Striker Keith Edwards may not have had the most prolific of times in his year at Leeds United in 1986-87 but it was one he would never forget. Phil Hay reports.
The camera never lies but the written word can and Keith Edwards won’t be told that his year at Leeds United was a dip in his career. Underwhelming, many called it. “I don’t have a negative thing to say,” Edwards insists.
His record on paper does him no justice – an unusually meagre return of goals and numerous matches spent on the bench – but Edwards knows that the months of 1986-87 involved him in a campaign which ranks among the best since the end of the Don Revie era.
A whisker away from the FA Cup final and closer again to promotion from Division Two, Leeds and their manager, Billy Bremner, were victims of what Edwards calls “very fine lines.”
“It was Billy I felt most sorry for in the end,” Edwards says. “At that time we were playing in the shadow of what he and others – the Eddie Grays, the Allan Clarkes – had done for Leeds.
“I doubt whether achieving what we almost achieved that year would have meant more to anyone than it would have meant to Billy. We were so close.”
The 1986-87 season was Bremner’s first full term as manager and he signed Edwards from Sheffield United before the start of it. A prolific goalscorer, a fee of £125,000 was easily justified.
“I’d been in form for quite a while,” Edwards says. “In the main I’d done well. If I didn’t score 30 goals a season then people would say I’d had a poor year.
“Obviously I didn’t go close to that figure at Leeds.”
At Elland Road, he did not reach 10. Edwards claimed nine goals over the course of his only full season with United, though his knack of striking at crucial moments was undeniable. Bremner stood by him early on and persevered with the striker in his starting line-up but eventually turned elsewhere. It was from the bench that Edwards appeared to claim a late equaliser in Leeds’ FA Cup semi-final defeat to Coventry City, 28 years ago this week.
“I have to be fair and point out that it took the manager 20-odd games before he named me as a substitute,” Edwards says. “He was fairly patient with me. I played and I tried but history shows that the goals didn’t come like they had before.
“For obvious reasons I wasn’t happy being on the bench for the semi-final but I accepted the decision.
“Mind you, I was desperate to get on. I remember sitting there three minutes in and saying to Billy: ‘John Pearson’s having a nightmare. You best take him off.’ That made him laugh. He could take a joke.”
Edwards’ desperation to play at Hillsborough was partly down to his allegiance with the other half of Sheffield. “I always scored there. Then again, doesn’t everyone score at Wednesday?”
Leeds needed a goal from him in the dying minutes of normal time as Coventry led 2-1 and Bremner rolled the dice by throwing on Edwards and Peter Haddock.
Edwards delivered in front of a packed Leppings Lane end, rising to bury a free header after Andy Ritchie weaved some magic on the right wing.
“I usually took goals in my stride,” Edwards says, “but that one cost me my voice. The excitement when it went in, the reaction of the Leeds fans behind the goal – it hits you and it stays with you.”
It was Coventry’s day, however, and Dave Bennett’s finish in extra-time condemned United to a 3-2 defeat.
“There were tears afterwards but Bremner came in and said: ‘there’s no need for that.’ He was right. The result was crushing but our performance against a first division side was excellent.
“The game was excellent as a spectacle, end-to-end stuff. It’s no consolation for the fans for me to talk about neutral perspectives but the occasion was terrific. It came down to very fine lines.”
The same was true of the second division play-offs, a test of stamina in which Edwards was deadly.
He struck in the penultimate minute of the semi-final first leg against Oldham Athletic and even later in the return leg at Boundary Park, taking Leeds through on away goals.
“You play 46 games just to get to a semi-final,” Joe Royle, the Oldham manager, had moaned before the tie took place.
The format of the play-offs in 1987 involved Charlton Athletic, the first division’s fourth-bottom team.
It was a get-out-of-jail card for the London club who made the final by scraping past Ipswich Town.
Leeds took the contest to a replay but were beaten in extra-time at St Andrews having led through a brilliant John Sheridan goal.
So much that year was close enough to touch and Edwards – now 57 and recovering from a recent hip replacement – agrees that it is painfully easy to under-rate the quality of Bremner’s squad.
“Sheridan, to pick out one example, was one of the best players I played with,” Edwards said.
“You had the Snodins as well and Mervyn Day. Part of the reason I spent time on the bench was because of the other players around me. It was a great dressing room.
“I credit so much of what went on to Billy Bremner. He got it just right that season and there was no sense of blame when it was all over, just a feeling that we’d been very, very unlucky.
“It was the same when I left for Aberdeen later in the year. There was no bad blood and no regret.