WIDELY ridiculed on the continent as being “the sick man of Europe” in 1975, recession-hit Britain was provided with the perfect sporting antidote – albeit a temporary one 40 years ago this week.
The most expensively-assembled gathering of footballing talent to ever showcase their talents on British soil strode out at Elland Road on the Spring night of April 9, 1975, when Leeds United locked horns with Catalan giants Barcelona in a game which yielded record receipts of £90,000.
That famous European Cup semi-final first leg in West Yorkshire ended with Leeds being fairly well off, if not exactly wholly quids in after a 2-1 success over the Catalans ahead of the second instalment at the Camp Nou exactly a fortnight later.
A well-heeled footballing cast, worth an estimated £5m, took to the stage, including the sport’s chief poster boy, three-times European Footballer of the Year Johan Cruyff, signed by Barca for a world record £922,000 almost two years earlier.
Described by the Yorkshire Post’s Terry Brindle as a “film star who plays with the cool authority of a big budget producer”, Cruyff, then approaching his 28th birthday, was proving the star turn in Barca’s quest to be kings of Europe for the first time.
Unfortunately for the Dutch superstar, Leeds did not read the script.
Pitted against Cruyff was another great in Billy Bremner and while both claimed victories after that first leg at Elland Road in front of a huge attendance of 50,393 – Leeds’ last 50,000-plus home crowd – it was the Scot’s unshakeable belief and conviction which was the more forceful when both addressed the press afterwards.
It was Bremner who gave Leeds a dream start with an opener after nine minutes and while Barca levelled midway through the second half thanks to Juan Manuel Asensi’s controversial free-kick, the hosts deservedly had the final word, courtesy of Allan Clarke’s winner 12 minutes from time.
The result provided Leeds with a positive advantage ahead of the second leg in Catalonia, with Barca also having reason to be satisfied after grabbing a potentially vital away goal.
Not that Bremner was having any of that.
He said: “A one-goal lead is enough because we expect to win over there.
“We have proved the only way to tackle these teams is by going to them, we shall attack Barcelona.
“I was not impressed by Barcelona at all. We tend to build up these continental teams too much and when the game is played, they don’t turn out the way we feared.
“I thought it was a bit precarious at 1-1, but we got the other goal and that’s good enough for me. We are going to win.”
Also relatively contented with developments, Cruyff added: “It was the perfect result. Our players are not used to the pressure Leeds put us under.”
The line-ups unveiled ahead of kick-off certainly raised eyebrows among Leeds fans, with Norman Hunter omitted along with Peter Lorimer.
Jimmy Armfield opted for the extra pace of Paul Madeley to combat Cruyff, while Terry Yorath started in midfield to provide extra defensive cover.
In addition, Armfield left out Trevor Cherry in favour of Frank Gray, with Duncan McKenzie also not lining up.
Armfield’s changes were largely vindicated, with Cruyff and his decorated Dutch compatriot Johann Neeskens subjugated in the nerve room of midfield by Bremner and Johnny Giles.
The pair were involved in the hosts’ opener when Giles found Joe Jordan, whose header was latched onto by Bremner, whose angled shot beat Salvador Sadurni, with the Scot becoming the first player to score in that season’s competition against Rinus Michel’s side, who had knocked out Atvidaberg, Feyenoord and Linz prior to arriving in Leeds.
Clarke and Gordon McQueen went close to adding to Leeds’ advantage, while on the flanks, Eddie Gray gave Jesus De La Criz a torrid evening.
Another who proved a real handful for the Catalans was Joe Jordan, who produced an assertive display which went desperately close to yielding a second just before the break, but Sadurni made a fine one-handed save to block his shot.
With Madeley keeping Cruyff under lock and key, Barca were somewhat muted, only to burst into belated life on 66 minutes.
Cruyff temporarily escaped from the shackles of Madeley to slide in Juan Carlos Heredia, who was adjudged to have been checked on the edge of the box by Madeley – with Belgian referee Vital Loraux incurring the wrath of the vast majority of the partisan crowd by awarding a free-kick.
The sense of incredulity increased manifestly when Cruyff rolled the ball to Asensi, who fired a precision shot past David Stewart.
But United, to their credit, dusted themselves down superbly and were deservedly rewarded on 78 minutes when Madeley’s pass released Paul Reaney, whose cross was knocked down by the impressive Jordan into the path of Clarke, who lashed the ball home from close range for his 21st goal of a typically predatory season.
When Loraux called time on proceedings, both sides were able to take substantives going into the second leg on the continent, with Armfield full of praise for the efforts of his side.
He said: “I thought our lads played extremely well. They kept their heads and we are still in there with a big shout. The game is still very much in the balance, it is not over yet.”
Armfield’s counterpart, Michels, provided a pragmatic answer when questioned about the free-kick award, no doubt with a trace of a smile on his face, adding: “Yes, it was a free-kick. But then I’m from Barcelona...
“I’m satisfied with the result and the way we played.”
Another managerial grandee also expressed happiness at the result, namely England chief Don Revie, with a prior speaking engagement at the Yorkshire Sporting Club at the Norfolk Gardens Hotel in Bradford precluding his attendance at his former club on their big night.
Revie’s first words upon getting to the stage in front of the packed audience were ‘Does anyone know the score?’.
When told 2-1, Revie uttered: ‘I’m delighted.’
Although not quite as delighted as Leeds were a fortnight later after refusing to yield in front of a raucous Catalan crowd of 110,000 on a night of unremitting tension.
A 1-1 draw and 3-2 aggregate success booked a place in the European Cup final for United on arguably the greatest night in the club’s history, with Cruyff and Neeskens – just under 12 months on from disappointment in the World Cup final – afforded a bitter pill once more.