It Made Me Want to Cry For The Fans

At some point in the hours and days after a 7-3 defeat, there comes a period of calm analysis and inward reflection. Of course, if our players had tried a little calm analysis and/or inward reflection during the game, maybe none of this would be happening, but anyway. The question arises – has it ever been this bad before? – and a cliche answers it – fans go “scurrying to the record books” to find out. I would dispute that cliche, by the way. I didn’t scurry. I marched, grimly determined.

And the answer, as we all know, is that no, at Elland Road, Leeds United have never been so bad as to concede seven whole goals. The result against Forest can, therefore, be officially declared unprecedented. Away from home, though, is a different story, and it’s a story that has rather too much to do with Stoke; but it’s also a story from which we can take some hope, and some inspiration, and in which we can find yet another example of how, even when we were at our very worst, Billy Bremner would always be at his very best.

Despite recent efforts, our record defeat is still the one suffered at Stoke City, on 27th August 1934: 8 (that’s eight) – 1. Dick Ray was manager then, but he’d been replaced by Billy Hampson long before March came around and Leeds went to Chelsea to get on the wrong end of a 7-1. But these were the thirties, and results are hard to quantify from our modern perspective. Scanning through pre-war scorelines, it seems like every other game finished 7-1 to someone: football was very different then. Plus, with no disrespect to the pioneering players and managers of Leeds’ early years, we can argue that we didn’t really become Leeds United before Don Revie was the manager. Which is also convenient because it means we don’t have to talk about a certain 6-0 defeat at Old Trafford in September 1959.

After Revie made us the club we are embarrassing defeats became, thankfully, very rare; which is one of the things which makes the recent Forest result – and Blackpool result, and Preston result, etc – so hard to take. The Don’s team was not infallible, however. It’s the League Cup where Leeds tend to hide their big defeats, and it was the League Cup fourth round in 1966/67 where a United team that included Reaney, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, Madeley and Giles went to Upton Park and got knocked 7-0.

West Ham were the Cup Winners Cup holders and were in their post-World Cup pomp with Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst et al, and according to David Lacey in The Guardian’s match report, Don Revie had declared pre-game that he was playing for a draw. But Leeds had been developing a reputation of their own for dour defensive solidity, and West Ham simply destroyed it. Sissons scored after just two minutes, and within thirty-five minutes he had a hat-trick and Leeds were 3-0 down. Hurst got another on 60 minutes, and within another quarter hour Peters had one and Hurst had completed a hat-trick of his own. “Jack Charlton, that lofty hero of the World Cup team,” wrote Lacey, “was reduced to gnome-like proportions.” The Leeds attack was non-existent, although typically one player was exempt from criticism: “None fought more hard or more bravely than little Bremner to save something from the wreckage.”

If there is any salvation for this result, it’s that it was a blip for a team on the rise. Leeds had played in the Fairs Cup the season before but were still exploring their potential, and results like this and a 5-0 thrashing at Anfield in the same month were perhaps necessary reality checks en route to greater glory. You can’t exactly say the same, though, about what happened at Highbury in the same competition in 1979.

Leeds’ games with Arsenal always seem to come in sequence. In 1990 it took three replays for Arsenal to knock us out of the FA Cup, and they had to take two goes at us in the Cup in 1992/93. The League Cup second round draw threw us together in 1979/80 season, and the two legs sandwiched a league match at Elland Road, meaning Leeds and Arsenal would have plenty of time to become acquainted.

Leeds first had to get acquainted with themselves. Jimmy Adamson was embarking on his first full season as Leeds manager, and was overseeing what he would have described as a rebuilding job – although to a lot of fans, it looked like demolition. The popular Tony Currie had left, and in had come the less than stellar names of Kevin Hird, Alan Curtis, Gary Hamson, Wayne Entwhistle and Brian Greenhoff, who made his debut in the League Cup first leg at Elland Road at the end of August. Leeds had begun the season with a draw, a win, and a loss, and the game with Arsenal was a tough proposition. Arsenal defended with eight men behind the ball, and took the lead after fifty minutes through a Frank Stapleton header. Seven minutes later Arthur Graham was fouled in the box, and Byron Stevenson, “demonstrated the art of taking a penalty,” according to Don Warters in the Green Post. The game ended 1-1, the away goal giving Arsenal an advantage for the second leg, but there was the league match to get past first.

It was more of the same at Elland Road on the Saturday. Arsenal stuck with the same gameplan of defending in numbers, and as Leeds’ players toiled, the Leeds fans chanted the name of Tony Currie, longing for his inspiration. Some inspiration did come from Paul Hart, who headed in a corner to give Leeds the lead just before half time, but the lead didn’t last long. In the first minute of the second half Nelson fired past David Harvey from eight yards. It was to be Harvey’s match: in the sixtieth minute Arsenal were awarded a dubious penalty but Harvey, “flung himself to his right to block Talbot’s well-struck kick and then recovered quickly enough to kick the ball clear as Talbot attempted to have another go.” Don Warters continued: “Harvey’s magnificent effort deservedly brought a fitting tribute from the fans.”

The return League Cup leg at Highbury came around almost immediately, and after two tight 1-1 draws the Leeds staff were bullish about their chances. “Before the first leg I said a goalless draw would be a good result,” said Adamson. “It turned out to be 1-1 so we shall have to go to Highbury and lick them there. I fancy our chances – it will be easier for us to break Arsenal down when they play at home.” It promised to be another close match – Leeds had won three and drawn three of their last six at Highbury, the three wins each by a single goal. Leeds were, in fact, unbeaten in their previous twelve games in London, a record that in their Northern pride Leeds were keen to keep going. Adamson’s gameplan was clear: “Arsenal will have to come at us more and if they do that, and we are in the right frame of mind to get in behind them, I see no reason why we should not win.”

Northern pride was to be dealt a terrible blow everywhere you looked in the next day’s papers. On the front pages was the news that the Yorkshire Ripper had claimed his twelfth victim, Barbara Leach murdered after meeting Peter Sutcliffe in Bradford’s Manville Arms; and the back pages provided no relief from the grim news. Leeds had gone to Highbury and left with a 7-0 defeat.

“This was a night of shame for United,” reported Mike Casey in the Evening Post. “They caved in against a team that came at them like a hurricane. In a word, they were pathetic.” Adamson’s plan of counter-attacking against a more expansive Arsenal team had backfired in spectacular fashion. “Some of our players had heart but none had the touch,” he said afterwards. “Arsenal had both heart and touch and what impressed me most was that they were going for goals to the end.” Alan Sunderland had opened the scoring for Arsenal in the third minute, as a mis-hit corner rolled through the penalty area, and Curtis, Hart and Hampton all swung and missed with their attempts to clear, and Sunderland tapped the ball in. “The astonishing part of last night’s performance,” wrote David Lacey in The Guardian, “was the fact that no depth of incompetence appeared to be beyond the Leeds team.” It was 3-0 within half an hour, and as four more – including two penalties – were struck home in the second half, “the disorganised, disorientated defence was reduced to fouls of despair.”

In the aftermath Adamson was apologetic, but far from inspiring. “A terrible blow to our pride. I wouldn’t have believed we could make so many mistakes. There’ll be strong words said after training tomorrow. I might make changes for the Forest game. On the other hand, I might give the same side another chance in the belief that they can’t possibly play so badly again.” The uncertain Adamson was forced into one change, as Eddie Gray replaced the injured Greenhoff, and brought Madeley in for Stevenson, but otherwise it was the same side against Forest and it took another man of the match performance from David Harvey to merit a 0-0 draw.

Adamson could have learned a lesson or two about handling defeat from that certified winner, Billy Bremner, although Eddie Gray was the man in charge when this tale of two Stoke City games begins. Leeds’ slide into the doldrums was complete by the time Leeds went to Stoke City on a Monday morning in August and conceded six in the league for the first time since a certain trip to Old Trafford in 1959 – which we’re not talking about. Eddie Gray had been moulding a team of youngsters in his own image to try and play Leeds’ way out of Division Two – his team of skilful youngsters was blessed with flair but cursed by a soft underbelly, and the Evening Post report described them as looking “visibly shaken” by the 6-2 defeat they caved in to at the Victoria Ground towards the end of Gray’s reign. It had been 2-2 with twenty minutes to go, Neil Aspin and Ian Snodin leading Leeds’ fight back from 2-0 down; but the collapse after drawing level was spectacular. The players did at least get there for the 11.30am kick off, even if they didn’t mentally turn up; the Fullerton Park branch of the Supporters Club did not fare so well, as a flat tyre and a firm of mechanics at Birch services with a monopoly on repair work but no equipment to repair a coach left 53 fans stranded. 28 determined supporters hired a fleet of taxis and made it to the ground while the score was still respectable; whether the ones left behind had it better is open to debate.

Gray’s time in charge ended soon afterwards, and Billy Bremner became the third ex-player to attempt to bring the glory days back. When Leeds returned to Stoke four days before Christmas in the 1986/87 season, Leeds had yet to mount the charge up the table that would see them into the play-offs. In fact, they were struggling. With just one away win all season, and mindful of the previous season’s result, Bremner was cautious. “Stoke has always been a bit of a jinx ground for Leeds. But I like to think that my lads can be at their most dangerous when they have their backs to the wall.” What the lads were, according to Don Warters in the Evening Post, was, “miserably inadequate, spineless and embarrassing – lacking understanding in defence, losing out easily in midfield, and looking decidedly inept up front.” Stoke were 5-0 up at half-time, their third goal an overhead kick by the right back, Lee Dixon. With the strange serendipity that haunts Leeds results like these, the final result was one goal worse than the previous season’s effort: Stoke won 7-2, and Billy Bremner was furious.

Under the Evening Post headline, ‘I Apologise!’, Bremner issued an almost five hundred word explanation and apology to the Leeds supporters. As the antithesis of Adamson’s attempts, and as a source of inspiration to us all in the wake of the Forest 7-3, it is worth reprinting Billy’s words here in full.

“I was ashamed to see a team of mine perform the way they did and I owe our fans an apology for it,” Billy began. “It was amazing. We were 5-0 down and our fans were still cheering us on, and they did the same after we had conceded seven goals. Our supporters have had to take a lot of bad publicity recently, but our genuine fans are the best in the world. How many other clubs can count on such backing when they have conceded seven goals in a match?

“I honestly don’t know where they get their patience from. They spend their hard-earned money to follow the club – and we turn in a performance like we did at Stoke. It must be heartbreaking for them when they have to watch what we served up for them. They deserve 100 per cent better. If we were up there at the top of the First Division we could not expect more from our fans. I was ashamed that a team of mine could be so lacking in enthusiasm, commitment and effort. It just wasn’t true.

“It was humiliating and there is no excuse. They are lacking pride in the club, when wearing a Leeds United shirt should be the greatest thing in the world. It was for me. I am not talking about players of 27 and 28, but young players who should be trying to make their way in the game. Some of them wonder why they are not in the team, but you are only as good as your last game. We have to discuss what we are doing and where we are going. It is all about whether players have enough bottle away from home.

“I owe it to our fans to explain what happened and that is why I am making a public apology. But one thing is certain – we will not put up with the level of performance we got at Stoke. I cannot and will not tolerate such play. [YEP: Bremner said that for the first time since coming back to Elland Road, he had mentioned the old Leeds team to his players before the Stoke game.] I spoke about how those players would die for the club yet we never got the kind of support away from home that the present team are getting.

“It made me want to cry for the fans when I saw what happened yesterday. We mentioned commitment to the players before the Stoke game and told them there were certain grounds where you were going to be up against it, like at Derby or Portsmouth. But at Stoke I felt we could win, yet look what we got.

“I have turned things over at this club before and I will do so again. I will bring in new players because I am not having the best support in the world repaid with displays such as that.”

Bremner’s inspiring words worked. Leeds lost only four more league games in 1986/87 as they won a place in the play-offs and came agonisingly close to promotion; and they went all the way to extra-time in the FA Cup semi-finals as United once again played with the commitment Bremner had embodied as a player and demanded as a manager. The lesson is clear. You can lose 7-0, or 6-2, or 7-2, or 7-3, and you can’t do anything about it once it’s done. But it’s not about how you lose; it’s about what you do after you lose. And, as with so many things at Leeds, it’s about trying to emulate, as closely as possible for us mere mortals, William Bremner. One of the other cliches that trots along in the wake of a shameful defeat is the one that says it’s a good job Billy wasn’t around to see this, but it’s wrong. If ever there was a game I would have wanted Billy Bremner to see, it was Leeds United 3 Nottingham Forest 7. He would have hated every minute of it, true. But he would have known exactly what to do about it.


From The Square Ball magazine 2011/12 issue nine.