Imagine having the confidence.
You’ve the ball at your feet, you’re thirty yards from goal. Ahead of you is Mick Jones, who will win any ball in the penalty area. Near him is Allan Clarke, ready for a through ball. Paul Reaney is overlapping on your right. Eddie Gray is on the left wing, waiting for a switch of play, Terry Cooper backing him up. John Giles and Billy Bremner are zipping around you, in and out of pockets of space.
Imagine having the confidence. The confidence to think, sod all them. To think, they’re good players, but so what? I’ve got the ball. And I’m shooting here. I’m shooting from thirty yards, blasting the ball at goal, from thirty yards out, at ninety miles an hour, past all of them in less than three-quarters of a second. I’m cutting seven of the best footballers in the world out of this game, not giving them a touch. I’m making it about me, my foot, my shot, my goal.
If it goes in. If you miss, there’ll be hell to pay. Sniffer always scores, why didn’t you give the ball to him? Or Giles, with the better angle, or Eddie, who could dribble around that full-back all day? Seven outrageously gifted individuals are ready to develop the play, move closer to goal, build a chance, make the other team bend to their collective will.
But your will is stronger. You’re Peter Lorimer, and you won’t miss. Top corner, back of the net, arms in the air, now they can thank you, seven of the best players in the world can salute your power, and Jack and Norman and Gary too. 238 times, plus one that Franz Beckenbauer had ruled out. But only afterwards. There was nothing he could do while the ball was at your feet.
Football is a team game but goals are an individual’s business. We’ve all had that sinking feeling when the Goal of the Month competition highlights a ‘team goal’. Ugh. Look at the finish, a feeble tap-in among a gallery of netstretchers. There is a time and place to appreciate the build up. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of blinking, missing the real-time thunder, and waiting excited for the replay. What just happened? We have to go back through time and slow the tape down to find out. Now, that is a good goal.
Those were the goals that made Peter Lorimer so famous and so loved, but only a fraction of them were filmed and replayed. People watched Lorimer without a safety net. How could you dare look away when he had the ball? How could you follow its path when he shot?
He did also cross. But his crosses were like his shots, designed to become goals as quickly as possible. Powerful passes to Jones or Clarke, but only if they were ready to apply the finishing touch. It would be fascinating to be able to add the number of his assists to his record, but perhaps the numbers would become overwhelming. It’s enough that he’s Leeds United’s record goalscorer, and he didn’t even play up front.
All those goals, from midfield or the wing, when United had Jones and Clarke in attack, were sheer belligerence. Clarke scored 151 goals for Leeds, but how many might he have had if Lorimer didn’t have such a powerful, accurate shot, had a penchant for through balls instead? We describe Lorimer’s shooting accurately when we say it was devastating. He was stopping the game, putting the ball beyond the other players, creating by destroying.
Before his talent took him to the level where the goalposts came with nets, young Lorimer must have ruined so many kickabouts on the recreation grounds of Broughty Ferry. A quick game after school, everyone anxious for a touch, running and laughing and trying to show their skills. Then comes Peter, and it’s a cartoon wallop and the ball is gone and everyone has to stop. Is he going to run and get it back? Well, why should he? Blame the ‘keeper who didn’t stop the shot, not the wonderkid who scored the goal.
Football in the modern era was moved towards the playground idyll by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, who didn’t so much kick the ball as caress it, placing it gently into the goal like a baby in its basket. Pep would have had to sell Lorimer. ‘A hat-trick of thirty yarders, Peter, yes, but why won’t you give the ball to Lionel Messi?’ Hmm. For what purpose?
Leeds United needed him: winning trophies was hard, and a player who could take all the strain from a match by scoring on his own was a great gift. As the wins stacked up, the fans worshipped him. But I wonder what Lorimer did for attendances at Elland Road. Don Revie and his players could never satisfy the casual Leeds public who came to see sport. With a 2-0 lead and a congested fixture list ahead, Leeds would relax, see the game safely to the end, and the crowd would jeer, complaining they’d paid for entertainment, not league points. We have to rebuild the scenes in our imagination, but looking through old scorelines and seeing a 2-0 home win, ‘Lorimer (2)’, you can imagine the game being settled by two first half thirty yarders, less than two seconds of incident, short-changing crowds who were always more devoted to the ebb and flow of rugby at Headingley or Hunslet. We tried watching soccer, they’d say, but they’ve this lad called Lorimer, keeps spoiling the games by winning them.
This bothered Revie intensely but I doubt Lorimer cared. There was a telling exchange on BBC Radio, when commentator Ian Dennis was remembering working with Peter on Radio Leeds. “He was always very humble,” said Dennis. Eddie Gray was also on the line, talking about the teammate he’d known since they were boys. “He was,” said Eddie, with characteristic diplomacy. “But part of that comes from, he had an inner strength. He knew how good he was.”
To put it another way, he didn’t have to boast, because he was Peter Lorimer. He could afford to be humble because it’s all written down in the record books, the footage is there to be seen. It’s natural. When he bought his first car, as a teenager in Leeds, Lorimer signed up for a driving course, did an hour, and decided he knew enough. There was no question of taking a test or getting a licence. He knew how to drive. He knew how to score goals. He knew he was good.
That his belief in his own abilities wasn’t naturally shared by others led Lorimer to stand a little apart at Leeds. Even the young players could look like old men, but Lorimer had the Beatle haircut, his lips had the Elvis curl. He was in the team aged fifteen, in September 1962, when Billy Bremner was already almost twenty, but he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t kept in. ‘No disrespect to players like Jim Storrie and others,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I thought I was better than them. And I was.’ After the record breaking cameo, hindered by injury, he didn’t play in the league again until April 1965, and then Revie bought Mike O’Grady, forcing the two to compete for a place for the next four seasons. Oddly, it was only after O’Grady’s best season, ending in the club’s first league title, that Revie made his choice. O’Grady was sold, even though his crossing looked made for the team’s new striker, Allan Clarke, and his more traditional wing play promised better balance with Eddie Gray’s on the left. The number seven shirt went full-time to Lorimer, now almost 23.
Other players felt they owed Revie a lot, if not everything. He’d made Jack Charlton an England international, a World Cup winner. He’d coached Billy Bremner through his first games, rooming with him before away matches, guarding him on the wing. Norman Hunter said the course of his entire life was changed when Revie gave him a professional contract. But just as he didn’t need driving lessons, Lorimer didn’t need grandfathering by Revie. He needed Revie to stop giving him the number 12 shirt to wear. Perhaps the years of Revie’s doubts about him inspired Lorimer’s later criticism of his manager, who he said would ‘brag’ about having sixteen internationals in his squad, then pick the same eleven for as many as three games a week because he didn’t believe enough in the rest of them.
That strident tone is a feature of Lorimer’s autobiography, written with Phil Rostron in 2002. Revie was ‘so far ahead in his thinking’ but also a ‘manoeuvrer, manipulator and planner … like a mafia boss’. Lorimer talks about the players losing confidence in him as early as 1971, stifled by the rules, dossiers and teamtalks. There are passing mentions to Revie’s superstitions, and I can’t imagine Lorimer had much time for them. The manager was plagued by doubts, that seemed to affect his team. Lorimer was all about certainty.
Jack Charlton deserved everything he got from the game and more, but was ‘awful to play with’; Allan Clarke was ‘unfathomable off the pitch’. Paul Reaney was ‘not what you would call a good footballer’, although Lorimer praised his defending: ‘the most excellent right-back’. Many of the criticisms are justified and there are plenty of compliments, too, but the attempts at diplomacy are almost funny. ‘Most of the decisions made by Jimmy Armfield were wrong’, he declares, but, ‘Jimmy is a very nice man’. Then again, although Gary Sprake ‘cost us a few trophies’, Lorimer was in favour of inviting him back to reunions despite him making allegations about match-fixing.
The most strained relationship was with Billy Bremner who, after taking over as manager from Eddie Gray, told Lorimer: ‘I want you out of the club’. He never gave a reason, and even when they laughed and joked together in later years, Lorimer never quite got over his unease. They had even been Scotland roommates — when, that is, Lorimer was allowed in the Scotland team. He had been given a life ban in 1969 for playing on an independent tour of South Africa, not knowing his national team were going to call him up, that was only rescinded when Tommy Docherty became manager and demanded his return.
You get a sense that, on the pitch and off it, Lorimer was used to settling things. In the best team in the world his right boot could win games on its own. How could he ever be wrong? That held through the awful years when he was on Ken Bates’ board, defending the chairman in a weekly column in the Yorkshire Evening Post. Lorimer then was like the bloke intervening in someone else’s argument who only makes things worse. The problems were with Ken Bates and Shaun Harvey, and no Leeds fan wanted to argue with their hero about what those two were doing. Yet it was a comment of Lorimer’s that, in 2012, I used to define Bates’ ownership. He said criticism of the board was ‘totally out of order, because we’ve done bugger all wrong’. The club had just been to League One for the first time in its history, the company that had survived since 1919 had gone bust, replaced by another that was loading on debt ahead of a disastrous takeover; Jonny Howson had just been sold, Simon Grayson had just been sacked. This was ‘The Bugger All Wrong Era’.
It’s made worse by reading in Lorimer’s autobiography where he says that in 1974, when Revie left, ‘If you had taken five drunks off the local Holbeck Moor at that time and given them that club, with that money, they could not have knackered the club more efficiently and more effectively than the directors proceeded to do’. If he could see it then, why couldn’t he see it in 2012?
In the end you forgive those few seasons of disappointing rancour because of the decades of pleasure, that we wouldn’t have had if that wasn’t how he was. It’s funny how playing styles can reflect or reveal character. Eddie Gray, the soft-footed magician of the wing, who nurtured two generations of young players in his own image as a coach, is a soft-spoken diplomat, a man with a steel nerve but time and a nice word for everyone. Peter Lorimer was exactly how you’d expect someone to be who could belt a football harder than specialised machinery. You could try to stop Gray with a tackle. It was better just to get out of Lorimer’s way. With both, sometimes you have rewind the footage of them playing to see what happened, but for very different reasons. Lorimer was not subtle.
But Lorimer was unwavering. That was the point. Football is a game of questions: can we pass? can we cross? can we beat an opponent? can we create a chance? can we score a goal? Peter Lorimer’s right boot was full of answers. At a constant speed of ninety miles an hour, a ball will take around 0.68 seconds to travel thirty yards. That journey 238 times would take a little under 2 minutes and 42 seconds. Games of football are supposed to take ninety minutes but Lorimer had the talent and the confidence to make most of that time irrelevant. He could thrill crowds with his ninety miles an hour goals while the best footballers of a generation stood and watched him, waiting for the restart so they could have a kick too.
The stereotype of individuals in football teams is of the dribblers, the tricksters, the playmakers. But the individual in Revie’s Leeds was Lorimer. There were dribblers who you had to stop and watch do their thing. With Lorimer you had to stop and watch him celebrate. His thing was forcing the referee to blow his whistle and stop the match, because the ball had gone in the net and nobody knew how until they heard the sonic boom following its flight.
Imagine having the confidence. Imagine Leeds without Lorimer’s goals, Revie’s team without his self-belief. When it comes to football, what, after all, is the most important thing? The precise thing Peter Lorimer knew he was better than anyone else at. 238 goals proved it. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)