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Reader’s Corner: Violence and chaos - a rivalry between SAFC & Leeds that started in the 60s!

RR reader John Briggs recalls an age-old rivalry between Sunderland and Leeds United that stretches all the way back to the 1960s!

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images


On 12th December, we welcome Leeds United to the Stadium of Light for the first time in several years. These days, Leeds United are merely another opponent, albeit a geographically close one. However, during the ‘60s, they were one of our fiercest rivals, with games often escalating into violent clashes. Younger supporters may wonder why this was so, and I’ll endeavour to explain.

The main characters in this story are Don Revie, an ex-Sunderland player and, at that time, Leeds United manager, Leeds’ Scottish international midfielder Bobby Collins, and young Sunderland starlet Willie McPheat.

Revie had been a reasonably successful forward whose football career changed when he became the main component of Manchester City’s ‘Revie plan’. This was a variation on the tactics used by Ferenc Puskas’s famous Hungarian team, involving Revie playing as a deep-lying centre-forward, in a manner similar to Hungarian striker Nándor Hidegkuti. Revie started attacks by coming deep into his own half to receive the ball, drawing the opposing centre-half out of position. This role, known today as the ‘false nine’, was completely new in the 1950s.

In October 1956, Revie joined Sunderland for a fee of £22,000, scoring 14 goals in 55 games over two First Division seasons. Unfortunately, at the end of his second season, Sunderland were relegated for the first time in their history. Revie had clashed many times with manager Alan Brown over tactics, and matters came to a head after a game at Rotherham, where the two physically fought in the dressing room, with Brown leaving covered in blood. Revie was fined and suspended, and after 9 Second Division games and 1 goal, he was transferred to Leeds.

This incident was the precursor of things to come. In future games against Leeds with Brown as Sunderland manager and Revie as Leeds’ player-manager, Ashurst and McNab would be ordered by Brown to ‘deal with him’. Neither player shirked from the task, and Revie was subject to some severe tackles. As such, the feud developed not just between the managers but also between their teams.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Sunderland Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

After a couple of seasons as player-manager, Revie hung up his boots and became the full-time manager. Out went the traditional blue shirts with yellow trim, and in came an all-white strip. The idea was that Revie would turn Leeds into an English Real Madrid, who at the time were the most successful team in Europe. To achieve this, Revie’s philosophy was simple: win at all costs. If the opposition had a good player, you put him out of the game; if they were a good team, you kicked them off the park. This heralded the start of the ‘dirty Leeds’ era.

Bobby Collins was a 5ft 3in Scottish international midfielder playing with distinction for Celtic, then Everton. He was 31 when Revie brought him to Leeds, where he soon became captain.

Willie McPheat, over 6ft and two-footed, was a big, strong Scot and Sunderland’s teenage starlet. He had scored 23 goals and wasn’t yet 20 years old, and his footballing future looked very bright until Sunderland went to play Leeds on 25th August 1962.

After the Brown/Revie dressing room incident, it was obvious the two managers had it in for each other, and the unfortunate recipient of them firing their teams up for the game was young Willie McPheat, who had nothing at all to do with the managers’ previous problems. 25 minutes into the game, Collins launched into a ridiculously high tackle on McPheat, breaking his thigh bone. McPheat was just 19 years old, and his career was in ruins. Collins wasn’t even spoken to by the referee, as in those days, you could foul all day and rarely get booked or sent off. The Sunderland players were incensed by the tackle, and over the next few months, as it became clear how bad the injury was and that young McPheat’s career was probably over, thoughts of retribution came to the fore.

The return fixture at Roker Park was a few months later. In those days, players didn’t warm up before the game like they do now; they just strolled onto the pitch, had a look at it, and then got changed. When Collins came out before the game, he was informed in no uncertain terms by a posse of Sunderland players that he was going to get his just desserts.

Charlie Hurley told him, ‘I’m a hard player but fair; today, though, I am going to be a dirty player’. Although he was selected to play, Collins wisely claimed a muscle strain and pulled out of the match just before kick-off. The match itself turned into a battle, with no Collins to seek out, other Leeds players became targets.

Leeds, though no shrinking violets, could dish it out themselves, and this game became the first in a series of battles over the next few seasons.

The following season, both Leeds and Sunderland were battling for promotion and occupied the top two places in the division. A year had gone by since their last meeting, and Boxing Day 1963 was Sunderland’s first visit to Elland Road since McPheat’s injury, but the bad feeling was still there.

The Leeds players too were intent on revenging both the defeat and the tough time they’d had at Roker Park the previous season. The hard, frozen pitch meant both teams ‘doctored’ their boots after the referee’s footwear inspection so that the nails in their studs protruded, allegedly for extra grip on the hard playing surface. Both sides continued by scuffing their studs on the concrete base of the players’ tunnel at the start of the game, and the match itself was littered with bad fouls by both teams. Len Ashurst, in his autobiography, stated that after the game, which finished 1-1, all twenty outfield players were treated for lacerations between their ankles and thighs.

The return game was just two days later, with the bad blood between the sides not having had a chance to abate. Lawson, the Leeds striker, went in hard, feet first on a diving Montgomery, and was physically lifted two feet off the grass by his throat by Charlie Hurley; a mass brawl ensued.

When play restarted, Crossan and Bremner were kicking lumps out of each other. Then Jim Storrie decided to try a hard tackle on ‘the quiet assassin’ Jimmy McNab, a very unwise move. Storrie came out of the clash with knee ligament damage, which kept him on the sidelines for quite a while. There’s a tale that when Storrie was being carried off on a stretcher, he asked Billy Bremner what had happened. Bremner’s reply was, ‘Three things, Jimmy pal: you chose the wrong bloke, you were too late in the tackle, and you’re f****d for the rest of the season’. Later in the game, Bremner launched into a high tackle on Ashurst, resulting in a six-inch open gash on Len’s inner thigh, leaving a scar he wore for the rest of his life. Sunderland won the game 2-0 with goals from Herd and Sharkey but finished second in the table to Leeds, being one of the few teams Leeds, who only lost three games, didn’t beat that season.

Billy Bremner Photo by Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Getty Images

With both teams promoted, Leeds fared better in the First Division than we did and became a major force. We still had our battles but struggled to get the better of them football-wise. Brian Clough managed to score his only top-flight goal against them in a 3-3 home draw, in which Mulhall and Reaney renewed their mutual kicking/fighting match, both being booked. In the following season, Mulhall went a little too far and was sent off in Jim Baxter’s debut game, a 1-0 defeat at Elland Road, but then he scored both goals in the 2-0 home win.

The next meetings were in the 1966/67 season, where we lost 2-1 at Elland Road early in the season in another bad-tempered affair. Then, in the same season, we drew them at home in the fifth round of the FA Cup. We were doing well; Baxter was in his pomp, and the BBC decided we should be on ‘Match of the Day’. It was another ill-tempered game, with Bobby Kerr breaking his leg in a challenge on Norman Hunter that he (Kerr) didn’t really need to make, and it ended 1-1. So, onto the replay at Leeds, and after another bad-tempered tussle going into extra time, this game also ended 1-1, which meant a decider on neutral ground.

Boothferry Park, Hull, was the chosen venue, and another foul-strewn clash occurred, with Sunderland succumbing 2-1 to a penalty awarded in the last minute for an alleged foul two yards outside the box*. Herd and Mulhall were both sent off for giving the referee their verdict on his decision. Rumours were rife that the referee had been ‘got at’, and later several players and managers from other clubs, including Bob Stokoe and ex-Sunderland player Danny Hegan, claimed Revie had offered them bribes to fix games, but none were ever proven.

Our games against Leeds continued for another couple of seasons without us ever managing to beat them. Most games were physical, foul-strewn affairs, but nothing like the violent games at the earlier part of the decade. Leeds continued to do well, Sunderland eventually dropped back into the Second Division, and as the years went on, the rivalry lessened until we met them again in May 1973. That victory in the FA Cup final appeared to dispel the demons, and since then, matches between us have typically been fiercely contested yet fair.

Don Revie Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Don Revie subsequently became the England manager but resigned later to manage the U.A.E. The F.A. accused him of bringing the game into disrepute and imposed a 10-year ban. Revie contested this in court, where he triumphed, and the ban was lifted. However, he never managed a team in England again.

Bobby Collins continued to play for Leeds until 1966, when karma struck. During a Fairs Cup match in Italy, a Torino player’s high tackle broke his thigh bone. Collins recovered and went on to play for Bury, Morton, and various minor clubs, but he was never the same player again.

Willie McPheat also recovered, but, like Collins, he never regained his former prowess and never rejoined Sunderland’s first team. He briefly played for Hartlepool before finishing his career in Scotland with Airdrie.

Thus, the animosity and violence between the two teams during that era stemmed from the mutual disdain of two managers, culminating in a dangerously high tackle that devastated the career of a 19-year-old.

Thankfully, such aspects of the game have diminished nowadays, with players being sent off for challenges that would have once been considered fair. Speaking to Jimmy Montgomery recently, I was surprised to learn he often meets with some of the old Leeds players from that period, and they get along well.

The era of “Dirty Leeds” has passed, and now Sunderland and Leeds are merely competitive football teams, not bitter enemies.

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