The Art of Super Leeds: Interview with Paul Trevillion – Part 1

Paul Trevillion, beaving away.
IN THE SPACE of just a few months in the spring of 1972, the choreographed showbiz prescribed to Leeds United by the maverick artist and innovator Paul Trevillion came to epitomise ‘Super Leeds’ and changed football forever. Absorbing the vibrant sights and sounds of the early seventies, the man who calls himself ‘The Beaver’ introduced pre-match training drills, autographed sock tags, and the timeless refrain of ‘Marching on Together’. I caught up with the enigmatic 78-year-old to talk about football, art, and his unlikely collaboration with Don Revie.

“It would never have happened without Bill Nicholson,” Paul admits. “I went to see him at Tottenham and said, ‘Look, here are the stocking tags, the target balls, and I want the players to come out and show their skills before a match.’ He just laughed and said, ‘Why don’t you go see Don Revie? They could use some brightening up.’

“So I went up and it was then that I saw Les Cocker. I’d been to all the training grounds in London and seen nothing like I saw at Leeds. It was military. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. There was a vaulting horse they were leaping off which I wouldn’t have jumped off with a parachute! It was unbelievable.

Johnny Giles and Trevillion's 'target ball'.“I hadn’t thought then of the pre-match drills, but who I did think of as I watched it was Busby Berkeley. I’m a great film fan, and when I saw 42nd Street I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so I took a great interest in him. People used to go to the cinema and think there were 40 dancing girls, but you couldn’t have got that many on the stage! He used mirrors, and this is going through my head when Don came up to me.

“‘I’ve seen what Les is doing and it’s Busby Berkeley!’ I told him. ‘You’ve got 12 players. Why don’t they run out and spin to the four corners of the ground to do their drills?’ ‘I don’t think they’ll do that,’ he replied. ‘Go and talk to Les.’

“Now Les was a tough guy. A lot of people dress tough, a lot of people act tough, and a lot of people talk tough, but Les Cocker was tough. I told him I wanted the players to come out and do the drills, get it all synchronised. ‘I want it done at the 6th round of the FA Cup,’ I said, and he took it as a challenge. ‘You’ve got to make it look right,’ I told him. ‘If it doesn’t look right, then you’ll get laughed at.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ he replied. ‘Of course we won’t – not if I do it.’ So I went back to Don and I told him we’ve got it. He said, ‘Right, now you’ve got to convince the players.'”

But when Trevillion turned up in their dressing room, the players were understandably standoffish. In a bid to win them over, he pledged that he’d catch a bouncing ball hurled by Revie at a wall eight feet away. Having made the save but with his mouth bleeding from four lost teeth, Trevillion decided to take a safer, more creative approach to convey his ideas.

“Being an artist, Salvador Dalí was someone I liked,” he says, “and Dalí did the elephant which no one understood. 1944 it was done, and it was called ‘The Dream’ or something. The elephant had on its back an obelisk and its legs were 20 to 30 feet high, as thin as pipe cleaners. They were on the ground, but I didn’t know what it meant. Then I found out. Dalí’s explanation was that the obelisk was the weight of expectation, and the legs the legs of desire. They stretch and stretch but they don’t come off the ground – and that’s what stops people from being successful.

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, by Salvadore Dali“I drew the elephant for Don, with these enormous long legs, and what I said to him was: ‘When you’ve played in cup finals you were good enough to win them, but you were too cautious. When you get there, you’ve got to believe that you can win it. You’ve got to get your feet off the ground, but you don’t.’

“Every day I talked to Don about doing the drills and the stocking tags, then one day Les said, ‘I’ve got it all worked out, Paul, come and see it.’ I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The lads were unbelievable and Les Cocker was Busby Berkeley – but with no mirrors! It was military, it was frightening. It was a hundred times better than I’d imagined it. Just watching it, I was out of my head! And so was Don.

“When the day come to wear the tags, I saw them for the first time and they looked really good. Blue they were, and on top of their all white kit they looked great. I went in and told Don it looked terrific, but I went back in an hour later and they weren’t there. I said to Don, ‘What’s happened to the tags?’ and he replied, ‘Look, I think we’ll leave that for the next match.’

“So I went back in the dressing room and I put out some cards with the Dalí elephant on and he said, ‘What have you done that for?’ ‘You’ve put your feet back on the ground,’ I told him. ‘At the moment, the boys are pumped up, they’re gonna wear the tags, they’re gonna do the drills, they’re gonna kick the balls out, they’re gonna salute the crowd.’

Terry Cooper: white boots, blue tags.“And they did. It was the elephant. There must’ve been a million people in the ground that day, because everybody tells me they were there. The irony of it was, when they did the drills, when they wore the stocking tags, it was against Tottenham Hotspur, and poor old Bill Nicholson – the guy who’d turned the idea down – was the guy who suffered at the hands of it.”

The 2-1 scoreline didn’t accurately reflect Spurs’ inferiority, and with what Trevillion describes as “football from the gods,” Super Leeds progressed to the FA Cup Semi Final. His work too went on, with the conception of a song that’s become ingrained in Leeds United’s DNA.

“I said to Don, ‘We’ll have to get a song. Is there anybody you’d like to sing it?’ And he replied, ‘Yes, Tom Jones.’ I said, ‘We won’t get Tom Jones!’ ‘Get the guy who writes his songs then,’ he insisted. ‘The guy who wrote Delilah, The Last Waltz, come on!’ ‘That’s Les Reed and Barry Mason,’ I replied. ‘They don’t do football records, Don!’ ‘You want the boys to wear your stocking tags?’ he said, ‘But you’re telling me you can’t get him to do our record? Go get him.’

“So I found out where Les Reed lived and I went round. I got there at eight o’clock in the morning and rang the bell. Nothing happened. I waited another hour and I rang it again, and there was no answer. I kept pressing the bell, and in the end it was about one o’clock in the afternoon and he answered the door and said, ‘What do you want? I’ll give you just a minute, that’s all. 60 seconds.’ ‘I want you to do the Leeds United song,’ I said. He burst out laughing, saying ‘You’re kidding.’ ‘No,’ I insisted. ‘We’re gonna bring it out in time for the Cup Semi Final. Are you on?’

“He said ‘Come in. I’ll get Barry over.’ Barry Mason arrived and asked, ‘How do you want it?’ ‘There’s a number in Robin Hood with Errol Flynn,’ I told him. ‘It won an Oscar, it’s the greatest music I’ve ever heard. Can we have it like that?’ And Barry started banging on the table, saying ‘How about: Here we go with Leeds United? We love you Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!’ I said, ‘Get the beat from Robin Hood, get that sound!’ and they were on for it.

“I couldn’t believe it, we got the record out for the Birmingham game. The bloody Birmingham game, the Semi Final, not for the Final! It got to number ten, for goodness sake! Above all the great stars who were around – the Elvis Presleys and the Tom Joneses and all of it – and it’s still a belter, and Leeds still do it.”

Jack Charlton's 1972 FA Cup Final socktag.Having rolled over Birmingham City 3-0 at Hillsborough, Revie’s side faced Bertie Mee’s Arsenal in the centenary FA Cup Final at Wembley. The night before the match, Trevillion says, Allan Clarke confidently declared that he would net the winner – and he did. After the game, Jack Charlton thanked Trevillion and gave him his signed number 5 sock tag. Revie, too, showed his appreciation, but it quickly became apparent that his Leeds days were drawing to a end.

“Don came up and said, ‘Congratulations Beaver, we did it. Sorry you didn’t get a medal.’ Then he put his hand in his jacket pocket. I expected him to pull out the customary envelope with five match tickets, for me, my wife, and three boys to see the Wolves game at Molineux on the Monday night. I was in for a surprise, because Don pulled out an elaborately-decorated paper knife, the sort you’d imagine Henry VIII would have used to pick at a well-roasted partridge.

“Don said, ‘I want you to keep this, Beaver, so every time you open your mail you remember all the good times we’ve had lifting that Cup.’ ‘ Thanks Don,’ I said. ‘No, thank Nicholson,’ came the reply. ‘It was his idea you came to Leeds.’ I think our handshake must have lasted ten minutes and when Don finally released my hand I knew I wasn’t going to Molineux. My Cup run, like Leeds’, ended at Wembley.”

Click here to read the concluding part of The Art of Super Leeds.

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