James Lawton: Ghosts of yesteryear will be strangers as broke Leeds tackle flush Chelsea

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The Independent Football

Leeds United versus Chelsea - what a ghostly version it is today of the old battles. They used to have such a taut edge. There was cordite in the air.

It was in one of those collisions of the Sixties and early Seventies that confirmed in Johnny Giles the resolve to live by a pre-emptive sword.

"I reached the decision after Eddie McCreadie tackled me so late in a game at Stamford Bridge in 1965, when I was in my early twenties," Giles was recalling this week. "I was actually watching Norman Hunter take a shot at goal from my cross. Normally, you would watch Eddie very carefully.

"He was a great lad off the field. I enjoyed having a drink with him after a match, and he was a very talented player, but he was a lethal tackler. However, on this occasion I thought it was reasonable to be getting on with my life when the hit came.

"Fortunately, I was only out of the game for three weeks with knee ligament injuries, but while lying in the hospital I thought, 'this could be the end'. I had a young family and nothing to turn to but football. I said, 'If I get away with this, I'm going to really look after myself - I'm going to make my presence felt'. They were hard days."

The war raged through the Sixties as the talented team of Dave Sexton strived to match the competitive levels achieved by the team Don Revie shaped around Giles and Billy Bremner. Leeds tended to win, despite the talent of a young Chelsea team in which Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson promised so much as long as they avoided the worst temptations of the King's Road - but the pattern was broken in the 1970 FA Cup final, when Eddie Gray, whose job it is today to stir the embers of a broken club, overwhelmed the Chelsea right-back Dave Webb at Wembley.

Mistakes by the goalkeeper Gary Sprake betrayed Leeds and in the replay at Old Trafford Ron "Chopper" Harris was assigned to Gray. In the first few minutes he put Gray virtually out of the game with a withering tackle. Much later, the referee, Clive Thomas, analysed the film of the game, and reckoned that on today's standards, eight players would have been sent off - and 11 booked.

But if Leeds-Chelsea was frequently as murderously hard as the first Duran-Leonard fight, it could also, like that fight, be beautiful. "It was one of those games you were always up for," Giles remembers. "They had a lot of talent, they could really play, and you knew there were four guys in that team who could physically hurt you a lot - Chopper, Eddie, Peter Osgood, and though he wasn't so obvious, John Hollins. Of course we had Billy and me - and Norman."

Distant drums, no doubt, but there is an added poignancy to today's meeting at Elland Road. Though Leeds are now the battered monument to football mismanagement, to a surrender of all rationality in pursuit of success at any price, there is no doubt that before the Chelsea chairman Ken Bates did his life-giving deal with Roman Abramovich last summer, the future of the West London was hardly a picture of blooming health.

For more than a year Bates rummaged around the debris of his dreams for a point of light. But he did several things right, most notably refusing, unlike Leeds, to sell off his prime assets, the players. Though the coach Claudio Ranieri couldn't add to his squad, he was not operating on the shifting sand of Elland Road, and a place in Europe was retained. That was surely an important factor when Abramovich came to write off the Stamford Bridge debts.

Back in the Revie days the Elland Road directors did not attract universal admiration - and certainly not within the dressing room or the manager's office. One of them asked: "Why is that Don Revie gets all the praise around here?"

The reason was that Revie built from scratch in a way that simply would not be possible today.

On the foundation of the ruthless Bobby Collins, the great little Napoleonic midfielder, and his disciple Giles, a £35,000 buy from Manchester United, Revie ushered in a generation of young players unrivalled in English football until the arrival of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and the Neville boys at Old Trafford. Revie commanded Bremner to get down on his knees and thank God for his good fortune, and he imposed intense discipline on such gifted youngsters as Peter Lorimer, Gray, Hunter, Terry Cooper and Paul Madeley.

Revie moulded men as much as football players, but Bosman and freedom of contract was not even a speck on the horizon then. "Don wouldn't have had much of a chance of keeping that team together in today's conditions. If someone from Milan or Turin had come and said, 'how do you fancy changing your lives and making yourself financially right?', there would have a rush to the door. Most of the team were just coming into their prime."

Today, Gray can only follow his deepest professional instincts. He can only appeal to a footballer's pride so that he will stand and fight against superior odds, if only for a day.

Last week he exceeded expectations when Leeds deservedly won at Charlton. They went out to win, and Mark Viduka, who has become almost a symbol of the club's lost will, played out of his hitherto languid skin. Against the deep strength of League-leading, plutocrat Chelsea it is a much more daunting call. But the manager, ransacking his reserves of optimism, can point to an advantage or two. At least, Chopper Harris will not be screaming into view.