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April 1969 … Don Revie had
spent eight eventful years building Leeds United into a team that
could challenge for the game's highest honours … now the moment
of truth was upon them as they faced Liverpool in a League championship
showdown which would decide the destination of the trophy.
The match had originally been scheduled for 22 March, but a twist
of fate saw to it that the top two sides would face each other
at Anfield as the season reached its final knockings. The original
fixture was postponed because of a flu epidemic at Elland Road.
Eight first team players were laid low, while two others were
out injured. The Football League agreed to a request made by United
assistant manager Maurice Lindley as Leeds flew home after losing
to Ujpest Dozsa in the Fairs Cup.
The decision was a controversial one; particularly as United
had also previously been given leave to bring forward some of
their Easter fixtures. Liverpool were furious at the decision,
with hinted accusations of conspiracy, though in public Reds manager
Bill Shankly would only mutter tersely, "This is terrible … a
At the original time of the fixture, Liverpool lagged six points
behind United with a game in hand, and their title challenge was
being frustrated by the weather. They had played just once since
22 February, winning 2-0 at Sunderland. Being forced to kick their
heels for the best part of a month while Leeds were winning three
straight games, against Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Stoke
City, handed the momentum to the Whites.
By the time the rearranged fixture came around, Leeds' lead was
five points. United had only Liverpool and Nottingham Forest to
face, while the Reds had three games left.
The title rivals each played out goalless draws away from home
on 22 April, United defying third-placed Everton at Goodison while
Liverpool surprisingly dropped a point at relegation-threatened
Coventry. Those results left the advantage with Leeds.
Both teams sat out the following Saturday, FA Cup final day;
the waiting was easier for United than it was for Liverpool. The
equation was simple: if Leeds drew or won at Anfield, the League
championship was theirs; if Liverpool were victorious, then United
could still secure the title by beating Forest at home two days
However, manager Don Revie had suffered too many disappointments
in previous seasons to take anything for granted. He refused to
count any chickens until the necessary points were in the bag.
Phil Brown wrote in the Yorkshire Evening Post on the day of
the game: "The side is buoyant with hope and the right sort of
confidence as it rests this afternoon in its Liverpool hotel,
and the manager is of the same mood too, I fancy, although all
Don Revie will say in the last words style is, 'We have a chance,
and I hope we can take it.'
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"But United are never more determined than when facing odds -
the side's tenacity
of purpose is unbreakable, which is just as well. Liverpool at
Anfield are hardly the side you would choose to have to play for
all the League title means. The Anfield Kop is nearly worth a
home goal to start with."
Leeds went into the game in marginally the better form - they
were undefeated in the League since losing
5-1 at Burnley in October, and had conceded just 2 goals in
the previous 7 games. Liverpool themselves had not lost since
15 February, when struggling Nottingham Forest had surprisingly
won 2-0 at Anfield, but they had drawn too many games. The points
difference between the two had remained stubbornly at four or
more for eight weeks.
Don Revie was able to select from strength; his only change from
the draw at Everton was to recall the fit again Mick Jones at
centre-forward, with Peter Lorimer dropping to the bench.
Liverpool were unchanged, though this meant they would continue
without World Cup winner Roger Hunt, who had not played since
dislocating a collar bone at Stoke on Easter Monday. This was
two days after he scored his three hundredth goal for the Reds.
Alun Evans, who became Britain's first £100,000 teenager when
he arrived from Wolves earlier in the season, would continue to
lead the attack. This was despite his dismissal the week before
along with Coventry centre-half Maurice Setters for fighting.
Don Revie hinted before the game that United would attack whenever
they had the chance. Few who had seen them play over the previous
five years gave much credence to those claims and it was clear
from the off that Leeds would be content with a clean sheet.
There were 53,750 passionate football followers in the stadium,
but hundreds more were locked outside when the gates were closed
five minutes before the off.
Billy Bremner won the toss and chose to make Liverpool play towards
the Kop in the first half. It was a calculated risk, leaving Leeds
to weather a fearsome opening burst. As Bremner later told Phil
Brown of the Yorkshire Evening Post, "The team was unusually nervous
when it went out. I have never known them like they were tonight.
It was worse than our FA Cup final. I was nervous. I couldn't
sleep the night before, and that isn't me. I even got up out of
bed at four o'clock in the morning and smoked a cigarette to try
stop thinking about the game. There was such a lot at stake, of
course, and it nearly beat us."
Sure enough, the opening was frenetic, described as "Liverpool's
nearly wolf like first 15 minutes" by Phil Brown. At first, United
could not hide their anxiety, rushing everything they did and
making some rash challenges. Liverpool were just as wound up by
the occasion, and there were some fierce opening exchanges. United
committed two fouls in five minutes and Liverpool retorted with
four in five, all six driven by nerves. In that period Tommy Smith,
Tommy Lawrence, Terry Cooper, Gary Sprake and Mick Jones all required
treatment after ferocious clashes, provoking even fiercer reactions
from a passionate crowd.
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But after the initial storm started to subside a little, Leeds
established a calm rhythm and shape that Liverpool found difficult
to fathom, let alone pierce. The Reds were too keyed up to take
a considered approach and continually tried to force the pace.
Cooler heads might have made them more effective, but they were
all set on overpowering the champions elect. United, in contrast,
kept their cool and stuck rigidly to Don Revie's blueprint for
Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson in The Unforgiven: "Madeley dropped
deep to help out his beleaguered colleagues at every opportunity,
frustrating Liverpool's forwards with a grim display of organised
obduracy. Reaney and Cooper had been detailed to sit tight on
Callaghan and Thompson, Liverpool's two wingers, forcing the main
thrusts to go through the middle where there were massed ranks
of white shirts." Jack Charlton's
aerial dominance, the assured tackling and covering of Norman
Hunter and a faultless performance by Gary Sprake made the United
spine a particularly tough one to best.
In front of the rearguard, United had O'Grady,
Bremner, Giles and Gray splayed across midfield to deny the Reds
space, with Mick Jones defending from the front.
It was an approach that had worked for Leeds hundreds of times
before - they were past masters at the art of smothering, blanket
defence, having perfected the game during their regular European
Despite sustained Liverpool pressure, there were few early moments
of real anxiety apart from once when Madeley had to hurriedly
head away with goalkeeper Sprake caught out of position. United
responded with a deflected shot from Bremner which almost beat
the scrambling Lawrence.
It was 26 minutes before an attempt at goal worthy of the name.
Callaghan fired wide with an ambitious 25-yard effort, but the
chance marked the start of a second wind for Liverpool. They pressed
hard and came close to breaking the deadlock in the 35th minute.
Bobby Graham for once evaded United's all consuming defensive
net to get in a cross
for Alun Evans, 14 yards out. In his eagerness the young striker
snatched at the chance and fired it high and wide.
Derek Wallis in the Mirror: "Liverpool needed that goal, because
the pattern of the first half indicated they might not get many
more chances. There was little sign of the attacking play that
Leeds manager Don Revie had promised, but neither was there much
hint that Liverpool might improve on first half methods that carried
more power than imagination."
There were few other chances in the first half and when the break
came the job was half done. United had weathered the initial storm
and done so with some assurance, despite all the pressure.
Leeds' confidence was boosted by achieving their first milestone,
but Bill Shankly had got into his men's ribs during the break
and urged them to raise themselves for one final 45 minutes of
all out assault. The Reds had struggled to make clear opportunities
in the first half, but now they managed to find some chinks in
the iron curtain that faced them.
After sixty-one minutes, Sprake had to pull out all the stops
to deny Callaghan. The Liverpool wing man hammered the ball goalwards
only for the keeper to fling himself into a deft save to his right.
Liverpool came close to a breakthrough in the 72nd minute. The
canny Ian St John manufactured an opening with a clever lob into
the penalty area that found Evans unmarked. Again, the teenager
failed to provide the finish, shooting wide with the goal at his
That was as close as the Reds came and United were able to fashion
some chances of their own over the last fifteen minutes, even
for a few fleeting moments looking the better side. For most of
the game they had left Jones an isolated figure up front, but
towards the end they managed to get some reinforcements forward.
On one occasion Giles nearly sent O'Grady clear, though the chance
came to nothing.
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There was the inevitable pounding all round the United area over
the frantic final minutes, but Liverpool simply did not have the
inspiration to unlock the tightest of rearguards - the game was
up and United had survived in magnificent fashion.
Geoffrey Green commented in the Times: "Once Callaghan drew Sprake
full length, like a piece of elastic, to turn away a rising shot.
But that is the Leeds way. That is how they survive. They are
used to following in the line of sternest resistance. For most
of the night Liverpool had a thumbscrew on them as Hughes, St
John, Thompson, Callaghan, Graham and the rest built up their
"Also ready to come through powerfully was Smith, breaking from
the rear. But such was the magnificent covering of this Leeds
defence, marshalled by Charlton, Bremner, Hunter and Madeley in
midfield, that Liverpool were forced more and more to make their
moves crossfield, and even backwards, as they searched for the
lines of approach through and behind them. It was a night when
the red waves of the Liverpool attack crashed in vain against
the tall, white cliff of this defence. Here were two sides, hard
as a diamond, but without the brilliant flame of that stone. No
one would expect the refinements in such a battle.
"Instead, we saw modern techniques in opposition, with Leeds
applying the straitjacket on their opponents inside the penalty
area. Some may say all this was alienated from the frills of football.
It was. It was an occasion for men, not boys."
Eric Todd in the Guardian: "As one who has
followed Leeds - worshipped as a schoolboy - for many years since
the days of Edwards, Hart
and Copping, I naturally
was highly gratified by the evening's performance, but never in
all the intervening years have I seen any side subjected to such
remorseless, pitiless pressure as were Leeds this night. Time
after time it seemed that Leeds must crack. And time after time
Liverpool were driven back by a defence which has been the despair
of so many teams in this country. Bremner, as usual, played a
captain's part and he was encompassed on every side by strong
and versatile colleagues. The Leeds forwards naturally had few
chances, but they made several good looking attacks as if to convince
Liverpool and themselves that they had not come either just for
the ride or just for a point.
"Liverpool had every reason to be frustrated and nobody more
so than Smith, who in attack and defence was nothing short of
great. St John, too, was a tremendous worker in midfield and he,
in his turn, had reason to feel aggrieved when his passes were
put to poor use. Against an ordinary side Liverpool probably would
have won. But then Leeds are not an ordinary side!"
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Phil Brown: "The Kop had not seen any sort of a five star game.
The defences were right on top after half an hour or so, while
the sides were sounding each other out, and combined football
and individual effort crashed in vain on the rocks of two superb
modern defensive systems studded with internationals.
"Sprake and his Scottish international opposite, Lawrence, were
really bothered only at corners, and both were brilliant with
the flag kicks, even with two towering and dominant centre-halves,
Charlton and Yeats, coming up for them.
"Such was the mutual zest and speed of the marking, chasing and
challenging that even if two good passes were made, the third
was wrecked, and the quality of the football was not improved
when both teams resorted to long but none too accurate high balls.
These only showed the splendid heading skills in both defences,
but it was exciting enough with every forward of the 10 chasing."
Billy Bremner: "The match was a bit of a let-down. I couldn't
see Leeds scoring, but didn't think Liverpool would do so either
… generally it was one of those frustrating games where the ball
keeps running out of play every minute. After failing to get an
early goal, Liverpool became over-anxious and made the mistake
of hitting too many high crosses into our goal-mouth . . . Gary
and Big Jack had no trouble gobbling these up.
"Liverpool's midfield players couldn't build up anything as the
ball was being repeatedly hit backwards and forwards over their
heads. The more the game went on, the more I was convinced Leeds
Bagchi and Rogerson: "What happened next has become part of Leeds
United folklore. Beforehand, Revie had instructed Bremner, if
they should get that decisive point, to lead the players after
the game towards the Kop. Bremner took some persuading, but after
they had celebrated before their own travelling support, Bremner
duly marched his men forward. The ground fell silent, but instead
of being lynched, the Leeds team were surprised to find themselves
being loudly hailed as 'champions' by the 27,000 Koppites massed
in front of them. The players stayed put for 20 minutes, soaking
it all in, larking around, jumping on one another and paying their
tributes to both sets of fans. They had been derided and despised
for such a long time that one could not blame them for basking
in the adulation. 'Being cheered by a rival crowd - any rival
crowd - was a new experience for us,' Eddie Gray recalls. 'This
in itself was
as much of a turning point for Leeds as the championship achievement.'
"Back in the dressing-room, where Shankly had provided a crate
of champagne, Revie clearly felt flattered by the two extraordinary
events of the evening: 'The reception given us by the sporting
Liverpool crowd was truly magnificent,' he said, 'and so, for
that matter, was our defence tonight. It was superb in everything.'
"Shankly, an incurable romantic where football was concerned
and not one to bandy around accolades where they were not deserved,
gave Leeds his stamp of approval. 'Leeds United are worthy champions,'
he proclaimed. 'They are a great side.' That was good enough for
Revie and his team. The respect of their fellow professionals
was all they craved and now they revelled in the novel experience
of popularity. They were underdogs no more. A psychological weight
had been lifted. 'That wonderful night at Anfield saw our burning
faith in ourselves justified,' Billy Bremner reflected. 'At last
we were well and truly vindicated.' The irksome oiks, Revie's
'Little West Riding Hoods', had joined football's aristocracy."
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