Bygones – When Billy Bremner’s Leeds United went so close on two fronts

So close: Billy Bremner at the final replay.So close: Billy Bremner at the final replay.
So close: Billy Bremner at the final replay.
Self-confidence was one of the hallmarks of the Leeds United team Billy Bremner built in 1986-87 but even though they reached the FA Cup semi-final that season, Neil Aspin is not sure the Whites were really ready to step up to top-division football.

The divide between the top two tiers might be far wider than in 1987, but the former right-back has no such fears about the present team.

The inaugural play-offs Leeds came so close to winning were unrecognisable to those reared on the modern way of deciding promotion.

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What is now the Championship was then Division Two, and Bremner’s team finished fourth in it. While they played third-placed Oldham Athletic, edging through the two-legged semi-final thanks to Keith Edwards’s 90th-minute away goal, fifth-placed Ipswich Town faced Charlton Athletic, 19th in the 22-team Division One.

Neil Aspin: Long old season.Neil Aspin: Long old season.
Neil Aspin: Long old season.

The final was not at Wembley, but played over two legs. When both ended 1-0 to the hosts, it went to a replay at Birmingham’s St Andrew’s. After a goalless 90 minutes, the Addicks kept their First Division place with a 2-1 win.

“It could have been a memorable season,” says right-back Aspin. “It was still a good season in terms of getting to the semi-final and the play-offs but it was so disappointing the way it ended.

“It was really tiring to get to the play-off final and then be taken to extra-time.”

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Aspin had more reason to be tired than most by a final which saw three matches squeezed into six days.

Hopes gone: Charlton celebrate their replay win over Leeds United.Hopes gone: Charlton celebrate their replay win over Leeds United.
Hopes gone: Charlton celebrate their replay win over Leeds United.

“I missed the first game of the season, then I played the next 54 in a row,” he points out.

Fortunately, he had a manager who knew the drill better than most. As Don Revie’s captain and midfield general, Bremner played in nine cup finals for the Whites.

“It was a season I enjoyed because with the manager and the players we had it was a really good dressing room to play in,” recalls Aspin.

Billy used to love having a laugh with the players.

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“I was fortunate that I’d supported Leeds and my three first manager were Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner. If Billy gave you a pat on the back it meant a lot.

“I enjoyed playing for Billy because I was never the most confident. Being a tough, aggressive character, he was very demanding but he made it a relaxed dressing room. I knew what he wanted from me and I enjoyed playing for him.

“He was a really good person to play for who suited my personality. But on the pitch he knew what he wanted.

“Billy demanded certain things but he was very light-hearted in his approach. He was never really worried about the opposition in the dressing room and that suited me because sometimes you can build up them up too much.”

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Although Charlton were the higher-division side, Aspin says he and his team-mates went into the final high on confidence. They were not brilliant matches, he freely admits.

“I think we were confident,” he says. “We knew it would be a close game but we fancied our chances. Billy never talked up the opposition and their strengths, it was all about doing our own jobs.

“Training was very light-hearted. I remember training in Harrogate on The Stray, just putting some goals up and having a kickabout. At that stage of the season it was just a case of keeping everyone’s spirits up.

“There wasn’t a lot in the games and they were really tense. They’re probably more suited to less skilful players like myself because there’s not a lot of time on the ball. They weren’t great games as a spectacle because there was so much at stake.”

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Leeds went into half-time of extra-time in the second city 1-0 up thanks to John Sheridan’s brilliant curling free-kick, only to concede twice when former and future Sheffield Wednesday centre-back Peter Shirtliff came up for set-pieces.

“In the semi against Coventry when we were leading (for 55 minutes) they had run out of ideas (yet came back to win 3-2 after extra-time),” says Aspin. “I just thought if we did our jobs we could see it out. It was similar to that (in Birmingham).

“We scored in extra-time after a real deadlock, then Peter Shirtliff scored twice for probably the only time in his career. I’m pleased to say I wasn’t marking him!

“I lost the play-off final with Leeds, Port Vale and Darlington at Wembley. It took me before I managed Halifax to win a play-off final.

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“Missing out in the play-offs does have a knock-on effect when you’re back training in July. The difference between going into the season with the momentum of getting promotion to going in when you’ve lost a play-off final is huge.”

Leeds finished seventh in 1987-88 and by the time they won Division Two in 1990, Aspin and Bremner had moved on.

The play-off format changed after two years so only teams pushing for promotion were involved. In 1990 the two-legged final made way for a Wembley showpiece

“I think personally the more teams are involved, it keeps the season alive,” reflects Aspin. “I think it was worth trying that, though.

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“The team that was fourth-bottom got another chance but I would rather see a chance for another team to get promoted.

“Until then, at the end of the season there were a lot of games with not a lot to play for.

“I’ve seen the glory of winning at Wembley, it’s a big occasion. For lads in the lower leagues, they’re not always going to have another chance to play there and it’s a chance to experience that.”

Aspin thinks promotion might have come too soon for Leeds had Barnsley-born Shirtliff not scored his morale-crushing two goals in Birmingham.

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“Is there ever a wrong time to go up? But we would have to have had a major restructure,” says Aspin. He has no such fears about the team top of the Championship, waiting to see how the season will be resolved.

“I’ve played for and managed a few clubs and I can honestly say my only thoughts are that I want Leeds to get promotion this season. That was the first team I played for and the team I supported.

“I feel they deserve it because they have been the best team in the league and I really feel they can have a good season next year if they do.

“I’ve been very impressed with the way they’ve played and you have to be impressed with the manager. He’s so well respected in football.

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“Let’s not get carried away, it is an exceptionally difficult league and they will need to strengthen (if they go up) but Leeds will look to Sheffield United as an example. To have players who know the job and understand the system helps, and I just hope they get the chance to show what they can do in the Premier League.”

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