Spygate & The Truths, Myths and Legends of “Dirty Leeds”

by | Jan 16, 2019

In these increasingly partisan and divided times, it frequently feels as though we’re all expected to have an opinion, all the time. A shrug of the shoulders doesn’t seem to have the same allure as it used to have. Over the last few days, we’ve seen just about every shade of opinion on the matter of Marcelo Bielsa’s spying on Derby County’s closed training sessions before their match at the end of last week, but the enemy of the opinion piece is not having an opinion, so the default position for writing such an article has been that of whether Bielsa was right or wrong to have behaved in such a way in the first place. It can feel at times like the tyranny of the culture of talk radio. Each must have an opinion, and the loudest and angriest opinion must be that which is heard before any other.

This website, it’s fair to say, has a tendency to get on its high horse at times. We feel strongly about the game and have a lot to say about it. But on this occasion the well of outrage feels somewhat dry. I have opinions on the efficacy of what went on at the end of last week, for sure. I find it difficult to believe that the Leeds United manager could have taken as much from this game as he would from channeling the resources that went into it into watching Derby’s last few matches. It doesn’t feel as though even the most closed of training sessions contains training drills so confidential that they have to be kept from prying eyes. The occasional set-piece drill? Fair enough, at a push. But even the most untrained of eyes can pick up a strong idea of how a team will play from the teamsheet or a starting formation. We’re really not talking about cracking The Enigma Code, here.

But the seed of doubt that has been planted over that opinion came with Leeds’ two-nil win on Friday night. Perhaps I’m wrong about the importance of keeping a closed training session hermetically sealed from the rest of the outside world after all. Perhaps the spy came back from the cold with some very hot information indeed. Had Derby County won the match, it’s more likely that this would have all been forgotten over the course of the weekend. But they didn’t. Leeds won, and in a not unconvincing manner. So the story has rumbled on, through Bielsa’s apology-not-sorry earlier this week, right the way through the middle of the following week. It is, in a media sense if not a footballing sense, truly a gift that keeps on giving, all the more so because we can never fully know the extent to which the means justified the ends.

So, let’s just assume that every expert in the country has already pontificated at great length on the rights and wrongs of all of this and set that to one side. Because for me, there’s something much more interesting going on here. In some respects, this entire story is very Modern Football. Everyone’s taking it too seriously, from those directly involved to those who will be affected by it in no way whatsoever. In others, though, this is an old story, a story of beef that goes back a little over four and a half decades, except with all of its main characters completely jumbled up.

In the early 1970s, there was beef between Leeds United and Derby County. Both were managed by eccentrics at the time in the form of Don Revie and Brian Clough, and Derby pipped Leeds to the league title in 1972, during a period when an extremely talented Leeds team seemed to find a way to lose out on winning it to somebody or other. This story reached its climax in 1974, when Revie quit Elland Road to succeed Alf Ramsey as the England manager to be replaced by Clough, who’d spent a considerable amount of time badmouthing the football that Leeds had played under Revie, a story retold through David Peace’s novel The Damned United and its subsequent film adaptation. Clough, of course, lasted just forty-four days in the hot seat at Elland Road (during a period when such short tenures were practically unheard of), whilst Derby County ended 1974/75 as the champions of England for the second time in four seasons.

All of this feeds into the trope of “Dirty Leeds”, an idea which remains popular amongst the support of rivals to this day. The derisory nickname grew in popularity throughout the 1960s and 1970s as the team sought to sweep all before it, both at home in Europe, but its origins have been said to go back a little further than some might expect, to a match against Everton played in November 1964 at Goodison Park which saw the fourth minute sending off of Everton’s Sandy Brown over his reaction to a violent tackle from Leeds’ Johnny Giles and featured the referee taking the players from the pitch to simmer down before half-time, reportedly the first time that this had happened. Missiles were thrown at players amongst confusion over whether the match had been abandoned or not and the bad temper continued throughout the course of the rest of the afternoon, and after the match outraged editorials in newspapers poured scorn upon the events of the afternoon.

There was, however, a twist to this particular incident. When the Football Association’s disciplinary Committee convened a few weeks later, Brown was banned for two weeks for his reaction to Giles’ tackle and Everton were punished for the behaviour of their supporters that day, but Leeds avoided punishment themselves. Despite this, though, the “Dirty Leeds” name stuck, and when the team started to become more successful later in the decade the origins of the name became half-forgotten, with matches such as the extremely bad tempered 1970 FA Cup final against Chelsea cementing this reputation amongst some. This Leeds team could undoubtedly play – their 1972 thrashing of Southampton, broadcast in almost indecent detail by Match Of The Day, was possibly the greatest single team performance of the early part of the decade, although even that was decried by some for its cockiness during its closing stages – but this was occasionally overlooked in favour of their ability to get stuck in when they needed to.

And the reputation stuck, through the 1975 European Cup final, when supporters ripped up seats and threw them onto the pitch in Barcelona after a series of suspicious refereeing decisions lost them the match against Bayern Munich (a lost eye for a German TV operator, a broken arm for a photographer, the smashing of a £50,000 television camera overshadowed any perceived injustices that may have hurt Leeds on the pitch that night, in the eyes of neutrals), the terrible reputation that their supporters held throughout the 1980s, and even, one might argue, the misdemeanours of Lee Bowyer at the start this century feeding into this particular narrative.

Over time, the “Dirty Leeds” name itself (though, it should be added, not the circumstances that led to its creation and propagation) has come to be adopted by the club’s supporters, but it feels as though the reasoning behind the name in the twenty-first century is almost an irrelevance. There’s an extent to which this club has become the pantomime baddies of English football, the club at which it’s fine to boo and hiss in a theatrical manner. And if we accept all of this as correct, then “Spygate” is a perfect storm, feeding into many decades of myth, legend and truth to such an extent that it might even be plausible to believe that Bielsa’s actions were tailor-made to feed into everybody’s preconceptions of Leeds United in a broader sense. Some might argue that this story could only have happened with the involvement of Leeds United. Others might suggest that it was merely perfected by it. And, whether, he meant to or not, Marcelo Bielsa might well find that his stock has risen considerably amongst the club’s support over the last three or four days.

For Derby County supporters, of course, any anger over this is completely understandable, and how their team will react to any perceived injustice may even come to determine the course of the rest of their season. Telling them that none of this matters is unlikely to make much difference to them, but the Football League has announced an investigation into what happened last week, and even though it doesn’t appear that anything illegal has been going on, Leeds United – who’ve already apologised for Bielsa’s actions – might yet find themselves in hot water for failing to act “in good faith” towards Derby, as per their own regulations. In the mean time, those of us with no particular dog in this particular fight can amuse ourselves with bad Spy vs Spy-esque jokes and photoshopped pictures of Marcelo Bielsa wearing a fake nose and glasses, wearing a name badge with “Guy Incognito” printed on it. Considering the state of so much of the rest of the world at the moment, we need all the comic relief we can get.