History holds a hammer - The Square Ball 16/12/21


Written by: Patrick Gunn

Tuesday night was fun, right? Mixing it with the big boys. Lads who still work weekday mornings at your local supermarket going toe-to-toe with the kind of squad you only used to find at testimonial matches. What better way to spend a school night than watching your favourite team get battered on live TV, while the rest of the country laughs its socks off?

Alright, so it wasn’t fun. Not even slightly. I could spend this article effectively typing out the ‘What a sad little life, Jane’ speech, but what about revisiting other times we’ve been knocked for six (or seven, or eight) instead? Perhaps we’ll find some reassurance in how historic Leeds sides responded to heavy defeats. Perhaps, by reliving those moments, we can better understand how to recover.

Stoke City 8-1 Leeds, Division One, 27th August 1934, The Victoria Ground

Until Tuesday night, this game stood alone as our heaviest league defeat, so kudos to the club for modernizing the records and bringing us into the 21st century. It was the second matchday of a season in which Leeds had already been beaten 4-2 by Middlesbrough at Elland Road, and manager Dick Ray was finding it hard to cope with the departure of key players Wilf Copping and Jimmy Potts, while star-striker Arthur Hydes was out until October. But the Leeds side that arrived at The Victoria Ground on August 27th was not without star quality: Jack Milburn (not to be confused with cousin Jackie) had been on tour with England, Willis Edwards was a former England captain, and striker Billy Furness scored sixteen goals that season. Furness had scored twice in an 8-0 demolition of Leicester the previous season (still our largest league win). What met Leeds that day, though, was a Stoke side driven by a young, local lad who went on to be one of the greatest English players of all time. Stanley Matthews was on the cusp of breaking into the England team, and advertised his blossoming abilities by thumping four past 22-year-old Stan Moore in the Leeds goal. Joe Johnson and Tommy Sale added two each either side of Matthews, before Cecil Hornby made sure there was at least one thing for the Leeds fans to cheer on ninety minutes. Following the drubbing, however, Ray’s side recovered well, drawing 1-1 with Blackburn Rovers before going a further three games unbeaten. Positivity didn’t last long, though, as Leeds went on to finish 18th, suffering heavy defeats at the hands of Chelsea (5-1), West Brom (6-3), and Chelsea again (7-1). Overall, Leeds conceded 92 goals that season. So, you know, it could be worse.

West Ham 7-0 Leeds, League Cup 4th Round, 7th November 1966, The Boleyn Ground

1966/67 was going pretty well for Leeds up until this point. In nineteen games Leeds had lost just four times, their wins including an 8-2 aggregate hammering of DWS Amsterdam in the Fairs Cup (DWS still play in the sixth tier of Dutch football, and the full translation of their club name is Amsterdam Football Club Strong Through Willpower). Leeds had seen off Preston in the previous round of the cup, winning 3-0 after an initial 1-1 draw forced a replay, but West Ham were a different prospect. Although their season ended in overall disappointment, finishing 16th after losing 6-1 on the final day, the Hammers boasted a plethora of talent: World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore; Martin Peters, who scored in the ’66 final; and Geoff Hurst, the World Cup hat-trick hero who scored 29 league goals that season. Hurst hit a treble in this game, following the thirty minute hat-trick scored by future Tampa Bay Rowdy John Sissons, while Martin Peters knocked in one of his own to put things beyond doubt. Norman Hunter put the defeat down to a change in Don Revie’s system that moved him to left back in place of Willie Bell, who was given the job of man-marking Hurst. The tactical shift had worked, somewhat, in a lucky 1-0 win against Arsenal in the previous game, but the Hammers picked an uncomfortable Leeds side apart, continuing in the second half even after Revie had reverted back to his regular line-up. Stories circulated of Leeds’ demise after the game; questions began to surface about Revie’s tenure and the ability of his team. A response was needed. It came in the next game — a 2-1 win against Leicester that steadied the ship — before another thumping came at the hands of Liverpool, 5-0 away at Anfield. Revie’s side, however, only lost six more times and finished 4th in the league, cruelly missing out on European glory to Dinamo Zagreb in the Fairs Cup final.

Arsenal 7-0 Leeds, League Cup 2nd Round, 4th September 1979, Highbury

The Leeds team of 1979 was very different to its 1966 counterpart, with just a few remnants of those glory days still at the club. Relegation didn’t come for a few more years, but the cracks were beginning to show in a season that finished with Leeds’ lowest points total since promotion in 1964. The season was still quite young when Leeds and Arsenal faced each other for a third consecutive match. Both previous meetings had ended 1-1 (one in the league and one in the cup, triggering this replay), so you’d be forgiven for thinking another tight game was coming at Highbury. Well, you’d have been dead wrong. Arsenal, with Graham Rix pulling the strings in midfield and Alan Sunderland on fire, were 3-0 up at half time. In the second half, rather than slowing the game down, the Gunners kept pushing, scoring four more before the final whistle. Now where have I heard that story lately? Manager Jimmy Adamson, to his credit, praised Arsenal for their persistence, and described his side’s performance as “rubbish”, which seems pretty fair. Leeds never troubled the Arsenal back-line, which included a certain David O’Leary, and were by all accounts all over the shop every time Arsenal swept forward. Sunderland scored a hat-trick, Liam Brady stuck two penalties away, and the demolition was finished off by goals from Sammy Nelson and Frank Stapleton. Leeds responded fairly well: they didn’t lose for the next five games, and completed a rout of their own as they battered Maltese side Valletta 7-0 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup. League form continued to be patchy, though, with just thirteen wins all season leaving the club in 11th place come the final day.

Sheffield Wednesday 6-0 Leeds, Championship, 11th January 2014, Hillsborough

One from the personal memory banks, as much as I’d tried to block it out. The Leeds team that travelled to Sheffield in January 2014 was, to put it mildly, struggling. They had not tasted victory since a visit to Doncaster in December 2013, five games ago, and the week before Brian McDermott’s side made the short trip to Rochdale where they were unceremoniously kicked out of the FA Cup by the League Two outfit. The response had been ugly. Fans berated the sheepish players who came over to applaud them at the end of the game, a mixture of frustration over the quality of football on display and the off-field confusion about the future ownership of the club. McDermott tried to downplay the importance of an early cup exit following the Rochdale game, but couldn’t hide his frustration after the final whistle blew on the embarrassing day that followed in South Yorkshire. With Wednesday’s players and fans revelling in the razing of their Yorkshire rivals, McDermott called the performance a “public humiliation”, admitting recent weeks had been a “terrible time” for the club. It was hard to argue with him. In a prime example of (Luke) Murphy’s law, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for Leeds. Poor Marius Zaliukas, who had just signed an extended contract after a series of impressive performances, effectively ended his Leeds United career in a single display of individual calamity. Matt Smith, brought on at half-time to put more pressure on the Wednesday defence, was immediately sent off for catching Reda Johnson with an elbow, leaving Leeds with 45 more minutes against an opponent out for blood. Connor Wickham, Chris Maguire, and Caolan Lavery all added to the final tally before a merciful Lee Probert blew for full-time. Leeds didn’t win again until the madness of February 1st — a 5-1 victory over Huddersfield Town when Brian McDermott was ‘sacked’ before the game by prospective owner Massimo Cellino, who then reversed his decision immediately afterwards, claiming he never made any such order. Truly, it was a start befitting the madness of the Cellino era. McDermott, freshly reinstated (or not, depending who you believe) oversaw a season that barely had enough energy to fizzle out. Leeds won just five more times before the end of the campaign, finishing in what had become a customary 15th.

You might find it odd to respond to a battering by looking back at other times we’ve been battered (and there are plenty more I could have included), but there is a pinch of logic behind what you’ve just read. Life goes on. No doubt, after all these individual embarrassments, it felt to a lot of fans like the sky was falling on their beloved club. Yet, here we are, 87 years after that mauling at the hands of Stanley Matthews and Stoke, and everything’s okay for the most part. Enjoy the points, Manchester City. You ruined our evening for your own entertainment. Dear Lord, what a sad little life, Pep.

Defeats happen – some of them worse than others — but after a while, this will be just another story to look back on.

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