Gary Sprake, the former Leeds United goalkeeper who has died at the age of 71 and is described by Eddie Gray as “as good as almost any I’ve seen”, was destined to become the black sheep of Don Revie’s stellar squad.
That group were as close as family and still are today but Sprake spent the past 30 years ostracised from his old team-mates. “I’ve learnt to accept I’m not welcome at Leeds,” he told The Independent in 2006, “even though I still have feelings for the club.”
Other members of Revie’s squad took issue with Sprake contributing to an investigation by the Daily Mirror in 1978 which accused Revie of match-fixing and attempting to bribe opposition clubs. Relationships were ruined and some never recovered. Sprake and Gray were reconciled 10 years ago when Sprake was interviewed on BBC Radio Leeds but he remained conspicuous by his absence at the many reunions organised by Revie’s sociable boys.
Speaking today, Gray preferred to remember the hard and agile goalkeeper who played 508 times for Leeds, including one Charity Shield appearance, and played with distinction. Errors went some way to defining Sprake’s career at Elland Road - one in particular in 1967 - but the Welshman was a mainstay for most of Revie’s golden tenure; “instrumental in Leeds winning their earliest trophies,” as Gray puts it.
“For me, he was as good as almost any goalkeeper I’ve seen,” Gray said. “I genuinely mean that. He was unbelievably talented, really he was. People go on about a few of the mistakes he made but I thought he was terrific.”
Sprake, who was born near Swansea in 1945, joined Leeds as an apprentice in 1960 and signed professional forms at Elland Road two years later. His debut came almost immediately amid an injury crisis in 1962, flown from Leeds at short notice for a 4-1 defeat at Southampton, and his pedigree earned him an international debut 12 months later. At the age of 18 he became Wales’ youngster ever keeper but Sprake grew up quickly. The sight of him flattening Bobby Gould with a swift left hook during a game against Arsenal summed up the era and Sprake’s combustive personality.
In the decade that followed, Sprake was Revie’s number one, the last line of defence in a team who won the second division championship in 1964 and, from then on, were never far away from the Division One title. He kept a clean sheet in 1968 as Leeds won the League Cup with a win over Arsenal at Wembley and stood up brilliantly to Ferencvaros in the final of the Fairs Cup later that year, helping to settle that tie with astonishing reflexes.
Those moments often seem lost in time and 1967 witnessed a bizarre event which Sprake would never forget or shake off. Against Liverpool, on a snowy Anfield pitch, he blundered by changing his mind about a quick-throw out and spilling the ball backwards over his shoulder. With the Kop looking on, it trundled into United’s net. Anfield’s stadium announcer played Des O’Connor’s ‘Careless Hands’ at half-time and the Kop sang the lyrics merrily during the second half. Before long, Careless Hands became Sprake’s unwanted nickname. His biography, published in 2006, carried that title.
The jibes overshadowed his very real ability and while some spoke of Sprake as the weak link in Revie’s side, he kept more than 200 clean sheets for the club and set records in the process. Only in the early 1970s did Revie lose faith and turn to David Harvey, spelling the end of Sprake’s career with United. Aggrieved by his demotion, Sprake left for Birmingham City in a £100,000 move in 1973, the highest fee ever paid for a keeper at the time.
“There’s been a lot of rewriting history,” Sprake once said. “How can I be a terrible goalie if I played over 500 games for Leeds, nearly all in the top division? Don Revie was neither a fool nor a bad judge of players.”
Sprake always stood by his decision to speak out about Revie. He said he “spoke the truth” to the Mirror, who paid him £7000. “Gary fell out with one or two people,” Gray said. “He said a few things, said things that weren’t very complimentary about certain people, but I would have invited him back into the fold. The boys from those days have always seen a lot of each other. Big Dave Harvey still comes down from the highlands to see us. But I’d always say that Gary was a great goalkeeper. This is very sad news.” Leeds will hold a minute’s applause in his honour when they turn out in the League Cup next week, the first major honour they and Sprake won.
The birth of United as a force in English football started in the early 1960s and when Revie began putting his stamp on the club, Sprake was there. He was there too as Leeds climbed to the top of the game and there at the very height of Revie’s reign; more integral to success than most who passed through Elland Road before him and many who have passed through since. Most of his old colleagues would agree on that.