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A book I seemed to put off each year, but always wanted to undertake, was the Jimmy Adamson biography. For one reason or another it had been put on hold over the years because something else cropped up – the chance to work on a Roger Eli book, and then the request from Fletch that I help him with his Magical autobiography.

For several years I’d built up a research file on Adamson, collected cuttings; and whilst working on the Potts and then the Jimmy Mac books years earlier all manner of related material surfaced. Working on the Fletch book, he told me that Jimmy’s grandchildren had a collection of his papers and memorabilia. When I saw what they had, plus all the material I had, it was clear that there was no excuse not to start the book I had been putting off.

But maybe the strangest prompt was the picture I saw in one of the glass cabinets in the Jimmy Adamson Suite in the Jimmy Mac stand. Amongst the collection of old photographs of Jimmy was one that, for me, stood out. It was of Jimmy and his Scottie dog in the garden of his home. I had to laugh. For years I had a Scottie; little beggars they are, scufflers and snufflers, cantankerous, stubborn, the Victor Meldrew of the dog world, disobedient, but big hearted and filled with character. You don’t see too many of them around so when you meet someone who has one, you feel an instant bond and you can’t help but smile – as much in sympathy as anything else. So: when I saw this picture of Jimmy and his Scottie, I thought immediately, ‘do the book’.

Peter Lorimer in his book ‘Leeds and Scotland Hero’ was none too kind about Adamson and his time at Leeds. Eddie Gray in his book ’Marching on Together’ was rather more distanced and neutral. Whilst Lorimer was scathing, Gray was measured. Whilst Lorimer seemed resentful, Gray was sympathetic. Adamson had a whole raft of problems at Leeds, not the least of which was a set of directors in whom he had no trust, the shadow of Revie that still shrouded the club, and because of that, the impatient and unrealistic demands of abusive supporters. It was a job he should never have touched, Brian Glanville calling it ‘the Sargasso Sea ‘of football management.

It was a poisoned chalice of a job that he undoubtedly accepted because significantly it brought him back nearer to Burnley and his daughters, from Sunderland. His wife May also agreed to move to Leeds with him so that they took a house in the Roundhay area. Prior to Leeds she had always been unable to face the wrench of leaving Burnley. It was one reason why he turned down the England job; it was the reason he returned so quickly from the Sparta Rotterdam job. Nor would she move to Sunderland. They were devoted to each other so that when she suffered a serious illness during his time at Sunderland he returned to Burnley as often as he could. From a domestic point of view, the offer of the Leeds job was too good to turn down. He had no contract at Second Division Sunderland and could therefore move without fuss or delay to Leeds United still in Division One.

By the end it was the job that ended all lingering interest he had in the whole weary business of managing a football club. The watershed in his career was January 1976 and the FA Cup defeat at Blackpool. He never ever imagined that Bob Lord would one day dismiss him from the job he thought he had for life. From that moment it was a sorry story of decline and disappointment with his later life tinged with personal tragedy, marred by the unending bitterness he felt towards Bob Lord, and the disdain he felt for Harry Potts. He shunned any re-union of the great championship team and did not attend either Bob Lord or Harry Potts’ funeral.

This much respected man who had the football world at his fingertips in the mid-70s, just five years later turned his back on the game until he was at last re-united with the club that he had once loved so much. In January, 2011, at the opening of the Jimmy Adamson Suite he took the applause and cheers from the crowd and club that he thought had turned its back on him. He died a few months later.

Eddie Gray wrote about him in Marching on Together:

‘The choice of Jimmy Adamson as Jock Stein’s successor seemed sound enough. The former Burnley captain and Burnley and Sunderland manager had long been regarded as one of the most knowledgeable figures in the game. That reputation stemmed from his having been coach to manager Walter Winterbottom for England’s 1962 World Cup trip to Chile while still a player himself, although not in the squad. He had actually been offered the job of manager following Walter Winterbottom’s resignation, but turned it down because he felt he did not have enough experience.

His initial impact at Leeds in the 1978/79 season was impressive. From looking no more than an average middle of the table team for the third season running, a sixteen-match unbeaten league run saw us up to fifth in the table, and a UEFA Cup place, and we reached the semi-final of the League Cup losing to Southampton. However, as had been the case with Jimmy Armfield, this surge was not maintained. The next season, we were back in 11th place, and when Adamson called it a day after just a few weeks of the 1980/81 season – following increasingly strident demonstrations against him by the Leeds fans – we had lost six of the first seven games.

It was sad to see him take so much stick because, like Armfield, he was a thoroughly pleasant, decent person. Also, like Armfield, he retired from football management after managing Leeds United. Jimmy Adamson was similarly laid back in his approach to the job and I think that one of the reasons it went wrong for him at Leeds was that he took too much of a back seat during the week, leaving a lot of the responsibility in the hands of his assistant Dave Merrington. This led to some confusion. The way Merrington got us to play in training did not always tie in with Adamson’s instructions to us before match on the Saturday. It does seem strange that this should have happened bearing in mind that the pair knew each other so well. Merrington, a former Burnley centre-half, had been Jimmy’s right-hand man in his two previous managerial posts. However, I am not sure that Jimmy whom I had been led to believe was a tracksuit manager, was as much on the periphery of the training work there as he was at Leeds. In view of his coaching reputation, his role in that department was less active than I expected. He did start to get involved when we were in trouble, but it was too late.

I have to admit that Merrington was not someone I enjoyed working with. His personality could best be described as high-octane. From all accounts he had been a fiery player and there was evidence of this in his work as a coach. He was a very strong-minded character who seemed to see things in black and white and I felt he wanted you to do things his way or not at all. I took exception to the manner in which I felt he tried to impose his beliefs upon people.

These included his beliefs as a born-again Christian. One day he called a meeting of the players in one of the Elland Road bars. Two towering athletes introduced as leading American Football players endeavoured to give us what I interpreted as a lecture on how the Bible and Jesus had helped them achieve success. There might have been a lot more to it than that but I did not hang around to find out. I just told Merrington that this line of approach to my job as a professional footballer was not for me, and with one or two of the other players, got up and left.

This was not the only time that I was to work with Merrington. We became Leeds colleagues again when I was reserve-team coach under the managership of George Graham. Merrington, having been at Southampton, initially as youth team coach, then reserve team coach, and finally as manager, was brought back to coach our Under-19 team. Unfortunately, we came into conflict again. This time, it was over the fact that a number of players in this age group were in my team, and I did not give him as many to work with as he deemed necessary to bring the club further success in the FA Youth Cup competition.

I was not trying to be obstructive. I felt that once players stepped up into the reserve team, it was my duty to concentrate on developing their ability to take the next step up into the first team. While it was good to win trophies at youth level, my own view was that the performances and results of the first team were far more important. I still believe that; after all, it is the first team’s results that pay everybody’s wages.

What disappointed me about Merrington’s displeasure was that the first I heard about it was through George Graham; Merrington had complained to him without my knowledge. When I challenged him about it and suggested he should have made his point to me, we ended up having a row. With George leaving us to sort the matter out between ourselves, we just had to agree to disagree. There was always an underlying tension in our relationship but I had mixed feelings when he left the club to be closer to his family in the south. I think he had a lot to offer as a coach.

With Paul Fletcher at the opening of the Jimmy Adamson Lounge

As for Adamson’s spell at Leeds, his bid to build on what he had achieved in the 1978/79 season provoked a number of fans to claim that he had lost the plot. One reason for this view was that two of the players sold by him, Tony Currie to QPR in the 1979 close-season, and John Hawley to Sunderland in September that year, were great favourites with the crowd. The antagonism towards Jimmy because of this was harsh, considering that Currie had asked for a transfer on the grounds that his wife had become unsettled in the north.

What harmed his cause even more was that none of his major signings, and there were as many as eight of them, from March 1979 to May 1980, made any big impact. Kevin Hird (Blackburn), Gary Hamson (Sheffield United), Jeff Chandler (Blackpool) and Wayne Entwistle (Sunderland) were always going to struggle to convince the fans that they had the ability to take the club forward. Of the others, Derek Parlane (Rangers) was past his best; Alan Curtis (Swansea) and Brian Greenhoff (Manchester United were hampered by injuries; and Alex Sabella (Sheffield United), the last arrival, the costliest of the group at £400,000 and the one who excited me the most, suffered by not having enough players on his wavelength. (Eddie Gray Marching on Together; Hodder 2001)

Adamson was replaced by Allan Clarke. If it was Adamson who received vicious abuse in his final year it was Clarke who took Leeds to relegation. If it was Adamson who was criticised for his signings, it was Clarke who spent a reported £900,000 on Peter Barnes who became one of the biggest ever Leeds flops.  Clarke had had great success at Barnsley but simply became one more in the list of managers to perish in the morass of Leeds United. Like Adamson he had a good first season but he lasted just 20 months at Elland Road.

Amongst Adamson’s serious signing attempts were Kevin Keegan and Peter Withe. Scout Dave Blakey had been in talks with Keegan’s agent. Adamson had spoken to Withe. The directors that lashed out £900,000 on the disaster that was Peter Barnes for Allan Clarke had earlier refused to countenance the expenditure on Keegan and Withe for Adamson. Adamson came to mistrust the directors so much that he insisted that everything at every meeting was documented.

When Clarke took over Jimmy Adamson and Dave Merrington were so angered by his accusations that the players were unfit that Adamson initiated a libel action that was eventually settled out of court.

If only… those words again… if only Tony Currie’s wife had remained happy up north… if only Adamson had been able to sign Keegan and Withe… how different the subsequent history of Leeds United might have been and what a hero Adamson might have become instead of a figure of fun and scorn.

Time has healed much of the harm done to Adamson’s reputation during his time at Leeds. The Adamson book should show Leeds fans exactly what the real problems were at Leeds United during that fateful period. Just imagine Keegan at Leeds and having the same effect that he had at Southampton. The decision not to back Adamson resulted in years of woe and drudgery at Elland Road. If Adamson felt a quiet satisfaction at this, who could blame him.

Dave Thomas 2012

Postscript 3/7/20

Interestingly, the Leeds United club shop declined to sell the Adamson book on publication even though it had substantial Leeds chapters and he was such a talking point there. I’m told it was read and scrutinised by club people. I still wonder what bits they didn’t like, or bits of their history they didn’t want reminding of.)

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