When the Premier League lost Leeds United, it lost more than just another member club. With Leeds went a focal point for all those nasty, negative emotions that are so much a part of a football fan’s essential make-up. Football has always been a source of catharsis – a safety valve, if you will, for the letting-off of pent-up steam – even back in the days when the game was a lot more tribal than it is now, when there was no steep financial pecking order, when players were a lot closer to fans both literally and economically. Nowadays, under the all-seeing glare of perpetual TV coverage and in an era when every fan is in touch with every other fan courtesy of social media, it is even more the case that such a soap opera needs its villains as well as its heroes.
Over the past decade, in the absence of The Damned United, it has been Man U that, paradoxically given their numerous triumphs, have more often than not filled the villain’s role in the minds of many. Of course, every team is someone’s villain, someone’s hero too. It’s a question of balance and degree; between extremes there are a number of comparatively pallid clubs which inspire nothing more than indifference in the minds of the masses, the likes of West Ham, Newcastle and Aston Villa who are hated or loved locally but largely ignored everywhere else. Some teams are much more loved than hated beyond their own provincial spheres: Liverpool and Arsenal for example. And some are hated passionately for differing reasons of varying validity. Man U and Leeds are two such clubs.
Obviously as a Leeds fan I have a view on what’s behind the hatred directed at both clubs. In the case of Leeds, it seems to be down to historical myths surrounding Don Revie’s grisly hard but enormously skilful and hard-done-by Super Leeds, with added seasoning provided by the misdeeds of some of our over-zealous fans down the years. The case for hating Man U is, I would argue, down to what I can only sum up as “intrinsic detestability”. In other words, it’s just something about the institution; the attitude, the arrogance and the vainglory of club, employees and supporters alike. The fawning of the media over them, the way they have capitalised on a historic tragedy to build a global franchise, while still, with no apparent appreciation of the irony of this, calling Liverpool the City of Pity. The time-honoured tradition of favourable treatment by referees and administrators, the former group of gentlemen managing somehow to give 88% of 50-50 decisions the way of the Mighty Red Devils over an extended period. “We’re Man United, we’ll do what we want”, you hear sung in mixed cockney and West Country accents, and it’s something the game’s authorities have seemed loath to dispute. Given all this, they’re easy to hate – for me and thousands of other discerning Leeds fans, anyway.
This visceral hatred was accentuated under the tyrannical reign of the former manager Alex Ferguson; the scum (as we fondly refer to them down Elland Road way) won more, they were more arrogant and reprehensible in their conduct, they got much more given to them on a plate. Give or take the odd dodgy offside and penalty here and there, that era is over and, as the latest result shows – unseemly celebration over a 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea – the illusion of invincibility and the assumption of superiority both seem to have gone with it.
The outcome is that Man U have now been drawn back into the pack and superseded by the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and, last season, even Everton and Spurs. Champions League qualification is no longer a given; the edifice that the empire was built on may well be crumbling. One effect of this is that Man U are going to be a lot less easy for some to hate as they further decline – it may well be that only those who have always hated them will still have this particular emotional outlet.
In 2008, a poll in the “Sun” newspaper still had Leeds United as the number one most hated club in the land; this was four long and harrowing years after the Whites had dipped out of the Premier League. By 2012 another poll had Man U succeeding Leeds as most-hated. Leeds had by now been out of the spotlight for eight years, but were still sung about in terms of extreme disapproval at grounds around the country, not least the Pride of Devon’s own Theatre of Hollow Myths. Man U’s continuing dominance, however, had seen them move clear as the number one hate target nationwide.
Now, it all seems to be up for grabs again as the fallen franchise appears likely to slide further away from the top of the game, with the tyranny of Alex McTaggart an increasingly distant memory. Over time, they will haemorrhage support, but there’s a waiting list of Milton Keynes mugs and suckers, so in the short term the turnstiles will continue to click as the glory-hunting hordes travel North every fortnight or so. It is the notoriety of hate that they stand to lose, the perverse respect accorded to any club top of the nation’s most-despised list. There will be a gap at the hate end of everyone’s emotions, a vacancy for a perennial panto villain.
As the Man U star wanes, it’s possible that other candidates for most-hated might emerge. Chelsea under Mourinho are the equivalent, for some, of fingernails scraped down a blackboard. Liverpool – with Suarez on their books – seemed to have a certain potential, especially with the media smiling upon them again. But with Luis gone, their detestabilty potential has declined, with Balotelli more of a clown than a hate figure so far. Man City with their millions and billions may attract the envious aspect of hatred, but these days they’re being shamelessly out-spent by a desperate scum, who used to affect to look down their nose at such a sordid way of courting success. But for all this variable hate potential, I would suggest that none of those candidates really cut the mustard in quite the same way that Leeds United did, and still do.
A return to the top flight for Leeds would probably fill this vitriol vacuum. All that is needed to test the likelihood of this is a swift look around the internet message boards on any occasion when Leeds play a top flight team in a cup. “Come back, we miss you” is the gist of it. And they do miss us – they miss the atmosphere, the raucous indomitability of our away support, the whole Dirty Leeds legend. They miss hating Leeds United.
The simple fact is, now that the most despicable British club of all seems to be descending into a more benign mediocrity, long bereft of their choleric Scottish dictator and his ability to give the rest of the game the hair-dryer treatment, they miss us more than ever. And yet all we seem to do down at Elland Road is run around in small circles, victims of self-inflicted crises as the revolving door on the Head Coach office spins itself into a dizzy blur. Leeds United simply have to get their act together – urgently. In short, now that Man U are crap, the game is in sore need of that focus for hatred which we always so effortlessly provided.
So do the game a favour, Leeds, for badness’ sake. Sort yourselves out, get back up there and get on with being hated in your own inimitable fashion. Drive your enemies mad with impotent rage again as you make those of us who love you proud once more, in that deliciously perverse manner of the old days.
You know it’s your destiny – we all know it – and, now more than ever, you owe it to your public to fill that void at the very top of the Hate Parade.