On 7, August 1968, Leeds United took a significant step toward securing their first European trophy when they beat Ferencváros 1-0 in the first-leg of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Final.
Leeds had been knocking on the door of European glory for several years having reached the semi-finals of the competition in 1966 before getting eliminated by Zaragoza, and then finishing as runners-up to Dinamo Zagreb 12 months later – but it would be a case of third time lucky for the men from Elland Road.
The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, sometimes referred to simply as the Fairs Cup, was the brainchild of Swiss pools supremo Ernst Thommen, Ottorino Barassi from Italy, and the English Football Association general secretary Stanley Rous and was played between 1955 and 1971.
Initially, the tournament was set up to promote international trade fairs as friendly games were regularly held between teams from cities holding trade fairs and it was from these games that the competition evolved.
In its infancy it was only open to teams from cities that hosted trade fairs and where these teams finished in their national league had no relevance, but after 1968 qualifying was based on league position with teams who finished runners-up in their respective leagues making the cut; while in 1971, it came under the auspices of UEFA and was replaced by the UEFA Cup.
Under the guidance of Don Revie, who had taken charge of Leeds in 1961 and finished fourth in the First Division in 1967, the club got off the most emphatic start possible in the First Round of that year’s Fairs Cup as they hammered Spora Luxembourg 16-0 on aggregate.
Further wins over Partizan, Hibernian and Rangers propelled Revie’s men into the semi-final where they secured a place in the final by beating Dundee 2-1 on aggregate to set-up a meeting with Hungarian side Ferencváros.
In their previous two Fairs Cup disappointments, the team that won the first leg went on to win the tie and drawing on that experience, Leeds knew the importance of getting off to a great start as the sides met for the first time.
To make things even more difficult, Ferencváros, who had won the Fairs Cup in 1965, had Hungarian forward and 1967 Ballon d'Or winner Flórián Albert in their ranks, meaning that a Leeds team who had become renowned for their defensive rigidity and organisation would have to be at their very best once again.
The crowd of 25,268 at Elland Road that evening needn’t have worried though as the Leeds back-line, anchored by the centre-back pairing of Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter, kept Albert quiet; sticking to him like glue and limiting him to merely a few half chances.
But limiting the attacking options of their opponents wouldn’t be enough if Leeds were to lift their first-ever European trophy as they knew the value of taking a lead to Hungary in the second-leg, put simply they had to score.
And score they did when, on 41 minutes a corner whipped under the crossbar caused problems for the Ferencváros ‘keeper who failed to collect with Mick Jones on hand to bundle the ball over the line.
It would be the only goal of the game and, indeed, the tie as in the second leg almost a full month later at the Nep Stadium on September 11, in front of 76,000 fans, Leeds held on for a 0-0 draw, thanks to heroics by their Welsh international keeper Gary Sprake.
Despite going on to be one of the most powerful sides in English football throughout much of the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as boasting the most competitive and fearsome names in the game, the Fairs Cup win of 1968 remains one of only two continental victories in the club’s history having won the trophy again in 1971.
In the years between 1965 and 1974 the club never finished lower than fourth and won League Championships in 1969 and 1974, the FA Cup in 1972, the League Cup in 1968 and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups.
They also finished as runners-up in the League five times, losing finalists in the FA Cup three times, runners up in the Fairs Cup once, and lost 1–0 to AC Milan in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final, not to mention a heart-breaking defeat to Bayern Munich in the final of the 1975 European Cup.
Leeds fans must look back at that period with a gnawing feeling of what might have been but also with a sense of fondness as the 1968 Fairs Cup victory provided the club with a landmark victory for all concerned and one which is still talked about today.