How Johan Cruyff nearly signed for Leicester City in 1981


January 1981. The UK, like much of Europe, is in the midst of one of the coldest winters it has witnessed for many years. Among the stories making the headlines this month: Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver from Bradford, is arrested and accused of murdering 20-year-old university student Jacqueline Hill. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, agrees to relent on a decision to close 23 working and profitable coalmines amid the threat of industrial action by the National Union of Mineworkers. The agreement is flimsy and ambiguous though, and the issue of pit closures will come to fore again soon. In the US, Ronald Reagan is sworn in as President, the former Hollywood actor replacing Jimmy Carter.

In the industrial heartlands of England, the good people of Leicester go on with their lives. A killer targeting West Yorkshire, but feared nationwide, is in police custody. A return to the three-day week has been averted, but are still 22nd in the First Division and facing relegation. In his office at Leicester City’s Filbert Street, John “Jock” Martin Bokas Wallace reclines into his leather chair and considers the league table. Jock Wallace, who has enjoyed nothing but success in his managerial career to date, including two treble-winning seasons in Scotland with Rangers, is not used to failure, and he is not keen to become acquainted with it now.

A home defeat in Leicester’s last First Division match against Leeds United was tough on his team, but a 3-1 reverse in an FA Cup replay at Exeter City was an embarrassment – a stain on his reputation. What is going wrong?

Wallace’s rigorous training methods have been in place at Leicester City for three years. Using powerful earth movers, the club indulged Wallace’s request to recreate the sand dunes of Gullane on the Ayrshire coast. Once referred to as “murder hill” by his Rangers players, the famously high dunes were a punishing focal point of their fitness regime and widely considered a contributing factor in their 1970s success. Here at Leicester, Wallace has a pseudo-Gullane, which is manmade but effective. The players are well drilled and as fit as any in the division. It is not the fitness. It cannot be the fitness.

It is not the players’ diet either. Wallace is ahead of his time on this score. He has a young side; there are no beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking layabouts here. These are players physically equipped to deal with the increasing pace of the English top flight.

The balance is right too. This is a team that romped through the Second Division last season. A young team with an average age of 23, studded with talented players such as Jim Melrose, John O’Neill and Ian Wilson. A young team. A young team – maybe that’s the problem.

A young team needs a senior figure, a totem, a focal point. An experienced leader who can them away from the lower reaches of the First Division. Wallace can get his message across in the dressing room – if he asks these lads to jump they ask, “How high boss?” – but someone on the pitch, a guide, someone to inspire. Jock Wallace is distracted by the telephone.

Jock Wallace at Leicester City. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

January 1981 had not gone well for Jock Wallace and Leicester City. The ignominious defeat at Exeter at least offered the chance to play the favoured card of struggling teams everywhere, we can concentrate on survival now. However, a cursory glance at the fixture list for the final day of the month did not offer any cause for optimism. In the First Division on 31 January 1981, Leicester City would be playing away to the English champions and the European champions elect, Liverpool, at Anfield.

Behind the scenes, though, there was a buzz at Filbert Street that Wallace and a few others were in on. The club had identified a new player: the experienced leader they so desperately needed. He ticked all of the boxes and then some. He was available and wanted to join. , the masterful Dutch artist, was on his way to England.

Wallace had a reputation for extended team meetings that could often include the entire squad, the kit man and, allegedly, the tea lady. Whether everyone involved with the first team was in on the buzz is open to conjecture, but something was clearly in the air. While many expected Liverpool to pick up another three easy points at Anfield, Leicester’s players went there and won 2-1, with Jim Melrose scoring the deciding goal to end Liverpool’s record 85-match unbeaten run at their home ground. Leicester were bottom of the First Division and Liverpool had not lost at home for three years. Three years! In those three years, the champions had only conceded 35 goals. They leaked two that day, and it was enough.

Aged 33, Cruyff was perhaps a little past his best, having retired from international football in 1977. However, a slightly past his best Cruyff was still as good a player as anyone in January 1981. Three years before, Cruyff was persuaded, like Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé before him, that the razzmatazz of the North American Soccer League was where it was at. In late 1978 the embodiment of Total Football joined the Los Angeles Aztecs, where he would go on to register 14 goals in 27 games.

Cruyff’s first season in LA would also be his last. Crowned the league’s Most Valuable Player for the 1979 season, he relocated east, signing for the Washington Diplomats in what would be a final NASL hurrah for both club and player. He played a full season with the Diplomats but the anticipated US soccer boom had not materialised. The Diplomats eventually folded in 1981 when then owner, the Madison Square Garden Corp, revealed accumulated losses of $6m. At the time, Diplomats’ president Steve Danzansky confirmed he could not gather enough money to keep the team alive. At the end of 1980, it was clear he could not afford to pay the wages his star player.

Johan Cruyff playing for the LA Aztecs in 1979 USA. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

As 1980 became 1981, Cruyff still had much to offer. Terminating his contract with Washington after just five games of the 1981 NASL season, the Dutchman was in good shape and ready for a return to Europe. With the 1982 World Cup in Spain less than 18 months away, Cruyff was keen to return to the international scene with Holland, but needed to play regular club football in Europe to remain in consideration.

Word quickly spread that a window of opportunity had opened. A lucky employer could recruit one of the finest players to ever grace a football pitch, albeit for a short time at least. Offers arrived at the Dutchman’s door but many of Europe’s top clubs were twitchy. Cruyff was a legend but had a reputation for disruption. In the days before global football coverage there were no YouTube videos to check on a player’s form and scouts were not flocking to the NASL. Cruyff wouldn’t come cheap either. While there was no transfer fee, the former star had become accustomed to a high standard of living in the US and willing employers would need to dig deep. Many looked but didn’t touch.

There had to be a short-term solution. Cruyff wanted to play at the highest level but needed game time to prove his fitness to Europe’s elite, who had decided to keep a watching brief only. With many top clubs struggling financially and reluctant to disrupt their playing staff, a short-term punt on the outspoken Cruyff didn’t make sense. Arsenal were interested in recruiting him and maintained a dialogue with the player and his agent but remained tentative, preferring a deal for the full 1981-82 season, provided Cruyff could prove he still had it first.

Spanish side noted Cruyff’s situation and moved quickly. The club was fourth in the Segunda División but only a point behind Racing Santander in the quest for a promotion place. An average attendance of 5,000 could easily be swelled to 20,000 once word spread north to Catalonia that Cruyff was back. Here was a chance for Barcelona fans to pay homage to a legend in the unfamiliar surroundings of Spain’s second tier. Knowing that the club could afford to pay Cruyff handsomely once promotion was assured and gate receipts counted, the Valencian outfit decided to gamble. An offer was made.

In Leicester, Wallace was aware of Levante’s overtures and persuaded the directors at Filbert Street to act swiftly. Having made a huge impression on the Scotsman when destroying his Rangers team in 1973, Wallace had remained on good terms with the player and was convinced that Cruyff was the perfect solution for his struggling side. Levante had stolen a march, but Cruyff had assured Wallace via telephone that he was keen on a move to England.

In the early weeks of February, 1981, Cruyff and his advisers identified three suitable offers that met the superstar’s requirements. Levante presented a return to Spain and the warm climate Cruyff enjoyed so much. Against this was the backdrop of a poor division and hard pitches grinding the joints of the ageing schemer.

Johan Cruyff in action for the Los Angeles Aztecs against the New York Cosmos in 1979. Photograph: Bob Thomas/ Getty Images

Leicester City, on the other hand, offered the prospect of an extended winter in the East Midlands but presented the chance to cut a dash in one of Europe’s top divisions, right under the attentive gaze of Arsenal. One other offer, from an unidentified German club – possibly SV Hamburg – was also under consideration. Hamburg were determined not to be pegged back by Bayern Munich and boasted one of the best sides in the club’s history but the proud Dutchman had suffered at the hands of West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final and had no inclination to head to the Bundesliga.

Saturday 7 February 1981. Still buoyant from an unlikely win over Liverpool, Leicester were back in action at Filbert Street. Manchester United in 1981 were not the latter day Manchester United of Alex Ferguson but Dave Sexton’s team still presented a difficult obstacle. However, the Filbert Street feelgood factor was in full effect and United were despatched 1-0 with Melrose again the scorer. Leicester were flying.

And so it continued. A 1-0 defeat to Sunderland at Roker Park was taken on the chin and the Foxes went on to White Hart Lane. Spurs may well have been on their way to the first of consecutive FA Cup wins but Leicester beat them 2-1. Another three points for Leicester, nine out of 12 and up to 20th in the table. They were not yet safe, but momentum was building.

Things reached a heady peak in the week commencing Monday 23 February 1981. European champions Nottingham Forest would be visiting Filbert Street on Saturday. Brian Clough had built a formidable side, but City were ready. Three weeks of hard negotiation were at an end. Pressed by Wallace, the Leicester board had crunched figures for weeks and made the numbers work. A quarter of gate receipts from a packed Filbert Street would be enough to cover 11 games at £4,000 per match. A staggering figure in 1980s football, this would be Cruyff’s remuneration. With the club confident a deal was past the post, the story broke in the English press and the following made the Sun newspaper on Wednesday 25 February:

Johan Cruyff is today set for a sensational move to First Division strugglers Leicester City. The Dutch Master has lined up a deal worth £4,000-a-game for 11 matches and, if everything works out, he will make his debut against reigning European champions Nottingham Forest on Saturday.

Last night jubilant Leicester boss Jock Wallace insisted: “Johan and I have already agreed terms. He has one or two problems to sort out, but I am very hopeful he will join us on Thursday. I would like to think that part of Johan’s interest is down to our personal friendship. I have known him since 1973 when he scored a fabulous goal for Ajax against Rangers when I was at Ibrox in the first European Super Cup. The negotiations have been going on by telephone over the past three to four weeks and now I think I have my man. He would teach my kids so much and be a great advert for Leicester City.”

The story sent the city of Leicester into a tailspin. Already buzzing due to an upturn in results, and anticipating a win over local rivals Nottingham Forest, the pubs, factories, shops and offices of Leicester were alive with excited and expectant football chatter. However, by the time the Cruyff story had been digested by the football fans of the East Midlands, Levante had made a decisive move.

As Jock Wallace prepared his Leicester players for the game against Forest, Cruyff was wheeling through arrivals at Valencia’s Manises airport. A month of cat-and-mouse negotiations between club and player had been concluded and a deal struck. A fixed payment, with additional increments once gate receipts were counted and promotion secured had been enough to earn his signature. Cruyff would line up for Levante the following day against Palencia CF rather than tackle Clough’s Forest. As Leicester City took to the field against their near neighbours, Cruyff spoke to the assembled Spanish press:

I’m in Spain. I have signed for Levante and do not mind at all playing in the second division. The negotiations we have held for a month have been completed satisfactorily for all. I’ve decided to play for Levante because in this country I am living very well. The football is quality and the climate is also great. True, this is a second division club and it is a bit strange for a player like me, but my life is not about money or prestige. This move offers me a chance to live well, collect a large sum of pesetas, and the ability to re-enter football in Europe. I think I cannot ask more. What can I offer? My reports show clearly that the team needs a man who channels the game. I am convinced that with Levante in just 13 days we can be raised to first [in the league]. I live for each day. I am only worried about the current season. During the past two months I have had offers from Leicester, Arsenal and a German club, but I want to be free. Next season we’ll see if I renew with Levante or if I’m in the dolce vita.

Newspaper reports confirm that Cruyff played in the 1-0 win over Palencia on 1 March 1981. While some deft touches were displayed, he looked every inch a stranger to his new team-mates. In the next game against Baracaldo, Cruyff only played the first 45 minutes; a stamp on his left foot rendered him unable to continue.

While Cruyff was talking to the press, Leicester were drawn level 1-1 with Nottingham Forest. Recent arrival Steve Lynex had scored, but the club were unable to take the maximum points that would have lifted them out of the First Division’s bottom three. Leicester were unable to match their February form for the remainder of the season. Despite some reasonable displays, Wallace’s team won four of their remaining 12 matches, finished 21st and were relegated to the Second Division.

Cruyff remained at Levante until May 1981, but struggled badly with form and fitness; a toe injury blighting the rest of his campaign. He still found time to ensure the dismissal of one coach and the selection of his own man but it didn’t work out. In the nine games that remained following Cruyff’s intervention, Levante managed only two wins. With three matches of the season remaining, they lost 3-1 at Linares and ensured that promotion was mathematically impossible.

Still hampered by the toe injury he picked up against Baracaldo, Cruyff watched the game from the stands and was loudly booed by fans of both teams. Only a small amount of the original sum offered was paid by Levante and Cruyff walked away from the club after making only 10 appearances and scoring two goals.

This blog first appeared on
Follow and on Twitter