Don Revie: the forgotten master of English football

Don Revie: the forgotten master of English football

Football has always been a game of binaries, of rivalries, of winners and losers. The victors are rewarded by having their place in footballing legend enshrined for generations to come. The losers either fade into obscurity or live on in the memory in the role of the vanquished foe; which fate is worse depends entirely on the disposition of the individual.

Don Revie is an exception. He won his main battle, and yet history has remembered him differently. It doesn’t help that his opponent was arguably the most iconic figure in English football history, and that their key battle ground, while defining Revie, eventually served only as a precursor for Brian Clough’s redemption at Nottingham Forest.

By the time Revie left Leeds United after a 13-year managerial spell in 1974, he had transformed them from an unremarkable club that lived in the shadow of the North West’s footballing powerhouses, and their local rugby and cricketing equivalents, to one of the most feared teams in Europe.

Known for a style that saw them branded “dirty” by some and worse by many more, Revie’s Leeds won two league titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup, as well as experiencing numerous near misses, including a heartbreaking futile treble hunt in 1969-70. Clough’s attempt to surpass the man who he had revelled in baiting through the media famously lasted just 44 days, and it would be nearly 20 years before Leeds could once again be called champions of England.

But despite all of this, Clough has become an icon, perhaps more famous than the two clubs with whom he experienced his greatest triumphs, while Revie’s name has drifted into obscurity, ironically most commonly remembered now as Clough’s sparring partner.

It’s just one of the many connections between Clough and Revie. Both men were born and raised in Middlesbrough, and cited their upbringings as playing an instrumental role in the men they became. Both quickly found the appeal of formal education paled in comparison to the lure of sport. Both played in forward positions, and both featured for Sunderland, Clough arriving at Roker Park three years after Revie had departed for Leeds. Prophetically, the manager who effectively forced Revie’s departure from Sunderland, Alan Brown, had a lasting influence on the impressionable young Clough’s managerial style.

As a player, Revie had a productive career, making up for a lack of natural ability compared to the great forwards of the age with endeavour and an insatiable appetite to learn from his managers. Despite the hard man reputation both Revie and his teams cultivated in later years, as a player Revie was rarely combative, instead using guile and awareness to out-think opponents.

After beginning at Leicester City, Revie moved to Hull in order to play under the legendary Raich Carter. He then moved to Manchester City, where he enjoyed undoubtedly his best spell as a player. Manager Les McDowall deployed Revie as a deep-lying centre forward, a nod to the Hungarian system that proved so devastatingly effective on the world stage during the 1950s.

Revie won the FWA Footballer of the Year in 1955, but the following season he allowed his managerial acumen to get the better of him when he instructed a teammate to disregard McDowall’s instructions in the FA Cup final, a move which largely put paid to his first class playing career for club and country, having won six caps for the England national team.

Revie arrived at Leeds in 1958. The club had narrowly avoided relegation the season before and fared little better with the arrival of their new captain. Relegation followed the season after, and United settled into what seemed destined to be a lengthy spell in obscurity. The decision to appoint the journeyman striker as player-manager in 1961 can’t have inspired much hope that anything was about to change at Elland Road.

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In Revie’s first season in charge, the club slipped to a worrying 19th-place finish in the second division and attendances dropped to their lowest levels since the club were inducted to the Football League in 1919. However, off the field Revie was having much greater success, revitalising the culture of the club and challenging the tactical truisms that had dominated the English game since the 1930s and 40s. Despite the culture shock of the famous 6-3 humbling by the ‘Magical Magyars’ in 1953’s ‘Match of the Century’, English football was still dragging its heels when it came to recognising the need for evolution, and often treated those that questioned the status quo, such as Alf Ramsey, with suspicion.

As well as tactical innovations inspired by the ‘Revie Plan’ from his time at Manchester City, Revie used his experience as a player and his willingness to learn from whomever he could to begin instigating changes around the club. With club chairman Harry Reynolds’ backing, Revie placed a firm emphasis on youth, aware that Leeds would struggle to compete with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United in terms of financial clout or allure.

He moved to reinvent the club’s image off the pitch, with the aim of making Elland Road the premier sporting destination for the city’s residents. Dietary restrictions were put in place and ballet dancers were hired to teach players poise and balance. The club’s yellow and blue kits were jettisoned in favour of an all-white ensemble, which Revie borrowed from Real Madrid as a symbol of his lofty ambitions for the club.

He also instigated a sea change in how his players viewed the game. He ruthlessly culled those he deemed unworthy or uncommitted (he’d reflect that he “got rid” of 27 non-believers in the United cause in his first two years in charge), and those that remained were left in no uncertain terms about Revie’s opinions on the gentlemanly aspect of the game.

Bolton forward Nat Lofthouse would remember of the 1950s that “there were plenty of fellers who would kick your bollocks off. The difference was that at the end they’d shake your hand and help you look for them.” Revie encouraged his players to carry on in the same vein, but without bothering with the handshake. The reputation that this style of play engendered would follow Revie and Leeds United for decades to come, but it gave them an undoubted competitive edge and instilled a fear in opposition teams up and down the country.

At the beginning of the 1962-63 season, Revie retired from playing in order to focus solely on putting his plans into action. His replacement as the team’s creative fulcrum was a product of Leeds’ renewed faith in youth, a diminutive scot by the name of Billy Bremner. Despite failing to impress initially in an outside-right role, a moved inside Bremner quickly proved himself an artist on the ball and a pugnacious presence off it. By the time he and Revie were finished, Leeds were the best – and most reviled – team in England.

Brian Clough

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Leeds finished fifth that season and won the Second Division the year after. Behind Bremner was the formidable centre-half pairing of Jack Charlton and Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter, whose nickname aptly summed up the Leeds ethos under Revie. Bobby Collins and Johnny Giles played alongside Bremner in midfield, while in front of them were Eddie Gray and Peter Lorimer. With such attacking power, Revie was able to focus on instilling a defensive steel in the team through detailed study of the opposition, another innovation that was years ahead of its time.

In their first season back in the top flight, United’s combative attitude and Revie’s managerial astuteness saw the club take the division by complete surprise, finishing second and only falling at the final hurdle in the FA Cup. The Munich Air Disaster had robbed the game of what looked to be the dynastic team of the late 1950s and early19 60s, creating a power vacuum that saw eight different teams crowned champions in the nine years immediately after the tragedy. Revie now set his sights on filling the gap on a more permanent basis.

Another second place finish was then followed by consecutive fourth place finishes, which would have almost certainly been improved upon had the team not consistently played so many cup games; in the three seasons between 1965 and 1968, they reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup twice, won the League Cup, and both won and finished runners-up in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a testament to the modernity of Revie’s team (no English team had ever won the competition prior to Leeds’ success).

In the 1968-69 season, everything came together. Leeds attacked and defended with class and verve and ruled through intimidation, winning their first league title and setting numerous records, including a lengthy unbeaten sequence. Revie’s technical and tactical ingenuity was complemented by the fierce loyalty his players had for him. A brief flirtation with Sunderland about their managerial vacancy some years prior had ended when Revie saw tears in the eyes of some apprentice players upon learning he was leaving, and this paternal relationship was present all the way up to the most senior stars.

He was also unafraid of dabbling in the more intangible side of the game that an upstart named Brian Clough was proving himself a master in. He had a gypsy bless the pitch at Elland Road before the season began, and asked Bremner to play a game “on one leg” purely to ensure his talismanic presence was transmitted to the rest of the team.

Another series of heartbreaking near misses followed in the league, with three consecutive runners-up berths – the second behind Clough’s Derby County – and a third place. Once again, Leeds’ consistency in the cups and the penchant of their key players to spend considerable portions of seasons suspended was the cause of their downfall.

In 1974, the club were finally crowned champions again, winning the title by five points from Liverpool and cementing Revie’s place as a manager of the very highest quality. Crucially, the press and the punters were beginning to appreciate that Revie’s Leeds no longer utilised gamesmanship and underhand tactics to the same extent that they had during their first league triumph, a fact Revie found personally vindicating.

It was to be his last hurrah in charge of Leeds. The England national team had failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, and the axe fell on Alf Ramsey, the man who had won the competition just two editions earlier. Having achieved so consistently in Yorkshire, Revie was the standout candidate to replace him. Although there was little public popularity for the choice of the Leeds manager compared to the charismatic Clough, the pragmatic, familial approach that Revie was known for appealed to the selection panel when compared to Clough’s combustible nature, evidenced by his dramatic resignation from Derby in 1973.

While Revie was far from taking a similar course of action at Elland Road, he recognised that the team he had lovingly forged and that had brought him such remarkable success was coming to the end of its natural life. Charlton had already retired, and the likes of Bremner, Lorimer and Giles were past their peak. Revie recognised that the time was right to move on.

Revie in charge of England in 1975

The following series of events have been immortalised in works of award-winning fiction and have been recounted repeatedly in the intervening years. With Leeds without a manager for the first time since 1961, they turned to the last man Revie would have chosen, the man who had taken every opportunity to pillar “dirty Leeds” in the press and who had held a personal grudge against Revie ever since he felt the Leeds boss had snubbed him by not shaking his hand years earlier.

Brian Clough’s reign began dismally, with a loss in the Charity Shield and an eleven game suspension for Bremner for punching Kevin Keegan, and only got worse, lasting a paltry 44 days and providing a sharp contrast to the stability that Revie’s reign had brought the club.

Clough’s doomed spell at United should have been enough to assign Revie a complimentary place in English football history, a testament to his ability to handle the weight of expectation and to manage the not insignificant personalities of his team. But the strength of Clough’s character and his eventual exploits with Nottingham Forest, where he achieved more than Revie with arguably fewer resources, have seen his dalliance with Leeds recast as a stain on the club and on Revie rather than on his own CV.

Clough’s failure is frequently blamed on the players, who still regarded Revie as a father figure and took petty revenge on his antagonist, and the board, who ignored common sense to appoint Clough in the first place and then gave him precious little time to put his stamp on the team. Incidents such as Clough allegedly telling the Leeds players to throw their medals in the bin because they were won unfairly have largely been swept under the rug.

Clough became manager of Forest in early 1975 and within five years he had transformed them from Second Division also-rans to the shining light of English football, twice European champions and league champions, a spate of remarkable achievements arguably never bettered. At Forest, he found not just a club but a home, as Revie had with Leeds. Rather than spending his time battling pedantic, pugilistic directors or hostile fans, Clough was allowed the time and space to realise his vision, with dazzling results.

Revie found the opposite to be true of the England job. The sporadic nature of the role meant he was never able to foster the same unity between himself and his players, and without the fierce loyalty which had made him such a triumph at Leeds – and contributed to making Clough a failure there – Revie struggled to get a grip on the job.

Whereas at Leeds he had time to introduce his players to still-radical notions such as dossiers on opposition players, Revie found the ideas that had become ingrained at Elland Road met with blank stares and private derision in the national team camp. Years later, Clough would reflect on his failed attempts to become England manager: “I’m sure the England selectors thought, if they took me on and gave me the job, I’d want to run the show. They were shrewd because that’s exactly what I would have done.” Like with so many things, Revie and Clough were much closer in their ideals that either would want to admit; Revie also needed complete control in order to see his ideas bear fruit.

As it was, with his hands tied by bureaucracy and a long-simmering feud with FA chairman Sir Harold Thompson, Revie achieved little in the biggest managerial job the country had to offer. Failure to qualify for the European Championships in 1976 was followed by the same fate for the 1978 World Cup. When the FA refused to accept his resignation, Revie opted to go public with his decision and claim a lucrative pay out from the Daily Mail in the process.

Many perceived Revie as dishonest – manager Bob Stokoe said he deserved castration for the manner in which he left the job – and greedy, a reputation that was only enhanced when, rather than returning to the domestic game to rehabilitate his image, he took the extremely well-paid job as the head coach of the United Arab Emirates. After two short-lived spells at foreign clubs, Revie returned to the United Kingdom, but he was never to work in football again.

The manner in which he left the England job and his subsequent withdrawal from the domestic game cost Don Revie the chance of ever achieving the level of recognition enjoyed by his great rival Brian Clough. In some respects, he had only himself to blame; relinquishing the job that Clough coveted more than any other in such a seemingly flippant manner cast Revie as uncaring and money-hungry, and Clough as the sprightly underdog that would have done anything for the chance to manage his country.

In reality, Revie’s departure from the England job once again unconsciously echoed an act of Clough’s career; his explosive resignation from Derby County, a risky power play that went awry and cost not only Clough but his brilliant assistant Peter Taylor.

On the day of his sacking by Leeds United, Clough appeared on Yorkshire TV alongside Revie. History has remembered the interview as an ill-tempered slugging match, but watching it back now reveals various tributes from Clough to Revie, albeit wrapped in the former’s idiosyncratic bravado. Clough contended he was the right man for the Leeds job and that he failed because “I’m not sure who they could have got to improve on [Revie’s] record.”

Despite the divides and contrasts that would be drawn between the two men, Clough spoke of their managerial methods being “90 percent” related; “My style was exactly the same.” He made repeated mention of the bond that Revie and the players had that he couldn’t attempt to replicate. The begrudging respect shown by Clough towards Revie is perhaps the most telling epitaph that English football’s forgotten man could have ever hoped to receive.

By Matt Clough @MattJClough

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