By Jon Howe
Being asked to write a book on Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players was a proud moment that very quickly enveloped me in a leaden shroud of fear and dread.
Whilst many football fans would see the task of devouring themselves in their club’s rich history for months, as being a pleasure incomparable to anything legal or affordable, I almost immediately sensed stress and aggravation. Although constructing a compendium of the most honourable names to have worn the shirt, with free rein to write an accompanying commentary of gushing reverence, and immerse myself in some of the most famous and iconic images to have illustrated those names, was an honour I felt undeserving of, I also knew it was a somewhat thankless task.
Even now, with Ken Bates out of the way and the club and fans enjoying a saccharine-encrusted new era of togetherness, engagement and inclusion, Leeds fans generally are enshrined in a sense of disagreement and rancorous altercation only seen elsewhere outside Yates’ at chucking-out time.
In short, how was it possible to compile a list of 100 players that everyone would agree on? Obviously it isn’t, but equally I knew that such have been the fluctuating fortunes of the club over the decades that it was possible to list over 200 player’s names, all with valid justification from one fan or another that they should be in the list. I had no desire to open myself up to the hassle of aggrieved Revie-era fans who could put together a strong argument for that iconic squad taking up the top 15 or 20 positions. Similarly, it is impossible to put forward a defence for John McCole’s 53 goals in 85 appearances being excluded in favour of Robbie Fowler’s 14 in 25.
To maintain the credibility of the project we had to absolve ourselves of all responsibility for the vote. So basically, we chickened out and left the vote open to Leeds United fans, then there could be no argument, even from those who chose not to participate. Following features on the club website, in the match day programme and via Facebook and Twitter pages, we received a healthy figure of over 6,000 votes, and indeed received 206 individual players names, after we had sieved out the ‘hilarious’ rogue votes for the likes of Billy Paynter and, presumably, David Seaman.
I was relieved that the votes generally contained a good cross-section of the club’s history, in that players from every decade were represented. This proved that it was not just modern fans with access to email and social media that were voting, but fans with a good understanding of the heritage of the club and the vital roles that people like Willis Edwards, Charlie Keetley and Jack Milburn played in establishing the club in the very early days. I had uncomfortable moments when Lucas Radebe, with just over 200 appearances to his name, stood above Jack Charlton in the rankings, with nearly 800 to his. Sanity thankfully prevailed, and while nobody will doubt Radebe’s immense stature and contribution to the club, the fans that voted saw the bigger picture.
That said, I still got some grief. Paul Reaney, no less, threw down the book in mock disgust at a signing in the club store, upon discovering he was a full three places below “Gary F*****g Kelly”. In such situations you are torn between the immense pride you have in producing the book and the shame of its ‘definitive’ premise being torn apart by the club’s greatest ever right back. I have received equally astounded comments from people that see Alan Smith in the top 20 and Mick Jones outside it, or Neil Aspin in the list but Billy Furness or Russell Wainscoat in the 110s. Clearly it’s a matter of opinion and everyone will favour their ‘own’ era, but thankfully, by and large I am glad the list is a reasonable reflection. All the same, I still insisted that the 101 to 206 placings were listed in the book to provide some context, and to show that certain players were at least voted for rather than ignored.
My other problem, apart from Peter Haddock not quite making it, in constructing the book was that I am something of a perfectionist. As a lifelong Leeds fan compiling a book like this, it could not be any other way. A project so close to home had to be done right, every minute detail and fact had to be correct, the best photos had to be used, the package had to sparkle; offer something no other book did, it had to be unique and look fantastic. The design had to be lavish, considered and alluring, the badges featured had to cover every era not just the current shield, which to me triggers nothing but bad memories. I had to exhaust every contact I had to get the likes of Tim Bresnan, Ralph Ineson and Ardal O’Hanlon to contribute their memories. But all of this takes time.
I had what I considered to be a great idea in the early stages of including a great quote from or about every player. There are so many funny, eloquent or profound quotes about Leeds players that I thought it would be great to get them all together in one book. Whilst it was difficult to know which Bremner, Charles or Batty quote to leave out, the harvest wasn’t quite so plentiful for the likes of Andy Ritchie or Michael Bridges. Also, I hadn’t considered the labour-intensive and frankly tedious task of having to contact the source and clear copyright permission to use every single quote, and seeking the publisher’s approval when costs became involved (thanks very much to the Daily Mirror for insisting on charging £50 each for using three quotes taken from 1972!).
Of course, I am exaggerating the perceived burden of producing this book. Of course it has been an absolute pleasure, and despite the mountain of work involved, I realise how lucky I have been and the end result is definitely worth it. I have also enjoyed some fantastic experiences along the way, such as spending hours searching through Andrew Varley’s photo archives, appearing on Radio Leeds and LUTV, doing book signings in Waterstones and meeting Eddie Gray, Paul Reaney, Bobby Davision, Ian Baird, Mel Sterland and Steve Hodge.
The idea from the outset was to produce something timeless that wouldn’t age, and sadly the current crop of players will probably ensure the 100 players featured are not likely to change too much when the next list is produced. But the book is a snapshot in time of the club we all love, and as such is a piece of history that if it ever does age, like Gordon Strachan, Bobby Collins or Eddie Gray, it will age well.
You can purchase a copy of 'All White: Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players here: