Football: Good new days for the likely lads

Simon Turnbull talks to a Leeds legend about a parallel era
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The Independent Online
LEEDS, OF COURSE, is the home of The Good Old Days. It was in the City Varieties Theatre that Leonard Sachs would bang his gavel and present the stimulating, the sumptuous, the positively splendiferous televised music hall extravaganza. Little more than a few miles away, on the Premiership stage at Elland Road, the good old football days are coming back to Leeds. Or so it would seem.

David O'Leary's troupe of polished young performers have been stirring memories of Don Revie's class acts from the 1970s. O'Leary's likely lads have been chasing the club record run of League wins established by Revie's title-winners in 1973-74, which they duly matched yesterday with their seventh successive Premiership victory. And the precision of their passing game has brought the matador cries of old back to Elland Road. The "Oles" were famously featured on Match of the Day in March 1972, accompanying the keep-ball exhibition and 7-0 torment of Southampton. But it was during the 5-1 mauling of Manchester United the previous month that they were first aired by the Elland Road Kop, the afternoon Eddie Gray nutmegged George Best in front of the dug-outs.

Twenty-seven years and two months later, the left-winger who left Georgie red-faced as well as red-shirted, sheepishly dismissed the defining moment of the Don's era. "Och, George nutmegged loads of people in his career," Gray said. "I don't think he worried about that."

But at Old Trafford - and at Highbury and Stamford Bridge too - it is safe to assume that the established leaders of the Premiership order are starting to worry about the whipper-snappers the genial Gray has helped to nurture at Elland Road. A Leeds legend from his 18 years as a world- class wide-boy, and a manager for three years in between Allan Clarke and Billy Bremner in the 1980s, the 51-year-old Scot has been back on the staff for four years - as youth team coach, reserve coach and, since George Graham's departure, assistant manager. The team he guided to success in the FA Youth Cup two years ago included Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, Jonathon Woodgate, Stephen McPhail and Matthew Jones.

"The lads are progressing well," Gray said, when asked to compare the new generation with the old-time greats. "But there's still a long way to go. To achieve that standard you've got to stay at the top for a long time and these lads haven't won anything yet. That is always the test: if you can win championships and cups and maintain it over a period of time. That's why the manager here always says Man-chester United are the team we've got to try to catch up to.

"They have won so much in the last few years and the majority of their players haven't reached their prime yet. That squad will be formidable if it stays together for the next five or six years. So, first of all, we've got to improve enough to challenge United and the others at the top, Arsenal and Chelsea. In our case, you're only talking about young players who have made progress. They've got to maintain that progress.

"Yes, they've got a lot of ability. I don't think it's unfair to compare them with the players who have come through at United. We've got a lot of technically gifted young players who are willing to learn. And we've got a manager who'll make them work hard and impress upon them the importance of striving to improve all aspects of their game."

Leeds also have an assistant manager who knows what it is like to graduate from the youth ranks at the club and become part of a trail-blazing senior side. Just 17 when Revie blooded him in the first team, Gray can see a lot of his confident younger self in the crop of assured new kids on the Elland Road block. "You've got to have self-belief," he said, "and that's got to be with you all the way. If you come into the first team and you've not got that, for want of a better word, arrogance about your own ability, then you'll fall by the wayside.

"It's not just about having ability and being strong and quick. You've got to be able to go out in front of 40,000 people and think, `Right, I've got to do the business here'. When Alan Smith was in the squad at Anfield he didn't go there thinking, `This is fantastic'. He was thinking, `I'm going to stick one in the back of the net', which is what he did when he came on as a substitute."

Whether he would have been given the opportunity under the old Leeds regime is doubtful. Smith was one of the young guns Graham chose to keep on the shelf. So was the equally gifted Woodgate. "George did a tremendous job here," Gray said. "Nobody can look at his record and criticise him. But David has had the courage to put the kids in, and en bloc. That's not an easy thing to do, especially when you've got experienced players about the club. But he wouldn't have put them in if they couldn't play. That's the major factor. They're all good players."

The question now is whether they are good enough to bring back the good old trophy- winning days at Leeds United.