Parking The Coach: Don Revie

by | Oct 30, 2017


The English game has never produced a figure quite so divisive, so controversial and so widely reviled as Donald George Revie. If it has, they were never as consistently successful. The Leeds United team that Revie crafted – by turns brutal, immovable and brilliant – proved to be a short-lived dynasty, unable to survive the passing of its leader once Revie was lured away to manage England. This, too, would prove a step too far for Revie. A period of uncharacteristic failure, uncertainty, and eventually a scandal that would permanently taint his legacy (while no doubt delighting all of the people whose toes he had trodden on along the way) would follow.

Revie remains perhaps the most beguiling and contradictory figure that British soccer has ever produced. He was a man determined to build a family atmosphere around him but who ended up in isolation; a determined individualist who demanded total discipline and absolute devotion from others. A progressive, pragmatic, analytical tactician who asked a gypsy to lift a curse from a football ground. Deeply unpopular and yet relentlessly successful. This is his story.

Like Bob Paisley and Brian Clough, the other two English coaches who would dominate football in their home country during the 1960s and 1970s, Don Revie hailed from the north east. Like Clough, the man who would be both his implacable rival and stylistic counterpoint, Revie grew up in Middlesbrough, where he was born on 10th July 1927. His promising professional career began when he signed for Leicester City – who had close ties with his boyhood club, Middlesbrough Swifts – in 1945.

Revie soon marked himself out as a man apart, hungry to learn and unconcerned about how this individualistic streak would have him perceived by his colleagues. In 1949, despite offers from both Arsenal and Manchester City, he signed for Hull City for a fee of £19,000. Hull were at the time an unfashionable lower-division outfit but they were managed by English football great Raich Carter and Revie wanted to study under him. It was a characteristically singular move and one typical of Revie’s determined mindset, but a move that didn’t work out on the field of play: Revie was a gifted and intelligent inside forward but he lacked pace and strength, both of which were central to Hull City’s style. After two seasons, he moved to Manchester City for £25,000. Revie initially found this transition, too, to be difficult. However, once City sold England international Ivor Broadis to Newcastle in 1953, Revie came into his own. Allowed to play in his natural position – the kind of withdrawn forward that Hungary’s great Nandor Hidegkuti had been pioneering in Europe and, with the advent of the “False Nine”, is again all the rage – City set their team up around Revie’s abilities to great effect.

This came to be known as The Revie Plan but in truth, it was more like The Revie Compromise. The remaining players on the team frequently had to sacrifice their own game in order to allow Revie to effectively play his. It is instructive to consider this, when one later analyses the type of football for which Revie’s Leeds United would become famous and notorious in equal measure: a maelstrom of physicality, intimidation, violence and gamesmanship designed to afford protection to whichever player was in possession, as best to allow them to progress forward and use the ball decisively and creatively.

Nevertheless, his performances were notable enough to see City’s playmaker voted the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year for 1954/55, a season where the team reached the FA Cup final. The following year, they went one step further, winning the trophy and finishing fourth in the First Division table. The 1956 FA Cup final triumph over Birmingham City would later be best remembered for the heroics of City’s goalkeeper Bert Trautmann playing on despite having sustained a broken neck, but it was also notable as being Don Revie’s only silverware as a player. His time as a leading professional, too, was effectively done.

It began due to a conflict with the management. Revie had won few admirers when he had sloped off without official clearance on holiday to Blackpool for two weeks in 1955. Fined £27, he spent much of the 1955/56 season on the sidelines in disgrace. Recalled for the FA Cup, he was seen to implore his colleagues to ignore the tactical advice offered by the manager. By October 1956, Revie had been offloaded to Sunderland for £22,000.

At Sunderland, Revie’s playing career began to decline. Their manager, Bill Murray, was quickly sacked due to his part in an illegal payment scandal and his replacement was Alan Brown, who favoured the kind of physical approach that didn’t suit Revie’s more artful style. As his influence on the field diminished, so too did his team’s fortunes. At the end of the 1957/58 season, Sunderland were relegated to the Second Division for the first time and Brown decided to rebuild with a focus on youth. Revie, by now thierty-one years of age, found himself surplus to requirements. Had he stayed, he would have become teammates with an explosive, prolific centre forward who had burned all his bridges at his hometown club and was seeking a fresh challenge: Brian Clough.

Instead, Revie would join Leeds United in November 1958 for £14,000. It was the beginning of a sixteen year relationship with a club who were treading water within the English league but by the end would be its champions. United’s manager Bill Lampton appointed Revie the club captain and he initially helped the struggling outfit avoid relegation, but under new boss Jack Taylor the following season Leeds could no longer escape the inevitable and were demoted to the Second Division. Revie with one eye on his future career in coaching, relinquished the captaincy to Freddie Goodwin and with Leeds on the cusp of a second successive relegation in March 1961, Jack Taylor was dismissed and Revie became player-manager. His immediate concern was survival, but once this was secured with a 19th place finish his ambitions became much more far-reaching.

Revie, like many of the managerial greats who have come before and since, believed strongly in fighting your battles early. Twenty-seven players would be deemed surplus to requirements in his first year in charge, people who he deemed insufficiently talented or who were unable to give their full, unconditional commitment to his vision, upon which he would expand in 1970: “On arrival at Elland Road any new boy, be he a young apprentice professional or an already established star is quick to appreciate that he should combine courage, hard but fair play and complete confidence on the field, with courtesy, good conduct, manners and humility away from it”.

Critics could, and would, freely pick this statement apart and hold it to question. It is unclear whether or not Revie, a complex man, realised the ironies and contradictions that it contained. However, it is as good a mission statement as one could hope for if the aim was to create a family unit; all elements pulling in the same direction, free from personal ego.

No such limits, of course, applied to Revie. He was the paternalistic totem around which all these combined efforts would gather. At the time, Leeds United were an unfashionable club who played an unfashionable sport: Leeds was a rugby and cricket city, meaning that getting bums on seats – and currency in the till on matchdays – was always a difficulty. Revie instituted a youth policy to get around the fact that, initially at least, Leeds United’s financial clout would be unable to match his own ambition. This policy would produce, amongst others, players like Eddie Gray, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer and Paul Reaney. Steeped in Revie’s thinking from an early age, they were also players who remained dedicated to the cause and willing to stay on at the club in spite of offers from their more glamorous rivals, solving another of Leeds United’s ongoing historical problems.

The kind of root and branch reform that Revie was implementing was evinced by the wholesale changes he also made to the club’s identity: the club’s colours, blue and yellow, were abandoned in favour of the all-white colours of Real Madrid. Their nickname – The Peacocks – and the club badge (which featured an owl) were also cast aside due in no small part to the superstitious Revie’s obsessive fear of birds. Behind the scenes, too, Revie was keen on instituting change in every aspect of the club’s approach. Dietary plans were brought in and the playing staff would train with a ballerina to improve their flexibility and balance. At the suggestion of the artist Paul Trevillion, brought in new training gear for his players. Leeds United’s greatest stars would become well known for their purple tracksuits with their name picked out on the back in yellow letters.

On the field, his new young players were allied with the players that he had retained, such as Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner. The board liked what they saw and allowed further investment: Bobby Collins was bought from Everton for £25,000 and would be the new team captain; while John Charles arrived for a second, albeit less successful, spell from Juventus for £53,000. In 1963, the year after Revie had retired as a player, another piece of the puzzle was added: this was John Giles, the gifted (and hard-as-nails) Irish midfield play-maker, bought from Manchester United for £33,000. As the successes continued and the attendances increased, so the club’s coffers and the board’s confidence grew with them. But it should be stressed that Don Revie was not a cheque book manager. Indeed, during his famous forty-four day spell in charge at Elland Road, Brian Clough spent more on transfers than his predecessor had in the previous thirteen seasons combined.

In the 1962/63 season, Leeds challenged strongly for promotion but were hamstrung by a harsh winter causing a fixture backlog that eventually saw them slump to 5th place. The following season, presented no such problems and the club returned to the top flight as Second Division champions. Their new success was tempered by the fact that Revie’s side were growing increasingly unpopular. They played a markedly physical style of football and had an unpleasant habit of going one-nil ahead and then closing the game out with as much cynicism and negativity as they could get away with.

This defensive steel was the foundation of the great Leeds United team to come and was the result of the rigorousness of Don Revie’s preparation for each and every game. Dossiers were drawn up and routinely maintained on teams, managers, chairmen, and officials. Revie’s greatest fear was leaving any stone unturned, in losing a match as a result of something he had neglected to do.

His other fears were, perhaps, a little less reasonable. Revie was probably the most superstitious and compulsive manager ever to any measure of success in the English game. When one considers the breadth of his obsessions, it becomes all the more remarkable that it never seemed to rub off on his team, who famously played like the 1964 Bank Holiday riots on Brighton seafront. Revie’s peculiar fears included the colour green, birds and ornamental elephants. He would insist on the team coach stopping short of the entrance of away grounds so that the team could walk the final hundred yards. At home, he would be sure to take the same route to the ground and the same route to the dugout. Sat in his lucky seat, ensconced in his lucky blue suit and his lucky brown coat, perhaps watching an injured Billy Bremner playing “on one leg” so as to avoid losing his talismanic qualities: looked at from the outside, it was no way to run a successful football club.

The results were there for all to see, however. Whatever the level of curiousness that this caused, whatever the amount of resentment and unpopularity, the fact remains that from the time Revie’s Leeds returned to the top flight – in 1964/65 – to the time he left in 1973/74, his team never finished lower than fourth in the table. Twice they were champions and a further five they were runners-up, including in their first season back in the First Division. They remained a force on all other fronts, too. Under Revie, Leeds would reach four FA Cup finals, winning one in 1972; win the League Cup in 1968 and win the European Fairs Cup twice from three finals, in 1968 and 1971. Revie was the first English-born manager to win a European trophy.

They could perhaps have been more successful still, but for their reputation. Dirty Leeds were the most loathed football team in the country and the determination that opposition players, staff and supporters felt to try and unseat them – or, at least, inconvenience them as best they could – continually made their lives difficult. It threatened at times to become a vicious spiral, with suspicion and mistrust leading to an overly-compensatory response: every time Leeds would double down their efforts in order to overcome the latest slight, so their rivals would react with more scorn and redoubled industry. They are now best remembered for their failures than their successes: losing the 1973 Cup Final to Second Division Sunderland, or falling victim to Fourth Division Colchester United in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup in 1971. Leeds United’s defeats were celebrated to the echo by the football supporting public.

This schadenfreude would reach its apotheosis in the 1969/70 season, when United were famously in the running for an unprecedented League, FA Cup and European Cup treble and, equally famously, emerged empty handed. In the previous season, 1968/69, Leeds had swept to their first English title. This was a bold and brilliant team: Gary Sprake, the much-maligned Welsh international goalkeeper, sat behind a defence of Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper, Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter; the midfield combined craft and graft in equal measure with Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Peter Lorimer. Up front, the prolific Mick Jones’s efforts were augmented by the addition of Allan Clarke. Mick Bates could fill in more or less anywhere from off the bench and homegrown products like Paul Madeley, Eddie Gray and Terry Yorath added bite, pace and flexibility.

But in the defence of their title, Revie found himself over-stretched. This would have made life difficult enough but for the fact that he had previously fallen afoul of Alan Hardaker, then the Secretary of the Football Association. Hardaker was famous for his truculent and intransigent approach to the rescheduling of fixtures, so Don Revie would – on more than one occasion – try out his brilliant solution to the problem: fielding an under-strength team. This infuriated fellow managers and incur Hardaker’s ongoing wrath. Their chase for the treble would ultimately run aground when, between March and April 1970, the club were faced with 17 fixtures, nine of which fell within just twenty-two days. By May, Leeds had fallen short of Arsenal in the First Division, lost a spectacularly ill-tempered FA Cup final to Chelsea (following a replay at Old Trafford that was more akin to the beginning of Apocalypse Now than it was a football match) and knocked out of the European Cup at the semi-final stage by Celtic. Revie would never shake his belief that the FA had conspired against Leeds, in order to teach the upstarts a lesson.

Of course, his more outspoken critics would frequently feel that they had not gone far enough. Brian Clough would call for Leeds to be relegated due to their appalling disciplinary record and for the disreputable antics of Don Revie and his second-string elevens. What was notable about the toxic rivalry between these two men is that much of it lay in their similarities. Both were from Middlesbrough and lived just streets apart. Both men were forwards, both were England internationals and both played for Sunderland. But it went deeper than that: both were managers who required absolute faith from their players. For all their differences, both men relied upon a holistic approach and a complete intolerance of those unwilling to subscribe to it. Come 1974, when Revie took over Clough’s dream job at Lancaster Gate and Clough stepped into The Don’s shoes at Elland Road, both ably demonstrated the thin veneer that separated their magic touch from very messy public failure.

All of this is not to say that Revie was not getting up to some exceedingly questionable antics. Bob Stokoe had already alleged that Revie had offered him £500 if his Bury side would “go easy” on a struggling Leeds in a Second Division match in 1962. When Stokoe refused, Revie attempted to instead go directly to Stokoe’s players. Chasing a second League Championship in May 1972, Revie was alleged, by both The Daily Mirror and Sunday People newspapers, to have repeated the trick in a must-win game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The appalled Wolves players stepped up their efforts to ensure that Leeds were defeated, handing the title to Brian Clough’s Derby County.

However, the only thing for which Revie and Leeds received notable censure during his spell at Elland Road was at the start of that 1971/72 season. The previous term had seen Leeds denied the title by a single point thanks to a hugely controversial defeat by West Bromwich Albion, Jeff Astle’s winning goal clearly offside but allowed by the officials. The mass brawl that ensued, in addition to Revie’s outspoken criticism of referee Ray Tinkler, saw Leeds forced to play their opening fixtures of the following season on a neutral ground. And yet for all of his shadiness and nettlesome ways; for all of the run-ins, suspicion and accusations, it was still Revie – not Clough – who the FA deemed the more suitable candidate for the England job when, following the failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsay was dismissed.

When Revie left Leeds, he did so as a champion for the second time. In the 1973/74 season, by now settled on his line up and convinced of their abilities, Revie gave his charges a freer reign. The results were a more attractive and fluent Leeds United, a Leeds who played with far less aggravation and who, while far from forgiven and accepted, were nevertheless starting to be grudgingly admired. Unbeaten until February 1974, Leeds lost only four times all term and went a record twenty-nine games unbeaten from the beginning of the season. With Brian Clough swooping in to fill the vacancy once Revie accepted the national job, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the stage was set for more domination, at home and abroad. But football, as with all other human affairs, is seldom so straightforward. Clough’s time at Elland Road was an unmitigated disaster, best forgotten by all parties. So, too, was Revie’s time with England.

Why did Revie fail as England manager? It would be completely unfair to not cast a critical eye over the players that he had at his disposal for it is, in the final analysis, they who are ultimately responsible for the results and the performances. But to claim that the quality of player at Revie’s disposal was notably inferior to those chosen by Ramsay would be equally disingenuous. Ramsay’s masterstroke was to select a style of play and to pick the most suitable person to fill each role. Don Revie singularly failed to do either. Perhaps if he had enjoyed a more harmonious relationship with his players these problems could have been resolved given time, but Revie’s approach meant that the prospect of such an eventuality was doomed from the start.

When Revie said he wanted to create a “family” at Leeds United, he meant it in deadly earnest. His United team came to live, work and play together in such a close unit that their understanding and methods of communication could almost be expressed in a shorthand. Father Revie did not rant and rave to get his point across: he was a quiet leader by example, an immaculately obeyed figure of respect. Revie would convey much of his thinking, his expectations, his pleasure and his disappointment using the kind of idiomatic language and expression that only those in close quarters could reasonably be expected to comprehend. The loss of this close-knit unit lost Revie this crucial avenue of understanding and respect. For the first time in his managerial career, his ideas were seen as fallable, as something that needed continual justification. Shorn of the unwavering commitment that his Leeds team had always displayed, Revie lost the confidence of the dressing room.

Where Alf Ramsay had dealt with England’s players in a rather distant and aloof manner, Revie wanted to be there for them, to love them and be loved back by them. But, as Mick Channon would later argue, if you start to treat footballers like children, they will act like children. This would have been OK at Leeds United, where the influx of new recruits could be carefully vetted, controlled and planned in advance. But England provided an entirely new challenge. Overwhelmed by choice, Don Revie began to display an unrelenting indecisiveness.

Upon taking over the job, Revie invited an eye-watering squad of EIGHTY-FIVE English professionals to a conference at a Manchester hotel. There they were informed that they were all to be in contention for the team in addition to countless others whose exclusion was not, Revie insisted, to be considered permanent. This spectacularly muddled decision was a curtain raiser to three years of continual chopping and changing, a fundamental disregard for one of the central principles that had been vital to both Revie’s Leeds United and Ramsay’s England.

Revie could probably have gotten away with his confused selection policy had he (like Ramsay) established a strong central tactical principle, but his child-in-a-sweet-shop approach muddied his thinking in that area, too. The meticulousness of his preparation for every game, forever a feature during his Leeds days, would be amplified by the additional time between international fixtures. Mick Channon would later suggest that so complete were his preparations that it served to only overwhelm the players, who felt under-prepared and unaware of what they were supposed to be doing.

When Revie did finally start to thresh and cull his eighty-five down to a regular eleven, his thinking proved to be similarly opaque and unreliable. His first match in charge was a flattering 3-0 win against a strong Czechoslovakia team, but this was followed by a meek goalless draw with unfancied Portugal. Critics were already suggesting that his team lacked cohesiveness and suffered particularly from a lack of creativity. Revie began to tinker unendingly, his tendency toward superstition and tendency to bear a grudge making an already difficult job, impossible.

A particularly instructive example of Revie’s capricious and arbitrary stewardship of the national side can be found in the case of the brief international career of Alan Hudson. Hudson was 24 and at the height of his powers as a creative midfielder for Chelsea. In 1975, Revie called him up to first England team to be captained by Alan Ball. That Revie would consider Ball for such an important role was interesting in itself: while manager at Leeds, Revie had attempted to (in the modern parlance) tap up Ball, paying him £300 to join him at Elland Road. Revie and Ball were caught in the act and, worse yet, Ball signed for Everton anyway. To select Ball to be his captain gives some indication of the type of scattershot approach that Revie adopted for his team selection, hoping to chance upon the alchemy that had brought him success at Leeds.

Hudson and Ball formed a potent unit, helping England to a famous victory over the reigning World Champions West Germany at Wembley. This was followed up by a 5-0 hammering of Cyprus, a European Championship qualifier that would prove to be Hudson’s last appearance for his country. Alan Ball would go on to captain England to a 5-1 win against Scotland in their following match, before he, too, was shuffled out of the pack: the next time the England team convened, QPR’s Gerry Francis was the England captain. Alan Ball didn’t even make the squad.

Hudson would later claim that he had fallen victim to Revie’s long-standing suspicion of and dislike for Chelsea players, which went so deep that he would never have had sufficient faith in Hudson’s ability or temperament to keep him in consideration. It is, of course, just as possible that he fell victim to a different slight: Ball and Hudson had sneaked out to the boozer while on international duty rather than attending Revie’s mandated squad get-together. These were legion in Revie’s time at Leeds; a snug, beige affair of halves of mild, communal singing, carpet bowls and dominoes. Such a dereliction of the family dynamic was anathema to Revie, but the implications are just as illustrative to the challenging psychology that underpinned his approach to England squad selection.

There were other, rather more prosaic reasons, that Revie quickly lost the confidence of his players. One of his first acts as England manager was to get the players’ appearance fee doubled to £200 per game. One of his second acts was to proudly inform his new charges of this fact – a vulgarity that was not appreciated by several senior squad members, including Emlyn Hughes. For them, playing for England was its own reward. Under Revie, a slew of new call-ups – untested players being thrown into flailing and experimental sides – served only to diminish the value of the honour, as all while the team’s performances waned. His rapport with Football Association, already fraught thanks to his time at Leeds, also deteriorated. Of particular note was the frosty relationship with Sir Harry Thompson, then Chairman of the FA, who Revie considered to be both personally and professionally disrespectful.

Of course, for all the thunder around the throne, Revie’s biggest problems remained on the field. England failed to qualify for the 1976 European Championships – then a four-team finals tournament – finishing a point behind the eventual champions Czechoslovakia in their group, thanks in no small part to that meek 0-0 draw with Portugal at Wembley.

For the 1978 World Cup qualifiers, England were drawn in a group with Italy, Finland and Luxembourg. Eventually, Italy would prevail: the Azzuri had an identical record to England, five wins and one loss, but were carried over the line by their superior goal difference. With such paucity of opposition, only the matches against one another were ever going to count, and England’s game in Rome on the seventeenth of November 1976 was a damning indictment of Revie’s regime. He picked an unbalanced, ageing and overly defensive side and they were comprehensively beaten 2-0, having created virtually nothing. By the time the Italians came to Wembley for the return game (which England would win 2-0), Revie was gone.

Bending under the pressure of the job and convinced that the FA had already lined Bobby Robson up to be his successor, Revie was approached by representatives of the FA of the United Arab Emirates. Offered a huge salary of £340,000 to bring his wisdom and experience to the Middle East for the next four years, Revie informed the FA that he had decided to leave his England post. This was a big deal: no England manager had ever before resigned from their post and to do so was as much a disrespect to the office as it was an admission of personal defeat.

What happened next began a new era for the England team. With the FA resisting his demand to be released from his contract – and, even, paid off – Revie took a different tack. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Mail newspaper on eleventh of July 1977, for which he was paid £20,000, Revie announced that he was to leave his post immediately. To exacerbate the snub, Sir Harry Thompson didn’t receive Revie’s formal letter of resignation until later that morning. The FA were livid: they had put a lot of faith in Revie in spite of the rather meagre return: in twenty-nine games in charge of the national team, Revie’s England had won just fourteen. In a tenure lasting three years and one week, he had used over fifty players. Revie was charged with bringing the game into disrepute by the Football Association and subsequently banned for ten years.

In 1978, Revie went to the High Court to overturn the ban and, while he was successful in doing so, the presiding judge Mr. Justice Cantley nevertheless concluded that Revie’s testimony had “lacked candour” and that his approach to the game was “greedy, prickly and focused on imagined wrongs”. Revie’s resignation, Justice Cantley said, “showed a sensational, outrageous example of disloyalty, breach of trust, discourtesy and selfishness”. The court of public opinion was just as damning. Revie had been mercenary and self-interested but, worst of all, wholly unsuccessful in his task. It was a period of history that did irreparable damage to the England team, the FA and the relationship that the general public have with them.

Revie’s time in the Middle East was as unsuccessful as it was lucrative, which is to say, very. After two years in charge of the national team, Revie spent a three seasons at Al-Nasr in Dubai and then a further year in Egypt with Al-Ahly. In 1985, he returned to the UK. Revie was briefly in consideration to succeed Alan Mullery as the manager of Queens Park Rangers but when the job went to Jim Smith he instead retired to live in Edinburgh with his wife of thirty-six years, Elsie. Whatever your view of Revie, what happened next was appallingly cruel: in 1987 he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, a spiteful affliction that quickly rendered him paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. He died in Edinburgh on 26th May 1989, aged just sixty-one. No representative from the Football Association attended his funeral.

Don Revie today is remembered chiefly as a caricature, the pantomime villain in the magical tale of Brian Clough. The man who followed the money to the Middle East rather than stand up and be dismissed by the FA. The archetypal dodgy football manager. Revie was and is all of those things, but he was also an exceptional, modern, broad-minded manager who took a provincial side and built a monolith. Revie’s Leeds cast such a long shadow that, in the early part of this century, the club almost went to the wall trying to live up to the standards that he set. The year after his death, the United Arab Emirates, having qualified for the World Cup for the first time, played at Italia 90. This, too, was no small reflection of the structure that Revie had helped to put into place.

It is probably fitting that Don Revie still divides opinion as sharply as he did when he was active within the sport. For better or worse, he had an indelible effect on the game he loved. Football, particularly English football, was never quite the same again.