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 Dick Ray was manager then, but he’d been replaced by Billy Hampson long before March came around and Leeds went to Chelsea to get on the wrong end of a 7-1.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.

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.

How To Lose, and How To Win: by Billy Bremner

Issue nine of The Square Ball is out today, and you can buy it before the game from our no doubt bedraggled sellers on the rain splashed streets around Elland Road. It’s packed with good stuff, a lot of it to do with the seminal 1986/87 season – Adam Jubb and Steve Firth both have excellent articles about that so-near-yet season, and The Beaten Generation contributes a beautiful Sheridan themed centre-spread. Shez is on the cover, too, in that timeless top, this time with the blue shorts – a combination that, while it’s a bit un-Leeds, I’ve always kind of liked.

I’ve written about losing. You can probably guess which game inspired this. After seeing Leeds concede seven at home for the first time ever, in history, in all time – of all time! – I began to wonder about how many times it had happened away. More times than you’d care to know, is the answer, and I’ve written up a couple of them in the new magazine – a disaster in the League Cup against Arsenal, and a developing two season agony away to Stoke City.

Stoke have an understated role as Leeds United’s nemesis. Our heaviest ever defeat was away to Stoke – 8-1 in 1934. In 1985 Eddie Gray’s young side went there for an 11.30am kick off – on a Monday – and lost 6-2, and before the rematch in 1986 new manager Billy Bremner was wary. “Stoke has always been a bit of a jinx ground for Leeds,” he said. “But I like to think that my lads can be at their most dangerous when they have their backs to the wall.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Just before Christmas 1986, with only one away win to their names that season, Bremners 86/87 side of Burton All-Stars went to the Victoria Ground and went one worse than the season before. 5-0 up at half-time – including an overhead kick by one Lee Dixon – Stoke won 7-2, and Billy Bremner, to say the least, wasn’t happy.

Under the Yorkshire Evening Post headline ‘I apologise!’, Billy delivered an impassioned message to the fans and players, making clear that one certainly did not deserve the other and laying down the ground rules for what William Bremner expects from a Leeds United team. As a lesson in how to lose – and how to win – it’s exemplary, and Billy’s words are as relevant to Leeds United today as they were in 1986.

So here are Billy’s words, in full:

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.

A sentiment often expressed in the wake of a shameful defeat is that it’s a good job Billy wasn’t around to see this, but that’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. How I would love for him to be delivering that speech to our players, and to us, today.


Originally on The Square Ball blog

We Have to Talk About Colin


I don’t know why I’m not enjoying this more. I mean, it’s alright. Beating Middlesbrough was good. But I can’t lift my spirits and join in the party mood. I want to. I don’t know what’s stopping me. I tried to write a considered, analytical article to work through this uneasy feeling I have about Neil Warnock, to set out in a coherent way the arguments both for and against and hopefully alight on the answer to my diffidence and thereby overcome it. This is what I wrote instead.

Evolution Not Revolution: The Ken Bates Plan

There has been a lot of talk lately in football, and in Leeds, about plans and about vision. The documentary ‘The Four Year Plan’ showed those in charge at QPR gradually awakening to the idea that ‘Don’t Be Dicks’ should form a part of their promotion plan. Elsewhere in West London, Roman Abramovich has brought Andre Villas-Boas’ ‘project’ to a premature end, releasing Lampard from his benched purgatory and saving the rest of us from John Motson’s pronunciation struggles. And at national level, The FA are trying out a grand experimental plan with their preparations for the European Championships, a plan which reads: ‘Worry about it nearer the time.’


To me, whether Simon Grayson was up to the task, or had taken us as far as he could, or had lost the dressing room, or whatever else, is almost secondary. There are better managers, and there are worse, as the list of potential replacements amply shows. Grayson had his good points – he got us out of the third division, for a start – and he had his bad points, like the constantly leaking defences. There were the dodgy signings: Paynter, Bessone, Rachubka; but then there were the coaching miracles: did he really manage to build a promotion team around Michael Doyle?

The Diary of Gary McSheffrey: Part 3

31st January Transfer deadline day again. Doyler phones to say he’s heard more rumours linking me to Old Trafford, but yet again Jim White fails to mention potentially the biggest transfer of the day on Sky Sports News. I phoned the complaints hotline and asked for Leanne, but apparently she’s changed jobs since the last transfer window. Apparently she also left word that I’m not to know where she works now, which is just typical of her obstructive attitude.

Sold Down The River

We’re not going up this season, after all. Jonny’s sale says no promotion.

Gentlemen Prefer Leeds

With apologies to Anita Loos.

Coo-ee! Mwah, mwah. Say, y’mean this ole thing? New? Ha! You ain’t been keeping up with little ole me, have you? A new coat’s more than a girl could ever hope for. Course, I hadda whole wardrobe full, once upon a time, but ole he-who-shan’t-be-named don’t splash the spondoolicks so much on ickle me no more.

Jonny Howson: The Singing In The Sighing

On Saturday, should you care to, you can read my first take on Howson’s sale in the new issue of The Square Ball. Without giving too much away – so promise me you’ll still buy it, okay? – here’s how I end the article:

TSB Issue Six - Out Saturday

I was thinking about this again tonight, as I browsed through today’s news roundup:Howson to Norwich, we know about that one; here’s McCormack to Wigan, that’s a change from Wolves being after him; Clayton’s contract talks have “broken down,” so here are Bolton set to swoop; as well as the ever-present speculation about Snodgrass and Becchio and, more recently, Aidy White (another contract hitch, there).

In the wake of Howson’s departure, should sensible offers come in, can you really imagine either McCormack, Clayton, Snodgrass, Becchio or White choosing not to move? Indeed, I can foresee this window ending with Leeds United actually rejecting offers, while the players demand to be allowed to leave.

Is it possible, then, that the anti-Ken Bates protest that actually, finally works will be one carried out by the players?

A lot of Leeds fans feel that the club is going nowhere under Bates’s ownership, but feel powerless to do anything about it. Protesters outside the ground are dismissed by Bates as “morons.” Chants inside the ground are met with flicked V signs from the owner. Resolutions not to buy merchandise don’t hit the bottom line hard enough to bother him. Resolutions not to renew season tickets or to stop going to games might work, but to cut LUFC from our lives so drastically feels like a way of letting Bates win – it’s the one thing that might work, but it’s the one thing nobody wants to do.

Apart from, that is, the players. It was always assumed that Jonny would stay at Elland Road whatever happened, because he’s a local lad, captain of his boyhood club, a youth product with deep affection for LUFC and the local area. That dam has been breached now, so what is there to stop our other good players – none of whom can be expected to have any particular strength of feeling for Leeds – from packing it in and taking their careers elsewhere?

Bates knows that no matter how he runs Leeds United, the core supporters will keep coming – and keep paying – because they have no other choice. But a club also needs players, and the players do have a choice. They can respond directly to the way Bates runs this club, exactly as it seems Howson has, and say: No. The way you are running this football club is not going to result in successful football, so I am leaving. Whether it’s an intentional player-protest against Ken Bates or not – and we could ask Neil Kilkenny about that – the result is the same. Like Canute, King Ken is left bellowing at the modern footballer as the tide of modern footballers rushes past him on their way to a proper football club, and his corporate facilities cling worthlessly to an increasingly dire and failing team.

It’ll ultimately hurt the fans the most, of course; it always does. I don’t want to see Snodgrass or Clayton leave, let alone Howson. The team will suffer – and if players won’t stay under Bates, who will join? Not Jason Puncheon, for one – and our target will change from hoping for promotion to fighting off relegation. But levering Bates out from his new East Stand perch was never going to be easy, and however it happens, we’re likely to need serious rebuilding when it’s done – although not in the East Stand, obviously. But we know this already, and can prepare ourselves; and besides, it’s not like we haven’t been through it all before.

This transfer window, and the summer that follows, will be interesting to watch. Howson’s desire to play for a club with ambition could have finally kicked away the wedge that has kept the fans deadlocked with Ken Bates. To withdraw labour has always been an effective weapon of the worker, but the conundrum for Leeds fans has been, what do you withdraw when yours is a labour of love? The players just might have the answer.


Originally on The Square Ball blog

Leeds United 2-0 Millwall

There are a lot of people who will tell you that football isn’t a sport anymore, and that it’s now a business. They’re wrong.