‘Twas a Hogmanay at the Glasga’ fair
There was me, ma self and several mair’
The French Riviera in the summer of 1981 whilst on a course was not the sort of place one expects to come across the opening lines to ‘The Day we went to Rothesay O’– a spirited Scottish ditty. The singer was a chap called Paul – a Celtic supporter from Castlemilk in Glasgow. Castlemilk is a tough old area but it was from Paul that I learned it produced one of British football’s finest wingers. That man is fellow Celtic supporter, Eddie Gray. No finer man to start our series.
Eddie Gray starts us on this dribble down the left-hand side of the Seventies. He would be the most established on our list of ten and had three major medals by the time the sixties turned. His league championship medal from 1969 was augmented by victorious medals in the 1968 League Cup and Fairs’ Cup competitions. Even as a kid I never liked the name of the Fairs Cup and was delighted when it became the UEFA Cup.
Having made his debut as a 17-year-old and scoring on his debut against Sheffield Wednesday, he became one of the most identifiable names in Don Revie’s Leeds. That in itself does him a disservice as he became in actuality, one of the club’s most famous names in their history. He wore the white of Leeds and Yorkshire for 17 seasons before returning to manage the club. The fact of the matter is some players never really leave their club irrespective of their whereabouts. To this day he is one of those players that for millions, Leeds fans or not, he simply is Leeds football. No doubt we’ll finish this piece on that sort of thing.
This sort of thing happens when you are a one-club man and have brought tangible and emotional success to a club. There’s a pointer. Tangible success in the form of victories, of course, is one thing. There are of course those who can bring sweet emotion to fans and win nothing. Eddie Gray, of course, did both but this is where we get into the marrow or more accurately, the white cancellous bone of the man. He would have been fairly fondly remembered by managers, the media and no doubt, the everyday administrative staff of the club.
Of our ten wingers chosen five are Celts. I’m not reading overly into whatever that suggests, but I am when it comes to Scottish street footballers. Those who graduated from this unregulated Scottish ‘La Masia’ were to cut a furrow into football consciousness well beyond its resources. To this day the closure of this urban sporting academia is lamented certainly within Scotland, but also beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Eddie Gray by his own admission simply loved football. The Castlemilk council scheme alongside others certainly was deeply sewn into Gray, but there was so much more to him as a player.
The immediate thought drawn from these backdrops is of players you simply can’t get the ball from, with Jimmy Johnstone probably the patron saint. But Gray was a very intelligent player and also an athlete like no other. Yes, he was a left winger by trade, but it should be noted that he started out as a midfielder. That scanning brain and intelligence never left him no matter where he was to play. Many times he could be found out on the right and could be trusted to contribute as effectively out there. The point to all this being that he was a footballer in the broadest sense of the word who more often than not was to play left-wing for his team.
He signed for Leeds as one very young boy at fourteen years old in May 1963. Don Revie who courted him feverishly famously hid in the bedroom whilst rival Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty was at the front door. Gray had no idea where or who Leeds were, but he felt at home with Revie. He left school without a qualification to his name. However, he graduated through the ranks quickly through ability, attitude and no doubt application. He, by and large, skipped the menial boot-cleaning and other apprentice jobs by training with the first team. He learned sharp and hard from those menacing universities of sixties’ footballing hard knocks, Bobby Collins and Jackie Charlton.
As mentioned Revie moved him from a number six to number eleven on the left-wing to take over from Albert Johanneson. He could see Gray’s ability to get past people by skill and speed. He knew he could use him there with Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner manning the central engine works. These sort of things tend to get lost in the toxic mist that tends to surround Don Revie. But to draw a bit of a melodramatic analogy, in the same way that you won’t hear one of Rod Stewart’s exes ever badmouth him, Revie’s protégés flourished under him and none more so than Eddie Gray.
But not just Revie. He was to stay in the first team until 1983 by which time he was player-manager. In conversation, Eddie Gray comes across as one of football’s straightforward guys. That is quite a thing especially in this position where sometimes the prima and the donna are never too far apart. Gray never lost focus on what his job was which was contributing to the team. Peripherals never bothered him. Along with George Best who would have been his nearest competitor as the most fouled in that brutal era, he did not lack courage. Courage and Castlemilk were easy bedfellows.
He was the Gary Lineker of his age in that he was never booked. But he should be remembered for more than a shimmy and a dash into space to the soundtrack of an accompanying crowd roar. He had five operations to try and arrest the worst of a thigh muscle injury stretching back to an early reserve game injury. A calcified bone continually wreaked havoc through his tissues. Yet, through bravery and his own personal management, he rarely dipped below the real and active threat he permanently was for Leeds. The injury probably affected his international career more as he collected only twelve caps in an era when Scotland readily qualified for World Cups.
A lot of this comes back to what I have alluded to earlier. The man, then and to-day was fitness personified and this no doubt carried him far. There were some serious men of the underworld in that Leeds team and his boyish face, permanently infused with enthusiasm was a bit of a contrast in itself. To this end, I feel he never quite got the credit he deserved in the game from a southern metropolitan press. For he was a player.
It is fair to say that a lot of people really disliked Leeds and their bent-bow stretching of the game’s rules and ideals. But Eddie Gray would have been one of the team that caused some national respect to flow down Elland Road. A player who flew the white rose high through the Revie, Armfield, Stein, Adamson, Clarke and even Clough administrations. The latter’s famous quote that had Gray been a horse (due to his injuries) he would have been shot no doubt added to his rap sheet for the famous 44 days. The other famous quote of course from Revie is worth recalling –
“When Eddie Gray plays on snow, he doesn’t leave any footprints”.
It is wrong for us just to think of him as yet another ‘tricky Scottish winger’. He was a huge outlet for the team because he could hold the ball and could always make positive with it. He had huge appreciation of space because more often than not he could find it by himself or by pass. He linked superbly with his teammates and was equally adept at the short pass or the cross. He was not hugely prolific goals-wise, but got enough, if that is not too loose a phrase. But he was a master of the ball and of the dragback and could do it to lasting damage. Once you ‘pull’ a defender on that you have his badge. The game can be yours from then on. Few did it as well as him. But he did it with respect and even those he had mugged knew his quality.
He was primarily though a creator as his original midfield pedigree decreed. I feel he was summed up well in an interview where he refused to understand the praise for his natural ability. He would accept it for his physical fitness which he had to work on, but not natural ability. The military would identify with that sort of thing. I also liked the way he took being told that fellow Castlemilk native and left-winger Arthur Graham was being signed in his stride. His attitude was ‘not a problem’ but ‘I’ll still be playing’. Confidence and competence. Without arrogance, it is a powerful combination and once again is close to military values.
For an instinctive reason, I have titled this article by calling him a thoroughbred. I am struggling to think if I have seen that somewhere before. Either way, it fits well. As natural a footballer you could get, I wonder how he would have fared in one of today’s coached academies. He simply understood how to play football and went about it with the more than potent ability that he had.
In hindsight, he simply appreciated being a footballer and doing it for Leeds United. He has never really left the club fulfilling many posts including Club Ambassador, player, manager, Head of Youth Academy and frequently works with TV production of the club in various guises. A lot of people who follow football will perhaps know of his epic dribble and goal against Burnley in 1970 which is a YouTube classic. Do watch his other goal in that game as well, but I think the commentary fading in the background is just perfect in my ceasing of this narrative.
“A MASTERLY GOAL BY EDDIE GRAY, A masterly goal by Eddie Gray”.