MORE books have been written about Don Revie’s Dirty Leeds/Damned Utd team of the Sixties and Seventies than any other English football team. Mud sticks harder than Superglue.
By contrast, seemingly no-one outside beautiful Beeston remembered that one other Leeds team won the title, the old First Division as it was in 1991-92, in its last primordial season before money rained from the Sky and the unnatural Premier League monster was born.
David Saffer had written Champions 1991/92 as a private party for Leeds fans in 2003, and autobiographies by David Batty, Lee Chapman, Gordon Strachan, Vinnie Jones, Gary McAllister, Howard Wilkinson, Mel Sterland, Steve Hodge and false god Eric Cantona all passed comment on the unlikely triumph before gathering attic dust.
But then Gary Speed, the buccaneering young Welsh pin-up of Howard Wilkinson’s yeoman side, took his own life in the 20th anniversary season, and belatedly history was re-written at large. The revised version still carped that a choking Manchester United had thrown the league away, but hey, weren’t Strach, Batts, Gary Mac and Speedo a magnificent midfield.
Ironically, the only one of this quintessential quartet of muddy musketeers that Tockwith author, Guardian music journalist and Leeds fan Dave Simpson had tied down to an interview for his 20th anniversary book The Last Champions was Wales manager Gary Speed, who let an hour drift into two as his mobile bleeped text messages asking when he would be home.
Dave was part way through writing the book when news of Speed’s death stopped more than football in its tracks. “The weirdest thing about it was that I was writing my Gary Speed chapter that Sunday when I got a call from an ex-girlfriend saying, ‘Have you heard? Gary Speed is dead’. I’m thinking, ‘It can’t be true; he’s only 42. No, this can’t be happening’. It was only six weeks after I’d interviewed him,” he recalls solemnly.
Dave says he subsequently “must have re-written that chapter ten times”. “I was thinking, ‘How can I write this?’, and the other thing is, you think to yourself, ‘Was there anything that hinted at what was going to happen? Were there any signs?’. And the only thing was, looking back now, here was the Wales manager sitting with someone he had never met, for two hours. Was he wanting to get things down for the record?
“The thing that did come across was that he missed those Leeds days and he didn’t really like how football had changed. He talked with such awe about those times, his trainee days, when it was tough for young footballers.”
Like Gary Speed, Dave Simpson misses those days – he is too young to have experienced the maligned Revie era and has since been worn weary by the miserable myopia of latter-day Prospero Ken Bates ¬ – and inevitably his book of reappraisal is shadowed by Speed’s death. Yet it also celebrates a triumph against the odds as Leeds rose from the eternal damnation of Division 2 to be the cock of the north in three and a half years.
It is a detective work too, like his previous book The Fallen, a quest to locate everyone who had ever served in the ranks of the cussed Mark E Smith’s band The Fall.
There’s no Batty, who keeps himself to himself, and no Gordon Strachan or Gary McAllister, who answer to the Sky pundit call. “But they’d all written their own books so I wasn’t going to get anything new out of them,” says Dave.
Instead, it was journeymen Carl Shutt, Chris Whyte, Michael Whitlow and Jon Newsome who had joyous stories to tell. So too did tabloid-magnet centre forward Lee Chapman, Hollywood enforcer Vinnie Jones and school-masterly Sergeant Wilko, and even a brief, bizarre encounter with deserter Eric Cantona that took Dave dangerously into Red enemy territory was tersely revealing.
“The best stories came from unlikely sources, like coach Mick Hinnigan and chairman Leslie Silver, which is my favourite chapter,” says Dave.
He is right. The urbane Leslie Silver is the kind of wise local Jewish businessman now lost to football – and that is football’s loss.
“For me, having missed the Revie years, the great memories are of that champion season, when so much of it is engraved in my memory,” says Dave. “I remember every game being played in the sun, which can’t have been the case, and how they played so adventurously at home, with all the team in the opposition half, centre halves Whyte and Fairclough on the halfway line. They’d be 2-0 up in 20 minutes and would bring on Cantona for the last 20 for some French polish.”
Injury-defying flying full back Mel Sterland best caught the spirit of these “forgotten heroes”, reckons Dave. “I asked him, ‘if you’d known you were going to knacker yourself for the rest of your life by playing those last eight games to win the league, would you still have done it, and he said, ‘Definitely yes,” and that’s what we loved about them,” he says.
“They were ordinary people that did extraordinary things they thought were beyond them.”
Dave Simpson’s The Last Champions is re-issued in paperback this summer by Bantam Books.