A COUPLE of years ago, Eddie Gray was minding his own business, playing in a charity golf event, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. The Leeds United legend turned around, only to be confronted by an old adversary with a playful smile on his face. “Can I have my studs back?” asked the joker.
It was Ron “Chopper” Harris, uncompromising defender and captain of Chelsea in the days when they and Leeds elevated rivalry into an art form. The studs in question were those he had inserted into Gray’s leg after just eight minutes of the 1970 FA Cup final replay at Old Trafford, a notorious scrap that is remembered to this day as one of the most brutal – and brilliant –in the history of English football.
Some will be recounting its every gory detail this week. After all, it was the match that exacerbated an already fractious relationship between the clubs and provided the context for every one of their future collisions, the latest of which will be a Capital One Cup quarter-final tie at Elland Road on Wednesday night.
Not only will this be the first meeting of these clubs in more than eight years, it will be a reminder that they have even less in common now than they did in 1970, when the FA Cup final was rather crudely billed as a clash between Don Revie’s vulgar, flatcap northerners and the stylish playboys of the King’s Road.
These days, Leeds are in England’s second tier, and Chelsea are the European champions, but 43 years ago, they were both regularly vying for honours. Hence the 28 million British television viewers who tuned in to see them set about each other on a sandy, ploughed-up Wembley pitch that had staged the Horse of the Year Show just a few days earlier.
Ian Hutchinson’s late equaliser denied Leeds, who had the man of the match in Gray. Still only 22, the Scottish winger had given David Webb such a torrid afternoon that Chelsea chose to change their tactics for the replay. “They switched Webb away from full-back so that Chopper Harris could mark me,” recalls Gray. “Well, he did mark me… all over my body.”
A series of first-half fouls “neutralised” Gray, but there were casualties on both sides. Jack Charlton kneed and headbutted Peter Osgood. Hutchinson and Norman Hunter traded punches. Eddie McCreadie felled Billy Bremner with a kung-fu challenge. And Peter Bonetti, the Chelsea goalkeeper who was bundled into his own net by Mick Jones, limped through most of it with a bandaged knee.
David Elleray, who later refereed in the Premier League, once watched a video of the match and declared that, under modern rules, six players would have been sent off and 20 booked. As it was, only Hutchinson was yellow-carded by Eric Jennings over the two games. Hugh McIlvanney, the Scottish journalist, wrote: “At times, it appeared that Mr Jennings would give a free kick only on production of a death certificate.”
Webb had the last laugh, heading an extra-time winner for Chelsea in what was a thrilling final, one of the best, but it was the animosity between the sides, and the way in which it was framed by the media, that captured the public imagination.
In truth, both sides could play and fight in equal measure. Chelsea had Charlie Cooke and Peter Osgood, but they also had Harris and McCreadie, the Scottish left-back whose tackle on Johnny Giles in 1964 led to a running feud between the two. Leeds, for their part, had Gray, Peter Lorimer and Bremner, Scots with more than enough talent to compliment the rudimentary qualities of Charlton and Norman Hunter. But it was the contrasting elements of the two sides that created a lasting impression. In the east end of Glasgow that year, a seven-year-old Celtic supporter by the name of Pat Nevin acquired his first football strip. He chose the one he had seen Chelsea wear in the FA Cup final.
“I was so taken by that team and the story involved with it,” recalls Nevin. “Chelsea were the good guys, Leeds were their evil, nasty, horrible enemies. With a lot of these things, you need a narrative, and for many years, the clubs seemed to embody it. Chelsea were stylish to a gallus degree, whereas Leeds were cynical, but really talented. Maybe those things were exaggerated at the time, but both clubs seemed to play up to that for decades afterwards.”
Little did Nevin know that he would play for Chelsea in the 1980s, a time when the clubs were no longer riding high, and the enmity between them manifested itself in the era’s hooligan culture. Some of the country’s worst trouble-makers seemed to attach themselves to Leeds and Chelsea.
Nevin’s standout memory is of a 5-0 victory at Stamford Bridge in 1984, which effectively clinched promotion to the old First Division. Chelsea’s fans invaded the pitch after every goal, and Ken Bates, their controversial chairman, was out with a loudhailer at half-time, urging them to refrain.
“With five minutes to go, everyone was on the track,” says Nevin. “You could only see the pitch. I scored in the last minute but nobody ever saw it, not even the journalists. It was so crowded around the goal… I think it was given to somebody else.”
After the final whistle, Leeds fans ran riot, ripping concrete from the terrace and destroying Chelsea’s electronic scoreboard. Gray, who was their manager at the time, admits that it was a recurring theme in those days, one that has saddled Leeds with an image problem even now.
The security fears ahead of this week’s match are such that Chelsea have been allocated only 60 per cent of the 5,000 tickets to which they are entitled. That decision follows the recent incident at Hillsborough, when Chris Kirkland, the Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper, was attacked by a Leeds “supporter”.
Gray, who now works for the club’s official radio station, says: “I hated all that in the 1980s, but it’s something the club have worked hard to try and eradicate. The majority of Leeds fans are well-behaved, but when you get little incidents like that, it gives people the opportunity to bring it all up again. When I was their manager, I must say it wasn’t good, but the club are moving forward now.”
This week, the classic fixture will return, with bells on. Neil Warnock, the straight-talking Leeds manager – about whom there are shades of Revie – once turned down the Chelsea job because he didn’t fancy commuting on the M25. He also described Chelsea’s recent treatment of Mark Clattenburg as “disgusting”.
Since they last played Chelsea, in May 2004, Leeds have been run by Bates, whose managerial appointments have included Dennis Wise, the former Chelsea player. Bates is soon to make way for new owners from the Middle East, a transition that cannot come soon enough for a large section of the Leeds support. “That’s definitely the case, but to be fair, Ken wasn’t hugely popular at Chelsea either,” says Nevin. “It all adds to the mix. I have a lot of friends who are Chelsea fans, and, although they’re playing in the Club World Cup just now, all they’re talking about is the Leeds game. It could be a combustible atmosphere.”