Don Revie was Jose Mourinho, Sam Allardyce, Kenny Dalglish and so much more wrapped into one. Yet, today, many younger soccer fans cannot name him or point to why he is relevant. Except, of course, that he was played masterfully and villainously by Colm Meaney in The Damned United.
To many fans, especially those supporting Leeds United, Revie is a legend. Revie is the man who put their club’s name in British soccer history. He modernized the game, in some cases forcing it to adapt to the times in positive ways, he made the tough transition from star player to star manager, he invested time and energy into the game in the Middle East.
Yet, for all of these positives, there were the scandals, real and perceived. To many he was a match fixer (or attempted match fixer). He quit on his clubs when times got tough, he was in it for the money, he introduced a cynical, dirty style of play that defined the English game in the 1960s and 1970s, he truly was the foil for better, more progressive managers like Brian Clough and Bill Shankly.
So who is the real Revie, or is he a combination of both narratives? A newly available biography on Don Revie tries to answer this question. Written by Christopher Evans, Don Revie: The Biography draws on new interviews and diverse source material to try and present a more complete version of the man.
Don Revie biography laid out
Many times with biographies, the writer presents the subject in a certain light. I often say biographers take their subjects and write a story to make a point. Rarely do you get a biography that is a straightforward life story but instead draws elements of a person’s life to make a larger point.
Evans tries to stay away from this, for which he deserves credit. The book’s prologue starts with Revie taking in a West Germany match soon after his appointment as England manager, arguably the high point of his managerial career. It then swings back to 1944 and the beginning of his career as a player. From this point forward, Evans takes us almost year-by-year, or team by team, through the rest of his life. We do not deviate from the narrative like we would in a movie. Rather, readers watch as Evans builds upon each life chapter to show the type of man Revie is to become.
For those unaware, Revie was a good player. He had a few caps with England at a time when call-ups to see players was not as common. For a time, fans considered him one of the game’s rising stars. But, he had two knocks on him as a player not uncommon in the game – he had injury troubles and he wanted moves regularly to improve his pay. In 2023, wanting a transfer to make more money is nothing special. In 1950, that labels a player a certain way.
Revie and Leeds United
Eventually he ends up at Leeds United, a club with little history and mounds of financial issues. Unable to pay top dollar for a manager after a vacancy arises, the Board hires Revie as a player-manager based on recommendations from his teammates. His playing career ends soon after, but his managerial career takes off. Revie leads Leeds United from the second division to not just promotion, but regularly challenging for domestic and European trophies. His core Leeds players were capped regularly and became stars, with many moving on to managing in their later lives. What Wrexham claims to want to do today, Leeds did in the 1960s.
It was not without cost, however, Revie early in his career played with a defensive, aggressive style that earned his club the nickname Dirty Leeds. There were rumors of attempted matching fixing at times that were boosted with disgruntled keeper Gary Sprake’s tell-all interviews in later years. And, in something that would make Antonio Conte shrug, Revie was accused of constantly playing other clubs with vacancies off of Leeds to boost his pay and contract.
However, success comes with consequences. The opportunity to coach England was too tempting for Revie to pass up. Revie inherited a team in transition, one with a player pool behind many European top sides and one he was unable to micromanage as he did Leeds. His record looks good but ultimately England was on track to fail to qualify for the 1978 World Cup. Instead, Revie took a lucrative contract with the U.A.E. and left England right before critical World Cup qualifiers, again drawing criticism.
Facts vs. stories
As you can see, a Don Revie biography is full of opportunity to draw a robust portrait of a type of person. Evans’ straight-forward biography, however, fails to do this. What we get with an abundance of fact we lose in exploring the nuance of the man. Rather than chapters detailing every result of the club Revie was leading (and I do believe it was every or close to every result), I would have preferred some exploration and discussion of the different sides of the man.
Evans draws on extensive interviews with players and family members to try and draw this portrait. Yet, he does so in a scattered way. During the narrative, Evans brings up a controversy. A few characters discuss it, and the story moves on. It is only in the Epilogue where explores the full story of the man. Even then, his analysis is too short and constricted. Evans’ ends by listing Revie as one of the top five greatest English managers ever. The argument presented for this, though, is weak.
I struggled with how to recommend this book but came to this conclusion – soccer fans should read this book. Don Revie is too interesting of a person not to learn more about him and the impact he had on the game. Just be prepared for a biased, pro-Revie story that does not do the work of selling that opinion convincingly.
The Don Revie biography is available via Amazon and all fine book sellers.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Colorsport
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