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Leeds United in the early 1970s were seen as a tough tackling bunch of hard men who weren’t afraid to leave their mark on whoever dared to go up against them.
While the Yorkshiremen would stop at nothing in order to gain an advantage with a win-at-all-costs mentality, under the brawn and bravado was actually a very good football team – who should have won more than the one First Division championship, one FA Cup and one European Fairs Cup they lifted during the decade.
In an era of total football when the likes of Liverpool and Ajax were making it their mission to win everything by employing a wonderfully attacking and skilful brand of football, Leeds United were the total opposite of the ‘beautiful game'.
However, despite this reputation, much of which was well deserved, the team from Elland Road were no strangers to winning and had formulated a way of getting results despite not being the most entertaining to watch; but come the 1973/74 season their stars finally aligned.
Since the late 1960s, Leeds United were always there, or thereabouts when it came to the race for the old First Division championship. Between 1965 when they returned to the top division and 1973, they had accumulated five trophies and finished runners-up in 10; claiming the top prize just the once in 1969.
Under the management of Don Revie the Whites forged a reputation for being a side not to be messed with but one destined to be the nearly men of the game.
The 1972/73 season was a classic case in point. Having challenged for the title throughout much of the campaign they would ultimately finish third; missed out on winning the FA Cup after being beaten by underdogs Sunderland at Wembley; and also fell at the final hurdle in the European Cup Winners’ Cup 1-0 to AC Milan, in what was their second final defeat in a week.
As the 1973/74 season began the critics did not hold back in their criticism of Leeds and their iconic manager. The speculation at the time suggested Revie may not even see in the new campaign, as the press printed stories about his possible departure from the club amid interest from the likes of Everton and a number of European sides.
But speaking to Arthur Haddock of the Yorkshire Evening Post, Revie explained his position: “When these offers come along and you have the chance to secure the future of your own family, you just have to give them a bit of thought. But I feel my future is resolved and I am completely happy. I never wanted to leave Leeds.”
Whether it was foresight or just an act of defiance, Revie had decided to stay on and give it one last crack at Elland Road, in what would ultimately be his last season in charge – and how glad Leeds fans were that he did.
In terms of ability, Leeds may have lagged behind some of their rivals but they did have youth on their side. The average age was just over 26, with only two, admittedly very influential players, Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner in their thirties. But after so many disappointments, the team’s motivation to succeed and finally get over the finish line was being questioned.
Despite coming close to silverware, Revie still felt there was room for improvement and so called upon the services of players who would become the backbone of his side – and go down in Leeds folklore.
Gordon McQueen had been signed from St Mirren as a replacement for the outgoing Jack Charlton, but it would be a while before he established himself in the side. Meanwhile, striker Joe Jordan, who had been waiting in the wings also got the nod.
Such was Leeds’ and Revie’s determination to win the Division One title the manager had something of a game plan for the forthcoming season. Undoubtedly, challenging for trophies on a number of fronts had cost them dearly the previous season and so from the outset of the 1973/74 campaign he made it clear what his main priority was. He also had a vision of his side going unbeaten in the league – and he was not far off.
Playing some beautifully flowing football in the early throws of the season, Leeds also remained focused on going through the entire campaign without losing, which is what Revie desired. They won their first seven games, and by Christmas has managed 21 games undefeated – meaning they had opened-up a seven point gap between them and reigning champions Liverpool at the top of the table. As 1974 dawned, Leeds were positioned nicely to finally claim the League championship after five years of gallant failures.
Whether it was deliberate or just a result of such steadfast concentration on their principle aim, Leeds let all other competitions go cheaply – exiting the FA Cup at the hands of second division Bristol City and going out of the UEFA Cup in the last 16 – but their first blip in the league did not come until February.
Having gone 29 games without defeat, on 23 February 23 Leeds led 2-0 at Stoke in a game which – had they won – would have equalled Burnley’s 1920/21 record; but they collapsed and Stoke came back to win 3-2.
All was not lost, however, as Leeds still held a sizable eight-point advantage over second-placed Liverpool. “Perhaps in the long run this will prove to be a good result for us,” said Billy Bremner after the Stoke game. United drew their next two games, both 1-1 at Elland Road, against Leicester City and Newcastle United.
The dip in form had taken the wind from the Leeds' sails and set alarm bells ringing of yet another slump in the home straight. After a run of one win in seven and defeats at Liverpool and West Ham, plus a shock 4-1 home defeat to Burnley, Leeds were just four points ahead of Liverpool.
A 2-0 win at Elland Road on 6 April over Derby steadied the nerves temporarily, while Liverpool came from a goal down to take both points – three points for a win was not introduced until 1981 – against QPR at Anfield. Two days later the Reds went down by a single goal at Sheffield United; a result which ended a run of nine wins and three draws from the 12 league games played since Boxing Day.
Going into the Easter period the Merseysiders dropped another point after a 1-1 draw at Manchester City on Good Friday, leaving them three points behind Leeds with one game in hand. The following Tuesday also brought crucial fixtures as Liverpool once again faced Manchester City, this time at home, while Revie's men came up against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane – a game which they eventually came through 2-0 as Liverpool remained on their tails, thanks to a 4-0 victory.
Revie refused to count his chickens, claiming, “It's a bit premature to call us champions yet. I'll not really breathe easily until I see the trophy is in Billy Bremner's hands.”
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Bill Shankly remained positive too: “There is still a mathematical chance and while that is so we will not give up hope,” he said. “That's the trouble with the world today, people give up too easily. A squirt of Gaelic blood, that's what you all need. Then you might not make remarks about giving up.”
Liverpool had three games remaining but Shankly’s side lost the first of those at home to Arsenal, thereby almost gifting the title to Leeds. United won 1-0 away at QPR, thanks to an Allan Clarke goal, to cement their status as champions.
An overjoyed Revie revealed: “I feel as though someone had come along and lifted six tons of coal off my back. It's a great feeling. I feel as though I am walking on air. Tonight I am going to go out and have a good time at last.” He was true to his words as the new champions threw an all-night party.
It provided the ultimate swan song for Revie who would depart for the England manager's job a few weeks later. He had revolutionised Leeds United in his 13 years at the helm and now, finally, had received the recognition he felt he deserved, though he remained studiously modest. “Those lads are the ones who won the championship. Not me,” he proclaimed generously.