Issue nine of The Square Ball is out today, and you can buy it before the game from our no doubt bedraggled sellers on the rain splashed streets around Elland Road. It’s packed with good stuff, a lot of it to do with the seminal 1986/87 season – Adam Jubb and Steve Firth both have excellent articles about that so-near-yet season, and The Beaten Generation contributes a beautiful Sheridan themed centre-spread. Shez is on the cover, too, in that timeless top, this time with the blue shorts – a combination that, while it’s a bit un-Leeds, I’ve always kind of liked.
I’ve written about losing. You can probably guess which game inspired this. After seeing Leeds concede seven at home for the first time ever, in history, in all time – of all time! – I began to wonder about how many times it had happened away. More times than you’d care to know, is the answer, and I’ve written up a couple of them in the new magazine – a disaster in the League Cup against Arsenal, and a developing two season agony away to Stoke City.
Stoke have an understated role as Leeds United’s nemesis. Our heaviest ever defeat was away to Stoke – 8-1 in 1934. In 1985 Eddie Gray’s young side went there for an 11.30am kick off – on a Monday – and lost 6-2, and before the rematch in 1986 new manager Billy Bremner was wary. “Stoke has always been a bit of a jinx ground for Leeds,” he said. “But I like to think that my lads can be at their most dangerous when they have their backs to the wall.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way. Just before Christmas 1986, with only one away win to their names that season, Bremners 86/87 side of Burton All-Stars went to the Victoria Ground and went one worse than the season before. 5-0 up at half-time – including an overhead kick by one Lee Dixon – Stoke won 7-2, and Billy Bremner, to say the least, wasn’t happy.
Under the Yorkshire Evening Post headline ‘I apologise!’, Billy delivered an impassioned message to the fans and players, making clear that one certainly did not deserve the other and laying down the ground rules for what William Bremner expects from a Leeds United team. As a lesson in how to lose – and how to win – it’s exemplary, and Billy’s words are as relevant to Leeds United today as they were in 1986.
So here are Billy’s words, in full:
“I was ashamed to see a team of mine perform the way they did and I owe our fans an apology for it. It was amazing. We were 5-0 down and our fans were still cheering us on, and they did the same after we had conceded seven goals. Our supporters have had to take a lot of bad publicity recently, but our genuine fans are the best in the world. How many other clubs can count on such backing when they have conceded seven goals in a match?
“I honestly don’t know where they get their patience from. They spend their hard-earned money to follow the club – and we turn in a performance like we did at Stoke. It must be heartbreaking for them when they have to watch what we served up for them. They deserve 100 per cent better. If we were up there at the top of the First Division we could not expect more from our fans. I was ashamed that a team of mine could be so lacking in enthusiasm, commitment and effort. It just wasn’t true.
“It was humiliating and there is no excuse. They are lacking pride in the club, when wearing a Leeds United shirt should be the greatest thing in the world. It was for me. I am not talking about players of 27 and 28, but young players who should be trying to make their way in the game. Some of them wonder why they are not in the team, but you are only as good as your last game. We have to discuss what we are doing and where we are going. It is all about whether players have enough bottle away from home.
“I owe it to our fans to explain what happened and that is why I am making a public apology. But one thing is certain – we will not put up with the level of performance we got at Stoke. I cannot and will not tolerate such play. [YEP: Bremner said that for the first time since coming back to Elland Road, he had mentioned the old Leeds team to his players before the Stoke game.] I spoke about how those players would die for the club yet we never got the kind of support away from home that the present team are getting.
“It made me want to cry for the fans when I saw what happened yesterday. We mentioned commitment to the players before the Stoke game and told them there were certain grounds where you were going to be up against it, like at Derby or Portsmouth. But at Stoke I felt we could win, yet look what we got.
“I have turned things over at this club before and I will do so again. I will bring in new players because I am not having the best support in the world repaid with displays such as that.”
Bremner’s inspiring words worked. Leeds lost only four more league games in 1986/87 as they won a place in the play-offs and came agonisingly close to promotion; and they went all the way to extra-time in the FA Cup semi-finals as United once again played with the commitment Bremner had embodied as a player and demanded as a manager.
A sentiment often expressed in the wake of a shameful defeat is that it’s a good job Billy wasn’t around to see this, but that’s wrong. If ever there was a game I would have wanted Billy Bremner to see, it was Leeds United 3 Nottingham Forest 7. He would have hated every minute of it, true. But he would have known exactly what to do about it. How I would love for him to be delivering that speech to our players, and to us, today.
Originally on The Square Ball blog