The Leeds United Welsh
This article will continue my journey looking at the history of Welsh players who have played for English clubs. I will now be looking at the Welsh players that have played for Leeds United Football Club. Just to clarify this article will only look at Welsh born players who have played for the club so will not include the likes of Vinnie Jones and Sam Vokes.
The club was formed in 1919 following the disbanding of Leeds City Football Club by the Football League for making illegal payments to players during the First World War and had to sell off all of their players in an auction at the Metropole Hotel in Leeds along with the club’s goal posts, nets and so on. This club was formed in 1904 and its first international was a man by the name of Richard “Dickie” Morris who was born in Newtown in 1879. Before becoming a footballer, Morris served with the South Wales Borderers in the Second Boer War in 1900 and returned in 1902 to play for his hometown club Newtown FC and within a few months moved to Druids FC in Wrexham. His time there was even shorter, as only a month later he was recruited by Liverpool for whom he made 39 appearances, but would later move on to newly elected Football League club Leeds City in 1905. He would become the club’s first player to win international honours whilst on their books when he played against Scotland in 1906. He would only stay at Leeds for one season, continuing his trend of short stays at different clubs. He would go on to have a nomadic career, playing for a further 4 clubs before retiring in 1909 at the age of 30. He would win 11 international caps during his career.
When Leeds United was formed in 1919, the first Welsh player to make an impact at the club was Bill Poyntz, who signed for the club from Llanelli in 1921. His time at Leeds was eventful as he was the first Leeds United player ever sent off in a match when he received a red card against Bury in February 1922. Poyntz would make up for this the following week against Leicester City when he would score a hat-trick in a 3-0 win, only hours after getting married. This was to be the highlight of his time at the club as he failed to nail down a place in the starting line-up, losing his inside-forward battle with Percy Whipp. Poyntz would leave the club in 1923 after making 29 appearances for the Whites. He would continue his playing career with Doncaster Rovers, Northampton Town, Bradford Park Avenue, Crewe Alexandra and Hartlepool United. Poyntz would come back to Leeds to join the training staff and would remain there for nine years. He continued to live in the Leeds area until his death in 1966 aged 72.
The next Welshman to play for Leeds was Aubrey Powell, who arrived at the club in 1935 from having been on books of Swansea Town and joined Leeds United at 17, after being spotted by Leeds scouts in the area. His career was almost over before it began when in 1937 he broke his leg in a match against Preston North End. It would take him 18 months to fully recover from this and within a year, a war would break out, meaning that football would be suspended. During the war, he would become a PT instructor and was stationed in North Yorkshire, Hull and Belgium. When the war ended, he would return to Leeds and continue to play for the club until 1948. He would play 119 games for the Whites and chip in with 25 goals from the inside forward position. He moved to Everton in a £11,000 deal, which was one of the highest transfer figures at that time, but struggled to make an impact, making only 35 appearances in two seasons with the club. He would win 8 caps for his country. He finished his career with Birmingham after a season in 1951 after developing arthritis, believed to have been caused by his broken leg earlier in his career. After retiring, he moved back to the Leeds area until he passed away in 2009, aged 90.
Another Welshman at the club was John Charles, who is recognised as the greatest player Wales has ever produced and in many quarters recognised as the greatest player to ever play for Leeds. He arrived at the club from his hometown of Swansea in 1947 as a 16-year-old, he was used as a centre-half early in his career, due to his height and physique. He would make his debut for the Whites as a 16-year-old and soon after making his international debut at 18. He was considered one of the finest centre-halves in the country when his manager Major Frank Buckley, decided to try Charles at centre-forward and was rewarded with 26 league goals that season. His form would continue the next season when he scored 42 goals in only 39 games. It was Charles who spearheaded Leeds’ attack in 1955/56 as they gained promotion to the First Division, Charles that season scored 29 goals. His form continued in the First Division as he plundered 38 league goals in 40 matches. This form attracted the attention of Italian giants Juventus, who parted with £65,000, which almost doubled the previous British transfer fee. This money was needed after the fire that ravaged the West Stand and was used to help rebuild it. His legend grew in Italy as he helped The Old Lady to three Scudetto’s (League titles) and two Italian Cups and a Football of the Year Award in his five years there. Such was his impact at the club that when the club celebrated its centenary in 1997, he was voted their best-ever foreign player. He was dubbed Il Gigante Buono (The Gentle Giant) because of not only his size but fair play, as he was never booked or received a red card in his entire career. He would return to Leeds for a second spell in 1962 but this proved unsuccessful as he would only play 11 times before moving to Italy again to play for Roma but would only play 10 times for them. He would go on to play for Cardiff City, Hereford United and Merthyr Tydfil before retiring in 1974. He is currently Leeds’ second highest goal scorer with 157, behind Peter Lorimer. Despite all these accolades, Charles was only able to make 38 appearances for his country as his clubs would often refuse to give him permission to play for Wales. Charles was awarded a CBE in 2001 for his services to football and was further honoured by Leeds by the renaming of their West Stand, the John Charles Stand in February 2004. Unfortunately, Charles was not there to see this as he passed away the previous week, aged 72.
A teammate of Charles’ during his first spell at Leeds was Harold Williams of Briton Ferry who was born in 1924. He was rejected by Swansea Town as a teenager. In 1942 he joined the Royal Navy and was posted to Newfoundland and was involved in U-Boat warfare and spent three years at sea. When he left the Navy in 1946, he joined Newport County and would play for the club until 1949. He performed so well against Leeds in an FA Cup tie, even though he had been up in the early hours to complete his milk round, that it prompted manager Major Francis Buckley to pay £12,000 for him. This was money well spent, as the winger remained at the club until 1957, going on to make over 200 appearances for the club even though he broke his leg in 1952 and was out for a considerable amount of time. Williams was credited for being the creator of many goals for compatriot and close friend John Charles from his position on the wing and he helped the club gain promotion to the First Division in 1955/56 but returned to Newport in 1957 for a brief spell before finishing his career with Bradford Park Avenue. He would win four caps for his country, two whilst at Leeds. He would live in Leeds for the rest of his life until his death in 2014 at the age of 90.
The next Welshman to come along was Gary Sprake, who arrived in 1960 as an apprentice and would make his debut in 1962 as a 17-year-old. He would begin to nail down a first-team place as the club won the Second Division title in 1964 and was the club’s number 1 during the most successful era in its history. During his career, he would also win a First Division title in 1968/69, League Cup in 1968 and two Inter-Cities-Fairs Cup in 1968 & 1971 (a competition that was the predecessor to the UEFA Cup). Despite all of his success, Sprake would earn the nickname of “Careless Hands” after an incident against Liverpool at Anfield in 1967, when Sprake changed his mind about a quick-throw out and the ball would spill backwards over his shoulder and into his own net. The stadium announcer played Des O’Connor’s “Careless Hands” at half-time and the nickname would stick. Sprake would continue to play for the club and would make over 500 appearances before moving to Birmingham in 1973 in a £100,000, which was the highest fee ever paid for a goalkeeper at the time. He kept 200 clean sheets during his time with Leeds. A back injury would force his retirement at only 29, he would ultimately require a spinal fusion operation. Sprake would be a controversial figure in Leeds after his retirement when he contributed to an investigation by the Daily Mirror in 1978, which was accusing his former manager Don Revie of match-fixing and attempting to bribe opposition clubs. This soured his relationship with a lot of his former teammates and Sprake even said himself in 2006 that he accepted that he is not welcome at Leeds. Despite all of this, Sprake must be considered a legend of the club for the part he played during the Revie era. He would make his debut for Wales at the age of 18 and would go on to win 37 caps for his country. Sprake passed away in 2016 at age of 71.
A teammate of Sprake’s was Terry Yorath, who was an apprentice at the club and would sign professional forms at 17 in 1967. His first few seasons at the club he was only sparingly as a substitute or midfield cover for legends Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles. He would only make a handful of appearances until the 1972/73 season when he began starting more matches. It was in this season that Yorath came off the bench in a losing effort in the 1973 FA Cup final against Sunderland and would start in the European Cup Winners Cup Final that Leeds lost in controversial circumstances to AC Milan (the referee for this match was later banned for life by UEFA as he was convicted of match-fixing, but not investigated if this included this match). He would prove to be more successful the next season when he played his part in the side that won the First Division title. He would make further history by becoming the first Welshman to play in a European Cup final when Leeds played Bayern Munich in 1975, unfortunately, this would be another losing effort. Yorath would leave Leeds for Coventry in 1976 after making close to 200 appearances for the Whites and would continue playing until 1986 after playing for Tottenham Hotspur, Vancouver Whitecaps, Bradford City (as a player/coach) & Swansea City. Yorath was to suffer heartache as he was coach of Bradford City during the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985, in which 56 people lost their lives. Yorath helped evacuate people from the lounges of the stadium in search of his son (who was later found safe) and suffered minor injuries. He would suffer more heartache in 1992 when his son Daniel, who had just been signed by Leeds, died of an undetected heart condition in their garden at only 15. Yorath would continue in management with another spell at Bradford City, Wales, Swansea (twice), Cardiff City, Lebanon and Margate. During a distinguished playing career, Yorath won 59 caps for his country.
Another Welshman who was at the club at this time was Glan Letheren, who was playing in the Welsh Premier League at the age of 15 for Llanelli when he was spotted by Leeds’ South Wales scout Jack Pickard who invited him up to Leeds for a trial. Having impressed the club, he was offered a 2-year scholarship by Don Revie. Letheren would make his debut for the club in a UEFA Cup tie against Hibernian in 1973 at just 17 years old coming on as a sub to replace the injured John Shaw for the start of the second half. Letheren along with Billy Bremner played heroically that night in a 0-0 draw that Leeds would win on penalties, he would also soon make League debut against Ipswich. This was to be the last of his first-team appearances for the club, although he was on the substitutes bench when Leeds made the European Cup Final in 1975, with David Stewart taking place in goal. During his four-year spell at the club, Leeds had three managers and Letheran left in 1977 in a search for first-team football. He would move to Chesterfield, Swansea, Oxford City, Scarborough and Bangor City. Glen was never able to play for his country due to the form of Dai Davies. Letheren is currently a renowned goalkeeping coach, having worked with the likes of Ian Walker and has also done scouting work for Leeds.
Another of Pickard’s finds was right winger Carl Harris, who arrived at the club as a 17-year-old in 1973 had rejected the advances of Burnley. Harris would suffer from homesickness in his early days and returned to Wales, but was persuaded to return to the club he supported as a boy and would make his league debut in 1975 in which he scored the winning goal in a 2-1 win against Ipswich Town. During his time at Leeds, he would be competing for a spot in the side with club legend Peter Lorimer, who restricted Harris’ appearances to just over 170 in his nine-year stay there. Harris was unfortunate that he played for the club after all of its successes in the Revie era. He would be the clubs top-scorer in 1980/81 but after not being able to agree to terms of a new contract with Allan Clarke, Harris signed for Charlton Athletic in 1982 for £100,000. Harris almost re-joined the club in 1985 but Eddie Gray’s sacking put an end to that and he joined Bury instead. Harris continued playing football until he was 45 after further spells with Airdrie, Rochdale and Exeter City before playing for numerous clubs back home in Wales. He would win 24 caps for his country, all achieved whilst playing for Leeds.
Another of the many Welshman to play for Leeds during the 1970’s was Gwyn Thomas, who signed professional forms with the club in 1975. Although he was a prolific goal scorer for the reserves and junior teams, when Thomas played for the first team he was asked to play in midfield and sometimes in defence. He struggled to get any consistent game time for the club until the 1981/82, which saw Leeds relegated to the Second Division and would play in 39 games during their first season in that division. He would be sold to Barnsley in 1984 for £40,000 after making over 100 appearances for the Whites. He would go on to make over 200 appearances for Barnsley before he suffered a broken leg in 1989. He would also play for Hull City and Carlisle United and retired in 1992. He was unfortunate in that the only time he would be called up to the Wales senior squad that he suffered an injury and would have to withdraw.
Byron Stevenson’s career would be similar to that of Carl Harris and Gwyn Thomas, in that he had to wait patiently to get first-team football for the club after arriving straight from school in 1972 as a 16-year-old. He was originally thought to be a long-term replacement for legends Norman Hunter or Jack Charlton at centre-half but struggled to make the breakthrough there. As he was asked to play at fullback, centre-half and in midfield. He would make just over 100 appearances for the club until he left in 1982 as part of a deal with Birmingham City that brought England striker Frank Worthington to Elland Road. He would finish his career with Bristol Rovers after a season with them in 1986 due to persistent injuries. He would win 15 caps for his country in a colourful international career, which saw him receive a red card against Turkey and a 4-year ban from UEFA (which was later reduced on appeal) for allegedly fractured an opponent’s cheekbone. Stevenson would tragically die of throat cancer in 2007, a day short of his fifty-first birthday.
One of the many Welsh players that played for the club during the 70’s was Brian Flynn, who arrived at the club from Burnley in 1977 for a fee of £175,000 and would go on to form a formidable midfield partnership with England international Tony Currie. With Flynn’s ball-winning ability complimenting well with Currie’s flamboyance and creativity. Flynn would go on to make over 150 appearances for the Whites in a five-year spell. His most famous moment is the winning goal he scored at Old Trafford against Manchester United in 1981, the last time Leeds won a League match at the stadium. Flynn would be sold the next season back to Burnley and would go to play for other clubs such as Cardiff City, Doncaster, Bury and Wrexham, retiring in 1993. He would also make his mark as a manager with Wrexham from 1989 until 2001 and orchestrated Wrexham’s famous giant-killing against league champions Arsenal in 1992. He took on the role of Wales under-21 coach in 2004 and is credited with developing Welsh internationals such as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen along with many others, he left this role in 2012. Flynn would win 66 caps for his country with 32 of them coming during his time at Leeds.
Alan Curtis, who arrived in 1979 as a big money signing from Swansea, having rejected the advances of Crystal Palace (who offered Curtis significantly more money). He would make a great start to his Leeds, scoring twice on his debut against Bristol City, but would only score two more goals in his debut season. Injuries hampered his opportunity to make an impression as he was kept on the sidelines for eight months and the manager who had signed him, Jimmy Adamson was no longer at the club. He was also unfortunate in that he arrived at Leeds in a time of transition as the last of Don Revie’s successful side was retiring and players like Curtis were expected to replace them. During 1980/81 season, Curtis was sold back to Swansea for around £170,000, which was £200,000 less than they bought him for, having made 35 appearances for the Whites and scoring 6 goals. He was sold after being unable to impress new Leeds manager Allan Clarke. Curtis is more famously associated with Swansea City and has earned the nickname “Mr Swansea” after three spells there as a player along with many backroom roles at the club. He would win 35 caps for his country.
Mark Aizlewood arrived at the club in 1987 from Charlton, a signing made by Billy Bremner in the club’s bid for promotion. He would face his old team in the play-off final but would come off second best. Soon afterwards he was made club captain and continued in this role when Howard Wilkinson took over in 1988. Aizlewood’s time at Leeds will always be overshadowed by his 83rd and last match for the club against Walsall, 12 days before the end of the 1988/89 season. During the match, Aizlewood had been on the receiving end of criticism from his own fans after missing a chance earlier in the match. He would score a goal six minutes from time and ran towards the Kop end and gave the fans a double V-sign, which prompted mass booing as Aizlewood continued to infuriate the crowd by blowing kisses towards the West Stand, this prompted Wilkinson to immediately substitute his captain and was soon after transferred to Bradford City. His playing career would last 25 years after it began in Newport in 1975 at the age of 16 and he would make 39 appearances for his country. His post-football life has had its fair share of controversies with Aizlewood’s well-publicised alcohol problems, which almost made him take his own life. He has also had to deal with legal issues such as being charged with counts of conspiracy to commit false representation. Aizlewood is currently the manager of Carmarthen Town in the Welsh Premier League.
Gary Speed was on the verge of breaking into the first-team when Aizlewood left the club. He joined the club in 1984 as a 14-year-old when he signed schoolboy forms, having rejected the advances of the club he supported in Everton and would make his debut in 1989 as a 19-year-old. He would play his part in the team that won the Second Division title in 1989/90. He played in 41 out of 42 matches as part of a midfield that comprised of Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gordon Strachan, that won the First Division Championship in 1991/92. Howard Wilkinson would name Speed as his player of the season. He would remain at the club until 1996 when he joined Everton in a £3.5 million deal. He made over 300 appearances for United and score over 50 goals. He would not only play for Everton but Newcastle, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United. He would retire in 2010, having made 85 appearances for his country, which makes him the joint second most capped player and at the time had made the most Premier League appearances with 534. He would soon be managing his country that year, winning 5 out of 10 matches before taking his own life in 2011 at the young age of 42. To honour his memory, Leeds have named one of their suites in the East Stand after him.
Ian Rush would arrive at the club in 1996 after breaking goalscoring records for Liverpool but did not have the best of times with the Whites. Only staying at the club for a season and scoring three goals. Rush chose to come to Leeds, believing that he would be groomed by manager Howard Wilkinson to become Leeds manager in the future. Wilkinson got Rush involved in the training the academy, which at the time had the likes of Ian Harte, Harry Kewell and Paul Robinson. This plan was scuppered when Wilkinson was sacked a month into the 1996/97 season and was replaced by George Graham. Rush struggled under Graham after being moved from his preferred striker position and being asked to play as a midfielder and on the wing, which explained his low goals tally for the club as he was not asked to play up front. With other options such as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink up front Rush would leave for Newcastle for the beginning of the 1997/98 season and would retire in 2000. Rush would get his chance at management, when he took over at Chester City in 2004, but would have a tough time of it and would resign in 2005. Rush is currently Wales’ record goalscorer with 28 goals in 73 appearances.
The last Welshman I will discuss in this article will be Matthew Jones, who arrived at the club after a recommendation from Glan Letheren, as a 12-year-old from Llanelli. He was a part of the Leeds team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1997 against Crystal Palace, along with players such as Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith. He would make his first-team debut against Portsmouth in 1999 and would be used sporadically over the next few seasons but did get to play in the Premier League, Champions League and UEFA Cup before being sold to Leicester in 2001 for over £3 million, with the club needing to raise funds to ensure the transfers of Robbie Keane and Rio Ferdinand. His time with Leicester was littered with injuries as he suffered from back and knee problems and would ultimately have to retire at the young age of 23. Jones would attempt a comeback with his home-town team Llanelli in 2007 and was part of the team that won the Welsh Premier title and Welsh League Cup in 2007/08. Jones is currently a broadcaster with BBC Wales and is an Academy Coach with Swansea City. Jones would win 13 international caps in his short career.
A special mention has to be said for Jack Pickard, who was hired by Major Frank Buckley to be his chief scout in South Wales and is credited with discovering the likes of John Charles, Gary Sprake, Terry Yorath, Carl Harris, Byron Stevenson and Gwyn Thomas. Without his keen eye for talent, this article and the history of Leeds United could have looked very different. I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. I would like to thank the many websites for their valuable information in the making of this article.
Feature Picture Credit: http://www.itv.com