“Our attitude was – an eye for an eyelash,” admitted John Giles to the Guardian in 2010.
The Leeds team of the late 60s and early 70s weren’t angels, the Irish legend will be happy to say, but they could play a bit too. This is a team who came up from the second tier in the early 60s to win the league twice and reach the European Cup final in the next decade.
There is, of course, a parallel with this weekend’s opponents Nottingham Forest, who did the whole promotion-to-European champions skit in double quick time a decade later. Under Brian Clough. Another link between the two.
Clough’s tenure at Elland Road was as unexpected as it was short. After winning the league with Derby County and taking them to a European Cup semi-final, Clough became a household name in English football, and as an outspoken voice on literally everything, he had his say on another one of the country’s top sides, Don Revie’s Leeds United.
The legendary manager branded Leeds a dirty side, whose tactics ranged from kicking to barging and little more. And whether or not the accusation was true, it stuck.
That’s why it shocked the world of English football when Clough was appointed as the manager of Leeds United after the departure of Don Revie to manage England in 1974. The manager who had spent the last few years calling out Leeds’ physicality as thuggery was now put in charge of the team itself. As though Pep Guardiola had succeeded Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.
And yet Clough was in no mood for reconciliation.
It would have been perfectly natural for a rival manager to target one of the best teams in the country for such criticism. Managers routinely attempt mind games to put the other side off, perhaps Clough was even trying to influence referees, attempting to get Leeds’ hard tackling punished more than it normally was. Such tricks surely aren’t beyond the top managers who will use any tool at their disposal to win the league.
So he could quite easily have arrived at Elland Road, told the players he’d only said such things because he respected them so much and thought that was the only way to put them off their game. Take it as a compliment, not a criticism. But he didn’t.
“As far as I’m concerned you can throw all your medals in the bin because you got them from cheating,” is what Clough is supposed to have said in his first meeting with the Leeds first team, sticking to his guns and making enemies of the very people who are supposed to make his managerial skills look good.
But that’s kind of what made Brian Clough so special as a manager. It wasn’t his understanding of nuance that made it possible for him to win back to back European Cups with a side he took to promotion only a few seasons earlier, it was his single-mindedness. When he criticised Leeds, he didn’t do it because he was playing mind games, he said it because he meant it.
And according to Giles, he was right about their physicality, though perhaps not about the only reason they won medals.
In the end, Clough would only spend 44 days at Elland Road at the beginning of the 1974/75 season, at the end of which Leeds reached the European Cup final themselves under his replacement Jimmy Armfield.
He would find a home at Nottingham Forest, though. Not just taking them to back to back European triumphs and putting the club on the map, but he managed the team into the Premier League era, too, getting relegated in the first season of the new league structure.
And perhaps, despite the problems which dogged Clough in his later years as Forest manager, that was a fitting end to his time as a manager. The outspokenness and tenacity that made his spell at Leeds so disastrous and took Forest to the top were a product of a bygone era of football, and one that was clearly at odds with the Premier League’s commercialised ethos. Relegation in the first season of the new league spells that out more poetically than anything else ever could.
Leeds, themselves, had a similar fate. They last won the league the season before the Premier League arrived and Clough was relegated. But they themselves have been victims of the new hyper commercialised side of the game, paying over the odds for players in order to compete at the top in the early 2000s, before succumbing to financial struggles and spending well over a decade in the lower leagues.
Both teams are grand old names of years gone by, and even though Leeds probably won’t think so, the tragic stories of Brian Clough and of Nottingham Forest are shared in the tragedy of Leeds United, too.