Aidan Smith: How England icon Don Revie was hung out to dry

Don Revie, centre, discusses tactics before a World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg at Wembley in March 1977.
Photographs: GettyGetty Images)

Don Revie, centre, discusses tactics before a World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg at Wembley in March 1977. Photographs: GettyGetty Images)

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Once again, I’m standing at my office window in Edinburgh, thinking of England. If I look left I can see the Western General Hospital, visited many times by a dying Bobby Moore. To my right, although obscured by trees, is Warriston Crematorium, where final tribute was paid to Don Revie.

These football icons were unmistakably English ones but Scotland was to figure big for them towards the end. Two years ago, reading a Moore biography at my desk, it was possible to plot his route to the hospital, and imagine the 1966 World Cup-winning captain in his taxi, something he did every fortnight.

There was little the hospital could do for Moore’s bowel cancer but he was happy to help medical research by taking part in trials which could aid future sufferers. His widow Stephanie said Moore was tremendously impressed that no-one – not a cabbie or a nurse or a fellow patient – thought about phoning up an excitable newspaper to tell them that a famous Englishman was in town and that he wasn’t looking too good. He was very grateful for that, she said.

Moore – jeered from the terraces at Hampden, the subject of more than a couple of rude songs, proof of the Tartan Army’s grudging respect – was pleasantly surprised by Scotland’s loyalty on those sad trips. Revie found peace in Scotland after England had virtually declared him Public Enemy No.1, honouring a long-standing promise to his Lochgelly-born wife Elsie that they would move north of the Border for his latter years, but after he’d succumbed to motor neurone disease there was a shock for his family when they gathered at the crematorium on 30 May, 1989, as a new book recalls.

Henry Winter in Fifty Years of Hurt (Bantam Press) describes Revie’s quitting of the England manager’s job and the Football Association’s decision to stay angry at this as “one of the most unedifying episodes in English football history, on and off the field”.

He writes: “Twenty-two years later the FA, showing not one scintilla of class, send no flowers, no letter of condolence, no representative to Revie’s funeral. It’s as if Don Revie OBE, one of English football’s foremost managers, has never existed for the rulers in their ivory tower at Lancaster Gate. It’s as if he’s been airbrushed from history.”

Revie’s reputation has taken a helluva battering down the years. Even when he was receiving plaudits – for the awesome power of his Leeds United – it was through gritted teeth. TV only offered Scotland glimpses of that side at the beginning of the 1970s but in boyhood I couldn’t understand why they were being called “Dirty Leeds”. Didn’t they just bamboozle Southampton with a display of 39-pass keep-ball? No, argued his critics, that was arrogance.

He left the England job to chase petro-dollars in the Middle East. This wouldn’t go down well now, but it appalled the football establishment in 1977. There was definitely arrogance at work here. England had won the World Cup with Moore hoisting the glittering prize and expected to win it again at any moment. There was a sense of entitlement, which failure to retain the trophy in ’70 and failure to qualify for the tournament in ’74, hadn’t quelled. It was a huge blow to English football’s imperialist swagger to lose Revie to the nonentities of the United Arab Emirates.

Later came The Damned Utd which might have portrayed Revie’s great rival Brian Clough as a psychotic drunkard but didn’t do much for our man either. In the film version of David Peace’s book – from an author who likes to re-imagine recent notorious Yorkshire history – Clough’s image received a buff-up; Revie, who retired to Kinross, remained stern and humourless.

Speak to his great Scots at Elland Road and up to a point there’s agreement on this – but these guys loved the man. Peter Lorimer, when I interviewed him a few years ago, described the dressing-room as an ultra-intense place reflecting the mood of the manager: “I didn’t like it before games. Some guys would turn psycho, others would be physically sick and the goalie Gary Sprake got himself into a terrible state – his eyes actually started blinking on the Tuesday. Then there was Don with all his superstitions: lucky mohair suit with the arse falling out of the trousers, twice round his lucky lamp-post, a final comb of the hair in the mirror. I’d have to take myself off to the players’ lounge to watch the horseracing then at ten to three Don would send along one of the groundstaff: ‘Tell Peter we’re ready to go.’” But as he circled the wagons round Elland Road, Revie demonstrated kindness as well as defiance. Lorimer spoke of how he always asked after players’ families, with mothers often calling up their famous sons to tell them: “I got a lovely bunch of flowers from Mr Revie.”

He gave flowers but in the final reckoning didn’t receive any. “Callous,” says Winter who is soon probing a familiar English issue: class. Revie’s son Duncan says the snooty FA chairman Sir Harold Thompson viewed those who worked for him as “serfs”. Winter writes: “Thompson’s condescension towards the working-class Revie is vintage FA.”

Revie loved his extended Leeds family, being able to say hello to the groundsmen and the washroom girls every day, and like many managers who move from club to country, missed the regular involvement. His England players were less keen on bonding games of bingo and bowls than his Leeds ones, same with his dossiers on the opposition which Duncan insists weren’t scarily extensive, though of course that detail is commonplace now. Revie’s England players, he quickly decided, weren’t as good as his Leeds ones – no Scots allowed, of course – although Winter questions claims of a quality dearth and says there should have been more recognition that Antonin Panenka’s Czechoslovakia and Roberto Bettega’s Italy were fine teams.

Club football is king now, stymying international football, but it was like that in Revie’s day, too. He obviously made mistakes, such as giving the story of his resignation to one tabloid which prompted the others who’d missed it to excoriate him. Duncan insists he wasn’t a greedy man, but wasn’t going to hang around waiting to be sacked.

In the past when England failed – that entitlement again – the reaction was to lash out. Maybe that’s changed with Roy Hodgson being allowed to take this team to France after a pretty abject display in Brazil. Hopefully the kiss-off when it eventually comes will be kinder, too.

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