Saturday 13 February 1971: a date that is etched into history for Colchester and Leeds, for polar opposite reasons. It was the best of times and the worst of times. The pinnacle of David versus Goliath, with the notion of giant-killing borne into life on a cold winter’s day in north-east Essex.
Fourth division Colchester triumphed 3-2 over Don Revie’s electric, domineering Leeds in front of 16,000 bewildered supporters. On this day, the Eagles soared above their lowly perch, etching into football lore one of the greatest cup upsets of all-time.
It came in an era when the FA Cup was king, a time that football has left behind. Colchester and Leeds couldn’t have more different histories, both pre and post this point of euphoria and despair. Yet, the memories lay lurking in collective minds, a throwback to a different kind of football and the birth of a notion that is craved by those who dedicate their lives to the Colchesters of this world.
It cannot be understated how much of a giant Leeds were under the leadership of Revie. Whilst many associate his time at the club with the moniker of ‘Dirty Leeds’, in reality, the future England manager had transformed the side into perhaps the top club in the country.
A former player for the Yorkshire outfit, Revie took over in 1961 and left in 1975, creating a legacy that would ensure Leeds’ status as a big player. It’s no surprise that post-Revie things took a downturn, as his time at the club was littered with success. A first league title in 1969 was a magnificent achievement, rising up from the second tier within five years.
Revie instilled a winning attitude at the club. His playing style was based upon a methodical, Italian-esque defence, coupled with a starting XI made up of Home Nations internationals, including Billy Bremner and Jack Charlton. Revie even changed the club strip to all-white, mirroring that of Real Madrid.
Whilst Los Blancos’ successes may have been helped by the rule of General Franco and suspect funding, Leeds’ organic rise to the top of English football was a refreshing sight. Revie’s managerial style was intense and demanding, and his critics argue that his overbearing nature resulted in Leeds’ burnout seasons when they contrived to finish second despite leading for long periods. However, when Leeds came to Layer Road in early 1971, the form book was thrown out the window.
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If Revie had taken Leeds to the precipice of greatness, Colchester were still languishing in relevant non-existence. The town finds itself in a peculiar geographic location in terms of football, which hasn’t allowed it to blossom into a bigger club like East Anglian rivals Ipswich and Norwich.
They haven’t reached the First Division in their 81-year history, and even up until this fateful meeting with Leeds, they hadn’t ventured further than the third. Around the local area, a significant number of supporters are those who’ve moved out of London. This transition brings fans of West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal to the locality, effectively choking the chance of Colchester growing.
The close proximity to Ipswich, who have won a European trophy and been led by Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson, and Norwich, who have held Premier League status, means that a strong, sizeable fan base is always going to be a struggle. The old wooden, jittering Layer Road was Colchester’s home until 2008, but the stadium move hasn’t facilitated any great upturn on the pitch – the club still sits in League Two.
Forty-six years ago, Colchester were in the Fourth Division and an uneventful season was injected with the feral excitement of a cup run. Victories over Ringmer, Cambridge, Barnet and a replay against Rochdale, after scoring two goals with five minutes left, presented the opportunity to scalp Leeds.
Leeds still held the bitter taste of the 1970 FA Cup final replay defeat to Chelsea, which is revered as one of the most violent matches in living memory. Coming to Layer Road would be a walk in the park, a simple breeze through Essex onto victory at Wembley a few months later. What Leeds encountered would be nothing of the sort.
Colchester were nicknamed Grandad’s Army due to the older players in their ranks, such as 34-year-old striker Ray Crawford, who in the 1960s was prolific for Ipswich and Wolves. The twinkle in his eyes still burnt bright and the chance to come up against his ‘rabbit’s foot’ in the form of Jack Charlton had Crawford relishing his chance at entering legend. The Leeds team of experienced internationals and serial winners had every right to presume safe passage through.
Colchester, spurred on by a crowd over five times larger than average, showed Leeds no respect. The status of the visitors was that they were to be admired from afar and not touched, a portrait gallery of a football team. Colchester had no such intentions, and gave the Yorkshiremen a true southern welcome. It took just 18 minutes for delirium to occur.
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Colchester had filled the gaps between the pitch and stands with ball boys, obstacles and objects, to give the impression of an intensely tight playing surface, largely to counteract Leeds’ expansive style of play. On the edge of the cramped surface, Colchester won a free-kick and the ball was duly hoisted into the box, lofty in height and aspiration.
Leeds’ goalkeeper Gary Sprake came for the ball but got nowhere near it. Crawford spotted his opportunity, sneaking behind his man to header his team in front. Cue loo rolls flying and limbs; this wasn’t in the script. Crawford sped away with his arm held aloft, his former glory days returning in a moment of nostalgia.
Colchester’s second goal was highly fortuitous, exactly the kind of luck you need in a game like this. In Crawford’s own words, he was “a lucky devil in the box”, and his good fortune was no more evident than here. Gibbs hooked the ball into the box, much like the earlier free-kick, this time from the right flank, sweeping the ball towards Crawford’s head.
Colchester’s plan to load Sprake’s penalty area with crosses was proving effective and had been highlighted by manager Dick Graham before the game. The ball reached Crawford but he headed it square against the back of the centre-half. The ball bounced to the ground, out of sight. Crawford spun on his back, gyrating his body and hooking his left foot toward the adjacent ball. His connection was strong, and it bobbled along the muddy goalmouth and trickled in off the post.
Layer Road erupted. The fans hanging off the scoreboard, craning their necks to witness magic, resisted the urged to through their arms up in ecstasy for fear of falling. It couldn’t get better; it had to go wrong soon but half-time came and, 2-0 up against the mighty Leeds, was a living fantasy.
Ten minutes after the restart, Colchester notched another. Leeds left-back Terry Cooper turned straight into Crawford’s challenge, the striker stole the ball back in his own half. He played a pass just in front of teammate Lewis, who let the ball run just over the halfway line before thumping it high into the Leeds penalty area.
Dave Simmons was the sole Colchester man forward and began to tussle with Leeds defender Reaney. The latter inexplicably let the ball bounce, allowing Simmons to rise above the overeager and onrushing Sprake to head the ball into an empty net. Three goals all borne out of Leeds defending like they had never played together.
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This was a team lauded for their defensive strength and knowledge, but they looked like Colchester Reserves. Simmons wheeled away in celebration, the crowd sucking him in as he charged towards them. His torso became lost amongst a sea of adoring arms as Crawford joined him, engulfed himself by the delirious home supporters.
This had stirred the beast that lived within Leeds. This wasn’t envisioned by anyone and yet here they were, 3-0 down to fourth tier Colchester. A comeback was on the horizon as the great Norman Hunter sent a header looping over goalkeeper Graham Smith from a Leeds corner. Smith had obviously seen Sprake’s questionable choices that afternoon and wanted to try them out himself. Needless to say, it didn’t end well. A simple handshake from Leeds was all that transpired, perhaps too embarrassed to celebrate given the peculiar circumstances.
The second goal from Leeds showed their class and how it could have been so easy for them in a parallel universe. A long ball forward was dealt with by Colchester before it reached landed at Mick Bates’ feet. A sharp, incisive pass to Johnny Giles was quickly laid off to Mick Jones, the Colchester defence following the ball like a greyhound does a hare. Jones fainted to shoot, instead laying the ball back to Giles to sweep home left-footed. Leeds had cut through Colchester like butter. It begged the question of the mental attitude the Leeds players took into this game and how it impacted upon their performance.
Despite their comeback, Colchester managed to hold on at 3-2, the Leeds pressure not resulting in a crucial third goal. It marked a result that would go down in both clubs’ memories for generations to come.
The news of the result quickly spread. My grandfather remembers listening to the radio when it was interrupted to bring news of Colchester’s shock victory. His brother turned and said to him that it was surely a joke, that it was impossible. The voice from the radio replied, insistent on the reality of the situation, that Colchester had beaten Leeds.
Media coverage over the next few days was focused solely on the game, the magnitude of this upset something that hadn’t been seen since Wrexham beat Arsenal in 1933. Leeds were unable to deal with the spectre of the FA Cup hanging over them, the ghost of Chelsea tackles past, and Colchester’s defiance in the face of adversity.
The remainder of Leeds’ season was to be tinged with disappointment. They relinquished the title to Arsenal by a point, even though they led the way for the majority of the season. A poor refereeing performance from Ray Tinkler to allow an offside goal to stand for West Brom in a 2-1 win over Leeds. It’s what many, including Revie, attributed the failure to win the title to. A victory in the Fairs Cup over Juventus somewhat softened the blow but domestic failures still rankled. Even to this day, the defeat to Colchester remains one of the club’s darkest days.
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Post-victory, Colchester could be forgiven for dreaming of the impossible. They were drawn to play Everton in the next round, once again hoping for the impossible. Sadly, like most stories of this kind, they couldn’t replicate their triumph over Leeds, going down 5-0 to the Merseyside giants.
This victory clipped the wings of the Eagles, their dreams evaporating into thin air. Yet, surely no sadness and mortification sprung out of defeat. Colchester had created magic and myth and a trouncing by Everton is not what people remember from that season. They finished sixth in the Fourth Division, missing out on promotion by two points.
Whilst the likes of Bournemouth and Boscombe, York and Notts County ventured forward to the third tier, no one connected with Colchester would trade in promotion for that perfect day in February.
This was a hugely significant moment in English football. It gave birth to the post-war notion of giant-killings, that dreams can be realised by the underdog. It is rarely achieved, even less so in the modern era. The gap between the wealthy and the poor in society is reflected in football. and the fantasy of giant-killings is becoming rarer than their name-giver.
Take Sutton United against Arsenal in 2017 in the fifth round of the FA Cup, which should have been a significant point in modern cup history. Instead, it is tarnished with ‘Piegate’. Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper tucking into a pie in cahoots with a number of betting firms to illicitly win money is absurd. The night should have joined the alumnus of FA Cup history but instead, in today’s football, it was dominated by monetary gain.
A draw against a big club now sets the pound signs rolling. It isn’t a fault of the small teams, but instead those who have allowed the vast chasm of wealth difference to suck the life from fixtures of Colchester-Leeds potential. So instead we must indulge in the nostalgia and swim in the annuals of history, to perhaps taste the sweetest morsel of unexpected victory.
The memories of Colchester’s victory live on in those who can retell the story with as much passion and pride as those blue-shirted men in February 1971. That is what makes this story special. David and Goliath, for one day, was Colchester and Leeds. It will remain so until the end.
By Joe Levy @levylife