In defence of Don Revie – a damn good manager

Fifty years after he took over at Leeds, his son and ex-players say it is time to put the record straight and restore a tainted reputation

Simon Hart
Sunday 02 January 2011 01:00

The Damned United may have highlighted the mutual loathing between Don Revie, the man who made Leeds United a force to be feared, and Brian Clough, his short-lived successor, yet how many know of Revie's friendship with Bill Shankly, his rival at Liverpool, whom he would ring every Sunday to discuss their teams' efforts the previous afternoon?

It is instructive to note the affinity shared by these two great football men who each led a club out of the old second division and to six major trophies, yet have contrasting reputations. Where Shankly's name retains iconic status, Revie's is synonymous with "Dirty Leeds" and tainted by his abandonment of the England post after three difficult years to go and coach the United Arab Emirates.

The media mauling Revie received for quitting England still draws a sharp response from his son Duncan, more than 30 years on. "In every other profession it's alright to wait for the sack but when you are the England manager you can't," he says. But Revie Jnr – who works in football as chief executive of Soccerex – hopes a new authorised biography, Revie: Revered and Reviled, by Yorkshire Post journalist Richard Sutcliffe, will "put the record straight" about his father, who became Leeds manager 50 years ago in March.

First and foremost, he says, Don Revie was nothing like the "curmudgeonly and mean-spirited" figure portrayed by Colm Meaney in The Damned United film. "He was quite the opposite. He'd treat the ladies in the washroom and the groundsman just the same as he would Allan Clarke, Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner – he was one of the most generous people in the world.

"He bound them as a family," adds Duncan of the spirit his father fostered within a club often under siege from critics outside West Yorkshire. "There were times when I thought I had 18 other brothers."

Peter Lorimer, who made his Leeds debut in 1962 and remains United's record scorer, says Revie's man-management was pivotal. "He didn't only work on us players, he worked on our families as well. He'd ask, 'How's your family?' and if someone wasn't doing that well you'd get a call later from your mum or wife saying, 'I got a lovely bunch of flowers from Mr Revie'."

Revie effected a remarkable transformation at Leeds, taking a trophyless team from a rugby league city up from the second tier and keeping them in the top four of the old First Division for 10 straight seasons up to 1974. If their gamesmanship and cynicism drew scorn, Revie was undoubtedly a forward-thinker.

His detailed dossiers on opposing sides are a notable example and Duncan Revie offers others. "He had a ballet dancer in to talk to the players about balance and movement. He had dieticians in. I remember as a small kid being taken on to the pitch at Elland Road. He pointed and said, 'Son, in years to come, people will come to games at 11, 12 o'clock and have lunch in executive boxes and it will be all-seater'. He was talking about what the Premier League is now. And that was 1964."

Revie later embraced the ideas of Paul Trevillion, a former Roy of the Rovers illustrator who, influenced by US sport, sought to give Leeds a more fan-friendly face – hence the wearing of tracksuit tops with players' names on the back, and gimmicks like waving to all four sides of the ground before games.

That episode came towards the end of Revie's reign when, as Lorimer put it, "he let us go out and play". Duncan Revie admits that his father wished, with hindsight, that he had done this sooner. "The most significant thing he thought, looking back, was if only he'd let the players off the leash a bit earlier and not worried as much about the opposition. After he'd become England manager, he saw what were supposed to be the best players in England up close, and realised that Leeds team probably should have won another 10 trophies."

Of the four domestic prizes they did win, memories of their solitary FA Cup success from four final appearances under Revie will be stirred by the visit of Simon Grayson's Leeds side to Arsenal next Saturday. It was against Arsenal that Leeds won the 1972 final, 1-0. "The Cup final with the Queen there was a fantastic day," Lorimer remembers. "I have pictures in my pub of me and [goalscorer] Allan Clarke with Billy Bremner on our shoulders."

Typically of a Leeds team that Lorimer felt too often paid the price for pushing for glory on all fronts, they missed out on the Double just 48 hours after Wembley with a loss at Wolves that handed the League title to Clough's Derby County. "Nowadays you wouldn't have to play twice in three days for such major prizes."

It is illustrative of how football has changed that Lorimer, now a Leeds director, believes the club's fans may regard an FA Cup run warily after last term's exploits – winning at Manchester United, drawing at Spurs – stalled their League One promotion push. "If we do well and win, great, it would be another step up the ladder. But for Leeds fans it is about getting back into the Premiership. We want to be playing these big clubs every week."

He expects Leeds to "go out and attack" Arsène Wenger's side. Whatever the outcome, Lorimer believes the club can look forward with confidence once more. "[Grayson] has done a fantastic job, he is a young manager, an English manager, and he has got a great spirit in the club."

It is telling that Lorimer talks about spirit, having served with Revie's band of brothers. Some of his Seventies England players may not have enjoyed such bonding methods as bingo and carpet bowls but they worked with Leeds.

"We'd eat together and relax together, and even now we are all still the best of friends and look forward to being in each other's company. There is nobody that doesn't get on with anybody else and that is a very unique situation in football. At most clubs people have fallen out but that wasn't the case with Leeds. He created that comradeship and it has stayed with us." Not so damned after all.

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