Former Leeds United manager Jimmy Armfield was a ‘proper gentleman’

Leeds United manager Jimmy Armfield and assistant Don Howe in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Hillsborough in 1977.
Leeds United manager Jimmy Armfield and assistant Don Howe in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Hillsborough in 1977.
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Jimmy Armfield replaced Brian Clough at the Elland Road helm. Their approach was poles apart, but it was Armfield, says Eddie Gray, who got a last hurrah out of Don Revie’s ageing squad. Phil Hay reports.

The thankless job of following Don Revie at Leeds United fell first and shambolically to Brian Clough but it was Jimmy Armfield who managed the club through a stage of unavoidable decline. Turned off by Clough’s hard-nosed approach, Leeds found themselves a gentleman in Armfield, a coach with the sense to let the past go gently.

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The striking contrast between the two men was apparent to Eddie Gray. Clough, after his appointment in 1974, infamously told Gray that a racehorse with his injury record would have been put out of its misery. Armfield, who died yesterday at the age of 82, brought Gray back from the brink of retirement and turned the Scot’s hand to coaching with United’s youth team while he got himself fit.

“With Jimmy it wasn’t about him,” Gray said. “Managing Leeds, as far as I could see, was about the club and the people there. You never got any ego with Jimmy. He was a proper gentleman.”

Jimmy Armfield, working on his column at the Blackpool Gazette

Jimmy Armfield, working on his column at the Blackpool Gazette

In Armfield there was merely a drive for satisfaction and self-fulfilment. In his playing days at Blackpool, the only club he ever represented, he worked late shifts on the local newspaper, the Evening Gazette, with a view to a future and very successful career in journalism. He was a man who earned coaching qualifications in the 1960s, a time when, in his words, “coaching badges weren’t really in vogue”. In replacing Clough at Leeds, Armfield knew he was inheriting a high-achieving squad who were on the way down after years at the top, chastened by 44 days of Clough’s dubious man-management. “That season could have gone either way,” Gray said. “When Brian left we were struggling to win a game.”

Armfield did not doubt that he could repair the mood of a disillusioned dressing room. “That didn’t actually take a great deal of doing,” he told the YEP during an interview in 2008. “The players were very experienced and they knew their way around England and Europe.” The problem, as he saw it, was in dismantling a group of aging players and personalities, many of whom were almost irreplaceable. Armfield described it loosely as “a difficult job”. He made the best of it for four years and almost 200 games.

Arriving from Bolton Wanderers in October 1974, he found that Revie’s group were not quite finished. There was, despite the debacle of Clough’s tenure, enough life left for a last hurrah provided Armfield could heal a few rifts. As Christmas came, he asked some of his players to embrace the pantomime season and act in a production of Cinderella at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds. Armfield organised the script, Duncan McKenzie was given the lead role, Billy Bremner played “the best Buttons I’ve ever seen” and the theatre sold out every night. “It got the players gelled back together so it worked,” Armfield said later.

Leeds, England’s reigning champions, gradually got their act together domestically and finished ninth in the first division. Armfield took them to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup before losing to Ipswich Town in a replay. But it was the European Cup, the one trophy Revie yearned for but never claimed, which came to define his tenure at Elland Road.

His time at Leeds is too easily forgotten. It’s sad he didn’t end up with the European Cup. He deserved it and it’s still there as a tribute to him.

Eddie Gray on Jimmy Armfield

“The challenge for any manager coming to Leeds back then was that the players compared you to Don,” Gray said. “None of us took to Brian Clough but Jimmy’s way was different. He steadied the ship which, no matter how good some of the players still were, wasn’t an easy job. Unlike Brian, he tried not to make too much of the fact that Don’s team was reaching the end. After a while it started to go well again.”

Through two-legged ties against Zurich, Ujpest Dozsa and Anderlecht, Leeds advanced to a European Cup semi-final against Barcelona and won it after a 1-1 draw in the deafening noise of the Camp Nou in April 1975. It set the club up for the most bitter night in their history: the final in Paris where Bayern Munich took advantage of refereeing incompetence to beat Armfield’s side 2-0. Peter Lorimer described the loss as “the disappointment of our lives”.

Armfield, who would have been the first English manager to win the trophy, felt the same, although the anger of a black night at the Parc De Princes never rankled in the way that it has with his players. “I’ve always felt we were robbed,” he said. “What should have been a great day wasn’t a great day in the end.” United’s squad did not appear again in Europe and before long he started breaking it up.

Armfield signed Tony Currie and later Brian Flynn. The arrival of John Hawley from Hull City in the summer of 1978 stuck in his head because Leeds parted company with Armfield before he had the chance to see the forward play. United finished consistently inside the top half of the table, reached the last four of the FA Cup in 1977 and the same stage of the League Cup the following year. In Armfield’s mind all was going well but United’s directors were less enthused.

Jimmy Armfield in later life working as a radio pundit.

Jimmy Armfield in later life working as a radio pundit.

“After one defeat when we’d dropped to around seventh in the division, the chairman called a board meeting for the Monday morning,” he recalled. “The gist of the discussion was him asking what was going on and whether the team had had it. I was slightly amazed and said ‘you do lose in football you know’. After four years there my contract wasn’t extended.”

A one-club footballer and capped 43 times by England, he was called up for the 1966 World Cup but played no part due to a toe injury. Like Norman Hunter, he received a winners’ medal in 2009 at a Downing Street reception after FIFA were persuaded to award one to every member of Sir Alf Ramsey’s squad.

Armfield’s journalism training won him a job on the Daily Express and in his later years he offered erudite and thoughtful football punditry on BBC Radio 5Live, a considered and recognisable voice until shortly before his death. He passed away at Trinity Hospice in Blackpool after a battle with cancer.

“His time at Leeds is too easily forgotten,” Gray said. “It’s sad he didn’t end up with the European Cup. He deserved it and it’s still there as a tribute to him.”