Saturday 17 March 2018

Obituary: Gary Sprake

Brilliant Leeds United goalkeeper who gained a reputation for high-profile gaffes

Legend: Leeds United’s Gary Sprake defends the Wales goal during a match against England in 1973
Legend: Leeds United’s Gary Sprake defends the Wales goal during a match against England in 1973

Gary Sprake, who has died aged 71, was an integral part of Don Revie's Leeds United team that enjoyed great success in the 1960s and early 1970s, even if, like many goalkeepers, he was known more for his occasional blunders than for his numerous fine saves.

The best-remembered mishap occurred at Anfield in 1967. With Liverpool leading 1-0 on a snow-covered pitch, Sprake prepared to throw the ball to left back Terry Cooper but at the last instant changed his mind. The slippery ball arced from his grasp and fetched up in the back of the net.

At half-time, the wag making the match announcements played Thank U Very Much by local group The Scaffold and then Des O'Connor's hit of the time Careless Hands, with which The Kop serenaded Sprake for the rest of the match. The nickname stuck.

This was not Sprake's only high-profile mistake. The television cameras seemed always to be present when he let a shot through his legs or misjudged the flight of a chip that dipped under the crossbar. His most serious error came in the 1970 FA Cup Final against Chelsea when he dived over Peter Houseman's low strike, leading to the match being drawn. Leeds lost the replay, with the injured Sprake watching from the bench.

A truer measure of his worth, however, was that he was Revie's first choice as 'keeper for more than a decade. During that time he played more than 500 times for the club and kept some 200 clean sheets.

The trust the team had in him was earned largely by his sheer shot-stopping ability, which brought him an international debut for Wales at 18.

With Leeds, he won the Second Division title in 1964, the League Cup in 1968 and the First Division in 1968-1969. Many thought that it was his heroics in goal which, with victory against Hungary's Ferencvaros in 1967, also brought the club their first European trophy, the Fairs Cup.

Gary Sprake was born at Winch Wen, Swansea, on April 3, 1945. His father died when he was an infant and he left school at 15 with few qualifications. His performances for a works team led him to sign for Leeds and he made his debut in 1962. The club's first-choice 'keeper fell ill shortly before a match at Southampton and Leeds United chartered a two-seater aircraft to fly Sprake south, kick-off having been delayed to await his arrival. He was sick all the way and the team lost 4-1, but Sprake soon established himself as a regular in the side.

With Sprake protected by Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter, as well as by Billy Bremner in midfield, Leeds earned a reputation for a spiky combativeness. Sprake contributed to this both on and off the pitch. When he was barged by Arsenal's Bobby Gould while collecting a cross, he floored the forward with a left hook which inspired cartoonists to caricature him as Henry Cooper.

Off the pitch, Sprake regularly got into scrapes in nightclubs, caused in part by womanising and drinking. He and George Best once consumed a bottle of vodka each while flying from Belfast to Cardiff.

By the early 1970s, Sprake had fallen behind David Harvey in the pecking order at Leeds. Wanting first team football he moved to Birmingham for £100,000, then a world record fee for a goalkeeper. But it was soon discovered that he had a potentially fatal blood clot on the spine, and after surgery he was forced to quit the game aged only 28.

He endured seven more operations and later had a triple heart by-pass. He never returned to football, working in Solihull for the council and then teaching business and information technology students.

Sprake kept his distance from Leeds in part because he felt he had been discarded prematurely by Revie. He was then ostracised by many of his former team-mates after making allegations that the manager had tried to have matches fixed.

This was part of a long campaign by newspapers against Revie and his team which eventually prompted Bremner to sue for libel. Bremner won record damages after Sprake failed to impress in the witness box. Not that Sprake was above a bit of gentle bribery himself: when he took his driving test he left two tickets to a cup final in the glove compartment.

Sportingly, he allowed a biography of him published by his nephew in 2006 to be entitled Careless Hands.

Gary Sprake died on October 18, his wife predeceased him and he is survived by a daughter.


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