Forget March 2nd 1968, the day Leeds United won its first ever silverware, beating Arsenal at Wembley to lift the League Cup. Forget May 6th 1972 when, at the same venue, against the same opponents and by the same 1-0 score, United won their sole FA Cup. Forget, even, those three incredible days which saw the Whites hailed as the best in the land as our three Football League Championships were confirmed in 1969, 1974 and 1992. All of those dates pale in comparison with the epochal significance of the legal fixture being played out in London tomorrow, March 31st 2014. For tomorrow, it’s likely to be decided which of two well-defined paths Leeds United will be treading into the future.
On the one hand we have a signpost pointing upwards which says: possible fame and success, with a minted owner to put us on a par with those we should be emulating. On the other, there’s the signpost pointing downhill, with the equally unmistakable message: more of the same at best, with a distinct possibility of crisis and dissolution in the near future. It’s not a choice Leeds United or their amazingly loyal and long-suffering fans are able to make for themselves. We are all in the hands of the legal eagles as they fight it out over the technicality of whether or not the Football League were correct in saying that Massimo Cellino’s peccadilloes rule him out of fitness and propriety under their own test. Upon this technicality hangs the immediate, or short term – or even the whole future of a famous old club that has never been far from the headlines, for good reasons and bad.
A match-day commentator at Elland Road yesterday summed it up in one well-chosen phrase prior to kick-off against Doncaster Rovers. Leeds, he said, should be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Man U and Chelsea. And so, of course, we should. None of these clubs has more of a right than Leeds – and its magnificent support – to be fighting it out at the top table for the big prizes. It’s ironic that such telling words should be spoken ahead of a league fixture – and a defeat – against little Donny Rovers. That sums up the dire straits Leeds have been consigned to by bad leadership, self-interested owners and relentless ill-fortune. Whatever may have been done wrong, whatever rules may have been broken in the name of Leeds United – it’s no fault of the fans. And yet, time and again, it’s been the fans who have suffered – whilst the principals in the ongoing pantomime of LS11 have generally waxed fat and walked away happy when their particular final curtain has fallen. A prime example of this is, of course, Shaun Harvey, CEO of the Football League and a man with a face in each camp, so to speak. I wonder how he sleeps at night? Blissfully, I expect.
There are two constants in any football club, which transcend players, directors, administrators, League officials and even solicitors, barristers and judges. One is the entity of the club itself, which in our case is now just five years shy of her 100th birthday. Where will she be, what state of health will she be in, when that Centenary rolls around in 2019?
The other constant is, needless to say, the supporters. Come rain, come hail, come snow, the supporters are always there. They were there to cheer on the Greatest Footballer in the World when John Charles plied his mighty trade at Elland Road. They were there to support Don Revie’s nonpareil team of the sixties and seventies as they witnessed some of the finest football ever seen on the planet. They were there too when Wilko’s Warriors rose, like a Phoenix from the ashes, to swagger back into the big time as if they owned the place and end up, once again, on top of the pile. And they’re here now, today, watching the dross currently being served up by a team weighed down with larger worries that what happens on the pitch – a team who, with a very few apparent exceptions, are preoccupied with where the next wage packet is coming from, and just how heavy or light will it be?
The supporters will be here in the future as well, whatever happens tomorrow. That is beyond doubt, save only for that nagging worry over the club’s very existence. Only the numbers of that indomitable band will remain open to any variation, depending upon which path we tread. Any Leeds United fan will tell you what the club deserves – and it’s not more of the same grinding, morale-sapping poverty that we’ve been putting up with now for twelve long and dreary years. Leeds United and their supporters – especially their supporters – deserve some time in the sun.
It’s not United – club or fans – on trial tomorrow. If anything is on trial, it’s the duty of care owed by the Football League to all of its member clubs – even Leeds. The questions before the appeal panel must include that consideration in the scope of its examination of this whole issue. The Football League have sat by and they’ve shown every willingness to let their biggest club, their most tangible asset, wither and possibly die for want of sufficient funding to operate on a big club level and compete with their true peers. And this is the kernel of the matter.
Because, with rapists, con men and porn barons among the current and recent number of their owners and directors, the League has elected to make a stand over an obscure tax question surrounding a yacht. One little boat, which might be American, and in respect of which some duty allegedly had to be paid in Italy, but was not. The League have chosen to accept that Cellino, a man of staggering wealth, would court trouble over a matter of what is, to him, small change. They have leant over backwards to interpret the law and their own regulations such that United are to be denied a saviour and their fans are to continue suffering. Where is the duty of care amid all of that?
Tomorrow will, in all probability, be the start of a new era at Leeds United. Whether it is an era of further degradation, more doubt, more humiliation, remains to be seen. There has to be a possibility that things might – for once in a very long while – go in Leeds United’s favour. And then what? Would we know quite what to do with ourselves in the absence of this millstone of penury and reduced status? Poverty is not just a matter of not being able to meet the bills, or afford a tank of tropical fish to brighten the place up. Poverty is much more than that. It seeps into the very fabric of a place and it poisons the soul. If we were suddenly to become “Dirty Leeds, Filthy Rich” – how would we cope?
I can tell you this much, especially you lot who occupy the anti-Cellino bandwagon. I’m heartily sick to death of a penniless existence. So if the “Filthy Rich” option is there, ripe for the sampling – let me at it. I’d simply love to try it out. We lived the dream in the nineties – but there was always that worm of doubt; where’s it all coming from? With Cellino – well, it looks as though we’d at last have a man of immense material wealth who is keen to invest it in reviving a fallen giant. Fingers crossed that he finally gets that chance.