On occasion a player's entire career is defined by a single incident
in a single match - in December 1967, that was certainly the case
for Leeds United keeper Gary Sprake when he paid a visit to Anfield,
home of mighty Liverpool.
At the time, the two teams were in hot pursuit of the League
championship in a four-way battle with the two Manchester clubs,
United and City. Three points separated the teams but it was Liverpool
(1 defeat in 8) and Leeds (9 points from the last 12) that were
the sides in form. With such a close race, the points at stake
were vital for both clubs.
Phil Brown in the Evening Post: "November turned up trumps for
Leeds United after all. In its 30 days they jacked themselves
up to fourth in the First Division, made themselves a place in
the quarter finals of the League Cup, and came back from Belgrade
leading 2-1 in the Fairs Cup after a performance just as sterling
as that they put up at Nottingham last week.
"They could really be in the groove again. Time will tell, but
personally and possibly cautiously I want to get the memory of
their injuries and their falterings against Coventry City and
Sheffield United just a little further away.
"Today's game against Stoke at Elland Road - I write before it
- next Wednesday's return Fairs Cup game with Partizan (a fine
hard side if their hearts were not broken on Wednesday, and it
didn't look like it), and the visit to Anfield (I almost wrote
the visit to the Kop) next Saturday should tell plenty.
"In the meantime, there was no mistaking the tremendous and sustained
upsurge of their form as a team against the Forest and against
Partizan. Those two wins were 90 minute wins with United looking
the winners before half time."
Leeds had Paul Madeley and Rod
Belfitt replacing the injured Johnny Giles and £100,000 centre-forward
Mick Jones, but were otherwise at full strength, while Liverpool
were forced into only their third change of the season, with Geoff
Strong deputising for the injured Ron Yeats and World Cup winner
Roger Hunt standing in as skipper.
As the game kicked off, there was an inch of snow on the pitch,
but it was soft underneath and World Cup referee Jim Finney had
no hesitation in declaring the match on. Stuart Sprake and Tim
Johnson in Careless Hands: The Forgotten Truth Of Gary Sprake:
"What most people don't know or have
simply chosen to forget is just how atrocious conditions were
at Anfield. In the UK that weekend forty-seven counties were in
the grip of snow and ice and twenty-one other matches in the League
programme had already been postponed, falling victim to the terrible
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The United defence found it difficult early on to get to grips
with the slippery surface and struggled to keep their feet as
the Liverpool wingers, Ian Callaghan and Peter Thompson, penned
them back. Liverpool adapted the better to the conditions and
hit the ball forward quickly and directly whenever they had the
opportunity. United played a more cautious, circumspect game,
often making more passes than was advisable and seeing the ball
sticking on the pitch or skidding on past its intended target.
In the very first minute, Thompson rounded Paul Reaney and fired
in a decent cross, which Norman Hunter headed clear from Tony
Hateley. Thompson was straight back in the action, firing in a
shot that went so narrowly wide that Sprake was forced into a
covering dive. The keeper had to touch the ball over the bar when
Chris Lawler put in a header from a Callaghan corner.
United were just starting to make their mark on the game with
some smart breaks, when Liverpool took an 18th minute lead. Hateley
beat Jack Charlton to feed
Roger Hunt down the middle. Reaney and Hunter converged on the
England man, but both misjudged things, giving Hunt a second chance.
He made no mistake, swerving round them to slide the ball into
the net to Sprake's left.
Liverpool continued to have the better of the play with Callaghan
and Thompson giving Cooper and Reaney endless trouble with their
tricky wing play. Eric Stanger in the Yorkshire Post: "With Madeley
at No 9, performing a midfield role and doing it well enough to
be one of the best players on the field and Gray used as a link
forward, Greenhoff, Lorimer
and Belfitt were always struggling against Liverpool's red wall
in which Smith and Byrne were as solid as ever and Strong, deputising
for Yeats, an astonishingly good emergency centre-half."
Leeds were struggling manfully to stay in the contest as half
time approached, but Fate took a hand with two minutes to go.
A Liverpool attack was thwarted and Jack Charlton passed the
ball back to Sprake, on the edge of his goal area. The Reds forwards
trotted back to their marks as Sprake readied himself to throw
the ball out to left-back Terry Cooper, standing mid way between
penalty box and touchline. It was a move Sprake had instinctively
performed hundreds of times before in getting his side back onto
Out of the corner of his eye the Welshman caught sight of Ian
out towards Cooper and he thought better of the quick throw. Roger
Hunt was still close by, but represented little danger. Sprake
intended to clutch the ball to his chest and readjust his position
before clearing more safely. Stanger: "When he carried on with
his throw the ball, instead of leaving his gloved palm near the
top of the arc, stayed there for one split second and, on being
released, it sailed over his left shoulder into the net."
It is said, apocryphally, that referee Jim Finney, who had missed
the incident, asked Jack Charlton what had happened and what he
should do. According to Sprake and Johnson, "With typical dry
humour Jack replied, 'I think the silly so and so has thrown it
in his own net; you'll have to give a goal.'"
Sprake stood transfixed with despair for seemingly an eternity
as the enormity of what he had done settled upon him. It was a
spectacular own goal, one of the most memorable of all time, and
Sprake clearly wished that the Anfield turf would open up and
swallow him whole in his moment of misery.
Billy Bremner consoled his distraught keeper as the teams went
off at the interval, but Anfield was ready to turn the screw.
During the break, the home club's disc jockey waggishly featured
Des O'Connor's No 1 hit of the time, 'Careless Hands', and The
Scaffold's 'Thank U Very Much' in sarcastic tribute to the Welshman.
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Few teams fight back from a goal down at Anfield, let alone two,
and United simply did not have the firepower or momentum to get
back into the game after half time. Billy Bremner ("moving like
a ballet dancer on the difficult surface" - Stanger) did his best
to inspire his troops, covering every blade of grass on the pitch.
He operated exclusively as an auxiliary striker over the final
20 minutes ("where he usually kept three men occupied" according
to Brian Crowther in the Guardian), but he could not turn the
game single-handed. All United's attempts to get on the scoresheet
came to naught, as Crowther reported: "The more men Leeds brought
into attack the more disorderly they became."
Stanger was similarly unimpressed: "Apart from a couple of shots
by Lorimer, Leeds never looked like scoring and, though the patched
up attack can do well on occasion, it lacks the drive and experience
to master such defences as Liverpool's. Freak goal or not, Leeds
could have no complaints. Liverpool won well."
It was a grim day for Don Revie's men and the result brought
an unceremonious end to their good run, but the lasting memory
was the forlorn figure of Sprake, soundlessly asking himself "Why
History seldom deals in shades of grey and Sprake has been pilloried
for his habitual mistakes, but at the time he was accorded more
generous consideration. Stanger: "It was not a silly mistake but
a freakish happening caused by the slippery ball on the snowbound
pitch … I doubt if Sprake could repeat it if he tried. I did not
blame him for a moment, nor did his colleagues or manager,
Mr Don Revie … Sprake, to his credit, turned the ribald jeers
of the notorious Spion Kop to cheers by his second half display."
Terry Lofthouse in the Evening Post: "Although Gary Sprake gave
the most amazing goal seen on a soccer pitch in the defeat at
Anfield, nobody on United's staff could blame him or did. Up to
that point Sprake had made several good saves and in the second
half, to his great credit, he never allowed the incident to upset
him and his excellent effort brought admiration."
Tom German in the Times: "Carelessness or sheer misfortune, one
could only sympathise with Sprake, who later regained his undoubted
stature with some characteristic saves."
Sprake himself was remarkably philosophical about the incident,
saying later: "Obviously I wish I hadn't made any mistakes but
it is an inevitable part of being a goalkeeper. I have read lots
of comments that I was nervous and that I somehow lost my confidence
due to the mistakes but this was never the case. I openly admit
that before a game I would be terribly nervous and sometimes be
physically sick but I had been like that since the start of my
career. Once I started the game I would be fine and, although
I would be angry at myself and disappointed if I made an error,
I can honestly say it never affected my confidence. If I made
a mistake, I would put it behind me and get on with the game.
I think the games where I made mistakes prove that, such as at
Anfield. Even though I scored the own goal, during the second
half I played really well.
I let my heart
fall into careless hands
broke my heart in two
You held my dreams
like worthless grains of sand
don't care when dreams slip through
I brought you
And girl I loved
But all that sunshine
didn't make the roses grow
If you don't change
know the sorrow of careless hands
That can't hold
"That day at Liverpool I actually had a good game. At half-time
the lads told me, 'Come on, get yourself together. We can do better'.
We never criticised each other apart from me and Big Jack [Charlton],
and that was all forgotten afterwards. I never got much stick
off the supporters, then or now. It has mainly been the ex-players'
Down the years the criticism of Gary Sprake has probably been
overplayed, but that day at Anfield wouldn't be the last time
that the keeper made a high profile error on the big stage. It
is doubtful, though, that there was ever a more famous gaffe.
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