'I know the boys who've left us would love Bielsa': Eddie Gray takes comfort in resurgent Whites

Even at 73, Eddie Gray does a decent pre-season. 

Most mornings, he runs five miles in the glorious countryside around Kirkby Overblow in North Yorkshire, followed by a dip in the pool. 

Gareth Southgate, who lives in nearby Harrogate, is among those familiar with the Leeds United legend jogging along as they drive through the village.

Eddie Gray is delighted with Leeds' resurganec, doing him and his old team-mates proud

Eddie Gray is delighted with Leeds’ resurganec, doing him and his old team-mates proud

It is nearly 60 years since Gray left the Castlemilk council estate in Glasgow to be persuaded by Don Revie to shelve his ambition to play for Celtic and move south instead.

The Glaswegian accent remains but life has changed in every other aspect for Gray, whose playing career encompassed winning trophies under Revie, an apocalyptic 44 days with Brian Clough and appearing in a European Cup final for Jimmy Armfield.

He has also twice been manager, 20 years apart, was David O’Leary’s assistant when his ‘babies’ reached the Champions League semi-finals and remains heavily involved with the club, watching every kick of Marcelo Bielsa’s current heroes working for the Leeds United television channel.

He still lives with wife Linda in the picturesque home he built for £26,000 at the peak of his career in 1972. With six children and 17 grandchildren, two of whom are at the Leeds academy, there is more than enough to keep him busy.

Gray (third from left) played in Don Revie's Leeds side which won two First Division titles

Gray (third from left) played in Don Revie’s Leeds side which won two First Division titles 

The past couple of years have been testing, with former Leeds team-mates Trevor Cherry, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter and close friend Peter Lorimer all passing away, having already lost Billy Bremner, Terry Hibbitt and Paul Madeley.

Yet on the pitch, Leeds United’s fortunes have been transformed by Bielsa, who ended their 16-year exile from the Premier League and made them widely popular with a thrilling brand of football and developing new stars such as England’s Kalvin Phillips.

‘The football has given me comfort in a tough time,’ says Gray. ‘I know the boys who have left us would have loved this Leeds team. The way we play with a style and carefree attitude allied to hard work.

‘Marcelo has changed the careers of a lot of players. If you’d said to me three years ago, Leeds players would be at the Euros, I would have laughed. But they deserve to be playing at the highest level. They showed at Manchester City, they can beat anyone.

‘It’s not easy to lose people you’ve grown up with. Peter was my best mate, we roomed together for 10 or 12 years. He wasn’t well for a long time but it’s hard to realise you can’t go together to Elland Road again.’

Gray spent the best years of his career under Revie, who created a camaraderie in the dressing room that had never been seen before in British football. He points out Revie and Bielsa are nothing like each other in personality but share an ability to lead.

‘They are completely different characters,’ he says. ‘There was nothing better Don liked after a big game than to have a party and a sing-song with the boys.

Don Revie (centre) was one of the greatest English managers, fostering a rock-solid spirit

Don Revie (centre) was one of the greatest English managers, fostering a rock-solid spirit 

‘I remember Peter would always do “The Road and the Miles to Dundee”. Don loved that bonding off the pitch.

‘I can’t see Marcelo joining in that. If you asked these Leeds players what he’s like, they might not know. But it doesn’t matter, at the training ground they buy into everything

‘Marcelo lives in a small flat in Wetherby, I see him walking, say hello and that’s it. It’s his way. It adds to his mystique. He does things no other manager would. Have you seen any others sit on a bucket? We had a centenary dinner at the club. It was a black-tie do, Marcelo came in a tracksuit. It’s part of his aura. What he has done with the football club is incredible.

‘People ask me how they will do next year after finishing ninth. I think they will do even better. Raphinha and Kalvin have had their first experiences of the Premier League. So has Stuart Dallas, right back, left back, midfield, everywhere. Rodrigo struggled at the start and finished with a bang, there are reasons to think the team will improve.

‘The biggest worry would be keeping hold of all our good players but they seem to have power now. They’ll be more focused on looking to add.’

Gray played 577 times for Leeds between 1966 and 1983, going down as an Elland Road legend

Gray played 577 times for Leeds between 1966 and 1983, going down as an Elland Road legend

It was December 1962 when Gray, a month short of his 15th birthday, made his life-changing journey by train from Glasgow to Leeds. Revie and assistant Maurice Lindley met him at the station, took him to a guest house and arranged for him to be collected the next morning. Gray thought he would be playing in a trial game with other kids until Revie told him he was going to train with the first team.

After a week, Gray returned home to tell his parents he wanted to join Leeds, despite being raised to support Celtic. He went on to play 577 times for Leeds between 1966 and 1983, seventh on the club’s all-time appearance list.

At his peak, he was compared to George Best and it was not fanciful. Two of the club’s greatest ever goals were both scored by Gray in the same game against Burnley in 1970. The first a remarkable chip from 35 yards, the second a dribble around four defenders from the corner flag.

Yet looking back, he feels his career would have been even better without a serious injury at 16.

‘It was a reserve game against Sheffield Wednesday,’ he says. ‘I went to take a corner and my left thigh pinged. I’d torn a muscle. Medical science wasn’t like today. I played in a youth game four days later, which I see now just wasn’t right.

‘The treatment I received calcified the thigh. Every time they cut it out, bone growing into muscle, the muscle got shorter. It hindered me, by the time I was 24, I’d had five operations.

‘When Jimmy Armfield took over after Cloughie [1974], I was waiting for the insurers. Jimmy asked me to coach the young kids for a couple of months. He thought I looked all right and asked if I wanted to give it another go.

Gray still gets to Leeds United games constantly, having managed the club on two occasions

Gray still gets to Leeds United games constantly, having managed the club on two occasions 

‘I ended up playing until I was 36. I was still quick, but not as quick as I had been and couldn’t strike the ball like I wanted to.

‘As a player, I never felt inferior to anybody and learned to cope with the injury, but I’d have been better without it. It’s why I only had 12 caps for Scotland, because I couldn’t play two or three times a week. I still have a hole in my muscle, an indentation. It can still hurt if I run, but I do it.’

One of the most notorious aspects of Clough’s short reign at Elland Road, later to be the subject of a book and film The Damned United, occurred when the brash young manager told Gray that, if he had been a horse, he would have been shot.

‘The players took more offence than I did because they realised how hard things were for me,’ says Gray. ‘I did say to Cloughie that I thought he’d have known better because he had to pack up the game through injury. He shut up after that.

‘I know he regretted some of things he did. I met him much later and he said he didn’t do it right. His biggest problem at Leeds was not having Peter Taylor with him, someone to tell him “That’s enough”. But that was Brian, he said what he believed. I look at him now as another Don or Marcelo, an icon.’

There is an amusing postscript to Clough-Gray. In The Damned United, Eddie’s character is played by his son Stuart, who also became a professional footballer for Celtic and other clubs.

‘It wasn’t a big part and the only reason he was chosen is because he could kick a ball and take a corner,’ says Eddie with a smile. ‘The funny thing is if you look at Stuart’s Wikipedia page, it says on it footballer and actor, even though that’s the only acting he ever did! It’s something we laugh about in our family.’

The great Brian Clough's 44-day stint at Leeds manager turned into a short-lived nightmare

The great Brian Clough’s 44-day stint at Leeds manager turned into a short-lived nightmare

Eddie’s other son Nick played in the Leeds youth team alongside James Milner and for Halifax with Jamie Vardy. His brother Frank played for Leeds and Nottingham Forest and Frank’s son Andy was a first-team player at Leeds. Both Eddie and Frank have grandsons in the Leeds youth system.

Ask about the greatest British player he’s ever seen, Gray’s response is immediate. ‘Bobby Charlton. To carry the club after the Munich air disaster as a young man and win the European Cup was remarkable,’ he says. ‘Most of the Leeds team would have gone for Bobby but when I asked Big Jack, he said John Charles. I replied ‘But what about your brother?’ He gave me that look and said “You could be right” and walked away!’

Few clubs had gone through the drastic highs and lows experienced by Leeds. Post-Revie, they were champions under Howard Wilkinson (1992), Champions League semi-finalists with David O’Leary (2001) and have a fantastic new team built by Bielsa.

But there have also been dark times. They were outside the top flight for most of the 1980s and faced financial ruin after reckless spending in the 2000s, slipping as far as the third tier in 2007.

Gray was in charge when Leeds were last relegated from the Premier League in 2004, the club having sent an SOS to him after O’Leary, Terry Venables and Peter Reid had failed to halt the slide.

Gray managed the Yorkshire side in a doomed attempt to rescue them from relegation in 2004

Gray managed the Yorkshire side in a doomed attempt to rescue them from relegation in 2004

Though there were some survivors from the European side like Alan Smith and Mark Viduka, the rush to sell Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Keane and others had consequences.

‘Morale had gone,’ says Gray. ‘The club wanted wage deferrals and cuts, some would do it, others wouldn’t want to. They’d say to me: “Why would I take a cut when they are trying to sell me”.

‘It was difficult. A lot of players had moved on and others thought they’d be next out. It was hard for them to play in the Champions League and then you are struggling at the bottom end of the table. Even so, I still look at myself and wonder what I could have done differently.

‘The sad thing is that David O’Leary’s team were terrific, with Smith, Harry Kewell, Ferdinand, Lee Bowyer and Olivier Dacourt in the middle of the park. It they had stayed together, they would have taken some beating. 

‘When Viduka was on song, he could play in any team in the world. Woodgate played for England at 19. I thought David did well and the club were a bit hasty in getting rid of him.

Gray couldn't save them from relegation, and they wouldn't return to the top-flight until 2020

Gray couldn’t save them from relegation, and they wouldn’t return to the top-flight until 2020

‘We competed against the best —and I mean competed. I remember going to Anderlecht and beating them 4-1. It didn’t make any difference who we played, we thought we’d win. 

‘It was like going back to my time with Don.’ 

Gray had also been manager at Elland Road between 1982 and 1985 when the team were in the second division still struggling to cope after Revie. Young players like Denis Irwin, John Sheridan and Andy Linighan would go on to enjoy success elsewhere but Leeds did not have the patience to let them develop under Gray.

‘People thought I was too soft on the players but I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘I got on to them if they didn’t do it right. I’ve always said I don’t care how much talent you’ve got, if you can’t run, you can’t play.’

It is a philosophy that leads neatly on to the current team, personified by Phillips, who out-ran everyone at Euro 2020. ‘I like it because I played with two box-to-box midfielders in Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles,’ says Gray. ‘Kalvin showed with England he can get forward and still do his job defensively.

‘I texted Kalvin at the Euros. He’s acknowledged the part Marcelo has played. Marcelo has sent many a player on an upward curve. Kalvin can break things up, he can make runs in behind defenders. He’s an ideal midfield player.’

Kalvin Phillips had a brilliant Euros, putting a smile on every Leeds fans face this summer

Kalvin Phillips had a brilliant Euros, putting a smile on every Leeds fans face this summer 

In Bielsa, Gray knows Leeds have a manager that cares as much as he does. He says: ‘I don’t take credit for having ability, it was natural. But I do take credit for working and training hard. Ability alone doesn’t make great players. This Leeds team realise that. They are working their socks off and getting their rewards.

‘I didn’t know a lot about Bielsa when he was appointed. They should have got promotion in his first season. We were worried if they’d then falter but they romped to the title. Then people were asking if they could do well in the Premier League. They proved it in the first game at Liverpool.

‘Don Revie would be proud and impressed. He’d like the way the Leeds players believe in the team’s way of playing set down by the manager and how they believe in each other.’

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