 up before the quarter-hour mark while Harry Hood added another in the second-half to register a seemingly comfortable 3-0 victory.

Celtic perhaps became complacent in the second leg and got a mighty scare when Diamantino scored a late third goal to level the tie on aggregate. With no provision for a penalty shootout after extra time, Celtic rode their luck to progress via a coin toss. In the last eight Celtic yet again lost the away leg to Fiorentina, but a 3-0 win in Glasgow was enough to take them into another semi-final.

For many fans, this was a match best suited to be the European Cup Final itself, an assessment shared by both managers. Anticipating great demand, tickets for both matches were made available for sale on the same day. The first leg was at Elland Road and Celtic fans were dismayed when Leeds released only 6,000 tickets to their opponents. These tickets quickly sold out, but over 10,000 Celtic fans would travel to Leeds anyway thanks to a special train service set up for this match.

Mind games began soon after the fixture was drawn. Stein portrayed his team as underdogs, but also reminded the press: “Leeds are a fine team and play well, but I do not think they are as good as people make out down in England.” In team talks Stein ceaselessly worked on boosting his players’ confidence levels. One of them got special treatment – Jimmy Johnstone, whose confidence was sky high by the time first leg came.

Meanwhile Revie downplayed his team’s prospects by citing its punishing fixture list. He had a point. Leeds were competing on three fronts and their fixture pile up was not at all helped by the replays in both FA Cup and League Cup that were necessary. On the 30th of March Leeds had an away trip to Derby County, on the 1st of April they were to play Celtic in Glasgow, then on 2nd April they had another away trip to West Ham! This left the Leeds squad mentally and physically drained, compounded by the loss of Norman Hunter for the first leg. To keep his players fresh Revie had no choice but field weaker teams in the League, resulting in Leeds surrendering pole position to Everton. Relentless in his mind games, Stein sneaked in a potshot: “Leeds have shown us so much respect that it has cost them the League. But they must chase the game because supporters expect victory at home and they won’t allow them too long to score.”

On 1st April 1970, most of the 46,000 fans at Elland Road had not even taken their places when Leeds’ impenetrable defence was pierced by Celtic. Within seconds of kick-off Paul Madeley, filling in for Norman Hunter, failed to clear a ball on edge of the box. Willie Wallace wrestled away possession and pushed the ball towards George Connelly. With Jack Charlton closing in Connelly took a shot, which deflected off ‘Big’ Jack and crept into the Leeds net. It was a strangely anti-climactic goal given the build up and Leeds’ defensive reputation.

Celtic didn’t sit back after scoring their precious away goal and, inspired by Johnstone, the Hoops continued to bamboozle their hosts. Like a young Muhammad Ali battering at Sonny Liston, Leeds were struggling to hold back Celtic’s onslaught. Stein’s plan was deceptively simple. He pushed his players for an early goal against a fatigued opponent and aimed to take command of the match by the time Revie’s team recovered. Unleashing Johnstone was also a piece of tactical genius. With Cooper unable to stop him, Celtic took complete control of one channel while cutting out a potent source of Leeds attack. Leeds were finally able to muster an attack after half an hour had elapsed, but the first half ended with Celtic clearly on top.

The second half began in almost as blistering a fashion as the first with Johnstone setting up Connelly to score, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside. Leeds finally woke up from their slumber and started to take attacking control. Allan Clarke came close twice as Celtic’s defence, led by the excellent Billy McNeil, rushed to clear its lines. Unfortunately for Leeds, talismanic skipper Billy Bremner was taken off with concussion midway into second half and it was becoming clear that luck was not on their side as a shot from Eddie Gray cannoned back off the crossbar in the 72nd minute. Despite Leeds’ endeavors they were unable to break Celtic’s resistance, meaning the Scots had taken a gigantic step towards the European Cup final.

By the time the second leg arrived two weeks later, much had changed and both clubs’ bid for trebles had met with setbacks. Don Revie’s decision to use weaker teams in the League saw Leeds go through a torrid patch of form and Everton duly sealed the title. On the 11th of April both teams took the field for their respective FA Cup finals – Leeds played Chelsea while Celtic squared up against Aberdeen.

For many, the 1970 FA Cup final was a quintessential example of contemporary English football, when moments of sublime skills were generously peppered with abject brutality. Inexplicably, there was a Horse of the Year show held at Wembley just a week earlier which severely damaged the turf. Leeds were just four minutes away from victory yet contrived to throw away a 2-1 lead. Extra time produced no goals, so a replay had to be played. However, 120 minutes of gruelling football on a terrible pitch had taken a significant physical toll on the Leeds players.

Their opponents didn’t fare well in their own Cup final either. Celtic were firm favorites but went down to a shock 3-1 loss to Aberdeen in one of the more notable upsets in Scottish Cup Final history. To make matters worse, Jock Stein was fined by the FA after he lambasted the referee for a number of dubious decisions.

The demand for Celtic v Leeds tickets in Glasgow exceeded all expectations and, as a result, the match was shifted to Hampden Park with its greater capacity. And thus, on the 15th of April, 136,505 people were in attendance when Celtic and Leeds took to the field. This is a record attendance figure for a UEFA tournament. To put things into context, the legendary European Cup final at the same stadium between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt ten years before had an attendance of 127,621. In 1923, the first FA Cup final held at Wembley stadium had an official attendance of just over 126,000.

In Glasgow Norman Hunter had recovered from his injury and was back in the starting line up, as was Billy Bremner. Unfortunately, right back Paul Reaney had suffered a broken leg and was ruled out for rest of the season. Pre-match, Don Revie put up a brave face and said: “We have been told that no team who are a goal down at home in a European Cup semi-final has ever reached the final of the tournament. But we won’t let that worry us because we are history makers, we are record breakers. And if ever a record can go, then this one can”.

Jock Stein made one change from team that had won at Elland Road, replacing the injured Willie Wallace with John Hughes. Stein sensed the chink in his opponent’s armour and according to the Leeds fanzine “mightyleeds”, he quipped in the dressing room: “Revie’s shitting himself, I’ve never seen that man as nervous in all my life. He’s as white as a sheet. If he’s like that, what do you think his players are like? They are there for the taking, believe you me.”

Egged on by a vociferous home support, the Glaswegians began with a swagger and quickly pegged back Leeds, winning five corners in opening eight minutes. Celtic had an early chance when visiting keeper Gary Sprake made a hash of a save from a free kick and collided with the post as the ball came off the woodwork. Celtic continued to press forward and it was their zeal to try and score the first goal that allowed Leeds take the lead against the run of play in the 14th minute.

A misplaced Celtic pass was intercepted in midfield by Norman Hunter who played the ball to Billy Bremner. The Scottish midfielder took a couple of touches before unleashing a swerving daisy cutter from well outside the box which clipped the inside of the post and nestled in the back of Evan Williams’ net.

To Celtic’s credit they were not unnerved after conceding and continued to attack Sprake’s goal, Bertie Auld forcing a save from the Leeds goalkeeper soon after. A few further minutes had elapsed when Connelly released a beautiful through ball that flummoxed the Leeds defence. One-on-one with Sprake, Bobbie Lennox calmly lifted the ball past the onrushing Leeds’ keeper, only to see Madeley make a desperate goal line clearance. Little Jimmy Johnstone was again making life difficult for the Leeds defenders. With him skinning Cooper more than once, Hunter and Bremner had to take turns to help out the left back, leaving gaps in other areas which Johnstone’s team mates exploited with glee. Leeds took their lead into the half-time break, but the balance of play was swinging away from them.

All evening long the Hoops had been knocking on the door and finally got their reward within minutes of the restart. Celtic’s seventh corner of the match was a short one, played towards Auld. The veteran launched a flat but well directed ball into the box and it was met with a glancing header from John Hughes, who had managed to peel away from Jack Charlton. After 51 minutes Celtic scored their second goal and this time the architect was the irrepressible Jimmy Johnstone. A quick transition released him down the left wing in acres of space. Both Cooper and Hunter tried to close him down, but ‘Jinky’ slalomed his way into the box before teeing up a pass for Bobby Murdoch. Substitute keeper David Harvey, who had replaced the injured Sprake just seconds before, was slightly unsighted and could do nothing to stop Murdoch’s right-footed snap shot.

That second goal knocked the stuffing out of Leeds. Every time Johnstone touched the ball, the capacity crowd howled as he twisted and turned to drag Leeds’ defenders all over the field. For the rest of the match Celtic maintained their domination and had the two best chances, only to be denied by Harvey and a desperate last gasp block from Charlton. 2-1 it ended; Celtic had humbled the pride of England and were in the European Cup Final again. Stein was overjoyed: he raced onto the pitch to celebrate with his players, who took a lap of honour to salute the boisterous Hampden crowd.

That sense of accomplishment perhaps brought an overconfidence which would provide Celtic’s death knell in the European Cup final few weeks later. Stein didn’t study his opponent Feyenoord as studiously as the situation demanded and grossly underestimated them. Celtic players also took the Dutch team lightly and allegedly had more interest in commercial deals before the final. Feyenoord’s own tactical maestro, the great Ernst Happel, had his plans ready and completely outmaneuvered his illustrious opponent. Celtic were outplayed for large swathes of the match and would eventually lose in extra time.

For Leeds, the experience was even more harrowing. The league title was lost to Everton due in part to the fixture pile up and, bruised and battered after the longest of seasons, Revie’s team had to endure another morale sapping match in the FA Cup final replay. Mick Jones gave Leeds a first half lead, but Peter Osgood cancelled it out in the 78th minute. Extra time ensued and the game was decided by a strike from Chelsea defender David Webb. Leeds’ season ended as a ‘treble horror,’ comparable to a similarly unfortunate season suffered by Klaus Toppmöller’s Bayer Leverkusen 30 years later.

Celtic would never reach another European Cup final. In the 1971/72 campaign their old foes Internazionale would get a measure of revenge by knocking them out in the semi-final, while two years later Atletico Madrid would do the same after two notoriously ill-tempered matches.

Between 1970 and 1975 Leeds would add a league title, a first FA Cup success and a second Inter Cities Fairs Cup. Their big chance of glory came in 1975 when, no longer managed by Revie, they reached the European Cup Final following a run that included a semi-final win over Barcelona and Johan Cruyff. The final against Bayern Munich proved to be controversial. Leeds were denied two penalties and had a goal chalked off before Bayern scored twice to successfully defend their crown. Incensed by poor refereeing, many Leeds fans rioted in Paris bringing a two-year ban from European competition as punishment. By the time the ban was lifted, Leeds form had spiralled downwards and well away from the level needed to even qualify.

Neither club has again managed to reach those heights of their late 60s and early 70s heydays. Their clash in 1970 was not the first time Scottish and English clubs had faced off in Europe, neither would it be the last. But it was arguably the only time two clubs from respective countries have met with the standing of two of the best teams in Europe. The quality of each squad and the larger than life profiles of their managers made these encounters all time classics. The media has often and freely used the term ‘Battle of Britain,’ but never has the fixture risen to the same heights again and it’s unlikely it ever will, given the ever expanding gulf between the quality of club football between Scotland and its “auld enemy”.

SOMNATH SENGUPTA

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