Leeds United old boys like Eddie Gray and Gordon Strachan rallying around dementia-sufferer Brendon Ormsby
Gather a group of former Leeds players together – in fairness just about any former professional sports team-mates – and a switch is flicked.
Last month a disparate group gathered at Elland Road with a common goal. Eddie Gray made his debut on New Year’s Day in 1966, more than 30 years before Andy Couzens’s final Leeds game.
Few could talk passionately, as Neil Aspin did, about growing up as a Whites supporter and one of those who could, Brian Deane freely admitted he is more closely associated with Sheffield United. Some work for other clubs, John Sheridan taking time out from “shezurrecting” Oldham Athletic, Gordon Strachan the technical director of Dundee.
Get them in a room together, though, and they are all unmistakably United.
That might be nice for them but for others it can be life changing.
It was the second such example within weeks of the Leeds family gathering at Elland Road to help a friend in need. First, Kalvin Phillips came to see the welcome party for the arrival of The Yorkshire Post columnist Sue Smith and others cycling 127 miles from Anfield to raise money for her former Leeds team-mate Stacey Daniels, who needs to raise £50,000 for multiple sclerosis treatment.
Then, Peter Hopton and ex-Leeds midfielder John Stiles gathered former players to swap stories, jokes – and of course insults – raffle memorabilia, sign autographs and pose for photos on a night which raised over £8,000 the Professional Footballers’ Association really ought to have provided for the family of Brendon Ormsby, who is stricken with dementia.
Not everyone there played alongside the defender between 1986 and 1990 before he moved on to Doncaster Rovers, Scarborough and Guiseley amongst others, but all wore the club’s badge with pride and that made him one of them.
“It’s always great to get back together,” says Jon Newsome. “I’m lucky I sometimes work on matchdays at Elland Road and we have that camaraderie. I loved playing but that togetherness, that mickey-taking, that dressing-room camaraderie, is what you really miss.
“In football you have very few friends just lots and lots of acquaintances but the football family sticks together.”
The night was a reminder of what Leeds United are all about.
Ormsby did not play during the glory years – Division Two Leeds reached an FA Cup semi-final and a play-off but it was a comedown from what went before. But former team-mate, left-back Glynn Snodin, argues as far as Whites fans are concerned it is as much about how you play the game as what you achieve.
“If you give them 100 per cent, they back you,” he says. “You can have a bad game with the ball but off it, if you give it whatever you can, you can put your head on your pillow at night knowing they’ll back you 100 per cent.”
Strachan thinks it resonated with him because of his background.
“You stay together as a group and you never, ever let your mates down no matter what goes on,” he says. “You can have the worst game in the world but don’t you ever chuck it.
“You always set out to be the best player on the pitch – you’ve got to – but if you’re not, you’ve got to be the best team-mate you can be. That’s an environment you got brought up in in Scotland and in working-class areas.”
Gray credits another Scot, Bobby Collins, with laying the mentality behind the success of the Don Revie years.
“I might not always be playing at 16 or 17 but I’d be sat in the dressing room at half-time and if it wasn’t going well Bobby would get right into them. I could see Don thinking, ‘Go on little man!’”
When he dropped down a division from Manchester United in 1989, Strachan was conscious of the need to set an example.
“Gordon was expected to be the man who turned it around,” says Gray, who went from long-serving Leeds player to manager between 1982 and 1985.
“I had to train the hardest and play the best because that was what was expected of me,” Strachan chips in. “Usually you sign for someone and it’s, ‘Let’s see what happens,’ but here I was told, this is the job you’ve got to do. In a way it’s a lot of pressure but in another way you feel good that people trust you that much.
“My house was only about an hour and 10 minutes away but I thought with what I need to do and what they’re going to pay me, I need to move over here. I don’t care where you’re going to school, we need to move over.
“There were people living off Leeds United’s badge and history. They liked it, they were living off it, but they didn’t do enough to earn the fact you’ve got a Leeds strip and you’re replacing Eddie Grays and Billy Bremners.”
Does this Leeds spirit matter? Yes, for two reasons.
In an era when managers and squads change more rapidly and the foreigners no longer come from Lancashire or Lanarkshire but Porto Allegro and Lorient, the need for clubs to have a permanent, if evolving, identity is greater than ever.
After seeing Leeds come from hopelessly behind to win at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Winsconsin-born coach Jesse Marsch summarised their identity as “gritty, hard, it’s about belief, it’s about never saying die, it’s about giving everything you have to the match”.
But more than that, it matters because this shared identity makes people go the extra mile to help “family” some have not met.
The sobering thought for those who came to Ormsby’s aid is it could be them next. “The statistics show footballers are more prone to these issues,” says Newsome, who as a centre-back headed the ball more than most. “Out of 15 lads here there might be three or four of us who come down with the same condition.
“I’ve spoken to my children about it, my partner. I’m part of a study the PFA are behind. It’s something you definitely worry about. My grandmother suffered with dementia and Alzheimer’s and it took her, so I’ve seen first hand what a terrible illness it is.
“The more we can get behind it and make people aware, the more studies are done to at least try and tell when people have got it, it’s a way forward.”
Snodin adds: “It’s sad in today’s age when you’ve got the PFA and the FA and you think this lad’s had a career in football, he needs helping. There’ll be many more like him as well.
“Me and Shez (Sheridan) went to see him (Ormsby) in a home when he was having respite, it was upsetting, tearful, to think from what he was to what he is now. You feel for Wendy (his wife). We’re just hoping we can help the family as much as we can. A club like Leeds United get together as much as they can and the fans know how much he gave to Leeds United. He was a great team man, a great player, great to be around, a great gentleman.”
How you can help these stricken giants
Brendon Ormsby played professional football before signing a contract with a top-division club made you an automatic millionaire. Upon retiring, as well as taking tours at Elland Road and writing a column for The Yorkshire Evening Post, he had a postal round in Leeds.
The Birmingham-born centre-back’s association with the city began in 1986 when then-Leeds United manager signed him from Aston Villa.
Later clubs included Doncaster Rovers, Scarborough, Garforth Town and a spell as manager of Pontefract Collieries.
In 2013 he suffered a stroke which made speech virtually impossible. He has dementia and what is believed to be chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The link to heading footballs is still not decisively proven but undeniable in the eyes of campaigners such as the 61-year-old’s former team-mate John Stiles.
Former Leeds women’s striker Stacey Daniels is wheelchair-bound with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis.
She needs one final push to raise the £50,000 needed to travel to Mexico for a 30-day in-patient hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
You can donate to Brendon’s family at tinyurl.com/yza8juvs, and to Stacey at tinyurl.com/57932zp3.