There were mitigating circumstances to be sure. Leeds United were missing both their inspirational skipper Billy Bremner and the dancing feet of Eddie Gray through injury; Allan Clarke, carrying a feverish temperature, turned out despite medical advice to the contrary. Leeds wanted the FA Cup though. The defeat to Chelsea in a physically bruising battle the previous May had been hard to take, and the fourth-round draw against lowly Colchester United seemed to represent an easy passage. It wasn’t to be, though, and the team of veterans and wannabes defied the odds, bringing the 16,000 fans crammed into Layer Road to their feet in a tumultuous tie.
No-one, surely not even the Colchester players, had really expected anything other than a comfortable win for the Yorkshire club, but wily manager Dick Graham had sent one of the club’s injured players to watch the games that Leeds had played since the draw had been made, and the information that came back fed into a plan. The former goalkeeper knew a bit about the position between the sticks and decided that crosses into the box to put Gary Sprake under pressure were the club’s most promising way of nicking a goal or two. He couldn’t surely have hoped for the success the ploy delivered, however.
Graham’s “spy” advised that Sprake would come so far to collect crosses, but there was always a limit on just how far. Colchester striker Ray Crawford, who had played for England, scored 300 goals in his career and won the Division One title under Alf Ramsey at Ipswich, but would forever be remembered for this game.
Graham took his players away to Clacton-on-Sea in the week before the game to work on his plan, marking lines on the beach and repeatedly practising the best way to deliver the ball into the areas required to trouble the Welsh international ‘keeper. On the day of the game, all that sand in their shoes proved to be worthwhile. There was more to Graham’s plans though. Leeds were an expansive side and, given time and space, their superior expertise would undoubtedly overwhelm the lower league players. To counter this, Graham sought to emphasise the cramped stadium and narrowness of the pitch by adding extra rows of seats to bring the crowd as near as possible to the play and hopefully strangle any enterprising play from the visitors.
With the pitch resembling the sort of surface expected of a Division Four club playing at home in February, the game got underway and for the first 15 minutes or so, Leeds tried to impose their style as the eager Colchester players buzzed busily around them, denying the time and space to operate their normal game. Then, on 18 minutes, Dick Graham’s homework paid off.
Out on the left, Brian Lewis flung a free-kick into the visitors’ box. Exactly as Graham had said would likely be the case, Sprake advanced so far, but the ball sped past him, and on the far post, Ray Crawford, now 34 years old, rolled back the years to nod home clinically. The striker had been persuaded to join the club from Kettering Town, for a final season in the relatively ‘big-time’ game, and he was about to write himself into the history of the football world’s oldest competition. Just 10 minutes later, he would notch his second goal.
Leeds had been visibly shaken by the first strike, and now the Colchester players were beginning to believe in themselves. The ball was bowled out by Smith in the home goal, towards Gilchrist who hooked it wide to the full-back Cram, advancing. Seeing a run by Gibbs, further forwards, he quickly moved the play along the right flank. Doubtless, with his manger’s instructions echoing in his ears, the wide man played the ball high into the area, between the penalty spot and six-yard box. It was too far out for the goalkeeper to advance and collect, and as Crawford homed in on the ball he was challenged by Paul Reaney.
Crawford takes up the tale. “I got up and headed it straight into the back of Paul Reaney’s head. I didn’t know where the ball was as I’d fallen on the floor but when I heard Jack Charlton calling out to Gary to get it I knew it was live, and when I saw it I managed to get to it first. I was always a lucky devil in the six-yard box. If you’d come into Layer Road then you would have thought the great Leeds side were the ones playing in blue and Fourth Division Colchester were in white.” There’s probably a little understandable hyperbole in the summing up, but entirely understandably, and no-one would have doubted that Don Revie’s title-chasing team were in trouble.
Half-time came and went with Graham warning the home team not to concede early. Ten minutes later, though, the next goal would be for his own team. A long, looping ball into the Leeds area saw Crawford’s fellow veteran striker, Dave Simmons, leap between Sprake and Reaney and head into an empty net to make it 3-0. Conversely though rather than capitulate to the seemingly inevitable, as Crawford recalls, “something clicked” with Leeds and they took over the game. First Hunter scored and then Giles added another with a dozen minutes left.
The last minutes saw a siege on the home goal, but Graham’s men held out and took the massively unheralded victory. They would crash out 5-0 away to Everton in the next round, but, for all time, the old men had written their names large into footballing history.
By Gary Thacker
Part of our Magic of the Cup series