By Steve Jennings
Think of Leeds United versus Queens Park Rangers and my mind will inevitably think back to a frosty if sunny Saturday back in February 1987 when the two clubs met in an FA Cup 5th round tie at Elland Road. Leeds were in the fifth season of an eight year stint in the old Second Division and QPR were an established top flight club having won the old Division Two under Terry Venables in 1982/3. The Londoners also had a decent cup pedigree having made the FA Cup Final in 1982 and League Cup Final in 1986.
Relegation in 1982 had hit Leeds United hard. Seven short seasons previously the club had played in the European Cup Final in Paris and were criminally robbed of the opportunity to become only the second ever English team to win Europe’s biggest prize by some ludicrous refereeing on the night. Bayern Munich lifted the trophy following a 2-0 victory on a night when the majority of Leeds fans sang “We are the champions, champions of Europe” in protest proclaiming themselves to the real champions. This protest song is still sung today. A minority of Leeds fans rioted at the Park Des Princes, however, prompting a European ban from UEFA.
In the seven years after Paris the club flirted with a return to the glory days under the two Jimmy’s - Armfield and Adamson - but suffered from continued crowd problems and this was a major factor in Leeds United’s demise. Attendances were dropping alarmingly and therefore so was income. Leeds United was a well supported club- as the penultimate home game in 1981/2 against Liverpool demonstrated with an attendance of just under 40,000 – but fans were staying away with the club lucky to get over 20,000 at Elland Road towards the end of the top flight tenancy.
This prompted major financial problems. The man charged with taking Leeds back to former glories was legendary striker Allan Clarke who spent millions on the likes of Kenny Burns, Frankie Gray and Peter Barnes but these would prove poor investments and by the time relegation was confirmed, with Leeds fans smashing up every town and city they were playing in, Leeds United was well and truly skint. Down and out in Division Two with the likes of Grimsby and Shrewsbury waiting nervously on the horizon!
Eddie Gray was appointed Player Manager with a view to reviving United’s fortunes. He later admitted in his autobiography though that he was only taken on because he was a cheap option as Leeds attempted to combat the chronic debts. Gray initially kept faith with the players that had taken Leeds down but moved them on when it was blatantly obvious that promotion was not going to be a foregone conclusion. And if crowds were low in the First Division they would get even lower in the second tier. Despite Gray’s valiant efforts and his investment in youth the club was sinking into the abyss and those days of Europe seemed a million years away.
By 1986/7 Billy Bremner was the club manager. He had stripped out Gray’s talented, if lightweight, youngsters and built a team of solid experience recruiting players like Brendon Ormsby, Jack Ashurst, David Rennie, John Pearson, Micky Adams, Keith Edwards and Bobby McDonald whilst keeping faith in Gray old boys Ian Baird, John Sheridan, Andy Ritchie, Mervyn Day and Neil Aspin.
Leeds had no recent cup pedigree suffering some humiliating defeats against lower league opposition since relegation. The season’s first FA cup tie was away at Telford with the venue changed on Police advice to the Hawthorns – ironically the venue of United’s last game in the First Division. A tricky encounter was negotiated 2-1 with a Baird brace before Leeds repeated the score at Swindon with Baird scoring again after a Jimmy Quinn own goal.
When Leeds were paired with a home tie against Jim Smith’s slick QPR team there was much excitement. Bremner’s side were in and around the front-runners in Division 2 so this would prove a real test to his charges.
I managed to purchase four tickets and would be attending with three mates from Tiverton.
On the night before the game I spoke with Supporters Club Secretary Eric Carlisle and, unable to contain my excitement, told him I thought there could be 30,000 at the game. He was less positive saying a crowd of about 21,000 was anticipated; United’s average home gate at that time, and this was the man who sent out the tickets so he should know. Whatever the final attendance it was going to be a great game handing Leeds some much needed additional income.
Travelling to Leeds from Devon was an experience. From north of Taunton the M5, M42 and M1 motorways were awash with a sea of Leeds colours in cars and coaches. Leeds fans here, Leeds fans there and, well, you know the rest.
When we got to Leeds Elland Road was throbbing. The ticket office had queues the like had not been seen for many years. The few tickets left were snapped up in the hours before the game. Taking my seat in the West Stand I watched in awe as the ground filled to capacity in only my third visit to the home of English Football. The crowd were in great spirits. I recall the QPR goalkeeper, former Leeds apprentice and self-confessed fan David Seaman, being so intimidated by the South Stand crowd he warmed up on the halfway line.
Before the game started there were thousands unable to get in the ground in the West Stand car park all watching the West Stand supporters nervously for reactions.
The game itself was a nervy and highly emotive encounter. Leeds ran and ran showing great energy to combat QPR’s more intricate passing play. With the crowd urging Leeds on it was no surprise when the home side took the lead inside 20 minutes. Adams swung in a cross, big John Pearson nodded it down and Baird bravely flung himself at the ball to nod past Seaman. 1-0!
The crowd in and outside the ground erupted. The dream was on.
Leeds had chances to kill the game off but failed to do so. Rangers, to their credit, were composed and continued to pass the ball. In the 60th minute Leeds gifted QPR an equaliser when an under-pressure Rennie attempted a back-pass to Day in the Leeds goal but sliced it into the corner. 1-1 and game on!
There were some scuffles in the crowd, particularly in the Old Lowfields stand where some QPR fans were sat, but nothing too problematic for West Yorkshire’s finest who had plenty of practice handling disorder over the years.
The next 30 minutes were heaven and hell at the same time with every Leeds attack prompting heart-pumping excitement while a Rangers corner or charge forward saw the butterflies take over. It was looking like a credible draw was on the cards when Leeds got a corner in the 85th minute.
What happened next seemed to be in slow motion as Sheridan strolled across to take the kick, stroked the ball to the near post and Pearson used his height to flick the ball to the QPR penalty spot. Big Brendon Ormsby timed his run into the box impeccably meeting the ball full on powering a header into the roof of the Rangers goal that lifted the netting out of the ground before he launched himself onto the fencing of the Kop to celebrate.
The vast majority of the 31,324 fans inside the ground and reported 3,000 in the car park went wild. 2-1! Now hold on Leeds!
I don’t remember the rest, just the final whistle and hugging grown men I had never met before or would likely ever again. This was long before mobile phones but I wanted to call everyone I knew back home and scream it loud - We are Leeds! Marching on together!
Leeds United were back in the spotlight for the right reasons. The result and attendance prompted one TV reporter to proclaim famously: “The fur coats and Rolls Royce’s are back at Elland Road!” while another simply bellowed “a sleeping giant has awoken!”
And it had. And it felt bloody great.
Saturday 21st February 1987 at Elland Road
FA Cup Fifth Round
Leeds United 2 (Baird, Ormsby)
Queens Park Rangers 1 (Rennie o.g.)
Leeds United: Day; Aspin, Adams; Rennie (Buckley), Ashurst, Ormsby; Stiles, Sheridan, Pearson, Baird (Edwards), Ritchie
Queens Park Rangers: Seaman; Neill, James; Walker (Lee), Chivers, Fenwick; Allen, Fillery (Maguire), Bannister, Byrne, Fereday
That game against QPR remains my favourite at Elland Road, even greater in my mind that all those European nights and classic promotion scraps because of the impact it had on what was to come. It was the only time Leeds United would beat top flight opposition in those eight dark years of Division Two Football in the 1980’s and was solely instrumental in bringing the crowds back to Elland Road. There would be more 30,000 plus attendances at Leeds before promotion was achieved in 1989/9, some three years later.
Later that season Leeds would fall at the semi-final stage of the FA Cup to eventual winners Coventry City at Sheffield’s Hillsborough ground and lose the inaugural play-off final against Charlton Athletic at Birmingham City’s St Andrews’ground. I was at both games.
Leeds will face much fancied QPR this Saturday in more positive circumstances than 21st February 1987 but the game may have similar implications for the club. Leeds are unbeaten in six games and have won two away games in the previous week including a marvellous 3-1 victory at Doncaster where debutants Mowatt and Wootton impressed.
Rangers sit 4th in the table, two places above their hosts, having won 3 and drawn 1 in the league but head to Yorkshire on the back of a 2-0 defeat at Swindon in the cup.
If Leeds can force a win against the West Londoners in front of the watching TV millions then this would certainly raise expectations among the club’s supporters. And maybe the fur coats and Rolls Royce’s will be back again?