‘The Football League’s corrupt’: The self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘Dirty Leeds’
There’s a schizophrenia inherent in supporting Leeds United.
In one part of the mind lives the brashness and – dare I say it – arrogance of a club that has been home to the class of John Charles, the brains of Don Revie and the man-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude of David Batty. We all hate Leeds scum, and we like it that way.
But in the other part of the mind lurks a nagging paranoia and insecurity. Leeds United has gone hand in hand with chaos, calamity and downright bad luck throughout its entire existence. Can it really be a coincidence? What if everybody – fans, media, authorities – really do hate Leeds scum?
Attend a match at Elland Road in 2019-20 – the club’s centenary season – and on any given weekend you’re likely to hear a chorus of ‘we only get shit refs’, ‘the Football League’s corrupt’ and, of course, ‘we all hate Leeds scum’. At times they’re sung with more than a hint of self-aware irony. At others it’s more difficult to decipher exactly which of our personalities are singing them.
To mark the club’s centenary, author Daniel Chapman has written a book titled ‘100 Years of Leeds United‘, delving even further back than 1919 and into the origins of Leeds City towards the end of the 19th century. As a result of his extensive research, Chapman, who also co-edits the fanzine The Square Ball, has been able to trace how Leeds United became ‘Dirty Leeds’ – and this is where supporters’ paranoia becomes slightly justified.
“What’s interesting about ‘Dirty Leeds’ is that it was kind of started by the Football League,” he says. “They put the stamp of approval on it.
“Leeds had played these Italian teams through the John Charles transfers. When he came back to the club he told them all the stories about being kicked to pieces in Italy. I watched a full match of him playing for Juventus in the European Cup and some of the tackling is ridiculous.
“Leeds basically discovered there was a gap between what people were doing on English pitches and what referees would actually let you get away with, so they decided to exploit that gap.
“The ‘Dirty Leeds’ tag grew up in the newspapers over that promotion season in 1963-64. In the summer the Football League’s official journal featured an article on the rise of dirty tactics and cynical football. They published the disciplinary table from the previous season with Leeds United at the top and said, ‘This is the dirtiest team in the country.’
“Don Revie was furious because that was the table for all the teams that played for the club, so it included like the 12-year-old schoolboy teams, who it sounds like must have been pretty rough in the West Yorkshire leagues.
“The first team had had two players sent off in 44 years. They were one of the few teams in Division Two that season who hadn’t had a player sent off and only Billy Bremner had been suspended. The first team didn’t deserve the record they were being given by adding all the junior and schoolboy teams.
“Revie’s point was that Leeds were going into the First Division the next season, and he said it would have an effect on ‘the subconscious approach of the referee and linesmen to say nothing of the minds of spectators, and it could lead to some very unsavoury incidents.’
“That’s basically what happened. All these teams had read about Leeds being the dirtiest team in the country and were setting up ready to fight. Leeds were going out thinking, ‘Well we can play, but if it turns into a fight we’re going to make sure we win the fight.’
“It became a self-perpetuating thing. Norman Hunter, Jack Charlton, Bobby Collins and Billy Bremner were not going to back down. But a lot of the ‘Dirty Leeds’ tag was to do with the Football League, on the eve of our promotion, saying, ‘Look out, these guys are coming.’”
— MrPaulRobinson (@MrPaulRobinson) May 5, 2015
Revie never needed an excuse to believe there were outside influences working against his team. While he was a visionary manager in his attention to detail and famous dossiers on opposition players, he was also incredibly superstitious.
He always wore a ‘lucky’ mohair suit for games, even when the trousers became so threadbare his players were embarrassed to point out they could see his underwear. Before every home game he took the exact same route to the stadium, refusing to return home if he had forgotten anything. In 1971, he enlisted Gypsy Rose Lee to urinate by the four corner flags of Elland Road and rid the stadium of the curse placed upon the grounds on which it was built by travellers who were evicted from the site.
In some ways, his obsessions became somewhat counter-productive. Peter Lorimer, still Leeds’ record goalscorer to this day, writes in his autobiography: “By and large you wouldn’t be nervous when you sat down to listen to him, but by the time he’d finished you’d be on the verge of collapse with fear.
“He’d make the full-back marking me sound like the world’s best defender, but five minutes into the game you’d discover he was the tosser you always thought he was before Don planted his seeds of doubt.”
Revie eventually tried to shed the siege mentality he had instilled and rebrand Dirty Leeds to Super Leeds, embracing the brilliance of his own players rather than worrying so much about those in the opposition XI. A second league title was secured in 1973-74 as the Peacocks – well, by then they were known as the Whites as Revie believed images of birds brought bad luck – captured the imaginations of supporters up and down the country with thrilling football and the eye-catching ‘smiley’ badge.
But shortly before his death in 1989, Revie told his former midfield general Johnny Giles: “I know I should have let you lads off the leash years before I did.”
Chapman agrees that Leeds got too consumed by their self-imposed siege mentality: “We cared too much I think. Revie in particular was quite sensitive because it was a family, and he created this family atmosphere.
“As he said when we lost the European Cup final to Bayern Munich in 1975 when he was co-commentator, ‘I’ve had these players since they were all 15-year-old boys.’ So if you can imagine them being criticised, he took it very personally. I think it bothered them too much. I don’t know if you can account for what the actual effect of that is in the end.”
But Leeds United’s difficult relationship with the football authorities predates Revie. In fact, the birth – or rebirth – of the club itself was in many ways a form of flicking the Vs at those in power in London and Sheffield, where the FA’s headquarters were based.
In 1919, Leeds City, the original club to play out of Elland Road, were thrown out of the Football League and disbanded after being found guilty of making illegal payments to players during the First World War – despite it being an open secret that this was commonplace among the majority of clubs.
“Nobody expected them to close Leeds City down,” Chapman says. “All the documents they had showed payments to players from other clubs, who had basically done them favours.
“Everybody was lending each other players, and everybody was doing this. The thinking at Leeds City was, ‘If we don’t drop everybody in it, the directors might be fined or suspended but the club will be okay.’ Instead the club got closed down and they were all like, ‘What the fuck?’
“To say that Leeds, the city, was generally lackadaisical about having a football team, it was the auction at the Metropole hotel in the morning and then that night, straight after work, Salem Chapel, where a meeting took place to form Leeds United.
“I think it’s really interesting we were formed on the same day the Football League and Football Association came to the city and auctioned off the stock of Leeds City players – it was compared to a cattle auction.”
Chapman begins to read from his book: “That night ‘a thousand soccer enthusiasts with unwashed hands who’d obviously come straight from artisan work’, end quote, were just like, ‘Right, we’re going to start another club, and we’re not going to let London and Sheffield and the authorities keep us down.’”
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With the understanding that Leeds United was formed amid a contempt for the powers that be, it’s not exactly too difficult to see how such attitudes can crystallise as stories are passed from generation to generation.
When the Football League and press made public their disgust at Leeds United’s style of play under Revie, younger supporters at the time would have been told tales from older family members or friends about the injustice of Leeds City’s closure.
Fast forward half a century, and younger generations may ask why Leeds United were fined £200,000 last season in the wake of Spygate, despite not actually breaking any rules, or how the club can be allowed to be taken over by a series of unscrupulous owners that can be described as neither fit nor proper.
And now they will be informed by their parents how the club faced the very real threat of closure in the wake of fan trouble at Bournemouth in 1989, or how they were cheated out of European finals in 1973 and 1975 – with the referee from the former, Christos Michas, later banned for life for match fixing.
But the story of Leeds United is not just one of us against the world. When Leeds have lacked an opponent to fight, they have often fought with themselves. Quite literally, in the case of manager Frank Scott-Walford, who broke director Walter Preston’s jaw with a punch in 1910.
The club has also had an often strained relationship with the city of Leeds itself, which was dominated by rugby league prior to the success under Revie. That has perhaps never been better illustrated than at the end of the 1969-70 season, in which Leeds, targeting a clean sweep of trophies, were ultimately left empty handed after fixture congestion forced Revie to abandon plans to retain the league and instead focus on the FA and European Cups, only to lose in the final of the former and the semi-final of the latter.
“The effort to get that close was extraordinary. I think it’s one of the best performances by any team ever. Fuck Man City’s Treble, they had 40 players. We did it with something like 15 players getting to the final of the FA Cup, semi-finals of the European Cup and second in the league, which they should have won.
“At the end of the FA Cup replay at Old Trafford they swapped shirts, and there’s a really interesting moment where they do a disorganised presentation and they won’t give the Chelsea players medals because they’re wearing Leeds shirts. I just love the fact of, ‘No, that’s a Leeds shirt. You don’t get a medal.’
“The story on Monday’s Yorkshire Evening Post was not, ‘The greatest Leeds sporting achievement; so near yet so far.’ The Lord Mayor wanted to hold a civic reception and Don Revie said we’ll come whatever happens. But he changed his mind and said, ‘Look, half my team have gone away with England and half have gone on holiday. We’re just so sick of not winning anything we can’t do it.’
“The Lord Mayor John Ratherton said, ‘This decision is not only rude but chicken hearted. They promised to come win or lose and they’ve let everybody down. They’ve failed themselves and a proud record by behaving in a way that savours of a petulant boy taking his bat home.’
“The Yorkshire Evening Post backed him up in an editorial, ‘United have let down their fans, their city and their Lord Mayor.’ There were letters to the paper. Revie apologised over and over. The Mayor was fuming because all the civic plates and cutlery had been brought up from the cellars and they had to cancel an order of pork pies and sandwiches.
“What is wrong with this city? That story seems to me to sum the Revie era up. This incredible sporting achievement, going further and getting closer than any team ever had before, and at the end of it, because some pork pies had to be thrown away, it’s, ‘Chicken-hearted, bad sportsmen, petulant schoolboys.’”
— MoscowhiteTSB (@MoscowhiteTSB) July 8, 2019
So when it boils down to it, does Chapman himself believe the Football League’s corrupt, or the cosmos is working against Leeds, or is he happy to admit we’re all paranoid and have developed a taste for self-sabotage after over a century of misfortune? The answer, as ever, can be found somewhere in the middle.
“Revie’s right in his 1964 complaint about the Football League,” he says. “It is subconscious. I don’t think there are people exchanging money at the Football Association or the Football League or making these big plans to keep Leeds down in some way.
“The perception is just that whenever you come up against Leeds, that’s what people think about them. That’s why it’s difficult to quantify, and it does end up making you feel paranoid.
“But we have had it from the start. When the beginnings of the club are being closed down by the FA and Football League, it is something that’s kind of handed down. There’s got to be explanations for why one football ground has a certain atmosphere and another has a different one.
“That’s really interesting with Leeds. There’s a 1930s article trying to account for why Leeds fans are so horrible to their own players. There were appeals all the way through saying, ‘Please stop barracking our own players.’
“One of the writers mentioned a comparison between Elland Road, where he said if Leeds concede a goal it becomes like an away ground, with Parkside, where Hunslet Rugby League play, about a mile away, and they cheer the team on from first minute to last.
“I think there’s something in that. Because rugby league came first and was so dominant and we had so many good rugby league teams. They were all pretty much attached to churches. ‘Muscular Christianity’ and rugby were hand in glove.
“Everybody was a clubman so it would be rugby league in winter and cricket in the summer. That would be Saturday afternoon, Sunday would be church and church socials. It’s all the people that weren’t doing that who were trying to get soccer going – the ungodly of Leeds.
“There’s no church next to Leeds United and there never has been…so I guess we’re horrible people.”
By Rob Conlon