The requirements of Leeds United’s centenary season are being ticked off one by one. Hold events. Wear a one-off kit in a celebratory game. Honour past players. Win promotion.
Granting the civic honour of the Freedom of the City of Leeds to the players and staff of Leeds United from 1967 to 1974 was important. The Peacocks have had plenty of good teams, some great, but only one that stands above the rest, for dominating English and European football for so long, winning and not-winning so much, and enduring today not just in memories but in the character of a club that still strives to reflect what they stood for.
The pomp of a ceremony at the Civic Hall made the award feel remote, but it’s what we have a Lord Mayor for: those occasions when the half-million people of Leeds and thousands more Loiners in exile can’t individually thank Allan Clarke for heading in Mick Jones’ cross to win the FA Cup. A posh do at the Civic Hall is the way to go about it.
In a way, the players already received the adulation of the fans in every game they played for Leeds United, and still do whenever they meet a supporter. This was something different, recognising the impact they had on what was an unwilling and rugby-obsessed city that was forced, by the success of Don Revie’s team, to redefine itself according to their values.
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Norman Hunter captured it this week. “You go into European competitions,” he told Graham Smyth of the YEP, “play in front of a hostile crowd against a very physical team, with some dubious refereeing, and then you get a result and you put your finger up and say, Leeds, we will see you at Leeds.”
In the City Museum now you can see one of the statuettes of the Black Prince that United used to present to visiting European clubs, a gift both generous and intimidating. They might not have heard of the city of Leeds before flying into Yeadon airport, staying at the Queens Hotel and playing at Elland Road. But they felt the city of Leeds once Norman Hunter’s teeth felt their legs.
When speaking about the honour, Hunter, and Eddie Gray and Allan Clarke, touched immediately on something I think everyone receiving it must have been thinking.
“It’s quite sad there are people like the gaffer, who would have loved today, unfortunately not here,” said Norman. “All of my team-mates will all be thinking about the players who aren’t with us,” said Eddie. “The only sad thing about it, I think, is that it would have been nice if we had got this honour when the Gaffer, Billy and Paul Madeley were still with us, so I feel for them,” said Allan. Billy Bremner, Bobby Collins, Paul Madeley, Albert Johanneson, Les Cocker; I imagine Eddie Gray would have tried to bring Gary Sprake back into the fold. Jack Charlton wasn’t well enough to attend.
They were all Don Revie’s lads and Don Revie wasn’t there. When Hunter says his gaffer “would have loved today”, he’s right. Revie was often frustrated by the lack of appreciation for his team in the the city. No matter how big the crowds, or how good the team, there were empty spaces at Elland Road that bothered him. Where were the people, why weren’t they watching these lads? After losing the FA Cup final replay in 1970, at the end of an exhausting season when Leeds set out to win five trophies and came closer than any other team could, Revie cancelled a civic reception planned for his trophyless team. The Lord Mayor John Rafferty’s fury was splashed across the Yorkshire Evening Post — he said Revie’s decision was “not only rude, but chickenhearted” — and echoed in the editorial columns and letters pages for days afterwards. The YEP said Leeds had ‘let down their fans, their city and their Lord Mayor,’ and although Revie kept apologising, letters kept coming about his ‘shocking display of bad sportsmanship.’
To have gone through all that, to have finally had his lads’ achievements recognised with the highest civic honour the city has to give, would have meant everything to Don Revie. Something seems amiss when the person to whom the honour would have meant most is not alive to receive it, when those who can receive it do so in sadness for their gaffer, for their absent mates.
The perspective of time is necessary. It wouldn’t have been surprising, given the giddiness of the time, for statues of David O’Leary, Peter Ridsdale, Alan Smith and Harry Kewell to have popped up on the Lowfields at the end of the Champions League season. You need to see how a story ends before commending its heroes, or drubbing its villains.
But if you wait too long, will it be too late? Dylan Kerr, captain of the reserves under Howard Wilkinson, posted a photo on Twitter this week; he was catching up with Wilko’s assistant, Mick Hennigan. Perhaps they’re not worthy of civic recognition alongside Nelson Mandela, but every player with Wilkinson from 1988 to 1992 contributed to a time of happiness in Leeds, and when the First Division was won, Wilkinson and Gordon Strachan emphasised that every player in that time had played a vital part. Nearly thirty years later, those are still the most recent trophies we’ve won: the Second Division, the First Division, the Charity Shield. I think enough time has passed, and enough misery has been endured since, that we can be sure we would not be making a mistake by honouring those achievements at Elland Road in some meaningful way. I wish the new training ground and academy facilities in Holbeck would come quickly, as I hope Howard Wilkinson can see them opened in his name.
If not that, then I think Wilkinson is worthy of a statue and deserves to be alive to see it. But the lack of appreciation for our history that probably began with Ridsdale’s attempts to move us to Stourton, before deepening to hostility under Ken Bates, GFH and Massimo Cellino — Cellino’s son Eduardo tweeted of Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer and Dominic Matteo that, “they get paid for doing nothing … seriously you think they will do the same if they weren’t pay mate? I don’t think so” — has created a paralysing backlog for tributes. We only have statues of Billy Bremner and Don Revie, and a bust of John Charles; the latter two were fought for and paid for by supporters.
The new wall in front of the Pavilion, at what will become Centenary Square, helps by redressing the balance in a general way, by listing every player to have played for the club since 1919. But suggest something specific, like a statue for Wilkinson, and people will quite rightly point out that Eddie Gray is also deserving, for a lifetime of doing everything for Leeds United. And then what about Jack Charlton, who played from 1953 to 1973, winning every domestic honour and a World Cup too? More names are brought up and an impossible argument starts, over who deserves a statue first. Then nobody gets one.
Give ’em all one, I say, and get the designs ready for Bobby Collins and Gordon Strachan’s while we’re at it; they might be small enough we can get a two-for-one. But I’m going to ignore the bill for now, because a more significant side effect might be turning Elland Road too much into a museum, when we’re trying to be hopeful about our future, hoping the hopeful future will extend, hopefully, beyond May.
Celebrating our history needn’t work against our future, or our present. This centenary season has focused minds on promotion in a way that’s different to other, ordinary seasons. History can be a reminder. The last fifteen years didn’t only disconnect the club from the city, but the players from the fans. I used to love the pre-match ritual of the O’Leary era, when each player would wave a reply to their individual song from the Kop, even if it was as simple as ‘One Gary Kelly.’ They all had one, and even if there might be muffled laughter when a quieter cry of ‘One Jacob Burns’ started long after all the rest, he wasn’t left out.
That has gone, because what could we sing to Giuseppe Bellusci except ‘Leave (Get Out)’ by JoJo, or to Michael Brown except Frankee’s ‘F U Right Back’? Trying to think of my favourite moments watching Leeds in the 2010s, it’s hard to think of many better than when Luke Varney got chinned in a tackle by Leicester’s Marcin Wasilewski. I enjoyed it so much back in 2014 I made an animated gif that I’ve kept ever since.
Success has thawed that animosity, but the old rituals haven’t returned. We stick to songs about the collective — ‘All Leeds Aren’t We’, and a welcome throwback last weekend to ‘We Are Leeds’ — side before self, of course. But the criteria for individual songs is either set by quality we can’t ignore, like Kalvin Phillips, or whether the name fits a tune: Thomas Christiansen did very well out of his syllables, Pablo Hernandez and Kiko Casilla too. But how about singing ‘One Liam Cooper’ to greet the captain? People will react as if you’re daft. Sing about Cooper? He’s hardly Norman Hunter, is he? True, but we don’t sing about him, either.
Perhaps being bolder in our appreciation for the past would relax some of the reticence about the present. We’re never shy about saying we love Leeds United, but we are shy about telling them. We could learn from Newell’s Old Boys, who didn’t even wait a decade before naming their stadium after Marcelo Bielsa.
Meanwhile, it’s soon 28 years since Howard Wilkinson won the title with Leeds; 36 years since Eddie Gray played his last game. We live in an age that is obsessed with memories, always looking back at the Instagram stories of the night before. It would not be a bad thing if we were as quick to remember the best of Leeds United. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)