Stilesy for Platini!

The Gentle Giant meets Inspector Clouseau

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
A collage of newspaper clippings from the John Charles and Bobby Collins testimonial game in 1988 and photos of Charles with Ian Rush and Michel Platini wearing Leeds shirts

With four league games remaining of the 1987/88 season, Elland Road had seen enough of Leeds United. A crowd of just over 24,000 watched Leeds lose 2-1 at home to Millwall at the start of April, already well down on the season high of 36,000 that saw Leeds beating Bradford on New Year’s Day. United had started the season as favourites for promotion, after reaching the final four of the FA Cup and losing the play-off final the previous year, but not even manager Billy Bremner could convince the public there was much hope left after losing to Millwall. In the remaining fixtures at Elland Road, the highest attendance was 13,671.

Yet even though there was little interest inside the city, when Leeds next returned to Elland Road they were beamed to a huge television audience in Italy. In a break from Division Two, United were playing Everton in a joint testimonial for John Charles and Bobby Collins. While Charles was inside the ground, chatting in fluent Italian to one of the many reporters who had flown over for the game, a BBC reporter was chatting to one of the few supporters preparing to come through the turnstiles. Asked what had made him come to the game, the fan, looking distinguished in a grey three-piece suit, sheepishly replied: “Well, I’m not going to say.” A more casually dressed Leeds supporter beamed to the cameras: “It’s Ian Rush’s dad!”

Rush was one of four guest players adding a touch of much-needed class to the Leeds team, and one of three representatives honouring Charles from Juventus, where Il Gigante Buono remained revered. Gaetano Scirea, a winner of both the European Cup and World Cup, started in defence and presented Charles with a silver salver ahead of kick-off. Pulling the strings behind Rush in the Leeds attack were Michel Platini, who had retired the previous year, and Liverpool player-manager Kenny Dalglish.

For the regular members of the Leeds squad, it was a disconcerting experience. Simon Grayson had just started to emerge on the fringes of the first team that season, playing twice in the first half of the campaign. Still just eighteen, he had grown up wearing a France shirt, keeping it untucked to look like Platini.

“Michel Platini turned up with his boots in a plastic carrier bag,” Grayson told me. “They were still caked in mud from whenever he’d last played, and he just said to one of the other apprentices, ‘Do us a favour, will you get the mud off them?’ Back in the day that was our job as well. We were boot boys. We were cleaning boots every day, and I think all the other lads that weren’t actually playing were in a rush to go clean them, because then they had the claim to fame that they’d cleaned Michel Platini’s boots.”

A newspaper clipping from the John Charles and Bobby Collins testimonial in 1988 that begins with the word 'priceless': next to photos of Michel Platini and Ian Rush playing for Leeds
Artwork by Eamonn Dalton

Glynn Snodin, who worked as Grayson’s assistant manager at Leeds twenty years later, had joined United from Sheffield Wednesday at the start of that season. He had almost 400 league appearances to his name by that point, but was no less awestruck.

“I remember Platini strolling in,” Snodin says. “Oh my god. He came into the dressing room and the gaffer was talking to him. He had like an Inspector Clouseau mac on. He sat down in the changing room with the gaffer and they got their cigarettes out and were having a smoke. It was getting on now, closer to kick-off, and he still had his mac on and was having a cigarette. I’m thinking, what’s he doing? Is he playing? Has he just come along? He must be injured. Then all of a sudden he took his mac off and I thought, oh, he is playing then. You ought to have seen his boots. They were sludged up. He’s smashing them on the floor to get all the mud off. And then he comes out. He’s spraying balls around here, there, everywhere. I thought, wow, what a legend. Half an hour earlier he was still sat there having a cigarette, not even bothered.”

As boyhood Leeds fans, the significance of the evening was not lost on either. “What two legends they were,” Snodin says. “And two great men. John was still a king in Italy. Every Leeds player that we grew up watching, they always say that Bobby Collins was the man that got them at it, got them going, you know.”

Playing for Bremner was likewise a privilege. Snodin had previously been coached by Bremner at Doncaster before being signed by him at Leeds, while Grayson was an apprentice at Leeds when Billy took over as manager at Elland Road. Both still refer to him as ‘the gaffer’.

“It was brilliant — the stories that you could get just from cleaning around his area,” Grayson says. “And then he’d join in training with us apprentices. You would just listen to him, even if you were on a different table at lunch and stuff like that. You’d be just listening to him and the stories he’d be telling from the glory days. It was just such a fascinating experience as a Leeds fan. But even the other lads who weren’t Leeds fans, who were apprentices together, they were just mesmerised by the whole situation.

“I always remember one time when he was watching us apprentices train. He’d been in a board meeting just before, so he was watching in his suit and his shoes, and then fifteen minutes after watching, he was joining in, playing in his suit and shoes. And it’s like, wow, not only are you playing with the gaffer, but also he’s actually in his suit and his shoes and still looks the best player. Norman Hunter would pop in quite frequently to join in the seven-a-sides on a Friday and a few of the other players as well. If you’re a Leeds fan and you’re seeing these people, it was just, wow, is this really happening? They weren’t like friendly seven-a-sides either. They were as competitive, however old they were at that particular time, as they were when they played.”

Snodin concurs: “Billy was brilliant. Me and our kid (Ian Snodin) loved him to death. He was like a second father to us. He was a genius, honestly. How many nutmegs he used to get in training was unbelievable. It was frightening. Those seven-a-sides were like The Gunfight at the OK Corral. Honestly, tackles flying in and everything. We’d have a game coming up on the Saturday and it was the OK Corral on the Friday. Nobody wanted to lose, especially when now and again the gaffer would bring a box of Milk Tray chocolates in for the winners. Then it would be even worse, just for a box of Milk Tray, not a medal. You’d hear (growling), ‘Norman’s ball!’ all the time. Him and Bairdy (striker Ian Baird) had some tussles, I’ll tell you that.”

While Snodin started for Leeds against Everton in the number 3 shirt, Grayson was on the bench, one of a number of young players thinking they were just there to make up the numbers. He had to come on in the first half after Peter Haddock suffered an injury.

“I was really, really nervous,” he says. “One, you’ve hardly played in front of big crowds before. Two, the people that you’re playing against — players like Neville Southall. Three, then the actual people that you’re playing with. You’re thinking, well, I hope they give me a decent ball and I’ve got a bit of time and space to control it and then maybe get it back to them and not give it away, because they’re not used to giving the ball away. I think the furthest I passed it was probably about ten yards, about five or six times, just so I could settle into the game and get the nerves out the way. I wish I could say that by the end of it I was calling Michel Platini ‘Plats’, but it was just surreal.”

As if receiving passes from Platini and Dalglish wasn’t daunting enough, the night was made even stranger for Snodin by the fact he was playing against his younger brother Ian, who had been sold to Everton the previous year. “I remember him picking it up once and I just laughed at him and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He started running as though he would have taken me on. We were just laughing at each other. That was a first as well.”

While the game was played at a testimonial pace, the injection of class into the Leeds team didn’t take long to show. Rush had scored just five Serie A goals since joining Juventus, after scoring forty in all competitions for Liverpool in 1986/87, and was already being linked with a move back to Britain. Whether it was being reunited with his former partner in crime Dalglish, or the sight of his old rivals in blue, he quickly rediscovered his goalscoring touch, completing a hat-trick to give Leeds a 3-1 lead after 52 minutes. His first arrived via a one-two with Dalglish, the second and third were created by deft chips over the defence from Platini.

‘If his Juventus bosses were watching, they will have noticed that if you pass the ball to Rushie he quite often sticks it in the net,’ wrote journalist Jon Culley. In a different report, Scirea, who was tragically killed in a car accident only a year later and now has a stand named in his honour at Juventus, was praised for playing ‘as elegant and economical as ever’. A couple of Leeds regulars also showed they didn’t belong in the doldrums of Division Two, and it was noted: ‘John Sheridan and David Batty were determined that they would also sit at the top table.’

The Leeds United 1987/88 squad photo, alongside photos of a dashing, young Simon Grayson, and Bobby Collins greeting the team at his joint testimonial with John Charles
Artwork by Eamonn Dalton

The game finished with Leeds 3-2 victors, with one of Everton’s consolation goals created by Allan Clarke’s little brother Wayne. It didn’t go unnoticed that once Platini and Rush were substituted off, ‘Leeds became mere mortals again.’ Rush was replaced by Ian Baird, Platini by John Stiles. Snodin can’t help but laugh at the reminder that Platini was once subbed off for his old friend Stiles, remembering a training session at Doncaster when Bremner was trying to teach Stiles exactly how to deliver an attacking set-piece. For all he tried, Stiles just couldn’t put the ball on the spot Bremner desired, or with the required pace, leaving an exasperated Bremner to show him exactly how it’s done even though he was, once again, wearing a suit and shoes. “Stilesy said, ‘Gaffer, can I ask you a favour? Can I borrow your shoes?’ The gaffer replied, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you don’t get this right you’ll be wearing my shoes and my suit, because you’ll be sat in the stand.’ What a substitution that is, isn’t it, dear me: Stilesy for Platini!”

The night raised £50,000 to be shared between Charles and Collins, at a time when Charles was struggling financially. Grayson only realised how lucky he had been to share a pitch with such names when he found some newspaper clippings in his dad’s scrapbook while researching for an autobiography he’s working on.
“It is something you look back on and feel immensely proud that you were actually around it,” he says. “We were just happy when it got announced that we were going to see these people in the dressing room and, as apprentices, maybe get them a cup of tea or anything like that. But then obviously to be a little bit closer and then on the pitch playing with your heroes was unbelievable.”

Even once the game was finished, Snodin remained as starstruck as he was when Platini first came into the dressing room and sparked up a cigarette beforehand. “You felt like going and saying, ‘Can I get your autograph?’ You felt like you were a little kid, a supporter again. I just love football — honestly, if I had a book with me, I’d have definitely got all their autographs that night. A council estate kid from Rotherham playing at Elland Road with all those legends. How much better can it get? It’s what dreams are made of.” ⬢

(This post is free to read from The Square Ball magazine season 34 issue 8. Click here to read more)

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