Leeds United promotion terror and how Don Revie's three Cs can help them - Daniel Chapman
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.
What kicking a ball can do for optimism. If only everything in life could be fixed by Pablo Hernandez.
It’s easy to compare his last-minute winner against Swansea to Gordon Strachan’s against Leicester in 1990, immortalised by John Helm’s commentary: “Have you ever seen a better goal? And have you ever seen one better timed?”
Two crucial interventions by two inspirational talents in two all-or-nothing attempts at promotion to the top flight after too long away.
But there are important differences. Strachan scored in a packed Elland Road, causing bedlam and conga-lines on the pitch at full-time. Hernandez struck in a Liberty Stadium emptied by a pandemic, where Gaetano Berardi and Victor Orta could provide the bedlam but not yet the conga. Something to work on this week.
And, crucially, Strachan beat Leicester in the game after Leeds lost to Barnsley at Elland Road, not the game before.
That was the only match Leeds lost at home in 1989/90, but it almost ruined everything. On an anxious night they were their own enemies in defence and denied by goalkeeper, posts and mistaken aim in attack. Does that sound familiar?
If this season is to be historically appropriate, a bitter night of anguish when all the achievement so far is put at agonising risk is still ahead. And that, my friends, is where feeling optimistic gets a Leeds fan.
Our nerves have been trained to resist pulses of happiness.
Next time I write this column, Leeds could be a Premier League club. You’d think I’d be pleased, not terrified.
But pleading with the fates, I’ll argue we went through enough against Derby last year, and can be spared the torment now. We’ve been going through enough for the last 16 years. Before 2007, United were never relegated below the second tier.
We’ve never spent so many seasons outside the top one.
However, we might dress it up, whatever good memories we’ve made, these have been the worst years in the history of Leeds United Football Club. And they’ve lasted a long time.
Too many years have passed and too many people. Who could imagine, when Leeds were relegated in 2004, that Gary Speed and Phil Masinga would not live to see Leeds go back; or Liam Miller, crashing in a late winner at Southampton, trying to get us there?
When the players, staff and families of Don Revie’s Leeds United were honoured with the Freedom of the City in December, Norman Hunter remembered who was not there to receive it personally. “It’s quite sad there are people like the gaffer, who would have loved today, unfortunately not here,” he said. Eddie Gray echoed him. “All of my team-mates will be thinking about the players who aren’t with us,” he said.
Norman is no longer with us, nor Trevor Cherry, or now Jack Charlton. As well as their families, it’s Eddie Gray I think about. “Just when you think you’ve had all the bad news you’re going to get,” he told The Athletic last weekend, “it gets worse.” Charlton was 30 when 17-year-old Gray made his debut; Hunter was closer in age, 22, but Gray was the kid brother of the Revie family.
When Brian Clough spat his diatribe against the players he was inheriting, Hunter didn’t care what he said to him, he could take it. But his criticism of young Eddie’s injuries angered the senior pros more than anything.
Gray has spent his life since sharing that empathy with others, nurturing his young teams of 1984 and 1997, representing the glory years with pride and sensitivity. Gray gave the speech accepting the Freedom of the City, passing on the three Cs that Revie drilled into his players: “Concentration in everything you do. Confidence in your ability. And, most importantly of all, the courage to carry it out on a football field.”
Football continues relentlessly while we wonder what tributes we can pay to the lives of Revie, Charlton, Hunter, Cherry, Paul Madeley and all, and while Elland Road can’t be the place it was in 1990.
The fervent, anxious crowds have been replaced, for the time being, by banners for great players, cardboard crowdies that are a moving mingling of the living and the remembered.
Football gives all this form and purpose by always demanding another 90 minutes.
Every tactical nuance, every permutation of results, all the formations and stats and touches and tackles and, above all, every kick of the ball comes down to one very simple aim: to win the game with style you can be proud of.
I don’t know what Norman Hunter or Jack Charlton thought about statues and tributes. But I know a successful Leeds United Football Club would make them happy, and young Eddie being there to enjoy it.
There are three games to go. Three games requiring concentration, confidence and courage. Then after that there will always be more, hopefully always in the Premier League.