The wing wizardry of Leeds legend Eddie Gray, the man who left no footprints

The wing wizardry of Leeds legend Eddie Gray, the man who left no footprints

On 4 April 1970, Eddie Gray scored, just maybe, the two greatest goals of his career. Sixty-one minutes apart, the first, after 10 minutes, was a looping left-footed 40-yarder; some inexplicable floating glory of a goal which, even now, begs definition. Was it a chip? A lob? Neither? Genius? Just maybe. “It’s there!” Cried Keith Macklin in the commentary box. “What a goal! What an incredibly judged goal by Eddie Gray.”

The second was … well, more than a goal; it was an “I was there when-” moment, or, if you weren’t, one of those transcendental events you’ve somehow heard of before you’ve ever seen it. Like the ending of Thelma & Louise. Drag-backs and dummies, Burnley defender after Burnley defender left stuck in the mud, irreverent slide-tackles hanging in mid-air, left to right to left to right. 

Fool me once, shame on me, so the saying goes: Gray fooled the same three players twice, almost wagging a “When will you learn?” finger on his way by. It’s the kind of goal which, even now, has you shouting “… hit it … hit IT … HIT IT!” And then, just when you don’t think he will, he does. A right-footed afterthought past Peter Mellor in goal.

There was nothing pre-empted about this goal, no pre-ordained rite of passage through the Elland Road mud. When Gray brought a loose ball under his control he was stuck in a corner with nowhere to go. Two Burnley players – and even the referee – were far closer to Gray than any Leeds teammate. But such unforgettable moments almost always come from nothing; it is a prerequisite to their greatness. 

Suddenly one of the Burnley defenders came sliding across the mud. Cue the music. Gray dragged the ball away from his man with consummate timing, into space he didn’t really have, the ball balanced upon the goal line as Burnley arms went up in appeal. From there everything somehow falls into place.

Every opportunity to release the ball is thwarted by another onrushing defender-cum-unwitting dance partner, as Gray waltzes on and on with stooped grace and bent poise, like some broken ballerina. There’s something Swan Lake-like about the whole thing. It is endlessly re-watchable and utterly thrilling. And somehow, knowing what is about to happen makes it even better, even more suspenseful, even more momentous.

Gray’s performance that day was the football of an insouciant schoolboy with sticky-out elbows and stooped shoulders, hands-in-the-pockets football. Somehow, thankfully, Gray had never really changed. Those two goals were scored by the very same boy whom Don Revie had thrown into first-team training at 15, disdaining with a trial. 

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This Leeds side was a hotchpotch of hard-nosed pros right at the beginning of something special, led by someone special – a fiery wee man with a short fuse and dynamite tackle named Bobby Collins, as pre-emptive and, Gray says, important a signing as Revie ever made. 

Gray’s first time on the ball in training was a microcosm of what Leeds would later become. No sooner had he stuck the ball, unabashedly, through the legs of a gangly centre-half named one Jack Charlton, than he received a size 13 boot up his backside. A wee reminder that impudence will not do here. “Don’t do that to me again,” said Charlton as Gray lay prone in the snow. 

But that was Revie’s Leeds even then: skill and a wee touch of sadomasochism. But the skill came first, and not just in Gray. Charlton might have been the defender of the family, but he was a centre-half with a centre-forward’s head, plus a few inches, and had scored 12 goals the previous season from the back. 

In the winter of 196,  Revie was slowly gathering the fallen snow into a rolling avalanche. Norman Hunter was there, biting yer legs, and so too was Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper, ‘Hot Shot’ Peter Lorimer and one Billy Bremner. Giles, the brains, was only a six months away. And then there was young Gray himself, waltzing with the ball in 3/3 time, the young virtuoso with football boots for a violin and a football for his music.

By 4 April 1970, Revie’s Leeds – and they were very much his – were League Cup and Fairs Cup Winners and reigning league champions. But the FA Cup still eluded them. Nevertheless, this year Leeds had made the final – just – taking two replays and one ever-so-apt Bremner goal to get past Manchester United in the semis. Surely the footballing gods should reward such endeavour, especially after the added penitence Leeds had suffered as both league and European Cup ambitions had succumbed to Everton and Celtic respectively, as a squeaky-clean campaign gave way to the dreaded squeaky bum. 

A week to the day after the Burnley game, Leeds faced Chelsea in the final at Wembley. Looking back, Gray was astounding. In the first half he swung a high corner onto the head of Charlton, who nodded his approval goalwards as the ball forgot to bounce on the Wembley mud, slipping under the swinging leg of a hapless McCreadie on the line. 

Gray and Charlton’s working relationship had much improved since their first meeting. This was impudence Charlton could quite literally get behind; Gray was much safer sticking the ball onto the big centre half’s head than through his legs. However, 20 minutes later, Chelsea were level. Houseman had hit a speculative effort from outside of the box which Gary Sprake somehow cuddled into his own net. In fairness, the Wembley pitch that day looked as though it had just been ploughed. Inexplicably, the Horse of the Year show had taken place on the hallowed turf the week before, and the ball was either sticking in mud bunkers or squirming over molehills throughout the game. 

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Yet Gray was wholly unperturbed, his skill unaffected. Throughout, he was waiting in the Wembley wings, ready to unfurl his own. Gray “reduced Chelsea right-back David Webb to impotence,” as Andrew Mourant would later write. Somehow, the bumps and bobbles seemed only to help as Gray went over and under and through Webb, again and again and again. 

At one point, Gray literally put poor David Webb on his face. He was inside and outside, thumping a right-footed shot against the bar before swinging a left-footed cross into the box for Allan Clarke to sniff out. He turned a cold, mud-maligned day into glorious 1970s technicolour. And still he didn’t leave any footprints.

But Leeds simply couldn’t win it. Even with Gray’s one-man Wembley wizardry, even with the doggedness of Bremner and diligence of Giles, even when Jones had surely won it with a left-footed skidder with only six minutes to go, Leeds couldn’t deny Chelsea. Two minutes later, Hutchinson had equalised once more. For all their free-flowing football and unrelenting attacks, Leeds’ defence had ultimately come unstuck in the mud. Gray was a unanimous man of the match but would, by his own admission, much rather have won the game.

The final went to a replay at Old Trafford 18 days later – the Wembley pitch had finally had enough – in a game which became a virtual contest of brutality as soon as Ron Harris, affectionately known as ‘Chopper’, clipped Eddie’s wings inside 10 minutes. Gray was nullified by Harris by fair means or foul, whilst David Webb, the man so tormented by Gray, found salvation in a header-cum-facer during extra time. Leeds were trophyless and quite literally broken. And that was their season. 

Gray would go on to play just 82 league games between 1970 and 1975. His thigh problem, seemingly so innocuous when it first surfaced in a reserve game during his teens, never really left him. Yet neither, thankfully, did the unerring skill and boyish impudence that made Gray such a warm brew of a player during that cold and ultimately ill-fated April month. Gray was a permanent rebuttal to the ‘Dirty Leeds’ epithet which pulled at United like a figurative Chopper Harris during the Revie days. Like so many stereotypes, it only ever told half of the story.

Asked in his later days what he made of the unforgiving pace and rhythm of the modern game, Gray, aptly, swapped speed and complexity for tone and timbre. Whenever he received the ball, he said, his first thought was to look up and play it forwards: “Now that’s quick.” In that, Gray was the quickest of them all. 

Those two goals, that one Wembley performance, these were testaments to the speed and attacking verve of a mind and body perfectly attuned and perfectly in tune. Veritable mud baths those 1970s post-winter pitches may have been, but Gray left no footprints – except in the minds of those lucky enough to have seen him play.

By Hector Crawford @Hector_CCr

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