Now that the dust has settled on my “Weekend Mirabilis” of a few days back – now that the successive hangovers have lifted and the blood pressure has reverted to its former levels of merely mildly unhealthy – now, at last, I can take the time to reflect on what was 48 hours of almost unadulterated pleasure and exultation, something very rare in the life of any Leeds United fan.
The bare bones of this orgy of enjoyment are that Leeds United thrashed Huddersfield Town 3-0 on the Saturday and then, having departed on a well-earned seaside break after returning from Elland Road, I was able to watch the once-mighty man u, the Pride of Devon themselves, comically throw away a two-goal lead not once but twice, as they salvaged a 3-5 defeat from the jaws of victory at Leicester. Not at all a bad weekend, you’d have to agree. But that, gentle reader, is not even the half of it.
A few days prior to Huddersfield’s Humbling, with my mind on matters no higher than nettle clearance in the lower field at Atkinson Towers, I received an email out of the blue from a gentleman named Ross Watson, representing SkyBet, who were running a promotion of their Transfer Fund at Elland Road for the United v Town match. The Transfer Fund offers the chance for registered Leeds fans to win £5,000 for themselves as well as a transfer jackpot of £250,000 for Leeds United, with every £1 bet earning a token which then goes into a draw. It’s one of those “you’ve got to be in it to win it” things; the more bets made by a fan of any Football League club, the more chance there is of that club – and some lucky fan – benefiting as above. It’s easy to register, and there is the dual attraction of a flutter on your team, together with the additional chance of winning big and helping your club – even, potentially, with a losing bet.
As if that’s not enough to recommend SkyBet, they’ve also had the immense good taste to read and enjoy this blog; hence the email from Ross who was very kindly inviting me along to the Leeds v Huddersfield game to watch the match from a corporate box in the East Stand (less than fondly known as the “Delph Shelf” by Leeds fans, all too well aware of where the money came from to fit it out in such resplendent style). Furthermore, there was a three-course meal and complimentary bar, the genial company of Sky’s “Mr Deadline Day”, Jim White, the enticing possibility of meeting fellow bloggers and various celebs – and I could bring a guest. So Mrs Rob got a day out, too.
My experience is that, when a thing appears too good to be true, it’s normally because it’s not true. My first reaction, then, was a slightly less than gracious “what’s the catch” – but I am here to record for posterity that there was no catch and that the occasion delivered beyond my wildest dreams.
Considering that I’ve always had an innate suspicion of the corporate box experience – blame my proletarian roots for that – and that I’ve always been instinctively hostile to the kind of people I imagined I’d meet in such bastions of privilege, the day was a revelation from the start. It hasn’t cured me of yearning for the return of the terraces, but it has introduced me to a more comfortable way of watching football, one more appropriate to my age, perhaps, if not my wallet. Not having to spend a bean all day certainly did appeal to the parsimonious Yorkshireman in me – and let’s face it, the result didn’t exactly harm my prospects of enjoying the experience.
But all that aside, my afternoon in East Stand Box 34 blew me away at least as much because of the sheer kindness of everybody, the smooth efficiency of the match-day staff, the absence of any snobbery (which I’d at least half-expected) and the novel feeling of being well looked-after – at a football match! For someone with a good few decades as a supporter behind him, and vivid memories of bricks at Millwall, police horses at Bradford and needing an oxygen tent at Sheffield – it was an eye-opener, alright.
From the very beginning, as we entered somewhat diffidently through the imposing East Stand portal, people simply couldn’t have been kinder or more friendly and considerate. A svelte blonde lady noted our names, issued our tickets and saw that we were conducted to level 4 by lift and then delivered to our plushly-appointed box. We were among the first to arrive, but gradually the room, dominated by a promising-looking dining table, filled up. I met Keith Ingham, frequent contributor to We All Love Leeds and his son Ryan, who has an article/parable in the current issue of The Square Ball; there was a heady mix of competition winners and dedicated bloggers present as the drinks kept on coming, sparking off a warm and friendly atmosphere while we anticipated what was to come.
All the way through the afternoon, I was struck by the lack of any awkwardness, the relaxed and convivial atmosphere, where I had thought there might be a certain stuffed-shirt flavour to proceedings. Nothing of the sort – just smiley happy people everywhere as liquid hospitality was absorbed along with the gathering atmosphere of a crowd approaching 30,000. We weren’t insulated from that inspiring sound either, the crowd noise was a welcome accompaniment to the friendly chat in the box. And then dinner was served; sorry Mr Keane, not a prawn sandwich in sight. It was Yorkshire Pud to start for me, as befits. A “Duo of Chicken” was the #LLUUE main course of choice and then a welcome slab of trifle. A few bottles of wine rounded things off along with coffee and mints. It was what Lord Snooty in the Beano used to call a toothsome tuck-in, and as far from anything I’d ever experienced at Elland Road before as it is possible to get. All we needed now was for the match to go well for our heroes in White…
Well, the rest, as you know, is history. The three peaks of the actual football part of the afternoon left me reassured as to exactly how the other half support. Again, I’d wondered if the atmosphere would be diluted, if the joy of seeing the ball hit the back of the opposition’s net would, in some way, be lessened by such rarefied surroundings. Not a bit of it. The seats were ridiculously comfortable; all the easier to jump out of them as first Austin, then Antenucci and finally Doukara hit the heights for Leeds. Once the action was under way, we felt as much a part of the crowd as I’d ever known; alright, there was no swaying and rib-crushing as with those dear old seventies Kop days and evenings, but equally there was no sense of detachment, no feeling of being divorced from the action. It was as enjoyable a match-watching experience as I can remember, aided of course by the decisive margin of victory and the fact that the away fans were hating every minute of it. But there was so much more to the whole afternoon than just the match.
At half time, I went into the main concourse – and immediately met Terry Yorath, one of the Revie glory boys and as approachable and friendly as you could wish. And, as if to confirm the other-wordliness of it all, there too was Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise, sporting a Huddersfield Town badge on this occasion, in place of his more usual Starfleet one. For once, he was the alien in this situation. I wandered by, shields up, phaser on stun. Huddersfield were being assimilated; resistance was futile.
After the match, there was no hurry to leave. I had the chat I’d promised myself with Jim White, gently upbraiding him on his efforts to stir up interest in Ross McContract on the last deadline day but one, the night that Big Mass got barricaded inside Elland Road. It all seems so long ago now, with Ross44 gone and unlamented – and Mr White was all polished affability, flashing a smile that matched his hair for megawatt brilliance. “Aye, 11 million you got for him in the end? Extraordinary!” Indeed.
After the free bar, the good company, the sumptuous meal, the fantastic Leeds United performance and the chance to mingle and chat with some of the great and the good – the best was still to come. We were all gathered in a happy knot in the box, finishing off drinks, chatting and celebrating – when one of our number pointed out that Massimo Cellino himself was just a few boxes down from us, holding court for the Sky reporters. Emboldened by the occasion (and by the red wine), a few of us negotiated the metal barriers between boxes – and there we were, shaking hands with il Presidente, asking for and being granted selfies with the Sheriff, smiling and laughing with the one and only driver of the Leeds United bus. For a Leeds fan who has suffered along with thousands of others for the greater part of this century as well as a goodly chunk of the last one, it was like a dream – something I could scarcely have envisaged when I was digging up nettles just a few short days before.
Regrets? I have a few. Well, just one really. It was a shame that my good friend Andy Gregory, owner of the excellent We All Love Leeds blog, couldn’t make it along, due to holiday commitments. I know he’d have loved every minute of it, too. Characteristically, he made sure that his loss was someone else’s gain and Keith and Ryan, both contributors to the great body of Leeds United reportage, deservedly reaped the benefit. By Saturday evening, heading for the Mysterious East (Filey), I honestly thought that the weekend had given me all it possibly could – I was just looking forward to a few days’ relaxation to treasure my memories and “chillax”, as the young people say. But then came Leicester City to make my Sunday a cause for celebration too, and precipitate a second consecutive hangover. Corporate box or no corporate box, it’s tough at the top.
Thanks, in no particular order, to Leeds United, Leicester City, Huddersfield Town, man u, SkyBet, Massimo Cellino, Jim White and his lovely partner Katie, Ross Watson, the guy called Dave whose surname I didn’t catch, Keith & Ryan Ingham and the rest of the Box 34 fraternity, my wife who got me the Cellino signed programme and the SkyBet Football League pin badge, Terry Yorath and the kind and hard-working catering staff in the Elland Road East Stand. You’ve all made an old fan very happy – and that makes a very refreshing change.