James Corbett on Don Revie

30 years after Don Revie left the game in England, is it time to reassess the legacy of one of football's most divisive figures?

May 26, 1989: the day every football fan remembers. The last game, the last minute, the last kick of an epic season; Arsenal's Michael Thomas scores the goal that takes the First Division title away from Liverpool by securing a 2-0 victory at Anfield. It was, some say, the day that England began to love football again, after an era of hooliganism, tragedy and rough, unattractive football.

That same day, in an Edinburgh hospital, Don Revie, the former Leeds and England manager, passed away, aged just 61, his body ravaged by motor neurone disease. 'A friend of mine died yesterday, a big lovable bear of a man,' wrote the Daily Mail's Jeff Powell; other accolades seemed to be lost in the excitement following Arsenal's victory. Some commentators, in the aftermath of his death, even accused Revie of initiating English football's decline, by introducing 'professionalism' - the bone-crushing, win-at-all-costs football that brought his Leeds teams such success in the Sixties and Seventies and that had been taken up by other clubs.

At his funeral a week later, the Leeds players he had managed, now in their forties and fifties - Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, Johnny Giles, Allan Clarke, Jack Charlton and all the rest of them - were out in force. Kevin Keegan flew in from Spain and Lawrie McMenemy, the former Southampton manager, was there too. But there was no one else from his England days, no one from the Football Association. When the new season began that August, there was no minute's silence, no black armbands. There was no indication that the man being mourned had been the most innovative manager of his generation.

Just as Clive Woodward and Bill Sweetenham have transformed rugby union and swimming with their unconventional approaches, so Revie changed the face of English football. He was a confidant to the players, psychologist, social secretary, kit designer, commercial manager, PR flak, dietitian and all-encompassing 'boss' of his team. In an era when pre-match preparation consisted of a 10-minute chat before a game, Revie was a revolutionary. Not until Arsene Wenger was appointed Arsenal boss in 1996, more than two decades after Revie had left Elland Road, would a manager exert such a profound influence on his club - and the English game as a whole.

Matt Busby was knighted for his success at Manchester United; Alf Ramsey for his with England. Bill Shankly, who also died relatively young, is quoted like some secular saint. Other managers of the era, such as Joe Mercer, Malcolm Allison and Bill Nicholson, are remembered with fondness and admiration. But although his successes outstrip those of most contemporaries, Revie has never been revered, or regarded with warmth. His reputation has been defined not by his feats at Elland Road, but by allegations of corruption and venality. Those allegations have rarely been challenged.

Donald George Revie was born on 10 July 1927 in Depression-stricken Middlesbrough. This was the town of JB Priestley's English Journey 'whose chief passions... were for beer and football'. It was, Priestley wrote, 'a dismal town, even with beer and football'. Revie's father was an unemployed joiner; his mother, a washerwoman, died when he was a child. Poverty and football defined his childhood. 'He used to talk about taking baths in the sink,' says Ernest Hecht, a friend and business associate of Revie from the 1960s. 'It was a poor upbringing and that left him determined that everything went well later on the monetary side.' At 14, Revie left school and began work as a bricklayer.

Growing up under the shadow of Ayresome Park, football was an escape. He idolised Middlesbrough players George Camsell and Wilf Mannion, and fell under the influence of Bill Sanderson, manager of a junior team, Middlesbrough Swifts. A train driver by day, Sanderson was obsessed with the minutiae of the game: in his council house he held team meetings, distributing dossiers on local rivals and showing a tactical nous that would have shamed many First Division clubs. His ideas left a deep impression on the young Revie.

Revie's breakthrough as a footballer came at 16, with Leicester City, initially playing in the wartime leagues. He joined Hull City in 1949 and Manchester City two years later. An intelligent but not especially quick player, he rose to prominence at Maine Road, developing a role as a deep-lying centre-forward, modelled on that of the great Hungarian player Nandor Hidegkuti. Revie won six England caps, the first of which came in late 1954 in the season in which he was named Footballer of the Year. In the next season, using the so-called 'Revie Plan', City won the FA Cup. But he was transferred to Sunderland in November 1956 and two years later, though he may not have recognised it at the time, came the crucial move in his career: a £14,000 transfer to Leeds.

Leeds were a mediocre team in the late 1950s: their only honour, the Second Division championship, had been won long ago in 1924 and their ramshackle ground, Elland Road, bore testament to the city's preference for rugby league. At the end of Revie's second season they were relegated to Division Two; in his third they neared bankruptcy, with crowds sometimes as low as 8,000. 'The club were fifth-rate and the players were undisciplined,' says Eric Smith, who was signed from Celtic in June 1960. 'I thought beforehand I was coming to a top club. I found out otherwise in the first three or four days.'

In March 1961, the Leeds directors gambled and appointed Revie, their 33-year-old captain, as manager. Revie had previously applied to be Bournemouth manager and asked Harry Reynolds, a Leeds director, to write his reference. While writing it, Reynolds was moved to consider him for the Leeds job - one that no one in their right minds wanted at the time. 'Overnight he had to make the transition from being one of the boys to being the boss,' recalled Billy Bremner, years later. 'The way he affected the transition is a mark of the man himself.' Revie called the squad together: he said he was no longer 'Don', nor 'Mr Revie', but 'Boss'. In the following years he would redefine the term.

That season Revie saved Leeds from relegation. The next, he began to transform them. His first task - after changing the colour of the kit from royal blue to all white to emulate Real Madrid, the all-conquering European champions, a comparison considered preposterous at the time - was to purge what he later called 'a dead club' of its rotten core. 'There were players here who didn't care whether they played or not,' he recalled in 1968. 'I got rid of 27 in two years.' But he stuck with underperformers, such as Bremner, who was unhappy playing in an unfamiliar outside-right role and homesick for his native Scotland, and Jack Charlton, 'a one-man awkward squad', nurturing their previously unrealised potential. Bremner was persuaded to stay, moved to a more central role and eventually became Revie's captain; the surly and undisciplined Charlton, previously an abysmal trainer, flourished under the new coaching regime, becoming the cornerstone of a young, tenacious defence. His play so improved that he became England's World Cup-winning centre-half. Revie combined their talents with astute signings such as the veteran inside-forward Bobby Collins, from Everton, and Manchester United's Johnny Giles.

One of his great managerial gifts was an ability to spot and nurture young talent. He inherited several outstanding teenage players, including Bremner, Paul Reaney, Gary Sprake and Norman Hunter, and added other unknowns such as Peter Lorimer and Terry Cooper to the squad. 'He was a great man, a father figure really,' says Sprake. Leeds' long-standing goalkeeper, who had never left Wales before joining Leeds, says that he was so homesick that he ran away back to his parents' home after just two weeks. The next morning Revie was on the doorstep, having driven through the night to persuade him to come back.

Revie watched more than what was happening at training. 'When you had a girlfriend,' Lorimer says, 'he'd have her checked out and make sure she was the right sort of person, in his opinion.' But Revie's loyalty could reach a more sinister level. In 1971 Sprake was involved in a drink-driving accident, seriously injuring a female passenger before fleeing the scene. When police turned up to arrest Sprake shortly after the crash, Revie intervened and the incident was covered up: the goalkeeper's car was reported stolen and he received a mere police censure instead of more serious charges.

At the training ground he introduced a regime that made Leeds the fittest and most technically proficient club in the Football League, including hiring ballet dancers to teach the players about balance and imposing dietary and nutritional standards. 'I laugh when I read about these foreign managers bringing in new ideas and new techniques,' says Revie's son Duncan, who points out that his father's initiatives predated the 1990s 'coaching revolution' by decades. 'His training ideas were ahead of their time,' Lorimer agrees. 'I know when we mixed with players from other clubs at internationals, none of them were doing the things we were. It was all new. Everything was ahead of its time and that's probably why we enjoyed it so much.'

Revie also created brotherly spirit among the squad. 'Our whole ethos was built on loyalty,' Lorimer says. 'We all fight for each other, we all work for each other. If someone kicks me, he kicks all 11 of us.' Revie involved the players' families, to heighten the sense of togetherness. He organised social nights for the players, including rounds of carpet bowls, dominos and bingo. 'We had 15 years of what no man gets,' Lorimer says. 'Every day you'd go to work and it was an absolute pleasure. You couldn't wait to get in your car and go down to the ground and be amongst the lads.'

Having won promotion to the First Division in 1964, Leeds finished runners-up in both the League and the FA Cup in their first season back, and over the next decade never finished lower than fourth. They took the title twice, in 1969 and 1974, and won the League Cup in 1968 and the FA Cup in 1972. In Europe, they won the Inter City Fairs Cup - the forerunner of the Uefa Cup - in 1968. 'It was a team that had everything,' Lorimer says. 'They had aggression. They had class. They had experience. It was the complete team, it had the perfect blend of players that offered every good part of the game.'

But Leeds' brand of football made them hated by many. It was a high-tempo pressing game that suffocated opponents and overwhelmed those that tried to outpass them. If your side tried to kick them, Leeds would kick back twice as hard. They feigned injuries, harassed officials and pinched, kicked and hit opponents. The image of 'Dirty Leeds' was reinforced on the terraces, where their supporters earned a reputation for viciousness. George Best claimed that the only time he needed to wear shinpads was when he played Leeds. 'I hated playing against them, I really did,' he said. 'They also had a hell of a lot of skill, too, but they were still a bloody nightmare.' When Leeds played Everton in the so-called 'Battle of Goodison' in November 1964, the referee pulled the teams off for a 'cooling-down period' after a chest-high tackle by Willie Bell left Everton's Derek Temple unconscious (Everton's captain, Brian Labone, once told me that he and his colleagues initially thought Bell had killed Temple, so brutal was the assault).

Leeds players always denied they were a dirty side, or that Revie encouraged gamesmanship. 'What was called cynical in this country was called professional when the Italians played it,' Bremner said. Or as Lorimer puts it: 'If a team wanted to mix it with us, we could mix it; if a team wanted to play football, we could play.'

Revie created an attitude within the club not seen before in English football. At the time it was called 'professionalism', but this was no complimentary term; instead it encapsulated the cynicism, physicality and relentlessness of Leeds. Within a few years, other clubs, unable to cope with them in any other way, would try to copy them. To many, Revie is the man who ended English football's age of innocence.

By the time of their second League title in May 1974, rival fans hated Leeds and their supporters. Revie was widely disliked. 'Don Revie's so-called family had more in keeping with the mafia than Mothercare,' Brian Clough said. But even Clough, who often used his weekly newspaper column to attack Leeds, admitted a grudging respect for Revie's achievements. With many of the great 1960s managers retired or at the end of their careers, Revie was arguably the finest in the country. He was certainly the most successful.

This made him the logical choice for the England manager's job, which Alf Ramsey had vacated in April, and he was appointed on a five-year contract worth £25,000 a year - three times the salary of his predecessor.

On the field, Revie's England started well, with a 3-0 home success in a European Championship qualifier against Czechoslovakia. There was a resounding victory over world champions West Germany and a 5-1 win against Scotland. But England's form grew increasingly patchy and there was unease among the players about Revie. He seemed unable to settle on his best XI, changing his starting line-up every game. 'Strangely he seemed to go the way the press wanted him to go,' Norman Hunter, who played under Revie for both club and country, once recalled. 'He was very strong in his management of Leeds, but with England he seemed to change and I think he tried to pacify the press with his decisions.' Some of his choices were arbitrary: Alan Ball was captain in the last six internationals of the 1974-75 season but was then dropped abruptly and never picked again. Ball told me shortly before his death this April that he was still perplexed about the incident. Nor was the move a success: defeat in Czechoslovakia and a failure to beat Portugal led to qualifying failure.

Revie's team-building exercises - the carpet bowls and indoor golf - were disliked and self-defeating, as half the squad would skulk off to bed rather than sit through another round of bingo. His technical dossiers on opponents were not welcomed either. What was the point, players wondered, of a dozen pages on a Cypriot amateur? Duncan Revie believes there was another, serious, problem. 'He didn't have a Bremner or a Giles and couldn't come to terms with the fact that he didn't have two players like that for the England team.'

Revie's relationship with the FA's volatile chairman, Sir Harold Thompson, had also broken down. 'They genuinely hated each other,' Duncan recalls. 'Thompson was an old Corinthian who always treated the manager like a serf.' At an official dinner, Revie objected to Sir Harold's habit of referring to him by his surname. 'When I get to know you better Revie, I shall call you Don,' Thompson said. Revie retorted: 'When I get to know you better, Thompson, I shall call you Sir Harold.'

England were paired with Italy for the 1978 World Cup qualifiers, with just one nation able to progress. A 2-0 defeat in Rome in November 1976 meant hopes were slim almost from the outset. Three months later Holland humiliated England at Wembley, Johan Cruyff and his team-mates at times toying with the home side - the 2-0 friendly loss was likened by the press to the famous 6-3 defeat by Hungary in 1953.

On the field, Revie's regime reached a crisis that summer. After Scotland beat England 2-1 in the annual Home Internationals fixture, many of the visitors' 30,000 followers invaded the Wembley pitch, ripping up turf, dancing around the penalty areas and snapping crossbars. Italy were closing in on World Cup qualification. The nadir of Don Revie's managerial career had arrived; his disgrace was about to follow.

Writing about Revie in The Football Man, his 1968 journey around the English game, Arthur Hopcraft described him as 'a big flat-fronted man with an outdoors face as if he lives permanently in a keen wind'. His attitude towards the game, wrote Hopcraft, was like 'that of a passionate player'. The impression was that of a typical bluff northerner - loyal, professional, straightforward. His son Duncan, moreover, describes a religious man, attending church each weekend and praying each night, and providing for a wide extended family.

He was also, however, known as 'Don Readies'. His flirtations with wealthy clubs such as Everton while still at Leeds, and his enormous salary as England manager, enhanced a reputation for greed. While in charge of the national team he once demanded £200 from journalists wanting to interview Malcolm Macdonald, after he scored five times against Cyprus, supposedly pocketing the money himself while the striker remained ignorant of the affair.

Certainly money had always been an issue for Revie. As a child of the Depression, his upbringing was set against a backdrop of the Jarrow march and the north-east's industrial decline. He was a player in a time of rolling contracts, tied to a statutory maximum wage of around £20 a week, and his boyhood hero, Wilf Mannion, ended up as a tea boy in a Middlesbrough factory.

Now, in the summer of 1977, he was convinced that the FA were set on replacing him and that they had lined up the Ipswich manager, Bobby Robson, as his successor. So Revie determined to secure his future. On 11 July 1977, Daily Mail readers read that Revie had left the England manager's job. They were the first to know: Revie had sold his story to the Mail for £20,000 and his resignation letter arrived after the FA's Lancaster Gate headquarters had closed the previous night.

Revie claimed that the pressures of being in a job when 'nearly everyone in the country seems to want me out' were simply too unbearable for him and his family. Being England manager, he said, had brought 'too much heartache to those nearest me'. 'He didn't turn down his country,' his lawyer, Gilbert Gray, told me. 'He knew very well that his country, represented by a lot of old fogies who had decided to get rid of him, were about to sack him. He knew damn well he was on his way out.' But on 12 July the Mail announced that Revie was leaving the country to take up a six-year contract worth £340,000, tax-free, to coach the United Arab Emirates national team.

To the public, Revie's crime was not his disloyalty but his greed. It emerged that a month before his 'defection' he had offered to resign as England manager - without mention of his offer from Dubai - in exchange for a £50,000 pay-off. He boasted in the Mail of how he would spend his new salary. 'I will travel to the great sporting events of the world,' he said. 'The major golf tournaments, the Olympics, World Cup finals - whatever takes my fancy.'

Sir Harold Thompson exacted his revenge, charging Revie with bringing the game into disrepute and summoning him to a disciplinary hearing at which he acted as judge and prosecutor; Gilbert Gray, who defended Revie, calls the hearing 'a kangaroo court, an absolute disgrace'. After the disciplinary committee gave out its inevitable guilty verdict, its punishment was severe: a 10-year ban from English football. Revie appealed to the High Court; the ban was overturned, but the judge expressed reservations about Revie's integrity and ordered him to pay two-thirds of his costs. 'Mr Revie... presented to the public a sensational and notorious example of disloyalty, breach of duty, discourtesy and selfishness,' said Justice Cantley. 'His conduct brought English football, at a high level, into disrepute.'

Two months after Revie left the England job, the Daily Mirror alleged that a number of Leeds matches had been fixed over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. Previous allegations by the Sunday People in 1972 had claimed that three unnamed Wolves players were offered £1,000 apiece to throw what would have been a title decider with Leeds, but Wolves had won and neither police nor FA investigations found evidence of wrongdoing. 'Don Revie planned and schemed and offered bribes, leaving as little as possible to chance,' wrote the Mirror's lead reporter, Richard Stott. 'He relied on the loyalty of those he took into his confidence not to talk, and it nearly worked.'

The star witness was Gary Sprake. 'I was quite surprised by the amount of information they had,' Sprake says. 'Richard Stott asked me to get involved, but everything was already written, really.' Sprake told Stott that there had been attempts to fix the Wolves game - a claim he subsequently retracted - as well as several other matches. Jim Barron, the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper, meanwhile said that Billy Bremner had been sent to the Forest dressing room before a game in the 1971 title race to persuade his opponents to 'go easy'. The request was rejected. Alan Ball, meanwhile, revealed clandestine meetings with Revie on Saddleworth Moor in the mid-1960s, when Revie wanted to sign him from Blackpool. Revie also sent weekly £100 bribes to Ball's home as part of his attempt to tap him up. The FA fined Ball £3,000, even though he had ended up at Everton, and not Revie's Leeds.

Bob Stokoe, the Sunderland manager who had outwitted Revie in the 1973 FA Cup final, was the most compelling witness. He said that while managing Bury in 1962, when Leeds were battling relegation, Revie offered him £500 to 'go easy'. When he turned him down, Revie further enraged him by asking to speak to his players.

The notion that a man who left nothing to chance and whose obsessiveness bordered on paranoia would try to fix title- or relegation-deciders was not implausible. But the evidence against Revie is shaky. Sprake had spoken out only after being paid £14,000. The FA deny the existence of a 300-page dossier of allegations supposedly handed over to them by Stott. No criminal or FA charges came out of the match-fixing allegations and, when the Sunday People repeated them, Billy Bremner sued and won £100,000.

'The people who made these accusations - we didn't have to bribe them to be able to beat them,' Peter Lorimer says. 'I was never aware of it and I don't think any of our players were ever aware of it happening. You would think you would get to know if that sort of thing was happening, but certainly we never got to know anything.'

And yet Stokoe, a well liked and widely respected manager, stood to gain nothing by speaking out. He never profited from the allegation, which he repeated hundreds of times before his death in 2004. The thought of it, he said, made him feel ill. 'It always riled me when I see the career Revie has had. At the back of my mind, the bribe is always there. He was always an evil man to me.'

Former team-mates have shunned Gary Sprake for his allegations, but the goalkeeper has since made more. He tells me that Revie asked him to 'tap up' fellow Wales internationals Colin Green and Terry Hennessey when Leeds played Birmingham on the last day of the 1964-65 season. Sprake refused and Leeds drew 3-3, losing the League title to Manchester United on goal average.

Duncan, Revie's son, remains convinced that the allegations were unfounded. 'They must have fixed lots and lots and lots of matches, because they won for at least 10 years,' he says. 'It was ludicrous in the extreme.' If Revie did fix football matches, it was not systematic - and done in a way that was uncharacteristically unprofessional. Duncan believes that 'not suing has wrongly damaged his reputation', because his father's name can never properly be cleared.

He had a great time in the Middle East,' Duncan says. 'It was probably as happy as I've seen my mum and dad. They were relaxed. They enjoyed the sunshine, they enjoyed the golf, they enjoyed Dubai. The friendships that the family made out there still remain to this day.'

When Revie's time in the Middle East came to an end in 1983, he was only in his mid-fifties, but there was no way back into English football. He was, once, mooted as a candidate for the Queens Park Rangers job. In 1986 he moved to his wife's homeland, Scotland. Then came the muscle-wasting illness that would take his life, motor neurone disease. From 1987, it quickly robbed him of all physical abilities. 'Eventually he blinked twice for yes and once for no,' Duncan says. 'He went from 17 stone to eight stone in two years.' At a 1988 charity testimonial at Elland Road, Revie, now in a wheelchair, was reunited with some of his former players. It was the last time they saw him; less than a year later he was dead.

In The Damned Utd, David Peace's novel about Brian Clough's six weeks as Leeds manager, Revie appears as a ghost, stalking out Clough. To many, including Clough, Leeds remained 'Revie's club', and the disdain towards Leeds, 'Dirty Leeds', persists. Few outside Yorkshire lamented their recent relegation to League One - the old Division Three, from which Revie once saved them - and flirtations with bankruptcy.

The club's followers maintain the spirit of defiance that Revie originated - particularly when it comes to the defence of Revie himself. 'For those who know him, have been in his company, and seen what he's done,' Duncan says, 'why should we care what view other people are forming from afar? The people I care about, the family, the Leeds people, the people from Yorkshire, they all know the calibre of the person.' To many Revie remains an enigmatic figure, but the view from Leeds is possibly the truest measure of the man. For no one sums up a manager more accurately than his own supporters, and they are unequivocal in their judgment of Don Revie. To them, quite simply, he was the best.

James Corbett

The GuardianTramp

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