Saturday, July 10, 2010

England, shocked, but still preferring to dismiss humiliation as something momentary and not at all deeply troubling. Continentals were clowns even when beating England. No matter, England is the best. Who had the most entertaining and competitive League, after all? Leeds United won the championship 5 points clear from Liverpool and massive 14 points ahead of the third placed Derby County.
What a squad! Don Revie’s masterpiece, featuring 16 national players, few of them soon to delight the world playing for Scotland at the World Cup. This squad had the making of a superteam, ready to concur the world and to remain on top. Alas, no… Leeds United may be the biggest underachiever of all time. All that talent and meager results – it was only 2 English titles and nothing higher than Fairs Cup internationally. Sure, they did not deserve to lose neither the Cups Winners Cup final, nor the Champions Cup final, but lost both nevertheless. I loved Leeds United of that vintage, but sympathy (an unusual too for a Manchester United fan) aside – Leeds is really enormous failure and may be a key for understanding the continuous shortcomings of England’s national team.
Everything started in 1961, when Don Revie arrived at Leeds as a player-manager. He was more than ambitious – he started a revolution. First he changed the kit of the traditionally mediocre club: the yellow-blue shirts were replaced by crisp all white kit after Real Madrid. It was more than a hint – Revie wanted to make Leeds as mighty as Real. He was also innovative, trying to copy great Hungary of the 1950s – particularly Nandor Hidegkuty, who played a playmaker of the kind favoured during total football playing 1970s. Thus, Revie was a rare bird in British football – taking account of European football, instead of continuing the traditional English schemes. But this was in 1961, when the Hungarians were still marvelous news, although declining by 1961. Revie started carefully building his great team by introducing young players, most of whom stayed in Leeds to the end of their careers. More or less, the core of the squad was shaped by the mid-60s and from then on it was steady refining, but nothing dramatic. The elegance of the old Hungarians were never achieved by Leeds, but the tough football of Real Madrid was – Leeds established mean reputation. They were known – and hated – for verbal abuse, rough play, and readiness to start a fight. Billy Bremner, the captain, was the chief offender, but he was not alone – Norman Hunter and Alan Clarke, and most of the rest, were always ready to exchange a punch or two, and to gang on opposite players. However, this reputation existed only in England – as mean as they may had been, Leeds appeared polite gentlemen in Europe, where real meanness dwelled: Leeds were tough, yet, when compared to other European clubs, they played by the rules. They did not argue much, did not simulate, did not spit and pinch, and their tackles aimed at the ball, not at the shins, did not waste time. Leeds played open, attacking football and by the early 1970s it had the perfect squad – more than 11 players of high abilities, very well attuned to each other. Having 16 national players was more than a luxury at the time – not a single European club had that. The squad amply provided for variety without risking quality – injuries were not scary on one hand. On the other – internal competition helped all players to be on constant alert and never to slack. Changes went smoothly too – Jacky Charlton retired, but Steve McQueen took his place. Johnny Giles, getting old, was sold – Terry Yorath already was getting famous. Mick Jones elevated himself to the national team of England, but already better centre-forward was pushing – Joe Jordan. Leeds did not have a single weak post… and with all this talent: only two titles!
Talent, but not exactly English talent – both goalkeepers were not English. The other key positions were predominantly Scottish – McQueen in the centre of defense; Billy Bremner in midfield; Lorimer and Jordan in the attack. As good as the English players were, they had secondary, supplementary roles. They did not conduct the team’s play. And that was the trouble with English football – the key players were not English not only in Leeds United. The new total football emphasized positions traditionally unimportant in England – the libero practically did not exist, for English teams practiced a line in defense. The playmaker was also practically absent – English football used long passes, normally coming from the sides, not the centre of the field. False wingers, the English innovation from 1966 was no longer valid either – total football wanted more real wingers and very mobile, not static, centre forward. Leeds did not have such players, nor English football in general. Managers stubbornly continued traditional football – and by the 70s Don Revie was among the main offenders: long gone were his revolutionary ways. Which is understandable – the man helmed Leeds United from 1961 to 1974. Getting older, he became conservative. And Leeds United, never fulfilling its promise, won a second title, but it was not to be a new are… turned out to be the swan song of the potentially greatest team never achieving greatness.
Don Revie was to step down, reason says… and he did, somewhat surprisingly, in the summer of 1974. He accepted to coach England – as if to ensure that England will sink deeper. Revie, behind his prime, was not a good choice – but yet another example of the entrenched conservatism in English football. Leeds United won little under Revie and England – nothing! However, in 1974 Leeds United were mighty and still destined for greatness. Or so was thought at the time.