DECEMBER 19TH - CARRYING US ON THEIR BACKS
Tomorrow afternoon Manchester United play Leeds United at Old Trafford, resuming one of British football’s great rivalries. From the mid-1960s to the mid-2000s these two giants of northern England regularly went toe to toe, often fighting for the game’s biggest prizes. There was no love lost between the clubs, and their fans just plain hated each other. They still do. Fifty years ago the clubs met in the 1970 FA Cup semi-final. Leeds were reigning league champions and Manchester United were less than two years on from a memorable European Cup win. They could still call on their legendary forward trio of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, but against Leeds they drew a blank in the semi-final and replay. A total of three and a half hours without scoring, and the goalkeeper who kept them out was the pride of Swansea and Cwmbwrla.
Gary Sprake was just 24 years old when he stood firm against Manchester United in that semi-final, and he’d already been a fixture in the Leeds team for six years, winning medals and trophies including the 1969 league title. He never played for the Swans, having been scouted by Leeds as a 16 year old, but his success was a welcome reminder of our city’s footballing talent at a time when our home team was struggling. In the season that Gary Sprake and Leeds United defended their league title, Swansea City were playing in the fourth division. The late 1970s would see a spectacular revival, of course, but at the dawn of the decade that was a world away, and it was Gary Sprake who carried our hopes.
Plenty of us remember that with pride, and no one more than Denise Lavis. To Denise, Gary Sprake wasn’t just a great goalkeeper. He was also a beloved uncle, the brother of her father, Dennis. Dennis Sprake wasn’t as famous as Gary but among the people of Swansea he was just as much admired. Part of a family of coal merchants, Dennis helped to keep Swansea warm for decades, carrying coal in his lorry, in his cart and on his back day after day, through streets and up hills. When was the last time you walked up a steep, narrow street in Townhill? Try doing it with a sack of coal on your back. Some people used to do that for a living. Dennis Sprake took care of his customers and he took care of his family. This year, of all years, we can understand what that means and what it’s worth.
If there’s a winning goal in the match at Old Trafford tomorrow, whoever scores it will probably be called a hero. To some people they might be, even if only for a few days. The Sprake brothers achieved something far more substantial in their lives, so when Denise Lavis remembers her family as heroes we can all stand up and applaud them along with her.
Merry Christmas Denise.