On 10 August 1974, the day after Richard Nixon had announced his unprecedented resignation, the Carry On film actor Kenneth Williams mused in his diary about the disgraced American president’s successor. “President Ford,” he wrote in his diary, “is nothing to do with motor cars but apparently has a good record in baseball.” Actually, it was American football, not baseball, that was Gerald Ford’s speciality; but that was beside the point. “Seems rather like asking Don Revie to become Prime Minister,” Williams went on. “Might not be such a bad idea at that! He’d certainly make a better impression than Wilson or Heath.”
It is 50 years now since Revie took over as manager of Leeds; 50 years since he embarked on a journey that took in two league titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup and two Fairs Cups. If anything, though, it was more notable for its extraordinary near-misses: five second-place finishes, three lost FA Cup finals, a Fairs Cup final defeat and a Cup-Winners Cup final defeat. When, a year after Revie had left to manage England, Leeds’s players lost the 1975 European Cup final in controversial circumstances, it seemed an oddly appropriate send-off.
What has become increasingly evident over the last 50 years is Revie’s unlikely resemblance, not to Gerald Ford, but to Richard Nixon. The parallels are uncanny. They were both born into poverty in the first half of the century: Revie in the claustrophobic terraces of working-class Teesside, Nixon in the hot, dry scrubland of southern California. Both of them knew loss and isolation. Revie’s mother died of cancer when he was 12, and four years later he moved to Leicester, where he lived in digs and effectively missed out on family life. Nixon lost two brothers to tuberculosis, while his mother spent much of his childhood away at a sanatorium. Both, not surprisingly, were reserved, serious characters, dedicated to hard work and self-improvement. And they also looked alike: dark-haired, thick-set, slightly jowly, their features set in a permanent frown, as though they were always contemplating their own misfortune.
They both came to prominence in the early 1950s: Revie as a clever centre-forward for Manchester City, Nixon as a Republican congressman, senator and vice-president. A decade later, they both launched comebacks of a kind, Revie becoming manager of Leeds, Nixon rebuilding his career after losing the presidency to John F Kennedy in 1960. Both were scarred by defeat and disappointment; both were obsessed by the fear of failure; both distrusted the press and surrounded themselves with a small group of loyalists. They remained difficult men to love.
In 1972, both reached a pinnacle of a kind. Re-elected in a record-breaking landslide, Nixon celebrated, if that is quite the right word, by sitting alone in a White House hideaway, listening to classical music at full blast and making a list of the ways he had failed. Revie, meanwhile, won the Centenary FA Cup Final, the only domestic trophy he had not yet brought to Leeds. A year later he threatened to move to Everton, who were offering more money. Neither of them, it seemed, would ever be happy.
Of course the most obvious parallel is what happened next. By many standards, Nixon had an exceptional record. He wound up American involvement in the Vietnam War, made a ground-breaking trip to China, signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, spent an all-time record amount of money on welfare and won the biggest victory ever enjoyed by a Republican president. Outside academia, though, nobody remembers all that. What people remember are the corruption scandals, the break-ins, the grubby shambles of Watergate and the humiliation of his flight from office.
And Revie, too, is remembered not for what went right, but for what went wrong: the nail-biting defeats, the last-minute chokes, his disastrous stewardship of England. For many people, what defined him was his flight to the United Arab Emirates after selling the story to the Daily Mail for £20,000. Well, that and the corruption stories. “Don Revie planned and schemed and offered bribes, leaving as little as possible to chance,” claimed the Mirror in September 1977. “He relied on the loyalty of those he took into his confidence not to talk, and it nearly worked.” Change the words ‘Don Revie’ for ‘Richard Nixon’, and you have a neat summary of the Watergate affair.
At the root of all this, of course, was insecurity. Exceptionally successful football managers, like exceptionally successful politicians, are usually deeply insecure men, unable to take lasting pleasure in their achievements, endlessly nagged by the fear of failure, obsessed by the importance of finishing top of the heap. Contented people make good losers. On the night of his record landslide over the Democrat George McGovern in 1972, Richard Nixon wrote miserably, “The opposition line will be … McG’s mistakes lost it and not his ideas and not RN’s strength.” Not so different, perhaps, from Alex Ferguson 1 years later, just after his Aberdeen side had beaten Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. There was “no way we can take any glory” from the occasion, Ferguson told the cameras, for it had been a “disgraceful performance”. “You’ve won the European Cup-Winners Cup and you’ve won the Scottish Cup,” sighed his captain Willie Miller, “and that’s still not good enough.”
In Revie’s case, his fear of failure was almost certainly rooted in the difficult circumstances of his boyhood. To the young footballers of the mid-1970s, with their expensive cars parked outside their neat suburban homes, the Hungry Thirties seemed like ancient history. For Revie, however, they had left a mark that would never fade. Born in 1927 and brought up in a terraced house in working-class Middlesbrough, he vividly remembered the privations of the Depression, when his father, a joiner, had spent years out of work. Middlesbrough in the thirties was not a particularly happy place to grow up: JB Priestley memorably called it “a dismal town, even with beer and football”.
On top of that, Revie keenly felt the absence of his mother. At Elland Road, he was obsessed with turning Leeds into a surrogate family, where his players could feel loved. The players “were his children … and their children his grandchildren,” one friend said later. “Junior players are taught carefully about bank accounts, table manners and sex,” reported the Observer’s football writer Arthur Hopcraft. “There are regular homilies about keeping their hair short and their clothes smart and not getting caught up with loose girls.” Many other managers did the same thing; none, however, did it more passionately than Revie. He even called himself “the head of the family”, inadvertently earning the nickname ‘The Godfather’.
In his cultural conservatism, his fear of poverty, his respect for family values and his obsession with providing for his ‘children’, Revie reflected the values of a generation who could never quite bring themselves to trust in the abundance of the affluent society. Determined to recreate the family life he had never had, he invited his wife’s mother, uncles and aunts to live in their large house, Three Chimneys, in middle-class north Leeds. His son Duncan, meanwhile, was sent to boarding school at Repton, something that would have seemed impossible when Revie was growing up. At the time, his obsession with money earned him the nickname ‘Don Readies’, while wags pointed out that his name was an anagram of the phrase envie d’or , the love of gold. Even when Revie was a player, friends had remarked on his financial ambition. The sign of success, he allegedly told one teammate, was “how much you have got in the bank”. In the late 1970s, old enemies condemned him as greedy. But the key factor was surely not avarice but anxiety. Like many people who had known genuine poverty, Revie never felt satisfied, even once he had become a relatively rich man.
The obvious parallel was with Brian Clough, another working-class Middlesbrough boy who enjoyed stunning managerial success but was later accused of crossing the line between financial shrewdness and outright corruption. Clough “was obsessed with money,” wrote the Nottingham journalist Duncan Hamilton, “as if he feared he might wake up one morning and find himself a pauper again … He would read out to me the salaries of other people — players, managers, pop and film stars, politicians — if he came across them in a newspaper.” This was not “purely greed”, Hamilton thought, but “a form of self-protection”. For as Clough once told him, “the only people who aren’t obsessed with money are those who have got more than enough of it”.
Fifty years on from Revie’s Elland Road accession, his reputation remains highly controversial. Many older fans have never forgiven him for walking out on England, although this seems grossly unfair. Only three years earlier, after all, the Football Association had sacked the World Cup-winning Sir Alf Ramsey with the ruthless insouciance of aristocrats dismissing a disgraced parlour maid. They could hardly complain if his successor drew the appropriate lesson. And confirmation that Revie was right to be afraid came from, of all places, 10 Downing Street. In May 1977, the Prime Minister’s chief policy advisor, Bernard Donoughue, had dinner with the FA secretary. “They are clearly thinking of sacking Don Revie,” he wrote afterwards in his diary. Two months later, Revie was gone.
The other stain on his reputation is, of course, the corruption allegations. These first originated in 1972, when the Sunday People claimed that Revie had offered three Wolves players £1,000 each to “take it easy” in the last game of the season — which, in the event, Leeds lost, costing them the title. At the time, neither the FA nor the police found any evidence. But five years later, after Revie had left for the United Arab Emirates, the allegations resurfaced. The most damaging came from his old goalkeeper, Gary Sprake, who claimed that he had been a go-between in match-fixing operations against Wolves and Nottingham Forest. After being ostracised by his old team-mates, Sprake eventually retracted his story. Then, confusingly, he retracted his retraction, adding a fresh allegation that Revie had asked him to fix a match against Birmingham, too, as early as 1965.
The truth is that in the absence of hard evidence, we will never know if Revie was genuinely corrupt. It is, of course, perfectly possible that the stories were simply concocted by journalists and old enemies amid the storm surrounding his defection to the UAE. On the other hand, there is no doubt that plenty of people at the time did think he was corrupt. Again, the world of politics offers an unlikely clue. In September 1977, Bernard Donoughue recorded having “dinner with Ted Croker of the FA, who told me some alarming corruption stories about Don Revie, England team manager”. A month later, at a Downing Street lunch for the Prime Minister of Spain, Donoughue found himself sitting beside the former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby. “More terrible stories about Don Revie”, he noted afterwards. None of this proves that the allegations were true. But it is surely revealing that both Croker and Busby believed them.
Still, even if Revie did bend the rules, it seems highly unlikely that he was the only one doing it. His hated rival Brian Clough, after all, had a well-chronicled fondness for a bung. These were men who had known intense poverty: in an age before close scrutiny of clubs’ finances and managers’ earnings, it would have been surprising if they had not been tempted to blur the lines. The most likely scenario is surely that Revie, the most competitive, anxious and insecure manager of his generation, as well as probably the best, simply went further than anyone else.
In this, as in so much else, there was a striking parallel with events in the Oval Office. “I gave ’em a sword,” Richard Nixon mused later. “And they stuck it in. And if I guess if I’d have been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.” It might have been Don Revie talking.