CARDIFF is a barren hunting ground for Leeds United.
Their record in the Welsh capital is as bad as it seems. Three wins in 24 visits and none at all for 30 years; none since George McCluskey nicked an 87th-minute goal in the spring of 1984.
The fuzzy footage of McCluskey’s winner – a poacher’s finish from three yards after Andy Ritchie bundled a corner across Cardiff City’s box – speaks of a bygone era and many seasons in between. Ritchie still had hair and Ninian Park was in its prime, a hard and horrible football ground. The trip to Wales is sanitised these days and will be on Saturday when Leeds fight a long, winless trend at the Cardiff City Stadium.
This rivalry has not been an annual event. The clubs went for years without playing each other – including an unbroken stretch between 1984 and 2002 – but Cardiff is a city that Leeds have never mastered. It took United until 1964 to register a victory there and only two managers have had the pleasure: Don Revie twice and Eddie Gray.
Gray was the architect of a 1-0 win in February 1984, a rare occasion when a fixture at Cardiff came at the perfect time. In that Division Two season, Leeds fell short, finishing 10th in the table and paying for poor results away from home. The irony of their result at Ninian Park was that Gray’s squad struggled to buy points anywhere other than Elland Road. Their form at home looked impeccable by comparison.
Cardiff’s bad luck was to catch Leeds at the height of their season. The win on February 11 was one of six in a seven-match period when United picked teams off at a canter and cruised up the table. Andy Watson came good with four goals in that period – “his workrate crucial,” according to an article in the YEP – but McCluskey took Cardiff’s scalp with his eighth goal of the term, served up on a plate by Ritchie’s clever square-pass.
McCluskey had relatively few moments like that in his three years at Elland Road. At a cost of £161,000, the striker was not quite the player the club thought they had signed. Gray brought him south from Celtic in 1982 following a disagreement over McCluskey’s salary at Parkhead and he arrived with the reputation of a forward who had finished the previous season as the Scottish Premier League’s top goalscorer.
“George was a smashing footballer,” Gray said. “It just took him a bit of time to adjust to life down here.
“It wasn’t the easiest of times for the club either. There was a bit of turmoil behind the scenes and maybe that didn’t help him. Someone with George’s talent would have expected to come to Leeds and do a bit better because he was a terrific talent at Celtic but he always seemed pretty happy down here.
“In different circumstances he’d probably have scored more goals than he did but he knew how to finish. That goal was a good finish, a sharp finish. It all seems a long time ago now.
“Cardiff’s never been a happy hunting ground for Leeds. It wasn’t somewhere I played regularly but I’ve been there as a player, a manager, a coach and a radio commentator. I don’t remember many good days.
“That happens in football and there’s no way of explaining it. There’s no reason why Cardiff should be so dominant at home – especially when the record at Elland Road is so different. But 30 years without a win there makes you think we’re due one soon.”
McCluskey’s winning goal at Ninian Park was no less than Leeds deserved on the day. The game had been tight and competitive, kept goalless in the first half by a clearance from Kevin Hird beneath his own crossbar, but United carried far more threat. Scott Sellars struck Cardiff’s bar with a header and Peter Lorimer did likewise with a flying volley from the edge of their box.
McCluskey was only on the pitch because of an injury suffered by Peter Barnes. Barnes pulled up with a hamstring strain in the sixth minute but Leeds were in the middle of a purple patch and largely unaffected. Their persistence paid off three minutes from time when an in-swinging corner from Sellars drew a partial clearance which Ritchie directed into the six-yard box and McCluskey volleyed into the net.
“The conditions were miserable and you were always happy to get a result there,” Lorimer said. “We didn’t play Cardiff year in, year out but it was volatile at Ninian Park without fail.”
That result and further wins over Swansea City and Portsmouth set United up nicely for the run-in but their momentum was lost in the weeks before Easter. Six games passed without a victory and the top end of the league left Gray’s squad for dead.
Ken Bates’ Chelsea claimed the title and Howard Wilkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday were promoted, along with Newcastle United. Leeds finished 20 points adrift of third place, with Cardiff a further nine points back.
Memories of that season are hazy now and the match at Ninian Park is captured in a matter of 30 seconds on Youtube. McCluskey returned to Scotland in 1986 and lives in Hamilton. He was unavailable to speak about a strangely significant goal.
“All I remember of the Cardiff game is George coming up with the goal,” Gray said. “It would be hard for me to talk about much else that went on.” Reports at the time quote Gray describing the scoreline as “good – but the performance wasn’t our best.”
“If you knew the club were going to go 30 years without winning there again then it would obviously stick in your mind but at the time you can’t see that happening.” It falls to United’s head coach in waiting, Neil Redfearn, to break the run against them on Saturday.
Leeds United’s line-up v Cardiff City, February 11, 1984: Harvey, Brown, Dickinson, Watson, Ritchie, Barnes (McCluskey 6), Hamson, Wright, Hird, Sellars, Lorimer.