English football has had many engaging characters down through the decades, men who stirred up passions amongst those who watched the game, and sometimes even in those whom they competed with and against.
One of the foremost characters of the 1960s and 70s top flight football scene was a man who was adored by the vast majority of the players he managed and utterly worshipped by the fans of his club. He was also simultaneously hated and reviled by both quite a few of his fellow managers, and several chairmen of clubs his side became opponents of.
His name was Don Revie, and he became, and probably will forever be, the king of Leeds.
Donald George Revie was born in Middlesbrough (perhaps the only thing he would share in common with a man who would later become his nemesis, Brian Clough) on 10th July 1927, and actually had a very decent career as a professional player, which is often either unknown or overlooked when people mention his name these days.
Revie first made his name at Leicester City, where he played as a forward between 1944 and 1949, scoring 25 goals in 96 appearances for the Foxes. He joined Hull City for £19,000 in the winter of 1949 but only stayed in East Yorkshire for two seasons (12 goals in 76 appearances) before making what would be the biggest transfer of his playing career. That move was to Manchester City in October 1951 for £25,000.
The “Revie Plan”
At Maine Road, Revie became somewhat of a cult figure, even having a game-plan based on the tactics first employed by the famous Hungarian national team named after him! The “Revie Plan” basically involved Don dropping deep into midfield to receive the ball from his forward position, thereby pulling at least one of the opposition centre-halves out of position with him, leaving space for his team-mates to exploit swift attacking moves in behind the exposed defence. In effect, Don Revie was the very first English “false nine”. This tactic had not been seen in Britain before it was used to devastating effect by Hungary in their 6-3 demolition of England at Wembley in 1953.
Don Revie wasn’t an overly aggressive player, but he was intelligent and eager to learn from those around him who might have advice worth heeding. It was little surprise to those who knew the man that he was able to make a new tactic in the English game, such as the concept of the “false nine”, work to perfection.
City used this tactic to good effect in the mid-50s, reaching two F.A. Cup Finals in succession, losing the first 3-1 to Newcastle United in 1955, but winning the trophy the following season after defeating Birmingham City by an identical scoreline.
On a personal note, Revie was such a revelation in his new role that he won the Football Writers’ Association “Player of the Year” award in 1955. By then he had also graduated up into the England first team set-up, and ended up with a very commendable four goals, despite only making six appearances for his country.
Arriving At Leeds
Despite winning the F.A. Cup with City, Revie had had a poor relationship with his manager Les McDowall for some time and was sold to Sunderland only months later for £22,000. He wasn’t particularly successful at Roker Park, only scoring 15 goals in two seasons on Wearside before getting a move, in November 1958, to the club that would become his home for the next 16 years, Leeds United.
His time at Elland Road as a player was modest in the extreme, undermined by constant injury struggles. He managing only 11 goals in 76 appearances over four seasons for the Whites, who were very much a mid-table Second Division club.
Indeed, Leeds United were not a big name in English football at all, having never won a major trophy in their history, and flitting between the top two divisions in England throughout that time. The club had only been formed in 1919, much later than most of their contemporaries, after a previous club, Leeds City, had folded.
However, despite not seeing much tangible success on the pitch, Revie had very much made his presence felt off it. He was a man with a forceful, determined will and an unshakeable belief in his own abilities as both a football coach and a leader of men. At Elland Road, he was very much the leader in the dressing room by the early 1960s. By then he had already taken it upon himself to give extra coaching on the training pitch to a precocious young flame-haired Scottish right-winger called Billy Bremner and was advising many of his younger team-mates about healthy eating and exercise regimes.
Whenever Leeds manager Jack Taylor resigned in March 1961, having only been in the managerial post for 18 months, it was almost a natural succession when board member Harry Reynolds advocated appointing Revie to the post of player-manager. It would, without doubt, be the greatest decision the Leeds United board had ever made, yet I doubt they had any idea of just how significant a moment it was, not only in Leeds’ history but for that of a whole generation of English football.
That’s because Leeds United were in dire financial straits at the time, anchored in lower mid-table of Division Two, with a squad that had a mixture of experienced but fading old pros and some young boys with talent that had yet to really blossom. Amongst those younger players were several lads who would become household names for Leeds in the years ahead, such as Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter and South African winger Albert Johanneson.
Revie managed to steady the ship enough in the following weeks to see Leeds safely to a 14th placed finish. However, the finances dictated that a lot of transfer activity took place going into 1961-62. The most startling example of this (and a real gauge of how desperate things were at Elland Road) was the enforced sale of prolific striker John McCole in early season, which left Revie having to field a new ‘striker’: his young centre-back, Jack Charlton! Revie himself had finally ‘hung up his boots’ during the year, realising that his job as the club manager would require all of his time, attention and energy.
A Boardroom Revolution
However, if things were desperate on the pitch, it was what was happening in the boardroom which was the real pointer for where Leeds United would be heading soon. Reynolds, a self-made millionaire, had taken over as chairman and was joined by several other wealthy businessmen on the new board. He was a man who was used to getting success, not failure, and he was determined that under Revie the football club would have brighter days ahead.
To that end, he helped fund a raft of signings that included former Celtic wizard Bobby Collins from Everton for £25,000. At 31 years of age, Collins was thought ‘past it’ by many pundits, but Revie felt the Scot could still spark his young team to produce some winning displays, and to a great extent, he did.
Dicing With Danger!
It didn’t look that good initially, though. After a very poor season, with the young manager having to juggle his meagre resources just to put a team onto the pitch some weeks, Leeds escaped the dreaded relegation to the abyss of the Third Division by just three points following a decisive final day 3-0 victory at Newcastle United. On such small measures of good fortune are large dynasties built, because had they gone down there is little doubt that the unparalleled success that followed soon after for Leeds United would not have happened at all, or at least it wouldn’t have happened so quickly.
All White On The Night?
Another change that the Revie and Reynolds partnership made that season was to rebrand the club’s home strip from its historic blue and gold colours to an all-white kit identical to that of Europe’s premier club, Real Madrid. That change, along with the accompanying rhetoric of wanting to raise Leeds United to Madrid’s level in football, invited (and received) a tidal wave of derision from many within English football….
The men in the suits were not playing around, though. That summer of 1962, they funded the record £53,000 re-capture of Juventus and Wales legend John Charles, whom the club had sold to the Italian giants five years earlier, as well as bringing in prolific young Scottish striker, Jim Storrie.
Meanwhile, Revie had begun to rule the footballing side of the business at Elland Road with a rod of iron. Much like a certain Alex Ferguson would later be known for doing at his various clubs, Revie made it his business to know everything about anyone who came into contact with his playing staff. Having seen during the previous season that many of the old pros at the club simply weren’t good enough to play at that level of the game anymore, Revie ruthlessly got rid of them, instead placing his faith in a raft of young players either already at the club, or scouted and brought in by chairman Harry Reynolds, who was only too happy to financially back his young manager’s instincts.
In Youth We Trust
A poor start to the 1962-63 season would ultimately cost Revie dearly. By the time he took a chance on some of the talented youth players at Leeds, the club had lost four of their opening six league games. Amongst those kids coming in were Welsh keeper Gary Sprake, right-back Paul Reaney and centre-back Hunter. By now, Charlton and Bremner were already regulars in the side.
Despite some good results which saw Leeds among the front-runners for promotion and scoring 79 goals in the season (Storrie getting 25 of them himself), the Whites missed promotion by only four points, ending up in 5th position. Despite the disappointment, there was no denying the impact that Revie had already had, both in the dugout and around the club in general, in such a short space of time.
Hello There, Mr Giles!
One person who didn’t want to remain at Elland Road, though, was John Charles, who was sold on for £70,000 to A.S. Roma the following summer; at least the club had made a profit on him. Perhaps some of that transfer kitty was then used to fund the purchase of a player who would eventually go down in Leeds United history as one of the club’s most significant signings: Irish midfield general Johnny Giles.
Giles had just been part of the Manchester United side that had won the 1963 F.A. Cup Final with a riveting 3-1 victory over favourites Leicester City, but he was not a happy man. He felt he was not being given enough chances to flourish in the side at Old Trafford, and asked manager Matt Busby for a transfer. That request was reluctantly granted, and the Irishman made the switch across the Pennines for £33,000 that summer.
It would be a pivotal event. Giles was immediately impressed by the naked ambition and desire to succeed that he found at Elland Road, with, in particular, Don Revie’s attention to detail in preparing his team for each individual match leaving a lasting impression on the Dubliner.
The new additions, when combined with the superb young talent being nurtured at the club, were more than enough to see Revie’s side storm to the Second Division title in 1964, losing only three league games all season. They went unbeaten at home. Leeds United went second on 1st October and never left the top three thereafter, with Johanneson (13 goals), Don Weston (13 goals) and Ian Lawson (11 goals) all contributing significantly to the title victory. The mid-season £55,000 capture of Middlesbrough striker Alan Peacock (who had once been the strike partner of Brian Clough at Ayrsome Park) was the ‘icing on the cake’, as he plundered 8 goals in only 14 appearances to rubber-stamp promotion.
Not Just Here To Make Up The Numbers…
Revie’s first season as a First Division manager, 1964-65, got off to the worst possible start. Peacock, who had only been at Leeds for a few months, was very badly injured in a pre-season game, and wouldn’t feature in any meaningful way into well into 1965. That, however, didn’t seem to have any negative impact on the rest of the side, because after coming from behind to beat Aston Villa 2-1 in Birmingham on the opening day, Leeds United were a revelation.
Their opening home fixture witnessed the visit of reigning League Champions, Liverpool- they were duly sent back to Merseyside with their tails between their legs after being demolished 4-2, and the ‘statement of intent’ from Revie’s men was there for all to see. Clearly, this Leeds United side would be no-one’s whipping boys.
To put their season into context (in these days when promoted clubs into the Premier League usually battle all season to avoid relegation straight back down into the Championship from which they have just emerged), Revie’s side never fell lower than 11th in the Division during their first year back in the top flight- and even that was only for a few days in late September.
Up For The Double!
A 2-1 victory over Sunderland on the 2nd January 1965 saw the Whites go to the summit of English football for the first time, and as well as battling for a first league title, they made steady progress in the F.A. Cup as well, overcoming Everton after a replay in the Fourth Round. The team that took them to the top of the table included Sprake, Reaney, Bremner, Paul Madeley, Charlton, Terry Cooper and Hunter- all players who had come through the ranks at Elland Road. The homegrown lads were surrounded by experience in the likes of Giles, Storrie and Bobby Collins, still playing despite being well into his 30s.
It was shaping up to be a fairy-tale season for Revie. No-one could have predicted that a promoted side would challenge the likes of Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United for the league championship, but as winter turned into the spring of 1965, that’s exactly what Leeds were doing. In fact, by the time they met the Red Devils in the F.A. Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough on 27th March, it was seen by many as a meeting of the two best young sides in the country.
Too Much Too Soon?
That game, which was a bad-tempered affair, finished in a 0-0 stalemate, and some people have since wondered aloud if it wouldn’t have been better for Revie’s team to have conceded the Cup Final place to their rivals that day. That would have allowed Leeds to concentrate their efforts on the bigger prize of the First Division title, because the season was about to ‘catch up’ on a side with a relatively small squad.
Don Revie wouldn’t have allowed that sort of defeatist thinking to enter his dressing-room anyway. Leeds United overcame their Pennine rivals by a late Billy Bremner headed goal to nil in the replay at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground to set up an F.A. Cup Final date with Liverpool. They were now very much in with a chance of winning the ‘Double’. It was an unthinkable dreamland, having narrowly escaped relegation to the Third Division only two years before.
A Bitter End To A Bright Journey
Then the dream morphed into a nightmare. Despite Leeds winning the next three league games in a row to remain top of the table, Manchester United got their revenge on Revie’s tiring team by winning 1-0 at Elland Road on 17th April – it would be a small margin that meant so much in the end.
(As an aside, it is interesting to note that future United legend Jimmy Greenhoff played for Leeds that day, and would go on to make a significant contribution to the Whites’ successes before becoming a hero at Old Trafford when grabbing the winning goal for United against Liverpool in the 1977 FA Cup Final.)
Two days later, a 3-0 defeat at bitter rivals Sheffield Wednesday dropped Leeds to 3rd, but they beat the same opposition 2-0 the very next day (yes, I know… and players these days cry about having to play more than a single game in a week!) to return to the summit. A commanding 3-0 win at Sheffield United then left the Whites only needing to beat already-relegated Birmingham City at St. Andrew’s on the final day to possibly win their first league title. I say ‘possibly’ because Manchester United were breathing down their necks, only a point behind, with a hugely superior goal-difference and a game-in-hand.
A Horror Show
It is likely that people in Leeds have blocked Monday 26th April 1965 from their collective memories- it was a horror show for Don Revie and his men. With one eye on the F.A. Cup Final date with Liverpool the following Saturday, Revie rested star striker Jim Storrie, but his team should still have had more than enough ability to beat a Blues side that had won only seven games all season and were already guaranteed to finish bottom of the table. Manchester United were hosting Arsenal at the same time, so the fate of the championship would be all but decided that evening.
After only four minutes Don Revie probably started to have a sinking feeling in his gut- Leeds were a goal down already. Two minutes later George Best scored a wonder goal at Old Trafford for United against the Gunners. Advantage to the Manchester Reds. Birmingham lost a player to injury, but the ten men redoubled their efforts to hang onto their narrow advantage, with Leeds’ Peacock and Weston guilty of missing glaring chances to level the score.
Into the second half, and suddenly, unbelievably, Leeds found themselves 3-0 down through two deadly counter-attacks from their West Midlands hosts. After Denis Law had extended the Red Devils’ lead to 2-0 over Arsenal, the title had surely swung decisively away from the Yorkshiremen. Bremner rallied the troops and a stirring fightback ensued. Giles pulled a goal back from the penalty spot after Bremner himself had been tripped in the penalty area. At Old Trafford, Arsenal also pulled a goal back through a George Eastham penalty. It couldn’t happen, could it?
Revie urged his men forward, and with Blues penned into their own half, Leeds laid siege to the opposition goal. Paul Reaney hammered his first ever league goal home on 73 minutes for 3-2, and stand-in centre-forward Jack Charlton found an equaliser with a couple of minutes left. Cue bedlam in the visiting enclosure!
Would there be another late chance to win the game, and possibly the title? Yes, there was…but Norman Hunter’s injury-time shot smashed back out off a post rather than finding the back of the Birmingham net….and that was it. The width of a goalpost looked to have denied Leeds United the league championship in their first season back in the top flight under this new managerial regime.
A 3-3 draw at the bottom club wasn’t good enough, and Revie knew it. United had beaten Arsenal 3-1, and would in many ways then rub salt into the Leeds wounds by somehow conspiring to lose their extra game-in-hand 2-1 to Aston Villa, but yet still clinch the title on superior goal difference from Revie’s men. Leeds United had claimed 61 points for the season; it was the highest total ever accumulated without being enough to win the league title under the ‘two points for a win’ system which was in operation in those days.
Piling On The Misery…
The heartbreak wasn’t over. On 1st May, Revie led his troops out at Wembley alongside Liverpool boss Bill Shankly, and then watched on as they struggled to create anything of note in 90 minutes against a stubborn Reds defence. Liverpool left-back Gerry Byrne epitomised his side’s determination not to be beaten, unknowingly suffering a broken collarbone only minutes into the game after a heavy challenge from Collins, but refusing to leave the pitch as there were no substitutes allowed in 1965.
Indeed, it proved a pivotal decision, because it was Byrne himself who crossed for Roger Hunt to open the scoring with a header for the Merseysiders three minutes into extra-time. However, their joy was short-lived. Eight minutes later, Norman Hunter crossed the ball into Jack Charlton, who headed down for Bremner to rifle past keeper Tommy Lawrence for 1-1.
As would become the case many, many times during the next decade of their history, Leeds United were destined to finish as runners-up; so near and yet so far. Bremner saw a chance to give a tiring Leeds team the lead well stopped by Lawrence, and then with only three minutes of extra-time remaining and both sides ‘out on their feet’, young Scottish striker Ian St. John broke Yorkshire hearts. Winger Ian Callaghan beat two Leeds players down the right side and crossed for St. John to twist and head decisively home for a Liverpool victory…and leave Revie empty-handed after a season that had promised so much.
Barely Even Faint Praise…
Over the summer, the only annoyance at Elland Road seemed to be the lack of praise bestowed upon the side by the national media. Revie had come within a whisker of a League and Cup ‘double’, which had only been achieved once in the century (by Tottenham Hotspur in 1961), yet there was little acclaim for his side’s achievements outside of Yorkshire, with many pundits clearly feeling it had been a lucky first season from a newly promoted side, and wouldn’t ever be repeated. They were all very, very wrong….
Join me again in the next part of this look back at the career of Don Revie to see just how he confounded his critics by not only ensuring that Leeds United would remain a thriving First Division club, but a club that challenged strongly for the top honours in the game on a very consistent basis over many years.