In my review of Anthony Clavane’s The Promised Land in TSB #2, I concentrated on how Clavane fits the story of Don Revie and his Leeds United team alongside the ‘New Wave’ of books and films that were being made in northern England, and defining northern England, during the ‘long-sixties’. Clavane subtitled his book ‘The Reinvention of Leeds United’, and while the nostalgia for the Revie era felt by Clavane, David Peace, James Brown and others is mentioned, he doesn’t look in much depth at the way their collective take on Leeds and Leeds United in the 1960s and 70s has come to redefine the era. Whatever statements were made by Revie and Leeds at their peak have receded behind a particular slant on the city and its football that, while dramatically effective and artistically interesting, is not necessarily true.
Of course, you can do what you like with the past. David Peace has made something of a trademark of taking real events, especially events in Leeds, and making them into fiction. The three Red Riding novels and films, and The Damned United, all serve the same artistic purpose of presenting a particular ‘Peaceian’ idea of 1970s Yorkshire: a grim, malevolent place, populated by violent, conflicted people. Cobbled streets, terraced houses, rain, booze, punch-ups and murders; perpetual murk, perpetual misery. As a novelist, Peace can do all this, because it’s fiction, and he can write what he wants to. But as the books pile up, and as the books become films, the popular acceptance of the Peaceian view of Leeds begins to make it ‘true’; and, when his fiction involves real people and real events to the extent of The Damned United, the line between what really happened and what David Peace imagines happened becomes blurred, and people become upset. As Johnny Giles said in last month’s TSB: “We can all have interpretations of events, but he was hurtful.”
In some ways, the current profile of Don Revie – which has arguably not been higher since his death, in 1989 – is directly attributable to David Peace. Revie has for years been forgotten outside Leeds, if not wilfully ignored; the damage done to his reputation by the manner of his departure from the England job has never been repaired. In using Revie as the counterpart to his portrait of Brian Clough in The Damned United, Peace resurrected Revie as a man of significance in English football, and was the catalyst for newspaper articles and TV programmes assessing Revie’s life, achievements and character in greater depth than at any time since the late seventies. But this renewed focus has tended to concentrate on the darker side of Revie, on the frailties and complexities of character that writers like Peace and Clavane find so interesting and alluring. The mythology has threatened to overwhelm the man; Don Revie has almost been absorbed into the Peaceian Leeds that never really was.
Which is why Richard Sutcliffe’s new biography, written with the approval and help of Don Revie’s children, Duncan and Kim, is a timely and necessary intervention. The dark side is present, with ample contributions from Bob Stokoe and Alan Hudson; but it is not allowed to dominate, and takes its proper place as just one aspect of Don Revie. The infamous dossiers, given so much significance in analyses of Revie’s cautiousness and insecurity, are here described by Peter Lorimer as “a ballache,” and that plain-speaking sets the tone for the whole book. Richard Sutcliffe, as befits a sports reporter, has put in the time, effort and legwork to get insights from people who were there alongside Revie at every stage of his life and career, telling the story not just of his management of Leeds and England, but of his playing days at Leicester and the ‘Revie Plan’ era at Manchester City, when the “deep-lying Revie” changed how English football was played years before Don ever stepped into a dugout. A surprisingly rich and candid source is found in the Earl of Harewood, who became president of Leeds United the same year that Revie became manager, and seems to have been alone in the club’s upper echelons in truly appreciating Revie’s value at Elland Road.
The usual former players are all present: Charlton, Lorimer, Giles, Gray, Cherry; and all stress what is really at the heart of this book. Those who knew him best will tell you that Don Revie was motivated, first of all and most of all, by his loyalty to family. What seemed to opposing players and managers like paranoid insularity was, in fact, a genuine togetherness and unity that Don created, from nothing, at Elland Road. Leeds at their peak had sixteen full internationals, and only eleven could play; but nobody ever wanted to leave. “He was a great football manager,” says Kim Revie. “But an even better Dad.” You get the impression that Revie’s players would say exactly the same.
The Peaceian world has its place in literary fiction, and I for one would never discourage it: Sutcliffe’s telling of Revie’s spell as England boss outlines the kind of intrigue and conflict that David Peace could use to make a truly brilliant novel. We all need to take care, though, that when we look back at Don Revie, we don’t try to place too much onto his shoulders. Don Revie died at a terribly early age – he was just 61 years old – and that has left a gap into which, in Don’s absence, we can put pretty much whatever we like. Where we should look first, to stand in for Don himself, is to this book by those who knew him, and who loved him best.
From The Square Ball magazine 2010/11 issue five.