As Manchester United celebrated their historic treble in Barcelona in 1999, seasoned Leeds United supporters could have been forgiven for wondering what might have been. Had events played out differently 29 years before, it might have been their team that made history, while Alex Ferguson’s side merely repeated it.
On the 21st March 1970, Don Revie’s men were battling Everton for the title, had just put Manchester United away in the FA Cup after a second replay and were preparing for a European Cup semi-final against Celtic. An unprecedented hat-trick of trophies was in reach. Five weeks later, the Yorkshire club ended the campaign empty handed.
Champions the year before by a margin of six points, Leeds United were not messing around in the Summer of ’69 . Revie was keen to strengthen what had already been one of the best teams of the decade and he was generously backed by the board. A record fee of £165,000 was paid to Leicester City for striker Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke, who had broken the British transfer record just 12 months earlier when he left Fulham. It was money well spent. With 23 goals in his debut season, Clarke was the third highest goalscorer in all domestic competitions, behind Peter Osgood (31) and Jeff Astle (30). That transfer record would be broken again in 1970 by Martin Peters, for whom Tottenham Hotspur were happy to pay £200,000.
Leeds lost only two games before New Year, but as winter faded, so did they. Revie’s team drew four out of six games between the end of January and the end of March, not in itself a disastrous run given that victories offered only two points, but the lead was duly lost and it was never regained. Struggling with injuries after that epic tussle with Manchester United in the FA Cup, Revie followed medical advice and fielded a second string side against Derby County on March 30. The Rams won 4-1 and, in the words of The Times’ Geoffrey Green, “the title was forfeit.”
“A club can never be too ambitious,” Revie told Green as the league ebbed away, “though I personally never believed we could do the treble of League, FA Cup and European Cup. In fact, months ago I said that to win the three would be the eighth wonder of the world.”
He wasn’t wrong. These were the days of small squads and maniacal scheduling (Leeds would play on both December 26 and 27 and later drew with West Ham on April 2, despite playing Celtic in Europe on April 1). Revie used 12 players more than 43 times and nine of them broke the 50 barrier. It was all too much.
Both legs of the European Cup semi-final were lost to Celtic, but between those tussles, there was the small matter of the FA Cup Final against Chelsea. The two teams were known for their ability to…erm…look after themselves and the game was played on an atrocious Wembley pitch, ripped to shreds by the Horse of the Year Show, held there on the previous weekend.
“I suppose it was always going to get a bit physical, wasn’t it?” said Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris in a little known football book published in 2008. “I think they used to say up north that the southerners were a bit of a soft touch, but they soon got that rammed down their throat, didn’t they?”
It was, in the words of Andrew Stephen, the chairman of the FA, “not a classic. It was an epic.” Twice, Leeds took the lead. Twice, Chelsea responded in kind. Jack Charlton opened the scoring after 20 minutes with a header that would have been cleared on a normal pitch, but deceived everyone by pointedly refusing to bounce. Peter Houseman equalised before half-time with a shot that Gary Sprake really should have stopped and then Leeds thought they’d won it six minutes before the break when Mick Jones turned in an Allan Clarke shot that had bounced off the post.
“Bremner at that second did a joyful double somersault,” wrote Green in The Times. “There were dancing white shirts everywhere on on the field, and the steeped West banks of the stadium holding the massed Leeds clans exploded. Even Don Revie, their manager, had to be restrained by two burly policemen as he tried to join his happy players on the touchline.”
But fate, once tempted, rarely fails to oblige. An 86th minute John Hollins free-kick was sent to the near post and there was Ian Hutchison to nod it home. For the first time since 1912, a replay would be required. And it would be one of the most brutal games in English football history.
Referee Eric Jennings took the curious decision to let the replay flow almost entirely uninterrupted by authority. Watching the game again in 1997 for a documentary, former referee David Ellery declared that there should have been six red cards and 20 cautions. If anything, he was understating the case.
Chelsea boss Dave Sexton, acutely aware of the chasing that Eddie Gray had given David Webb in the first match, told Harris to switch to right-back and deal with the issue directly.
“Everyone knows how that worked out for Eddie, don’t they?” said Harris in 2007. “You’ve probably seen the tape. It took me just five minutes to sort him and it was a proper knee cruncher. Bang. He didn’t come near me for the rest of the game. As he went to turn, I come in from the side and that was it…And you know what? I didn’t even get booked. If you’d done that today, you’d get banned for life.”
“At times,” wrote The Observer’s Hugh Mcllvanney of the replay, “it appeared that Mr Jennings would give a free-kick only on production of a death certificate.
Leeds still took the lead through Mick Jones, but when Peter Osgood equalised with 12 minutes to go, it meant extra-time. In the 104th minute, Chelsea scored again, a long throw in from Hutchinson eventually nodded in by Webb. Leeds’ season, which for so long had promised so much, ended and the club had nothing to show for their efforts.
It was Everton who won the title that year, the second championship for idiosyncratic manager Harry Catterick. The ‘holy trinity’ of midfielders Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey is well known, but Catterick is probably the least regarded of the great managers of the decade. This is not entirely surprising given how poorly he fared in a direct comparison with the chap on the other side of Stanley Park. Bill Shankly was an inspirational figure for the Liverpool players, a God for their supporters and a goldmine for the local press. By contrast, Everton’s boss was prickly, struggled to get on with either his players or his coaches and tended to shut himself away at Bellefield. And yet he was still something of a football purist. After winning the title, he told reporters that Everton, “didn’t play assassin stuff. We don’t have players nobbling key players.” There are no prizes for guessing to whom he was referring.
Everton were an outstanding side and that trinity of midfielders was only the start of it. Joe Royle was a formidable force up front, Jimmy Husband and Johnny Morrissey offered constant threats from the flanks and fringe player Alan Whittle added a much needed spark in the run-in. In a rare televised interview with ITV, most of which is transcribed in Rob Sawyer’s wonderful biography, Catterick spoke at length about his players and their strengths, going to great lengths to praise everyone. They beat Leeds early in the season and wobbled only as the campaign entered its final stretch, drawing three games in a row in February. A team meeting was held, voices were raised, but according to apprentice Stan Osborn, who was eavesdropping outside, no individuals were singled out for criticism. This was a group bollocking. When Catterick left, shouting, “If you think that sort of performance is going to win the league, you lot have got another thing coming,” the room fell silent. Then captain Brian Labone took over.
“Lads,” he is reported to have said, “I can’t disagree with a word of that. The Boss and Wilf (Everton’s coach) are right and they’re doing their best. The rest is up to us. We’ve got a responsibility to this club and our fans. Now do we want to win the league or not?”
The answer to that Roy Race-ishly phrased question was an emphatic yes. As an exhausted Leeds prayed for Everton to slip up, all of the next eight league games were won, including victories over Tottenham (they played twice in four days, see what I mean about the scheduling?), Chelsea and, best of all, Liverpool, which rather made up for Sandy Brown’s stunning own goal in their 0-3 defeat earlier that season. The title was wrapped up on April 1, the same day that Leeds were beaten by Celtic for the first time, in front of over 58,000 people at home to West Bromwich Albion. But that was the high water mark for this Everton side. With the exception of the following season’s Charity Shield, they wouldn’t win another trophy until 1984.
Trophies certainly weren’t a problem for Manchester City. As the 60s turned to the 70s, they couldn’t stop lifting them. They were Division Two champions in 1966, Division One champions in 1968 (that sort of thing was possible in the old days), FA Cup winners in 1969 and followed it all up with a European and domestic cup double in 1970.
The mood was very different at Old Trafford where Manchester United were managed by Wilf McGuinness, erstwhile reserve team boss, after the ‘retirement’ of Matt Busby in the summer. McGuinness opened his tenure with a 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace and then lost the next three games. He eventually stabilised the team and finished eighth, with runs to the semi-finals of the FA and League Cup, but something was clearly amiss. More on that next week. Let’s get back to City.
The League Cup came first, played out in front of nearly 100,000 people on a Wembley pitch so dreadful that if you drove a tractor over it, you might actually improve the playing surface. Joe Mercer’s side had been in sunny Portugal three days earlier for a European Cup Winners’ Cup tie. Now they were playing on a half-frozen bog with snow piled up behind the goals. Concerned by the threat of West Bromwich Albion’s Jeff Astle, Mercer deployed his men with caution, drawing the ire of the man from The Times. “It all seemed dangerously out of character of the men who had once threatened to frighten the defensive cowards of Europe,” wrote Geoffrey Green. But it didn’t stop Astle opening the scoring inside five minutes. City looked shaken, but Francis Lee’s, “bubbling, aggressive spirit,” proved inspirational. Mike Doyle equalised and Glyn Pardoe scored the winner in extra-time.
Victory in Europe came more comfortably, a 2-1 victory against Górnick Zabrze, the scoreline of which apparently flattered the Polish side. Neil Young (not that one) opened the scoring after 12 minutes and Lee added a penalty before half-time in teeming rain that drenched the supporters. “I dreaded to think of the various hairstyles of the players’ wives who had made the trip to see their men succeed,” wrote Barry Davies thoughtfully in The Times.
There was triumph too for Arsenal in the now defunct Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a curious predecessor of the Europa League. Arsenal had lost the first leg of the final 1-3 to Anderlecht, but knew that Ray Kennedy’s late away goal would serve them well at Highbury. Over 51,000 packed themselves into the stadium to watch an extraordinary fightback. Goals from teenager Eddie Kelly, John Radford and Jon Sammels secured the Gunners their first trophy since 1953. Was manager Bertie Mee on the verge of something special? Surely not. Arsenal had only finished 12th in the league and hadn’t finished in the top three since 1959. But then again, things could change very quickly in this era…
1, Everton – 66 pts
2, Leeds United – 57 pts
3, Chelsea – 55 pts
4, Derby County – 53pts
5, Liverpool – 51 pts
Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday
Runners-up: Leeds United
Winners: Manchester City
Runners-up: West Bromwich Albion
EUROPEAN CUP WINNERS’ CUP
Winners: Manchester City
Runners-up: Górnick Zabrze
INTER-CITIES FAIRS CUP
FWA FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR
Billy Bremner (Leeds United)
ROTHMANS GOLDEN BOOTS AWARD (GB TEAM OF THE YEAR)
GK: Gordon Banks (Stoke City)
RB: David Hay (Celtic)
LB: Terry Cooper (Leeds United)
CB: Mike England (Tottenham Hotspur)
CB: Bobby Moore (West Ham United)
MC: Billy Bremner (Leeds United)
MC: Alan Ball (Everton)
WG: George Best (Manchester United)
WG: Jimmy Johnstone (Celtic)
CF: Geoff Hurst (West Ham United)
CF: Ron Davies (Southampton)
Will Leeds United recover from this heartbreak? Can Chelsea build on their cup success? And where on earth are Liverpool and Manchester United? Join us next week for the 1970/71 season.