The first thing to make clear to anybody reading “Follow Me & Leeds United” is this: adjust your expectations relative to what you might expect from just about any other football book you’ve ever picked up. This is a departure, something new. It’s certainly not another in the long, long list of formulaic football fan reminiscences, with accounts of great games thrown in here and there, and a basically linear narrative taking you from the first game the fan ever attended right up to recent times. With that sort of fan memoir, there’s usually an attendant sense of growing disillusion as the “good old days” recede ever further into the past and the author writes tragically of past heroes and present ticket prices. Those books have a place – but it’s refreshing to read something different, as – for instance – Gary Edwards’ books were in the past couple of years.
Heidi’s book is even more different still, in style, perspective and tone. Once you have adjusted to these – because they really are quite unique – you find yourself drawn in and engrossed as you are put into a seat on the coach taking a young Heidi to Arsenal or Middlesbrough – or any of the many and varied other old-style grounds full of old school fans. The descriptions of what these away days were like are gritty and real, and the sense is very strong of them having been plucked virtually “as is” from the pages of the author’s diary. This gives an “instant” feel to the book – an impression of being in the moment, as a brick comes through the coach window, or as a lass that basically isn’t at all keen on violence witnesses it time and time again. These were naughty times – unenlightened and often offensively sexist times. Women who go to football matches today would do well to read this book for a vivid idea of exactly what it was like in those far-off days when, if the girls were spoken to at all, it was all about the size of their boobs or what a nice bum they’d got, usually with an accompanying nip or pinch. This behaviour would send today’s female fan screaming to the nearest officer of the law, and quite right too. Back then, it was simply part of the scene – and the lass either stuck up for herself and administered her own justice with a sharp kick or two, or she had to grimace and bear it.
Don’t expect either a book with a distinct beginning, middle and end. This is a work of random recollections, dotting about in time to give it the feeling of being a little like Tom Hanks’ box of chocolates in “Forrest Gump” – you simply never know what you’re going to get. What you do know is that it will be the sharp and impactful recollections of someone who was there, someone the players – legendary figures from the glory days of Leeds United – knew and acknowledged as she passed by, sometimes putting her in peril on hostile territory. The violence and the difficulty of being female in an overwhelmingly male environment are both ever-present factors. Most of the recollections and anecdotes are flavoured by these two central themes, and less attention is paid to the scores and action of the games – which, let’s face it, we can get from the internet any old time – than to this sense of what it was like to be there, back in those days, when attitudes and behaviour were so very different to the way things are today.
As a fan’s retrospective it’s so unlike anything else I’ve ever read that really it demands attention. For the women who accompanied Heidi back then, it will strike familiar chords aplenty. The women who attend football today will raise their eyebrows and wonder how she stood all the unwanted attention, all the scary situations when she so often ended up “shaking like a leaf”. And men reading this book are afforded an insight into the female perspective – the horror that violence can arouse, and yet how sometimes fellow Leeds fans were spurred on to “get” and “knack” opposing fans, because that was the way things were.
You’re reminded a little sometimes of scenes in the famous movie “Quadrophenia” when so many scenes of violence were witnessed by girls, who hated it and yet were caught up in the moment, half scared, half fascinated, totally immersed in the experience. We’ve all heard how football lads get a “buzz” off the fights and the confrontations; this book tells us how the experiences of women are subtly different and yet not totally un-related. As much as the physical violence, harsh words could hurt, tears could flow because of name-calling at away trips when strangers would recognise a girl who had attracted media attention because of the curiosity that she was; a female who attended football matches every bit as fanatically and faithfully as the lads. Some of these lads worshipped her as an icon with her distinctive blonde hair and her beret. Others saw her as an easy target for spite and cruelty, born out of hollow bravado and a sense of inadequacy – because she was well-known by fans and players alike, which was uncomfortable to certain resentful males who were stuck with their humdrum anonymity. Throughout it all, you’re aware of a feeling of what it must have been like, because the memories recorded here are so raw and so real.
I have a very individual reason for recommending this book, but wider ones too. My own particular reason first; I took to this book simply because of Heidi Haigh’s heart-warming (to me) convention of refusing to give the dignity of capital letters to the despised man utd. All the way through the book, whenever she has to mention them, it’s man utd. That alone makes this title worth a place on my shelves – but there are other recommendations too.
If you were a fan in the seventies, read it. You’ll recognise the times, you’ll be reminded of long-forgotten scenes. If you’re a woman who watches football today, read this. You’ll see how things have come on and how, though there’s still a long way to go, you can expect to be treated these days as other than a freak or a second-class citizen. Both of those treatments were almost the norm in the seventies, when football was the working man’s sport and the working man relaxed and let his loutish side show – probably a reaction to a TV diet of “Love Thy Neighbour” and “The Sweeney“. And if you’re a bloke – read this. It’ll teach you things about football support, and especially football support back in the day, that you never knew. It’ll give you some perspective.
It’s a good read, it’s punchy and honest, it’s by one of our own, and it puts you right back to when Leeds United were simply the best. It doesn’t set out to be “War and Peace“, but it has its own appeal for those who want to know what those days were like. Do yourselves a favour and read it. Or buy it for the Leeds fans in your life for Christmas. They won’t be disappointed.