Jimmy Armfield took over an ailing Leeds side in 1974, only one
thing could get them back on track: a pantomime
Four Four Two feature from January 2009 - Steve
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The disciplinary panel didn't see the first punch. Neither did
Francis Lee. A thudding right hook delivered by Leeds United's
Norman Hunter, it knocked the Derby County forward to his knees,
splitting his lip so badly that he could poke his tongue through
Lee, who had enraged the opposition by tumbling over a barely
outstretched leg to win a penalty and make it 2-1 in this fierce
First Division battle a few days before Bonfire Night in 1975,
clambered to his feet, ready to fight back. Team mate Charlie
George, together with David Harvey and Trevor Cherry got in his
way as Billy Bremner tried to stop Derby's Kevin Hector's unwise
lunge towards Hunter.
Referee Derek Nippard stepped in and sent the combatants off.
Which meant that, when they met at Lancaster Gate three weeks
later, stitches out and bruises healed, the FA could only deal
with what happened next.
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Since the film the panel watched was silent, they missed out
on the increasingly frenetic Match Of The Day commentary, too.
"A fight's going on off the ball between Hunter and Lee," began
John Motson. "Fists were flying and that's been brewing for some
time ... I'm wondering if he's sent them off, because they're
wandering away to the far side. And it looks to me as if it's
broken out again! It's broken out again, and this time, a complete
free-for-all. And I'm sure they must have been sent off this time.
And the referee's trying to sort it all out. If they weren't sent
off the first time, they certainly were the second."
The panel only saw the 'afters': Lee swinging wildly, knocking
Hunter to the ground with the last of four blows before team mates,
coaches and managers jump in - in a couple of cases, literally
- to restore order. So while Lee received a four-match ban and
a £250 fine for disrepute ("It's the worst thing that's happened
to me in 10 years of League football," he said), Hunter came away
smiling. Dressed in suit and tie, he climbed into a car with manager
Jimmy Armfield and headed back to Leeds to take part in that night's
A few hours later, the archetypal hard man emerged from the dressing
room to a familiar roar and gazed out at his public. Not tonight,
though, the faithful of the Lowfields and the Scratching Shed
at Elland Road. Instead, Hunter looked out on an audience of mums
and dads and lads and lasses at the City Varieties Music Hall,
all gathered to watch Leeds United - that wonderful,
cynical, glamorous, brutal, thrilling 1970s force - stage a pantomime.
"Here's Baron Diver, back from London," declared Armfield, clad
in velvet, as Hunter walked towards the front of the stage and
delivered a passable version of the nation's current favourite
catchphrase. In a northern approximation of Bruce Forsyth's voice,
and with a wink, he asked the audience: "Didn't we do well?"
If any team of the time were going to savour the smell of the
greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, it had to be Leeds United.
With The Beatles having split, the England team in disgrace and
Manchester United recently exiled to the Second Division, this
was arguably the most famous collective of individuals in Britain.
They had international stars like Billy Bremner, Terry Yorath,
Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray. They had players with nicknames-
'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter, 'Sniffer' Clarke, 'Hot Shot' Lorimer.
They wore numbered sock tags and had recently replaced their staid
peacock motif with the famous 'smiley badge'. They had even recorded
a top 10 single, Glory Glory Leeds United, featuring the memorable
"Little Billy Bremner is the captain of the crew/For the sake
of Leeds United he would tear himself in two/His hair is red and
fuzzy but his body's black and blue."
all looked at me," recalls Armfield, "like I'd
gone stark raving mad"
Says journalist John Wray, then covering the club for the Bradford
Telegraph & Argus: "They were the best team in the country, they
were the most talked about team in the country and they were the
most fashionable team in the country.
When you covered them, you felt like the whole world was looking
in. It felt like you were at the centre of something exceptional."
Yet by October 1974 the only thing exceptional about Leeds United
was the speed with which they had lately fallen from grace. With
Revie gone to replace Sir Alf Ramsey as England manager following
Hunter's disastrous gaffe against Poland in the final World Cup
qualifier, Leeds had recruited Brighton's Brian Clough as The
Don's replacement, against his wishes.
The next 44 days, which were memorably re-imagined by writer
David Peace in his remarkable novel The Damned United, were stranger
than fiction. Players were told to hand in the medals accumulated
under Revie as they'd been won by cheating. New signings John
McGovern and John O'Hare were shunned because Clough had managed
them at Derby. Another new capture, Nottingham
Forest's Duncan McKenzie, was derided as surplus to requirements
in a team bursting with attacking threat.
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When Bremner and Kevin Keegan were dismissed for swapping punches
in the Charity Shield, United fell into national disgrace. After
the season began, the league champions slumped into the drop zone
and stayed there until a players' deputation to the boardroom
forced the interloper out.
Into this poisonous atmosphere arrived Jimmy Armfield. Once captain
of Blackpool and England, he had prepared for a second career
in journalism before surprisingly talking up an offer to manage
Bolton, where he met with modest success. Then again, much about
the avuncular Armfield was modest. "He was almost too nice to
be a football manager," says McKenzie. "Jimmy was like the nice
neighbour that everyone wants next door."
Yet this neighbour had 61 England caps' worth of cunning. "I
needed to get rid of the sour feeling, the sour taste," Armfield
says. "I wanted to get the team back on its feet and I thought
we needed a bonding exercise. So I phoned Barney Colehan and said,
'I've got this idea ...'."
A theatre, radio and TV impresario from the Leeds suburb of Calverley,
Colehan took charge of two long-running shows on the small screen.
The first was It's A Knockout, and he had produced a special 1972
Cup Final version featuring Bremner and Giles before Leeds' Wembley
victory against Arsenal. The second was The Good Old Days, Victorian-era
entertainment for a costumed crowd under the alliterative chairmanship
of Leonard Sachs.
"I told Barney about this thought I'd had about the players doing
a pantomime," says Armfield. "I thought we could put it on at
Elland Road on a lunch time. He said: 'Great, we'll do it at the
City Varieties, like The Good Old Days. I'll go off and organise
the costumes, let's put it on for a week'. I thought, 'Flippin'
Now all that was left was to inform the players who had recently
turned on Clough that they would have to spend more time in training.
Not to work on set-pieces, but to rehearse for a theatrical production,
in which many of them would appear in drag. "They all looked at
me," recalls Armfield, "like I had gone stark, raving mad."
All except one. "When he told us about the panto for the first
time I thought 'that's quite clever'," says Duncan McKenzie. "I
could understand what he was trying to achieve.
"Jimmy was wily. I remember Norman Hunter coming in once after
finding out he'd been dropped and he was absolutely fuming. He
stormed right into Jimmy's office and Jimmy was sitting there
with a cup of tea. He
said 'Good morning, Norman, how's the wife and kids?' They had
a chat about all of that and after 10 minutes I'm not sure Norman
could remember why he'd gone in there in the first place."
On this occasion, though, Hunter offered stiffer resistance.
"I thought it was stupid," he says. "I was probably the most reluctant
to start with. I thought 'who's going to come to watch that?'."
But Armfield had an ace up his sleeve. "I told them that half
the proceeds would go to charity and half to a testimonial fund,"
he explains. "That first year, it was Norman's testimonial. They
could hardly say no after that."
With results improving on the pitch, Armfield's wary players
began to settle into the idea. "There were a few jokes about a
pantomime off the pitch and a pantomime on it, but they really
got down to it," says the manager.
"We just chucked ourselves into it," says Hunter. "We might have
needed to bond with Jimmy, but we didn't need to bond as a team.
It did bring us closer together with Duncan, but you couldn't
help that anyway. The fella's infectious. Duncan could never be
an outsider anywhere."
Explains John Wray: "It definitely helped team spirit. Duncan
was on a hiding to nothing because Cloughie had brought him in
and the players had already not taken to McGovern and O'Hare -
according to those lads, the old guard wouldn't even pass to them.
Duncan's personality could win over anyone and the panto helped
him do it."
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Any remaining doubts were settled by the arrival of Armfield's
script, titled Cinderella. "There was a lot of laughter at the
first rehearsal," he recalls. "I'd written a lot of corny jokes,
but they were jokes that related to the players. They loved it.
We had a read through, I gave them each a copy of the script and
they got on with it."
Says McKenzie: "When we got the script we were relieved because
you could see it would work. Jimmy knew you couldn't give footballers
lines of dialogue to say to each other. So he was going to play
the narrator, and he stood behind a lectern at the side of the
stage. I played the title role and at the start, I was supposed
to walk out in my Cinderella gear and Jimmy would say, 'Here comes
Cinders, straight from the Forest'. It wouldn't win you any awards,
but it ended up getting a big laugh."
Bremner came skipping down the aisle throwing sweets to
"Probably the funniest bit," says Armfield, "was Terry Yorath's
singing. He had to sing 'Climb up on my knee, sonny boy' to Billy.
We quickly realised we'd found the only Welshman who couldn't
carry a tune in a bucket."
Hunter had wondered whether anyone would want to turn up to see
their efforts. As tickets went on sale, he had his answer. "Because
of the fixtures, we could only do two days," says Armfield. "We
sold out in the space of an hour. Barney reckoned we could have
played to a full house every night for a month."
Come December 1974's opening night, the City Varieties - where
Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and music hall queen Marie Lloyd
had all drawn full houses - was packed to the rafters. "They were
sitting in the side aisles, standing up at the back," recalls
McKenzie. "You couldn't do it now, with health and safety."
Behind the curtain, says Hunter, "there was a lot of trepidation.
Jimmy lined us up for a team talk." The players got the benefit
of their manager's wisdom, and a little extra. "Billy was there
in his little cap and tails, the Good Fairy McQueen was
there in her tutu," says Armfield. "I told them that the greatest
managers in the world had never given a talk like this to players
who looked like they did. Then I said: 'Does anyone need a drink?'
Because I'd read that some theatre people needed a drink to go
on. It was brandy, I think, and a few of them had a nip for nerves.
I was one of the few who had a nip."
Then the curtains opened and, to a roar, out came McKenzie. "Duncan
was known for two party tricks in those days," says John Wray.
"He could throw a golf ball the full length of a football pitch
and if he had a run up he could jump over a Mini. On the first
night, he came on with a fag held between his nose and his top
lip. He was able to do the spectacular with ordinary things and
the kids lapped it up."
Adds Armfield: "Later on Duncan pulled up his dress. He had stockings
on and he had some fags stuck in his stocking tops. He took one
out and lit up. The crowd loved that."
The players' worries were quickly assuaged. "I had to say 'whoever's
foot this slipper fits will be my Queen'," remembers Hunter. "It's
a difficult line. I might have got it wrong a few times in rehearsal.
But on the night your professionalism came out. Nobody wanted
to make the first mistake. We were word perfect, almost. It was
the excitement, probably. And I'm not like that meself, but I
got the feeling that some of the lads quite enjoyed the dressing
Says John Wray: "I'd gone with a sinking feeling, but the first
thing you thought was 'this isn't completely amateurish'. The
second was 'this is actually pretty slick'. It was extremely well
done and obviously the players were thoroughly enjoying it."
The night was already a hit when the club captain made one of
his famous solo forays into uncharted territory. "Cinders asked
'Where's Buttons?'," said Armfield.
"And Billy came skipping down the centre aisle, with his brass
buttons and his pill box hat, throwing out sweets to the kids.
He was a natural, Billy. He should have been on the stage."
Wray says: "Billy was a terrific guy and he was a man of the
people. He'd come from a very poor family in Scotland, desperately
poor. He actually had a very unpretentious house in Temple Newsham;
you wouldn't believe that the captain of Leeds United and Scotland,
the David Beckham of his day, lived there. He got on famously
with all his neighbours. Later on he moved to Doncaster and he'd
go out drinking with the mining community. So to the people who
knew what he was really like, it wasn't a surprise to see him
"He smoked like a mill chimney, though. If you sat next to him
on the team coach, you'd end up reeking of smoke, and he had these
yellow fingers from the fags. So it was quite a sight that night
- the costume, the red hair, the chalky white skin, the yellow
fingers, handing out the sweets."
Adds Hunter: "I was looking in the attic the other day and I
found one of the pictures of little Billy. You couldn't have had
a better Buttons than him. He loved kids and he loved the people."
The people, in turn, loved the panto. "The script ran for about
an hour," says Armfield. "But with all the cheers and the clapping,
it went on for 90 minutes, like a match. It took a long time to
calm it all down. The curtain calls seemed
to go on forever."
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Some in the press had worried that the panto would be an unwelcome
distraction. "But we didn't do too bad, did we?" asks Armfield.
Leeds finished the season just eight points behind champions Derby,
and beat Barcelona to reach the European Cup final against Bayern
But there were to be no standing ovations, no glorious curtain
calls, at the Parc des Princes. United dominated the match, had
a Lorimer goal disallowed after Bremner had strayed offside, then
were hit by two sucker punches. Fans ripped their seats out and
hurled them onto the pitch, resulting in a two-year UEFA ban for
the team. Most of United's great veterans would never play in
Six months after that dreadful May night, Armfield staged the
panto again. "I would have loved to have kept on doing them every
year, but I had to start breaking up the team and it would have
got a bit difficult." So future Armfield signings like Tony Currie
and Brian Flynn were denied their right to tread the boards.
Says Hunter: "The old guard started to disappear. I went to Bristol
City, Billy went to Hull, Gilesy went to West Brom. It was the
end of an era and we didn't feel bitter towards Jimmy for that,
even though I think a few of us could have carried on a bit longer."
McKenzie went too, to Anderlecht, leaving Elland Road with a
profound sense of what one man and a few nights in December had
done for club. "I think Jimmy knew from the start that one of
his jobs was to continue the job that Cloughie had started and
to break up that great team," he said. "But with things like the
panto, he was able to do it in a nice way, a gentlemanly way.
Not shock tactics like Cloughie.
"Brian told them that they'd won their medals by cheating. But
Jimmy helped them realise that they had won some things not because
of Don Revie, but in spite
of Don Revie. They'd never really been told to just go out and
play before. And I think that it gradually began to dawn that
they should and could have won far more than they did. We felt
very close together.
"You were a lot closer to the fans than players are today. You
earned a lot more than they did, but nothing like the money now.
Your ultimate ambition was to retire with a nice house and no
mortgage. You did your bit. You presented prizes at the school,
you had a drink in the local. So doing the panto almost felt natural.
"Now, when I do match day stuff, the away team arrive and they
put a shield in front of the bus. You can't get an autograph.
The kids can't even see the players.
"It is a different world that we've created, and I don't think
it's a better one."
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