June 03, 2010

Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United

I don't often read football books, but this like Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid I consider an exception. Inverting the Pyramid was a great book because its about the ways in which you can organise eleven people on a field in order to kick the ball into a net at the other end of the field. Wilson writes about football pure and simple. The Unforgiven is completely different. Written in part by another Guardian journalist, Rob Bagchi, is about the way in which an intriguing personality- Don Revie- took over and shaped a football club from top to bottom and about how he related to those above and below him in the hierarchy, not to mention other equals at other clubs. It has its fair share of 'at this point in the season Leeds won 7-0 at Southampton' (being a Leeds fan I enjoyed those bits, less the bits where we finished second in everything!) but that isn't really what it is about. Its centre is on Don Revie and what he did to Leeds United and how that set of actions was received more widely.

Revie was the kind of man who had he been born middle class in Surrey would have been a captain of industry or Prime Minister- like say Brian Clough or Bill Shankly- because of where he was born and the fact that he could play football that is what he did. He was a skilful England international, playing as a withdrawn striker and attacking midfielder and had a productive career particularly in the mid-50s at Manchester City. Like his nemesis Brian Clough (with whom he shared many accomplishments- perhaps something which deepened their rivalry) Revie's career could have been more impressive. As it was in the early 60s it declined and he joined the then second division and rather non-descript Leeds United- whose stature in 1960 was a bit like Crystal Palace's today without the history. Leeds were a struggling team who had bounced up and down between the divisions. By the early 1960s they were in decline and Revie was brought in eventually as manager to redress that decline.

What he did was to form a club. Over his first couple of seasons, Revie got rid of most of the playing squad that he had inherited, with the exception of Jack Charlton. He elevated young players from the youth team and the fringe of the previous squad, players who would go down in Leeds's history- Bremner, Gray, Lorimer, Sprake, Hunter- and made a series of judicious purchases, none more so than a veteran named Bobby Collins. He had therefore two senior pros- Collins and Charlton later joined by Johnny Giles. Charlton was a natural rebel. Collins and Giles had both been discarded by bigger clubs. Revie melded this group of individuals into what he called a family, later on he was mocked for taking players on bingo nights in big groups and for rubbing them down, performing the work of a physio and a trainer- but the intimate knowledge and fatherly concern were instruments of management. Revie turned the playing staff at Leeds United into a unit and was able to do this because the senior pros he had let him and those who would not join in, he could exclude.

Revie's success thus- and he was successful, taking Leeds to two Championships, three FA Cup Finals and one FA Cup trophy, European finals and the League Cup- was built on the fact that noone had ever done anything at Leeds United. He took advice of course- particularly and ironically given how the fans perceive each other from Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United- but his techniques were founded on the fact that he could clean out Leeds when he arrived. They were also founded on a particular culture inside football: the authors of this book make it clear that as time went on players became more resistant to the Leeds culture, people wouldn't join a club in which the Beatles were out and Bingo was in. Leeds were emblematic though of the new clubs winning English trophies- Clough's sides were similar in this, they came up and could win, but the truth in Leeds was that Revie was able to profit from a seam of good youngsters but could not sustain it as the economic foundations, the fans in the stands, weren't there. The story again is similar for Clough: after the great late 1970s, it was never glad confident morning again, because Nottingham Forest like Leeds could not maintain a challenge.

The authors are fascinated by the question of why Leeds could not do this. Leeds afterall is bigger than Liverpool which sustains two historically vast clubs and Leeds has a vast hinterland through Yorkshire, clubs like Bradford and Huddersfield's accomplishments lie in the distant past. Part of the reason was that until the 1990s, football was the third sport in Leeds behind Rugby League and Cricket. Part of the reason lay in the attitude of Revie's boards who never fully supported him, particularly after the early 1970s. Part of the reason is that we will never know because Revie took on another job- he went to England (an episode which was disastrous from the word go) and Leeds hired Brian Clough (possibly the most spectacularly wrong decision of all time- see United, Damned). The story of the 1970s in Leeds United remains unfinished. But what the authors do draw attention to is the way in which the story of Leeds United is in part the story of Leeds's transformation from an industrial city into an equivalent to London in the north. Revie's team are part of that story.

Lastly there is the unpopularity. Revie was always accused and still is accused of producing a dirty team and being corrupt. The latter accusations have nothing to them and the authors do a good job of discarding them. The former is more interesting. Leeds could kick with the best of them but they were kicked to: famously in one match between Leeds and Manchester United, Bobby Collins of Leeds would find and kick George BEst and Nobby Stiles would try and break Collins's leg. Two Leeds players had their careers ended by injury: Collins and Eddie Gray- and others had their hard men. What is more interesting and it is an area the authors don't really get into, is the cultural expectations that meant that Leeds fouls were seen as part of their character whereas the fouls administered at Chelsea or United were not. There is a story here of the attitude of English people to football clubs which tells us a lot about their attitudes to particular regions. I suspect that attributes of clubs in the popular imagination are both informed by and inform the kind of stereotypes that all English people have about the regions of England.

The book is good and it is readable (I finished it in under a day) and it does tell an interesting story. It isn't aimed unlike Jonathan Wilson's tome at a purely analytical market and so doesn't open up some interesting questions but the story of Revie is fascinating in itself. The man was prickly and shy, always brow beaten by Clough for instance because he was so sensitive to accusations and willing to be defensive rather than go on the offensive. He had a good reputation amongst his peers: I mentioned Busby but Shankly too was a Revie fan. The image of Revie could be probed more though because I think it tells us something about the ways in which football has shaped the imaginery England that we all carry within ourselves and also about how that imagination has shaped fan's notions of what clubs are about.


James said...

Interesting to look at the football v rugby thing in Leeds - Elland Road was the ground of a rugby league club before Leeds City took it over in 1904 when (Holbeck, their predecessors) went out of business. Given that Leeds rugby league club shared Headingley with the cricketers right from the beginning - so that the shared ground had year-round revenue, unlike Elland Road - all three, Holbeck, Leeds City and Leeds United were fighting an uphill local battle, even before your question as to the status of the various sports in the city.

That's a great book, btw, really pleased you liked it.