The consolation for Eddie Gray when Leeds United sacked him in 1985 was that his players were more angry than he was about his departure.
Of all the things that cost him his job as manager, a lost dressing room was not one.
On the contrary, United’s squad were so incensed by the decision that they issued a statement to the club’s board, sticking their necks out and condemning an “absolutely demoralising” move.
The comments were collective but Peter Lorimer, Gray’s old team-mate and the most experienced of players at Elland Road, took responsibility for delivering them to the boardroom. Coming from United’s respected captain, Lorimer’s remarks were damning.
“We are amazed and astonished by the board’s decision to terminate the manager’s contract,” he said. “He has worked selflessly for three years and has built a team poised to enter the promotion stakes.
“With three quarters of the season left and having lost only once in the last eight outings, and with the confidence and belief of the players sky-high, this decision is absolutely demoralising.
“Football is still a game. It has ups and downs. We would have thought that the board of directors, being both businessmen and soccer fans, would have appreciated this.”
Lorimer’s barbed criticism resonated and soon after, with the mood growing increasingly ugly, director Brian Woodward resigned from the board in protest at Gray’s sacking.
After a slow start to the 1985-86 season, including a 6-2 loss at Stoke City, United’s form began to settle but Lorimer’s optimism was not shared by those above him, even though it seemed in tune with the mood of Leeds’ support.
The club’s dismissal of Gray and his assistant, Jimmy Lumsden, on October 11 provoked protests against the board. Leeds had failed to contend strongly for promotion from Division Two under Gray but it was widely accepted that the Scot had dealt with brittle finances since his appointment as player-manager in 1982. Gray’s brother Frank left for Sunderland in 1985 as part of the battle to balance the books.
A young squad still showed signs of promise and possessed undoubted talent. John Sheridan, a midfielder who Gray admired at first sight, broke into the first team on his watch. Gray paid Doncaster Rovers £200,000 for Ian Snodin and trusted youngsters like Denis Irwin, Scott Sellars, Tommy Wright and Andy Linighan. Lorimer said Gray had acted “in the the best interests of the club.”
United’s board digested the angry reaction and decided to appease the crowd by appointing Billy Bremner as Gray’s replacement, the third successive Don Revie disciple given the job at Elland Road. That move would later take United to the very brink of promotion, even though Bremner ultimately failed to deliver it, but Bremner’s arrival marked the end of the project which Gray had been building.
Irwin left for Oldham Athletic on a free transfer in the summer of 1986, destined for a much longer career at Manchester United. Linighan and Wright also moved to Boundary Park and the enforced sale of Snodin to Everton in 1987 continued the trend of change in the dressing room.
Speaking in 2012, Wright told the YEP: “Looking back over the years, I think Leeds fans would say if he (Gray) was given more time and patience it could have been a lot better.
“After the club had been relegated, finances were tight and I think Eddie saw the young players’ potential. But he didn’t pick a squad that was just young; he felt we were good enough. And I think we were.”