When little Colchester slayed Leeds United

A look back at one of the biggest shocks in football as Colchester United ended Leeds’ FA Cup dream.

Much has been made about the famous Leeds United side from the 1970s. We know what they were and what they wanted to become. At their core, Leeds wanted to essentially be the English version of Real Madrid, even backed up by the fact their their jersey colour is white. The players they had and the managers who presided over them at the time were some of the best the game has ever produced. The Yorkshire side suffered along the way, but nothing was as bad as the treble ending FA Cup match on February 13, 1971 against Colchester United. 

Colchester in Essex is one of the fastest growing towns in England and has only one football club representing it in Colchester United. It also is widely considered to be the oldest recorded town in England. Like many clubs we know today, they were not the first club in existence in their town. The first club was Colchester Town FC, which was around from 1873 to 1936. United formed in 1937, with this new club having never been above the second tier of the Football League.

Don Revie’s great Leeds United team included many famous names from the past, including: Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer, Billy Bremner,  Eddie Gray and Johnny Giles. United had just won the First Division Title in 1968-69, and the Charity Shield to kick off that season.

Ahead of the FA Cup encounter between the two sides, it was considered such a certain defeat for Colchester United that the directors of the club briefly thought of having the match moved to Leeds’ Elland Road home to get the most amount of money for their inevitable defeat. That idea was clearly nixed and the game was played at Colchester’s Layer Road, with 16,000 spectators crammed into the stands. Colchester were nicknamed ‘Dad’s Army’ partly after the television sitcom of the time, and partly because the side contained players mostly over the age of 30.

The most well known player on the club was Ray Crawford, who at 34, had already won a title with Ipswich in 1962, and went to score loads of goals with Wolves and West Brom. He got two caps with England under his former Ipswich manager Alf Ramsey. There was also John Kurila, one of the younger players in the side. Kurila was also one of the few who had experienced the game at the top level, where he was with Northampton Town when they rocketed up through the leagues to the old First Division.

Colchester had warmed up for the match with a league win over Cambridge United, before a hard week of practice for the daunting task of playing Leeds. During training that week, manager Dick Graham tried to simulate the pitch being smaller than it actually was, to make his team get used to Leeds’ wingers. Graham then went to the media and said Leeds may win, but they’ll have to battle for it. Surprisingly, Revie was having an off feeling about the match. Colchester were not rolling out the red carpet for Leeds, like so many other clubs had for his side. Revie did not say this to anyone at his club, after all a manager of his stature, and what Leeds was, you don’t show a weakness. Norman Hunter had a scary feeling about the match too, and had confided in Charlton that Leeds couldn’t take the match for granted.

Revie wouldn’t know it at the time, but when they came out for the match and tried to put on a show for the locals they lost their edge. The point was to come out, show the locals that they were the great Leeds side that they were. What Colchester did, is what all lower league clubs do against slick passing sides; they got up on them, ruffled them up and didn’t allow them to settle. 

Leeds were known by some as ‘Dirty Leeds’. The Yorkshire men did not have to show the locals or their supporters the great football associated with them, they just had to play the way they were used to playing. Many people, including Derby boss Brian Clough, nicknamed them ‘Dirty Leeds’ and it stuck, although we didn’t really see it on the day against Colchester. They were simply bullied and outmuscled. 

The first goal by Colchester, in the 18th minute, was everything a top side would not have given up. Dick Graham had a theory that Leeds’ goalkeeper Gary Sprake was vulnerable and somewhat hesitant at crosses. So when Colchester’s Brian Lewis put a ball in just as Graham had thought, and Sprake got off his line, Crawford got behind the keeper and ruffled him a bit, which led to the opener.

Matches weren’t televised at the time, so people had to rely on the radio, which was the BBC, and the fans were tuned into Radio 2 to get the updates. When Radio 2 broke into programming again six minutes later, the fans could have hoped that Leeds had finally pulled one back. That wasn’t the case, as Brian Gibbs advanced, trying not to take on Norman Hunter, and lofted one up for Crawford who was being defended aptly by Paul Reaney, and smashed the ball home for a 2-0 lead going into half-time. The stars of Leeds couldn’t break free as Colchester were playing with confidence. Hunter, Giles, and Charlton couldn’t free up their teammates to get a break started and they were well truly stifled by the Essex club so far.

By now, the whole nation could tune in and listen to the second half. Would Leeds United turn it around and come back? Could Colchester keep this up? Surely, down by two goals, and with Don Revie as the manager, Leeds could do it, right? In the 55th minute, Leeds were, once again, a mess at the back.  Graham sent his charges out for an all out attack so they didn’t sit back and potentially lose the match. And with that, the Colchester attack ran riot again as Simmons put them 3-0 up. Incredible. 

Following their third, roles were reversed and Colchester were the side with all the expectations and the head full of thoughts of the win. Leeds needed to be the killer, and go for the win, like they had done so many times. Eventually, the Leeds attack kicked up and they peppered the Colchester defence with shots and even goals. Five minutes after Simmons scored Colchester’s third, Norman Hunter showed the class that was so prevalent in his game and slotted home the first goal Leeds so desperately needed.

Johnny Giles, in the seventy third minute, put home the second goal for Leeds, making it a tense finish. Then, like any desperate side, Leeds turned up the pressure and really went for an equaliser which never came. In the end, Dick Graham came onto the field to congratulate his players for what they had done. The Leeds players and Revie took the defeat with the grace that should be expected and one of the game’s most beautiful FA Cup shocks, along with Leeds’ treble hopes, was over. 

Eventually, Colchester United lost to Everton in the quarter-finals but they didn’t care. Leeds didn’t win any trophies that season but they learned their lesson, and in 1972 took no club lightly and won the cup.  Colchester ended the season missing out on promotion by only two points, but they still had a great season. Dick Graham resigned a couple years later, though. Meanwhile, Leeds boss Don Revie ended up leaving Leeds for the England job in July of 1974. Brian Clough, one of Revie and Leeds’ biggest critics, took over. But it only lasted for 44 days, famously. 

Posted by Stephen Brandt

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