Where Did All Those Leeds United Thugs and Racists of the 80s Go? – by Rob Atkinson

The darkside of the net

The darkside of the net

In the early eighties – and for much of that sorry decade – the experience of being a match-going, non-racist Leeds United fan was lonely and disgusting. The atmosphere around Elland Road was rancid with bigotry, skin-headed, bone-headed racists sold “The Flag”, a right-wing snot-rag, outside the ground. It was done openly, brazenly.  Dissenting voices, when raised, brought upon their owners the risk of violence.  The club was inert and complacent.  The police sat by and watched.  It was depressingly, shamefully awful.  And then, things started to change.

Civilised, intelligent Leeds United supporters, unable and unwilling to accept the evil being dispensed in the name of their beloved club, organised themselves into Leeds United Fans Against Racism & Fascism.  Fanzines were sold expounding the voice of reason against the bigoted filth being peddled by the racists.  More decent supporters woke up to what had been going on, joined the anti-racist movement, bought the fanzines, started to raise the voice of protest against the ignorance and malice of the terrace chants against visiting black players.

Even the slumbering Leeds United itself reacted positively to the changes afoot. Black players were signed, the first since the brief but bright Leeds career of Terry Connor. Noel Blake, affectionately nicknamed “Bruno”, loved by the Kop. Vince Hilaire, quicksilver winger reviving memories of Albert Johanneson in the sixties, the first black player to play in the Cup Final and a Leeds hero when the Revie revolution was still new.  It was a painfully long, slow job – but Leeds United finally managed to all but rid itself of one of the most degradingly awful reputations for racism and bigotry anywhere in the game – and they largely did it as an institution, by the efforts of enlightened fans supplemented by the club’s more enlightened transfer policy at a time when there was still an unofficial bar observed by the likes of Everton FC.

I’m extremely proud of the way my club tackled its problems.  The Leeds United of today bears no resemblance at all to the sick club being brought to its knees 30 years ago, dying of the cancer of racism.  The whole world has moved on, though pockets of the disease still exist at home, yet far more significantly and overtly abroad.  We now live in a time when these manifestations of hate and ignorance are a palpable shock to the system – and that in itself is a massive change for the better.  Such inhuman behaviour has never ever been acceptable, but now it’s seen to be completely unacceptable, and that is the very essence of progress and reinvention.

But what actually happened to all of those who revelled in the racism and violence that was so much more prevalent in the 1980s? Have they given up on football support altogether?  Have they, perhaps, defected en masse to Millwall, where both problems still rear their ugly heads with depressing semi-regularity? The sad fact is that, far from removing their loathsome presence from the world of Leeds United, many of these idiots are still very much around – older, but no wiser; and still determined to espouse their Daily Mail recycled views even if they’re no longer up for a barney in the physical sense.

As you can tell from the match-day experience, the people physically present at the ground are more prosperous these days, less inclined to fisticuffs as a means of recreation and certainly not given to racial slurs and abusive chants based on those slurs.  It’s become unfashionable – and as that cultural change has occurred, so the attraction of being at the match has waned for those of the more extreme attitudes.

Like it or not, the tendency towards racism and xenophobia is closely linked to the extremes of right wing thinking – I use that word in its loosest possible sense.  Those of a more left-wing outlook do not, as a rule, tend towards racial abuse and other such prejudice-driven behaviour.  As with any rule of thumb, there will be isolated exceptions – but for the most part, racism and the tendency towards its expression in violent and abusive terms is a right-wing phenomenon.

This is still relevant today, despite the fact that the physical manifestations of such behaviour are greatly reduced at our football grounds, notably Elland Road. It’s relevant because there is one remaining stronghold where these people gather together, share their views, yearn for the “good old days” and jealously guard their out-dated views against infiltration from what they see as left-wing or liberal weakness.  That stronghold is the internet, or at least isolated parts of it. Where Leeds United is concerned, my experience as someone who feels the need to challenge the uglier tendencies of the Right is that some boards and forums – notionally just about support for Leeds United FC – are no-go areas. You’re not welcome if you try to push an agenda that runs contrary to the prevailing right-wing views; indeed you are likely to be gagged for “provocation” if you persist in this.

Such has been my recent experience on the WACCOE board, where the resident hard-of-thinking types get very hot under the collar if they feel that their cosy, right-wing, casually racist views are being challenged.  The same sort of thing applies equally if not more so on the Network 54 “Service Crew” Forum, where people who are decidedly old enough to know better still talk in fondly nostalgic terms of the days when a good old punch-up was part of the weekend’s entertainment, and when no away trip was really worthwhile unless a pub or two had been smashed up, and there’d been an “off” with some opposing “lads” with maybe the chance to bait an identifiable ethnic minority, just for fun.

The sad thing is that, on both of these sites, there is frequently plenty of interest to read and to get involved in discussing – but, inevitably, as you become more of a contributor, your own views become known – particularly if, as I have done, you share blog posts and argue your corner. Then, the moderators or admin types move in, because they feel that you’re rocking the boat and upsetting the precious little racists and ex-thugs that seemingly make up the bulk of the membership. It’s all so depressingly juvenile and exclusive – when it could actually be a valuable resource for thrashing out the real issues that face Leeds United and its fans today, in a world that has changed radically from that of 30 years ago.

It was only going to be a matter of time before I was silenced on one or both forums – and now I have no voice on WACCOE; something that fails to fill me with regret or chagrin.  My offence was to speculate that UKIP are set fair to harm the Tories at next year’s election, by splitting the racist idiot vote.  It was a mildly provocative line, calculated to upset and draw out the real xenophobes on the site – but naturally it descended into a free for all, and now I’ve been found to be an unhealthy influence – so I’m gagged in order that the resident mini-Farages can chat happily among themselves – frequently starting their comments with “I’m no racist, but….”.

The fact that I’ve now been silenced is not something I’ll lose any sleep over for my own sake – but it did make me think about the type of person who is still out there, parading under the banner of Leeds United supporters and identifiable as such to those outside the club – who might then judge us all by what a few unreconstructed idiots have to say, while more moderate views are being suppressed.

I honestly believe that the problems of racism and gratuitous violence in football stadia are virtually solved now; that the perpetrators of both types of unpleasant, anti-social behaviour have either been chased away from the grounds, or are so outnumbered and closely monitored that they have no option but to keep their nasty little ways to themselves – and to other venues. Even though you still do get the odd isolated incident – as with the moronic Aaron Cawley at Hillsborough last season – they’re rare enough to be virtually a thing of the past.  But we live in a digital age, and the fact is that Leeds United FC is a massive presence on the net – much, much more popular than all but a few Premier League clubs.  That being the case, we have to look to our reputation in the virtual world just as much as we do in the real-life match-day environment.

The presence of at least two relatively high-profile web-sites, which appear to harbour many whose views and tendencies are inimical to modern-day standards, is not good news.  It’s to be hoped that, maybe, more enlightened moderation could yet induce more grown-up attitudes and behaviour – or at least so alienate the extremists that they fade out of view altogether.  At the very least, I’d earnestly hope that – whoever from opposing or rival clubs ever takes a look at WACCOE or the Service Crew Forum – they won’t judge the bulk of genuine Leeds United fans by the childish, ignorant and prejudiced rubbish they might read on those particular two sites.  It’s not big, it’s not clever – and it certainly has nothing to do with 21st century Leeds. 

40 responses to “Where Did All Those Leeds United Thugs and Racists of the 80s Go? – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Great article as always. I vividly remember those dark days with the zieg heil idiots. Thankfully a trip either home or away is one that is remembered for good banter these days rather than wanton violence and racism. The only thing I miss about blighty to be honest (mother excepted), is taking my two boys on a Leeds United away day.


  2. Hi Rob, great read as always. I’m 35 years old, my first game was a three nil win at home to Bournmouth (Carl Shutts hat trick debut)….think it was 1988?? I can vividly remember the racial chanting that day….to be honest I didn’t understand much of it but I remember getting home and singing some of the songs…..my Mam went mental said I couldn’t go again !! Thank god my Dad talked her round saying it was just the way it was at Elland Road!
    Roll on 25 years and before moving out to NZ I used to take regular trips of 45 students from Minsthorpe Community College in South Elmsall to watch Leeds….to say it was a different environment is an understatement !!!
    I m returning to the UK in April 2015 to bring 18 students from New Zealand for a football tour and we will without doubt be paying Elland Road a visit…..these kiwi kids can look forward to an amazing atmosphere with all the passion and spirit of Leeds United without having their ears polluted with the sheer thuggery I had to endure all that time ago. Elland Road is a better place thanks to the efforts and commitment of the minority that became a majority.


    • Keith Peacock

      Where in NZ do you live Jon? I’m in Auckland. Am going over to the UK in August, got a feeling a visit to Elland Road is on the cards! I was a season ticket holder for more years than I can count, I travelled up from Kent for every home game and as many always as I could get too. I we’ll remember what it was like all through he eighties. What made it more interesting for me…..I was a police officer in London.


  3. charlesportugal

    I was a season ticket holder in the kop when we were last in the premier league. I would dread the home games against Spurs when large numbers of brain-dead idiots would make loud hissing noises – a vile reference to the gas chambers of nazi Germany and the tenuous Jewish Spurs link. If those people had the capacity to connect with the horror and inhumane evil of what they were referring to, they would recoil at their own ignorance. The first season I experienced this I was amazed that the pleasant old man and his wife who sat directly in front of me would join in with great gusto. As a Jewish supporter myself you can maybe imagine how uncomfortable that made me sitting in the middle of this toxic chorus. I went home feeling sure I still loved my Leeds United but felt totally disconnected and resentful towards the fans that surrounded me. Its that kind of thick headed, sheep like attitude that makes intelligent people stay away from football, saying its for scum bags. I fear many of the racist views of the 80’s are still secretly upheld but self restraint is administered because vocalising bigotry is generally seen to be unacceptable these days. I don’t know why mass hissing is more acceptable than monkey noises but it was only a few short years ago and it stopped me going to Leeds v Spurs. A thought provoking article Rob.


    • I think you’re right to imply that a sort of mass thoughtlessness is at work here, perhaps buttressed by the feeling of being part of a great, anonymous and unaccountable mass. It still defies belief though – and it’s massively depressing.


      • Much like the internet rob.

        Annominity and being able to hide in the crowd let’s the idiots say things they’d never get way with saying in the street.


      • redheadedanimal

        I wonder if those ignorant scumbags knew what a prominent role the Jewish community has played in the evolution of not just Leeds Utd, but also the city of Leeds. I doubt would have the slightest clue.


  4. Brian Griffiths

    The racism is still there unfortunately.Every now and then at away matches you will hear the chant ” I’d rather be a paki than a Turk”.
    Fortunately it is not taken up by the majority.
    Why can’t the culprits be identified by the cameras in conjunction with seat numbers?


  5. keith white

    well said Rob


  6. David Smith

    Rob – well said and conveys the thoughts of all ‘right thinking’ fans!


  7. Kevin Wilson

    Another good article Rob. I remember very well the state of affairs you recall from 30 odd years ago. In fact I was actively involved and sold the Leeds United Against Racism fanzine, leafleted the ground etc I also remember the ‘compulsory’ badges we had ‘Leeds United Against the Nazis’ based on the old Ant-Nazi League Badge I believe. The atmosphere at the time was very bad as you say and it took a lot of thought as to what (if anything) we could do. There seemed to be so many of the racists, particularly the old National Front, and we feared we ‘d be hammered. On turning up with our leaflets we were pleasantly surprised by the welcome by most decent fans. Although I was attacked and remember one knuckle dragger kicking all the leaflets and fanzines out of my hands on our first visit; I also remember leafleting at the gates at the Kop end and fans saying things like; ‘About time too!’, ‘Where’ve you been until now?’, ‘We’re sick of that lot’ etc. It was very uplifting to get such support.
    Keep up the good work!


    • It was the fantastic work you guys did back then that helped save our club from those who wanted it merely as a vehicle for their own disgraceful agenda. I take my hat off to you all.


    • I remember as a kid seeing a fight kick off between two groups of fans when some skinhead idiots started singing some anti catholic song borrowed from rangers.

      Not the smartest of decisions in a city with such a large Irish population.


  8. I left WACCOE 4 years ago and have never regretted it Rob, just have a look around and you will find there are several Leeds forums that are knuckle-dragger free. Declaring an interest as a Mod I would mention MOTforum, but other fine forums are available.


  9. Great article Rob,
    I used to go every match I could get to in those days we had great away turnouts but more often than not things would often turn nasty on one occasion I actually left before the end of the game I was so disgusted by what I saw and heard(oxford) The question what happened to these people I think they are still supporting leeds we must have the largest 45/50 year old fan base in England I think they have just grown up and matured. Today’s away matches are such a different experience it’s more like a day long party despite the rubbish we came to watch home fans just watch in awe at our amazing support I believe some opposition fans actually like us! The only fans I hear louder than us are Bayern & Dortmund.


  10. sniffersshorts

    great article Rob, I remember as a kid in late 70s going on an anti Nazi league march in London, I was fortunate to be Gigging with a local band Crisis, who were a fairly political band. we started at Trafalgar square, the band played on a open back truck, all for a good cause to get a message across, that most of were not putting up with the NF scum. other bands played on other trucks, and after, thousands attended an open air gig in green park headlined by The Clash, which in its own right is documented as a great gig, as part of a band we were lucky to go back stage and Ligg!! jimmy pursey of Sham 69, sang with The Clash…. they were followed by Nazi skins at the time, he was an ok geezer, and was making his point as well, amongst many many others. However I always knew Leeds had this nasty side with racists, I was never happy about …. the recent Banana thing brought it all back. However I remember us going through the outskirts of the East end, really nasty place in the 60s and 70s, and still prevails now … mainly with Millwall scumbags as we well know. I saw a little old granny, handbag over one arm, siege hieling with the other arm, with a crowd of other older idiots. Fortunately a large police presence, so no agro….. very scary and shocks me today with the thought of it. When my father was alive, we regulary went to the bridge for the away Fulham games, both belligerent as no love is lost between shellsuit and Fulham, we never sat on our hands and got a lot of stick if we cheered Fulham on, fair play, that doesn’t hurt a sole. My uncle Ron used to come along too, massive Fulham supporter, also ran the club shop at Brentford for a spell, he gave as good as he got and is no youth, funny as!!!!
    so called middle class Shellsuit fans, have the foulest mouths I have ever heard in football, men, women and children. If things don’t go well for them the racist filth that comes out of their mouths, for their own players and the opposing players is beyond compare. The game needs to rid this under belly once and for all. its good to see the support that Danny Alves has received long may it continue…


  11. I think society in general started changing In the late 80s. Working class lads now in their late 30s / early 40s would have been into the whole rave culture thing where they mixed with people of other races.

    Also a lot of these racist idiots were hangers on, they were there for the reputation of Leeds more than for the football, we used to attract morons from all over the country, I suspect many of them just stopped going the football but continued channeling their vile attitudes through other means. Was odd that our club attracted these numpties, because Leeds as a city has always been one of the best places in the country race relations wise.

    Was embarrassing though when telling people I had been the match when living in cosmopolitan chapel allerton, most of my black mates back then were more into the rugby league and gave ER a wide berth. Thankfully that’s changed now and we see more black faces at ER.

    I still think we have a problem with an anti Asian element at the club though makes me cringe when we play the likes of leicster and bradford as there is always the fear some braindead elements will start singing “town full of pakis” and the like.

    I also have to give credit where its due to our “friends” over the border, who also had problems with nf idiots in the 80s but like leeds started pushing forwards black players, tackled the problem head on and made these people look stupid. Sadly other clubs at the time like Chelsea, everton and others just buried their heads in the sand.


  12. oldschoolbaby

    Oh no, the same old nonsense used to strangle legitimate political debate. Racism, I think you`ll find, is a belief that you are superior to those of another race. Personally, I haven`t met anyone who genuinely believed they were better than Gandhi, brighter than Einstein or faster than Bolt. The problem ( and we need to understand the problem if we are to find a solution ) is that of people with low self esteem, Hitler was a good example, pretending to be superior to generate some self confidence.

    Mass immigration is doing little for the self esteem of the working class. Moan about Tories all you like but I suspect there will be a lot more traditional Labour voters switching to UKIP than you think

    You are not “enlightened” at all. People are sick of being labelled racist for questioning immigration. You are nurturing a problem you sanctimoniously believe you are fighting

    BTW I`m expecting to be censored again by the man who bleats about being censored


    • Well it’s a point of view, but not an intelligent one. You only get censored here if you come out with something stupid, sick or otherwise offensive as I can well believe you have in the past.


      • oldschoolbaby

        From a lacking intelligence but hopefully well informed perspective I sense that in the 80s UKIP would have been a hugely marginal party. The truth is that casual accusations of racism, as you seem to be prone to, have incensed a lot of pretty decent people ( I live on a council estate and work in the public sector ) to the point they will now vote for a right wing party as they are so sick of their concerns about mass immigration being dismissed by the political elite.

        UKIP will do well on the 22nd. If they could find a charismatic leader and the stars aligned with another incident such as the murder of Lee Rigby they could do very well indeed in future elections

        You will reap what, despite your great intellect, you didn`t realise you`ve assisted sowing. The more thoughtful, measured idiots like me will have to put up with it too.

        N.B I just thought I was censored for suggesting that Richard Littlejohn might be more amusing than you are.


      • Yeah, that’d do it.

        A cursory glance at the state of this country, with the routine marginalisation and demonising of the poor, sick and helpless, would reveal even to self-acknowledged idiots that immigration is the least of our problems.

        If you’re happy to swallow propaganda by the vat-full and then ask for more, that’s your lookout. Sadly it’s just one more person ho won’t engage in the dialogue that we really need.


    • Can’t agree.

      I wouldn’t be here to support Leeds if it wasn’t for immigration (dads family from cork, mums family from genova)


  13. Simple answer rob , most of them grew up ,,,


  14. Outstanding article! Very well written and thought out. I remember reading a Man U fanzine back in about 90 that a work colleague brought in. Over half of it was dedicated to Leeds being NF sheep bothering racists with swastika tattoos. I was half exposed to it, first match in 1988, but far more exposed to air traffic disaster songs and paper aeroplanes, which thankfully began to dwindle after O’Leary’s team were subjected to a similar but minor incident. The Spurs thing is an utter disgrace. Witnessed it recently in London and felt depressed.


  15. I think we all feel/felt appalled at the events in turkey that led to two of our fans being murdered, it’s something we’ll never forget. However the casual racism aimed at Turkey and Turkish people in general is sometimes quite sickening.


  16. redheadedanimal

    Unfortunately I found that a few the moronic knuckle draggers still do exist, when on the traine home after the Wigan game. A few sing songs on a an absolutely packed train of locals was harmless enough at first. Sadly, this group of about 10 thought singing “I’d rather be a paki than a manc” was perfectly reasonable thing to say. They were challenged and I received quite a few verbals back when I bumped in to them on again on the station and let them know my thoughts on how thick they were!

    Hopefully the non football fans on that train will remember the journey as some moronic racists that happened to be Leeds fans – rather than the image of all Leeds fans sharing their bigotry.

    These are the dinosaurs that hanker after the old days. A tiny minority that stick out as their views and venomous bile are incomprehensible to the normal, modern day football fan. And good riddance to the lot of them.


  17. The knuckle-draggers are still among us. For the Spurs FA Cup tie last season I went on the Kop for the first time since since used to call it the Gelderd End then. I took my son, London-born, Leeds-mad and very anti-racist. We sat next to a bloke, possibly from the West Country judging by his accent, who started off by pointedly telling those around him that there were ‘bloody part-timers’ (ie. us) alongside him. (I’ve been supporting Leeds,lock stock and barrel since 1959.) He then proceeded to shout out ‘Gas suckers’ every time Spurs attacked and made hissing noises. Som,e people laughed; most were absorbed in the game; I was massively embarrassed. I wish I’d had the balls to confront him, but he was clearly among friends, even if they weren’t fascists themselves. In the unlikely event that he’s reading this, Leeds United has a long history of Jewish involvement (read Anthony Clavane’s wonderful book) and pioneered the advent of black players in this country, from Gerry Francis and Albert Johanneson through Terry Connor to Lucas and Phil Masinga. That’s what makes me proud to be a Leeds fan – If you don’t get it, go somewhere else.


  18. oldschoolbaby

    Are you wilfully missing the point ? My idiocy is of little relevance. It is a FACT that UKIP are doing well and it is reasonable to assume they will do better. I`m merely trying to analyse why and I do think the rantings of those like yourself are a primary factor.

    I`m also challenging your assertions that UKIP are a Tory sideshow. On this council estate in a Labour heartland UKIP have been the ONLY canvassers / leafleteers. UKIP strategists obviously believe the Labour vote is there for the taking

    For the record, before I am subjected to any of your liberally served rants or smears I have, with a very heavy heart, felt obliged to spoil most of my votes in recent years.


    • Education standards were appalling in this country In the 70s and 80s

      that’s where your U-skip voters are coming from


      • oldschoolbaby

        That`s an interesting statement. I will take some persuading. What I can say is that I mentor undergraduates in the workplace and I do youth work. I am in no doubt that educational standards have fallen significantly since the 70s and 80s ( many teenagers in this country have literacy and, more noticeably, numeracy skills that make you want to weep ). If I am following your logic correctly then UKIP have a lot to look forward to.


  19. Well Rob, You do put yourself out there, and frankly I too remember the days of the knuckle draggers, I remember Viv Anderson getting so much abuse he actually lost it toward the Geldered end, he was a very good player and despite him playing for the filth, a decent bloke, how the hell he kept his head when Morons in the Kop threw Banana`s at him still stays with me today, I was young and confused, but not so much as to understand that the brain dead had not a clue why they hated him so much. I happened to chat with Terry Connor last year, describing his 25 yard winner on his debute (I was in the Geldered End and went crazy with his miss-hit goal from a yard out) his skin colour was the very last thing on my mind, he was a Leeds hero, full stop. Old bigots don`t die they just lose their colour blindness.


    • I’m not saying that all users of either forum I’ve mentioned are brain dead racists. But I do feel there’s a significant element and what can sometimes feel like a nastily right-wing flavour to proceedings – something that makes a bleeding heart liberal or leftie git (pays your money, takes your choice) like me feel most unwelcome and alienated.


  20. Not a bad article shame its not actually factually correct and because I don’t submit to your views you probably won’t contemplate posting my response.
    The original Leeds Service Crew (not that it even really existed – It was a joke made up at the spur of the moment and it stuck) contained Black members from Chapletown and Harehills just for the record, this was actually pre 80’s then in the 80’s this trend continued. To this day there are guys of African origins mix and are welcomed among the Leeds ranks and just because we enjoy a fight if it keeps you safe what’s the problem we are consenting adults and not asking you to get involved after all it was and always has been a working class sport with tribal origins because of the nature of the game, your Team.your Club.


  21. I have to admit I have always enjoyed the atmosphere at elland road even though iam a man utd fan.unfortunatly we will never rid our game of mindless idiots.i fear we are heading for the bad old days of the 80s.


    • There were some edgy times – and whatever I may think of scummers, at least they always turned out – must have been some awfully early starts as dawn broke in Torquay…


  22. I must be a secret leeds fan.cant leave this site alone,but seriously all clubs have a mindless element,it will never be totally irradicated.out of thirty thousand people you will always have a hand full of knobs,by the way torquay is lovely this time of year.


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