I was lucky enough to see the wonderful Leeds United team of the late 1970s. I saw a Billy Bremner hit a 30-yard screamer in front of a crowd of more than 100,000 people. Despite 50 years of watching football, I hadn’t appreciated how cruel it must be to have been a Leeds player or a Leeds fan. Until now.
I was fortunate to see the great Leeds team of the 1970s and had the good fortune to see my team, Celtic, beat them in April 1970 in the semi-final of the European Cup.
It was in front of a gargantuan crowd of 136,000 at Hampden Park in Glasgow that night. I still have my match programme.
I’ve always kept tabs on visiting teams I saw in those days, be it Inter Milan or Benfica. So, I have always had a soft spot for Leeds United and look out for their results.
This was the first time in the European Cup that the champions of England had faced their Scottish rivals and the match was billed as the “Battle of Britain”.
Listening to a recent programme about Leeds captain, Billy Bremner, gave me a new perspective on that memory as a wide-eyed eight-year-old.
I am now aware that there was a huge antipathy towards Leeds United from different parts of the country; particularly as I now live in Millwall territory. But also from Chelsea fans and then later across the Pennines with Manchester United.
But that’s not my story here. Billy Bremner was recently featured on the BBC’s Great Lives podcast which I came across this week.
I had a great time growing up supporting Celtic in the glory years. But I do feel a real empathy with any Leeds fan of the same era.
Packed with Scots
The Leeds team at that time and through the 1970s was packed with Scots. And, as national captain, Billy Bremner was to lead team mates Peter Lorimer, Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan and David Harvey to the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, my first “real” memory of the tournament as a 12-year old.
If the phrase “always the bridesmaid” was levelled at any footballing side; it unfortunately encapsulates Leeds perfectly.
This year is 50 years since that night at Hampden and the game and era have been covered extensively. Only now do I appreciate the pressure and the fatigue the Leeds players must have been under.
The night after the first leg at Elland Road, Leeds had to travel to London where they drew 2-2 with West Ham. It was one of six games in 15 days.
At Easter that season, Leeds were challenging for the English title and still in both the FA and European Cup competitions.
The League secretary Alan Hardaker seemed to be particularly harsh on the club, forcing them to play a total of nine games in 22 days and fining them for fielding second string players. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Running on empty
By the end of the season, Leeds trophy cabinet was empty. They finished runners up in the League to Everton and lost in the FA Cup final to Chelsea and to as mentioned Celtic in the European Cup. Revie had tried to shuffle his squad but they came up short on all fronts.
FA rules at the time stipulated that a squad of only 20 players could be used and only one substitute was allowed in a game. Some of the Leeds players took part in 62 competitive games that season. Four of whom were also in the England squad for the Mexico world cup.
Indeed, my first-ever World Cup memory was Leeds striker Alan Clarke stroking home a penalty in a changed blue England strip in that very competition on this very day 50 years ago.
In addition to the huge games again Celtic at the business end of the season, Leeds had to endure three semi-finals including extra time in two before disposing of Manchester United and then a replay in the final against Chelsea who eventually triumphed after another replay and extra time.
Lifelong Celtic fan Billy Bremner scored the semi-final winner and was voted Football Writers’ Player of the Year.
Ten stones of barbed wire
Born in Stirling in Scotland he had trials with Celtic but at 5’5” was let go as he was thought too short. Meanwhile Rangers weren’t interested in signing the schoolboy international because of their club policy of refusing to sign catholics.
Bremner headed south and had trials with both Chelsea and Arsenal before his diminutive size became the issue again. Indeed he has always been known as “wee Billy Bremner” rather than merely Billy with his shock of ginger red hair. He is described in the programme as 10 stones of barbed wire.
Leeds took a punt on the youngster and he was an ever-present dynamic midfielder for the Yorkshire club scoring 115 goals in a career spanning 17 years from 1959 to 1976. He later went on to manage the club.
Yet for many of the glory years, Leeds came out short, leading to the “nearly men” moniker.
Perennial Runners up
Despite a league title in 1969 – setting a record by remaining unbeaten at home and losing just two games – and another in 1974, Leeds United finished second on no less than five occasions. Though they won the FA Cup beating Arsenal 1-0, they also lost in three other FA Cup finals as well as losing in three European finals.
The Great Lives podcast on Bremner is all the more interesting as both guests experts are Asian. Both were born to Indian parents and there is a real insight growing up as a Leeds United fan at a time when Elland Road was a recruiting ground for far-right groups like the National Front.
Anand Menon is a leading academic who grew up in West Yorkshire. The Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs is a life-long passionate Leeds fan.
So, as well as unpacking the football dimension, it’s fascinating to hear what it was like socially and politically for two immigrant youngsters growing up as United supporters since the 1970s including Bremner’s time as manager of the club before his untimely death in 1997 aged just 54. Nothing to do with the fags, of course!
The programme also covers Bremner’s attempts to tackle racist attitudes surrounding the club and his efforts to help and protect Albert Johanneson, the first black player to feature in an FA Cup Final.
Listen to the full programme on the BBC Great Lives podcast.
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