Certain traditions run like a golden thread through the pages of any clubs’ history, but these are strange times and events are taking a turn for the bizarre. Look at West Ham, the so-called Academy of Football – managed by a brontosaurus of a coach in Sam Allardyce who believes that a 4-6-0 formation is the way forward. None of this old-fashioned malarkey about scoring goals for our Sam; he’s going to get the ‘Ammers relegated his way. What would Ron Greenwood think?
Then look at the Premier League “Fair Play” league. Look where Man U are – right down there near the bottom as if they were just any old club. Seriously, what is going on? The referees must be giving fouls against them for goodness’ sake, and actually booking players in that red shirt that previously meant immunity from normal discipline. Pinch me, I must be dreaming. What on Earth are they playing at?
But for a truly shocking spectacle, one that will blast the eyes of any football nostalgia freak and confound millions of armchair experts everywhere, just take a gander at the Fair Play league for the Championship. There, sat somewhat shamefacedly at the top, are the arch-satans themselves, the famously filthy Leeds United. How that must have made Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter choke on his cornflakes this morning. Johnny Giles, known to many as a cultured performer with genius in his left foot, but by those who knew better as a pint-sized assassin, must have shaken his head sadly and wondered what things have come to. This is not the Leeds United we all knew and loved, with blood on their boots and murder in their hearts. What would Billy Bremner say? Or, for those of an earlier vintage, Wilf Copping?
Just as the sound of leather on willow beguiles the senses of those sat around a village green watching cricket on a long summer evening; just as the sound of birds singing in a mellifluous dawn chorus brings promise of the balmy day to come – so the ghastly rattle of boot on bone and the anguished screech of yet another opposing player, nailed by a deadly-accurate but manifestly illegal lunge, would reassure the listener that they were at Elland Road with Norman or Gilesy going about their deadly business. Some things just go with each other, like port and nuts, like Man U and arrogance. If these traditions perish, what have we got left but some brave new world that we don’t quite understand?
Some will disagree, feeling that the appearance of Leeds United at the top of any league is long overdue and indubitably A Good Thing. Those of a po-faced and purist turn of thought – the ones that yap away to each other unhappily if Leeds United rattle a few cages or shin-bones, or if earthier Leeds fans engage in verbal warfare with their like-minded counterparts at the Theatre of Hollow Myths – these more saintly people will welcome anything that further distances them and the Damned United from a bloodstained, strife-torn and controversial past. Such tedious holier-than-thou types would like to see us as just another dull, routine club. Look, they will squeak – we’re not Dirty Leeds after all. We’re the cleanest and shiniest in the whole league. They will nod a smug and satisfied little nod and then go on to remind you that we’re no longer a big club, either. Some people just have no feel for tradition.
There is some compensation for those of us with a more positive mind-set. On a different page of the statistical website that shows Leeds in such a novel and incongruous fair-play position, we can see Ross McCormack sitting proudly at the top of the league’s scorers list, courtesy of his recent white-hot form in front of goal. Now Ross is the kind of Leeds player any fan can warm to, outspoken in his regard for the club, ready to engage with the fans in social media – these are the sort of modern developments I can get along with.
If only those others in the team, those who bear the responsibility for defending United’s cherished tradition of “getting stuck in” and giving opposing forwards and playmakers a touch of gravel-rash from time to time – just to remind them they’re in a game – if only they could get their act together as Rossco has. Maybe then we might start to sink towards our more accustomed place in the nether regions of the Fair Play league, whilst we’re rising slowly but surely towards the top of the League that really counts.
When I write of proud traditions in the context of getting stuck into the opposition, it’s not entirely tongue in cheek. This “Dirty Leeds” reputation for dealing severely with upstart opponents really was a part of the culture of those early seventies times in particular. You could hardly watch a sitcom without the name of the Yorkshire giants being brought into proceedings, by way of almost affectionate and decidedly respectful tribute. We were quite the cultural icons.
In one episode of “Porridge“, for instance, the head screw Mackay claims to be “hard but fair”. “Yeah,” intones our hero Norman Stanley Fletcher, cynically – “Just like Leeds United”. And we get similar mentions elsewhere – “Rising Damp“, “Monty Python“, even. Moments like that still give me that frisson of acknowledgement that I support a club outside the normal, humdrum, run-of-the-mill mainstream. I support Dirty Leeds, the Damned United, and I’m proud of it.
So come on, Leeds – sort yourselves out and lets get the rest of football moaning and whinging about us again. You owe it to those legendary hard-men of the past, all the way from Wilf Copping, via Billy, Norman, Big Jack and Gilesy, through to Vinnie and Batts. Where is that type of player now? Maybe, after all, we should have made more of an attempt to sign Joey Barton.