28 April 1969 - Liverpool 0 Leeds United 0
First Division - Anfield - 53,750
Liverpool: Lawrence, Lawler, Strong, Smith, Yeats, Hughes, Callaghan, Graham, Evans, St John, Thompson
United: Sprake, Reaney, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, O'Grady, Madeley, Jones, Giles, Gray
April 1969 … Don Revie had spent eight eventful years building Leeds United into a team that could challenge for the game's highest honours … now the moment of truth was upon them as they faced Liverpool in a League championship showdown which would decide the destination of the trophy.
The match had originally been scheduled for 22 March, but a twist of fate saw to it that the top two sides would face each other at Anfield as the season reached its final knockings. The original fixture was postponed because of a flu epidemic at Elland Road. Eight first team players were laid low, while two others were out injured. The Football League agreed to a request made by United assistant manager Maurice Lindley as Leeds flew home after losing to Ujpest Dozsa in the Fairs Cup.
The decision was a controversial one; particularly as United had also previously been given leave to bring forward some of their Easter fixtures. Liverpool were furious at the decision, with hinted accusations of conspiracy, though in public Reds manager Bill Shankly would only mutter tersely, "This is terrible … a great disappointment."
At the original time of the fixture, Liverpool lagged six points behind United with a game in hand, and their title challenge was being frustrated by the weather. They had played just once since 22 February, winning 2-0 at Sunderland. Being forced to kick their heels for the best part of a month while Leeds were winning three straight games, against Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Stoke City, handed the momentum to the Whites.
By the time the rearranged fixture came around, Leeds' lead was five points. United had only Liverpool and Nottingham Forest to face, while the Reds had three games left.
The title rivals each played out goalless draws away from home on 22 April, United defying third-placed Everton at Goodison while Liverpool surprisingly dropped a point at relegation-threatened Coventry. Those results left the advantage with Leeds.
Both teams sat out the following Saturday, FA Cup final day; the waiting was easier for United than it was for Liverpool. The equation was simple: if Leeds drew or won at Anfield, the League championship was theirs; if Liverpool were victorious, then United could still secure the title by beating Forest at home two days later.
However, manager Don Revie had suffered too many disappointments in previous seasons to take anything for granted. He refused to count any chickens until the necessary points were in the bag.
Phil Brown wrote in the Yorkshire Evening Post on the day of the game: "The side is buoyant with hope and the right sort of confidence as it rests this afternoon in its Liverpool hotel, and the manager is of the same mood too, I fancy, although all Don Revie will say in the last words style is, 'We have a chance, and I hope we can take it.'
"But United are never more determined than when facing odds - the side's tenacity of purpose is unbreakable, which is just as well. Liverpool at Anfield are hardly the side you would choose to have to play for all the League title means. The Anfield Kop is nearly worth a home goal to start with."
Leeds went into the game in marginally the better form - they were undefeated in the League since losing 5-1 at Burnley in October, and had conceded just 2 goals in the previous 7 games. Liverpool themselves had not lost since 15 February, when struggling Nottingham Forest had surprisingly won 2-0 at Anfield, but they had drawn too many games. The points difference between the two had remained stubbornly at four or more for eight weeks.
Don Revie was able to select from strength; his only change from the draw at Everton was to recall the fit again Mick Jones at centre-forward, with Peter Lorimer dropping to the bench.
Liverpool were unchanged, though this meant they would continue without World Cup winner Roger Hunt, who had not played since dislocating a collar bone at Stoke on Easter Monday. This was two days after he scored his three hundredth goal for the Reds. Alun Evans, who became Britain's first £100,000 teenager when he arrived from Wolves earlier in the season, would continue to lead the attack. This was despite his dismissal the week before along with Coventry centre-half Maurice Setters for fighting.
Don Revie hinted before the game that United would attack whenever they had the chance. Few who had seen them play over the previous five years gave much credence to those claims and it was clear from the off that Leeds would be content with a clean sheet.
There were 53,750 passionate football followers in the stadium, but hundreds more were locked outside when the gates were closed five minutes before the off.
Billy Bremner won the toss and chose to make Liverpool play towards the Kop in the first half. It was a calculated risk, leaving Leeds to weather a fearsome opening burst. As Bremner later told Phil Brown of the Yorkshire Evening Post, "The team was unusually nervous when it went out. I have never known them like they were tonight. It was worse than our FA Cup final. I was nervous. I couldn't sleep the night before, and that isn't me. I even got up out of bed at four o'clock in the morning and smoked a cigarette to try and stop thinking about the game. There was such a lot at stake, of course, and it nearly beat us."
Sure enough, the opening was frenetic, described as "Liverpool's nearly wolf like first 15 minutes" by Phil Brown. At first, United could not hide their anxiety, rushing everything they did and making some rash challenges. Liverpool were just as wound up by the occasion, and there were some fierce opening exchanges. United committed two fouls in five minutes and Liverpool retorted with four in five, all six driven by nerves. In that period Tommy Smith, Tommy Lawrence, Terry Cooper, Gary Sprake and Mick Jones all required treatment after ferocious clashes, provoking even fiercer reactions from a passionate crowd.
But after the initial storm started to subside a little, Leeds established a calm rhythm and shape that Liverpool found difficult to fathom, let alone pierce. The Reds were too keyed up to take a considered approach and continually tried to force the pace. Cooler heads might have made them more effective, but they were all set on overpowering the champions elect. United, in contrast, kept their cool and stuck rigidly to Don Revie's blueprint for the game.
Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson in The Unforgiven: "Madeley dropped deep to help out his beleaguered colleagues at every opportunity, frustrating Liverpool's forwards with a grim display of organised obduracy. Reaney and Cooper had been detailed to sit tight on Callaghan and Thompson, Liverpool's two wingers, forcing the main thrusts to go through the middle where there were massed ranks of white shirts." Jack Charlton's aerial dominance, the assured tackling and covering of Norman Hunter and a faultless performance by Gary Sprake made the United spine a particularly tough one to best.
In front of the rearguard, United had O'Grady, Bremner, Giles and Gray splayed across midfield to deny the Reds space, with Mick Jones defending from the front.
It was an approach that had worked for Leeds hundreds of times before - they were past masters at the art of smothering, blanket defence, having perfected the game during their regular European forays.
Despite sustained Liverpool pressure, there were few early moments of real anxiety apart from once when Madeley had to hurriedly head away with goalkeeper Sprake caught out of position. United responded with a deflected shot from Bremner which almost beat the scrambling Lawrence.
It was 26 minutes before an attempt at goal worthy of the name. Callaghan fired wide with an ambitious 25-yard effort, but the chance marked the start of a second wind for Liverpool. They pressed hard and came close to breaking the deadlock in the 35th minute.
Bobby Graham for once evaded United's all consuming defensive net to get in a cross for Alun Evans, 14 yards out. In his eagerness the young striker snatched at the chance and fired it high and wide.
Derek Wallis in the Mirror: "Liverpool needed that goal, because the pattern of the first half indicated they might not get many more chances. There was little sign of the attacking play that Leeds manager Don Revie had promised, but neither was there much hint that Liverpool might improve on first half methods that carried more power than imagination."
There were few other chances in the first half and when the break came the job was half done. United had weathered the initial storm and done so with some assurance, despite all the pressure.
Leeds' confidence was boosted by achieving their first milestone, but Bill Shankly had got into his men's ribs during the break and urged them to raise themselves for one final 45 minutes of all out assault. The Reds had struggled to make clear opportunities in the first half, but now they managed to find some chinks in the iron curtain that faced them.
After sixty-one minutes, Sprake had to pull out all the stops to deny Callaghan. The Liverpool wing man hammered the ball goalwards only for the keeper to fling himself into a deft save to his right.
Liverpool came close to a breakthrough in the 72nd minute. The canny Ian St John manufactured an opening with a clever lob into the penalty area that found Evans unmarked. Again, the teenager failed to provide the finish, shooting wide with the goal at his mercy.
That was as close as the Reds came and United were able to fashion some chances of their own over the last fifteen minutes, even for a few fleeting moments looking the better side. For most of the game they had left Jones an isolated figure up front, but towards the end they managed to get some reinforcements forward. On one occasion Giles nearly sent O'Grady clear, though the chance came to nothing.
There was the inevitable pounding all round the United area over the frantic final minutes, but Liverpool simply did not have the inspiration to unlock the tightest of rearguards - the game was up and United had survived in magnificent fashion.
Geoffrey Green commented in the Times: "Once Callaghan drew Sprake full length, like a piece of elastic, to turn away a rising shot. But that is the Leeds way. That is how they survive. They are used to following in the line of sternest resistance. For most of the night Liverpool had a thumbscrew on them as Hughes, St John, Thompson, Callaghan, Graham and the rest built up their pounding attacks.
"Also ready to come through powerfully was Smith, breaking from the rear. But such was the magnificent covering of this Leeds defence, marshalled by Charlton, Bremner, Hunter and Madeley in midfield, that Liverpool were forced more and more to make their moves crossfield, and even backwards, as they searched for the lines of approach through and behind them. It was a night when the red waves of the Liverpool attack crashed in vain against the tall, white cliff of this defence. Here were two sides, hard as a diamond, but without the brilliant flame of that stone. No one would expect the refinements in such a battle.
"Instead, we saw modern techniques in opposition, with Leeds applying the straitjacket on their opponents inside the penalty area. Some may say all this was alienated from the frills of football. It was. It was an occasion for men, not boys."
Eric Todd in the Guardian: "As one who has followed Leeds - worshipped as a schoolboy - for many years since the days of Edwards, Hart and Copping, I naturally was highly gratified by the evening's performance, but never in all the intervening years have I seen any side subjected to such remorseless, pitiless pressure as were Leeds this night. Time after time it seemed that Leeds must crack. And time after time Liverpool were driven back by a defence which has been the despair of so many teams in this country. Bremner, as usual, played a captain's part and he was encompassed on every side by strong and versatile colleagues. The Leeds forwards naturally had few chances, but they made several good looking attacks as if to convince Liverpool and themselves that they had not come either just for the ride or just for a point.
"Liverpool had every reason to be frustrated and nobody more so than Smith, who in attack and defence was nothing short of great. St John, too, was a tremendous worker in midfield and he, in his turn, had reason to feel aggrieved when his passes were put to poor use. Against an ordinary side Liverpool probably would have won. But then Leeds are not an ordinary side!"
Phil Brown: "The Kop had not seen any sort of a five star game. The defences were right on top after half an hour or so, while the sides were sounding each other out, and combined football and individual effort crashed in vain on the rocks of two superb modern defensive systems studded with internationals.
"Sprake and his Scottish international opposite, Lawrence, were really bothered only at corners, and both were brilliant with the flag kicks, even with two towering and dominant centre-halves, Charlton and Yeats, coming up for them.
"Such was the mutual zest and speed of the marking, chasing and challenging that even if two good passes were made, the third was wrecked, and the quality of the football was not improved when both teams resorted to long but none too accurate high balls. These only showed the splendid heading skills in both defences, but it was exciting enough with every forward of the 10 chasing."
Billy Bremner: "The match was a bit of a let-down. I couldn't see Leeds scoring, but didn't think Liverpool would do so either … generally it was one of those frustrating games where the ball keeps running out of play every minute. After failing to get an early goal, Liverpool became over-anxious and made the mistake of hitting too many high crosses into our goal-mouth . . . Gary and Big Jack had no trouble gobbling these up.
"Liverpool's midfield players couldn't build up anything as the ball was being repeatedly hit backwards and forwards over their heads. The more the game went on, the more I was convinced Leeds wouldn't lose."
Bagchi and Rogerson: "What happened next has become part of Leeds United folklore. Beforehand, Revie had instructed Bremner, if they should get that decisive point, to lead the players after the game towards the Kop. Bremner took some persuading, but after they had celebrated before their own travelling support, Bremner duly marched his men forward. The ground fell silent, but instead of being lynched, the Leeds team were surprised to find themselves being loudly hailed as 'champions' by the 27,000 Koppites massed in front of them. The players stayed put for 20 minutes, soaking it all in, larking around, jumping on one another and paying their tributes to both sets of fans. They had been derided and despised for such a long time that one could not blame them for basking in the adulation. 'Being cheered by a rival crowd - any rival crowd - was a new experience for us,' Eddie Gray recalls. 'This in itself was as much of a turning point for Leeds as the championship achievement.'
"Back in the dressing-room, where Shankly had provided a crate of champagne, Revie clearly felt flattered by the two extraordinary events of the evening: 'The reception given us by the sporting Liverpool crowd was truly magnificent,' he said, 'and so, for that matter, was our defence tonight. It was superb in everything.'
"Shankly, an incurable romantic where football was concerned and not one to bandy around accolades where they were not deserved, gave Leeds his stamp of approval. 'Leeds United are worthy champions,' he proclaimed. 'They are a great side.' That was good enough for Revie and his team. The respect of their fellow professionals was all they craved and now they revelled in the novel experience of popularity. They were underdogs no more. A psychological weight had been lifted. 'That wonderful night at Anfield saw our burning faith in ourselves justified,' Billy Bremner reflected. 'At last we were well and truly vindicated.' The irksome oiks, Revie's 'Little West Riding Hoods', had joined football's aristocracy."
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