Spring is in the air. The cold hand of the previous year’s winter, which resulted in heavy snow and fixture cancellations as late as March was conspicuous by its absence but as April begins no one is taking the warm weather for granted just yet.
Liverpool sit at the business end of the top flight as their fans pray for an end to a title drought that’s been spread across three decades. And in the second tier, Leeds United are challenging for promotion with their supporters yearning for a return to the big time.
Yet the above scene is from 1964, not 2019. And if there are any Liverpool fans out there looking for omens, then maybe checking the Leeds result should become a habit over the run-in.
That 1964 season had seen the Merseyside club challenge for a first title since the 1940s with their last title today coming in the 1990s. Although the gap that straddled the ‘40s, ’50s and ‘60s was a mere 17 years as opposed to the 29 that cover the ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s, the parallels are striking.
On both occasions, their fans were in thrall to a charismatic manager with Bill Shankly inspiring devotion from the Liverpool faithful back in the sixties,.
For Leeds, it was Don Revie who was quickening the blood of their support with Marcelo Bielsa’s recent display of analytical prowess reminiscent of the Revie dossiers the Leeds legend was famous for.
1963/64 had seen Liverpool lead the table in December before suffering a 2-1 defeat to the team in second place around the Christmas period. For Manchester City today, read 1960s Blackburn Rovers.
Defeats against West Ham and in the derby at Anfield where Everton won 3-1 during a sticky patch in late January and February had seen nerves begin to fray, much as dropped points against Leicester, West Ham and Man United did this year In Division 2, Leeds suffered similar wobbles in the same period. This year, an early February defeat to Norwich displaced the front-running Whites. In ‘64, a fourth consecutive draw on February 8th, also against Norwich, allowed Sunderland to move top.
And after third-placed Preston came out 2-0 winners in a March 3 clash at Deepdale, only two points separated the top three.
“There were only two teams going up at that time,” Leeds legend John Giles says of those pre-playoff days.
“Sunderland and Preston were our main rivals and in the matches against them, we didn’t do very well. We were beaten at Sunderland and we drew with them at Elland Road. With Preston, it was the same.
“But apart from those matches, we were never really beaten. We didn’t concede many. Everybody gets a bit nervous but not to the extent where it was affecting us.”
With Leeds beginning March with a defeat, Liverpool were also struggling for form as Blackburn and Tottenham swapped first place.
After starting the month with a 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday, a 6-0 win against Ipswich should have been the signal to kick on. Yet a 1-0 defeat to Fulham on March 14th saw them drop to fourth, two points behind Spurs. Similarly, this season’s 5-0 win over Watford was followed by dropped points at Everton.
But both years saw results for each side pick up as March continued. For Leeds, a veteran midfielder in Bobby Collins was driving their young side on, much as Pablo Hernandez is today. And after Easter 1964 proved decisive, could it do the same in a fortnight’s time?
A win against Bolton had brought Liverpool level with Tottenham ahead of a gruelling schedule. A Saturday fixture against Leicester was sandwiched between a do-or-die Good Friday and Easter Monday double-header against Spurs.
Wins in all three games saw Liverpool return to the top on March 30th with a grudge match against an improving Manchester United, now third, the following week.
A win for the Red Devils would have seen them move a point behind the Merseysiders but a 3-0 victory for Liverpool saw them five points clear and left their biggest rivals with a mountain to climb.
Meanwhile, Leeds had gone on a similar roll with a draw on Easter Saturday at Derby their only dropped points in an unbeaten run of eight. A 3-0 win at Swansea on April 11th with Giles among the goalscorers saw promotion finally secured as their focus moved to topping the division.
“It was a short corner kick that Terry Cooper played on my left foot and I got a good shot on it,” Giles recalls.
“It was great to get promotion but it’s lovely to finish on top. To be champions of that league for that year. We definitely wanted to do it.”
The next Saturday gave both teams the opportunity to clinch their respective leagues. Liverpool hosted Arsenal at Anfield while Manchester United needed to win at Stoke and hope for a slip-up. Simultaneously, Leeds were welcoming Plymouth with Sunderland needing to beat Charlton to keep the pressure on.
By close of play, Liverpool’s title drought was finally over, goals from Ian St. John, Alf Arrowsmith, Roger Hunt and a brace from the recently deceased Peter Thompson demolishing Arsenal. Man United’s defeat by Stoke added an extra layer of satisfaction. Liverpool were league champions a mere two years after Bill Shankly had led them out of Division 2.
“There is no secret. Our business is football so we train to play hard, fast and accurately and carry our practice plans to the field.” he told the press afterwards.
“Celebrations? Maybe, but no time to think about that now. We still have three league matches to play.”
Two losses and a draw in those games indicate the players, for once, may not have heeded Shankly’s words.
A draw for Leeds coupled with a Sunderland win meant they had to wait a further week to be crowned. An Alan Peacock double away to Charlton on April 25 ensured they finished the season two points clear.
“Everyone has been prepared to work that little bit harder and do that little bit extra. That has been shown on the field,” said Don Revie, hailing his young champions.
“The players have given 100 percent effort in every game, and no team, win, lose or draw, can do more than that. Their obedience to orders, tactical and otherwise, has been most gratifying.”
It was the beginning of a golden era for both clubs. They contested the next season’s FA Cup final, a 2-1 Liverpool win after extra-time, with Leeds also missing a maiden league title by the slimmest of margins on goal average. Further leagues, cups and European success followed for both before Leeds fell away and were eventually relegated in 1982.
As Leeds faded, Liverpool’s domination moved up a gear. Titles throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s were backed up by European Cups in 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1984 before the Heysel disaster in 1985 saw English clubs banned from Europe.
The remainder of that decade saw Liverpool’s domestic success continue while Leeds rebuilt once again in Division Two. A final league title was secured in 1990 before Kenny Dalglish departed the club the following season with the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy weighing heavily on his shoulders. In the 28 seasons that have followed, three runner-up finishes are as good as it’s got.
But if omens are your thing, there’s another twist. The club that finished the season of that 1990 league triumph on top of the second flight?
None other than Leeds United. But that’s a tale for another day...