Leon Wobschall re-lives Leed United’s glorious 1974 title success – Revie’s finest hour – with Elland Road legend Eddie Gray.
THE rocket fuel for Leeds United’s jet-propelled start to the 1973-74 championship campaign – and Don Revie’s finest managerial hour – began to distill several months before a ball was kicked.
In the fabled surroundings of Wembley, to be precise, as Eddie Gray – one of Revie’s own who trudged disconsolately off the turf one fateful spring tea-time afternoon in May 1973 – remembers well.
While a trilby-clad Bob Stokoe and his delirious Sunderland players did a collective jig after becoming the first side from outside the top division to lift the FA Cup in 42 years, and the press promptly danced on the footballing grave of Leeds following the biggest-ever final shock, Revie vowed to get even.
The resolve of Revie, who famously fell out with Stokoe early on in his Elland Road tenure and lined up directly against him in the 1955 FA Cup final, was ironclad by the time United reconvened ahead of the new season, with rumours of a summer exit to Everton thankfully alleviated.
With the seeds sown by the Sunderland stunner and the endless pages of vitriolic copy labelling Leeds as over the hill, Revie galvanised spirits, got to work and a club closed ranks.
With spectacular results. Seven successive victories at the beginning of the 73-74 season for starters, and 19 goals, with head-turning victories at imposing citadels such as Highbury, White Hart Lane and Molineux coming United’s way.
It was nothing less than a statement of intent and a collective V-sign to critics who dared to question United’s footballing longevity.
Elland Road legend Gray recalls: “I remember the aftermath of getting beaten by Sunderland in the cup final and Don was very disappointed about that. But he didn’t half pick the players up and one or two changes to the team were made as well.
“When we set off that next season, the determination he put into the players – plus our ability as you cannot do anything without that – to let people know that the Sunderland game was a one-off and to win the championship was massive.
“I played in that cup final and was awful. I probably shouldn’t have played as I was struggling with a thigh injury, but Don stuck by me and played me. Looking back now, it was the wrong decision.
“But watching that game now, we just battered Sunderland that day. They hardly had a kick and won, and that happens in football.
“After that, people were writing us off. I think some in the media thought that Leeds United’s 10-year reign was over.”
Gray’s injury ills ensured he was a peripheral figure as United made the longest-ever unbeaten start to a Football League season stretching 29 games and turned the title into nothing short of a procession.
The legendary Scottish winger, who missed out on the World Cup in Germany following the end of that domestic campaign, featured just eight times, but insists he felt privileged to witness history unfolding in front of his very eyes.
Arsenal may have later eclipsed United’s exploits in their Invincibles campaign in 2003-04, but given the ultra-competitive footballing landscape in that halcyon era – seven separate clubs won the title between 1966-67 and 1972-73 – the Whites’ achievement is arguably the more substantive and stands the test of time.
United went nine points clear – in the days of two points for a win, remember – after a 1-0 victory at Newcastle United on Boxing Day in front of nearly 55,000 fervent Geordies. And after their 2-0 victory over hated rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford in early February, the unthinkable was being considered. Could Revie’s troops go through an entire season unbeaten?
United, following a surprise cup exit to Bristol City, eventually cracked in the Potteries in a 3-2 reverse at Tony Waddington’s Stoke City in front of almost 40,000 at the Victoria Ground in their next league outing on February 23, 1974.
The alarm bells briefly rang in a run of just one victory in their next six matches – including a loss to the only side capable of realistically reigning on their parade in Billy Shankly’s Liverpool at Anfield.
But normal service soon resumed with United’s big Merseyside rivals paying the price for pursuing silverware on several fronts – something Leeds certainly knew a thing or two about back then.
Revie was able to savour the sweetest of title successes after Liverpool’s late April defeat at Arsenal.
Gray added: “It was a marvellous season for the club and Don. To bounce back after the Sunderland game was just a tremendous achievement by the boys. Twenty-nine games unbeaten, it was some record at the time.
“Don actually used to say ‘we won’t lose a game’ before every season; that was the aim before every one. He used to say that we had the players to ensure we would try and win every game. It was definitely like that during that 1973-74 season.
“Funnily enough, at that particular time, I was really struggling with injury. Basically at the end of the next season (1974-75) in which Brian Clough had come and I’d played in the Charity Shield and not done too well, I was told I’d probably have to pack the game in.
“But Don kept me involved in 73-74 and I played a few games, although I didn’t get a medal and didn’t deserve one. I think they only gave out 13 or 14 medals that year. It wasn’t like the squads we have today and you only had one sub as well.
“I still contributed a little bit. Although I’ve got to say the players were terrific that season and to win it how they did was a great achievement.
“Losing to Stoke was disappointing, but what you had to remember was there was a lot of smashing teams back then. Stoke had some great players and it wasn’t like the league now, which is a bit elitist with a top four or five.
“You would go everywhere in those days and think ‘it’s going to be a tough game today’. Most teams had a few big names.
“You’d even go to smaller clubs like Southampton and you’d come up against people like Terry Paine and Jimmy Gabriel who could all play.
“I do think people thought the run would come to an end some time, but the good thing is we bounced back and won the league. That was the most important thing.”
United fans have been busy paying homage to their father figure and most revered manager of all time in “The Don” in the past week or so following the 50th anniversary of his appointment at Elland Road when he started to lift the club firmly by the bootstrings before eventually turning Leeds into one of the greatest-ever sides to have drawn breath.
Tributes from Revie’s lads have also been heartfelt and sincere, with Gray admitting that despite having the pick of the clubs from up and down the land – many far more esteemed and glamorous than Leeds back then – it was the magnetism of Revie that gravitated him inexorably to Elland Road.
Gray said: “I remember coming to have a look at the place as a young boy at 14 or 15 in 1962 and eventually joined in ’63. I could have joined any club in the country and Leeds were an old second division club, as it was then, who had won nothing.
“Back home in Scotland, you’d only really see FA Cup finals on the television or European nights, involving teams such as the great Wolverhampton Wanderers teams and Man United.
“I’d never heard of Leeds United before I came here. Seriously...I was up in Scotland and we didn’t even know where Leeds was!
“But the reason I came down to Leeds was because of Don. He was such a powerful character who was very charismatic. If Don walked into a room, he’d be the centre of attraction.
“Funnily enough, I once read a little quote of Norman Hunter about Don saying he never really got the recognition he deserved throughout the country – although he does in this area and in certain aspects with people who know the game.
“But not from the general media. Maybe because of what happened with England, I don’t know...
“When you look at his record at Leeds, it’s incredible. He came to the club in the early 60s and after being player-manager first, he turned around a team that had never won anything into one that was probably the most feared in England – no doubt about that. And one that could play with the best in Europe and win European trophies.
“It was a tremendous achievement. And for all the players that played for Don, they will always look back on him with great affection. As a man, first of all. And certainly as a manager.
“If Don asked you how your mother or wife was and you said ‘not too good today’ or something like that, he’d get a bunch of flowers sent up to the doorstep. He looked after everyone who played for him and kept them all together.”