Daily Archives: 05/04/2015

Forty Years Ago Today: Getting Bitten by the Leeds United Bug – by Rob Atkinson

Billy and CruyffAuthor

When I was just a little boy I asked my mother, what should I be? Should I be Chelsea? Should I be Leeds? Here’s what she said to me…

Of course, it wasn’t like that, not for me – nor was it for thousands of others like me. For the vast majority of us, Mum was blameless; our Dads were the ones to thank – or blame – for starting an obsession that would run through the rest of our lives. Yeah, cheers, Dad. Every time you took the mick after another grisly home defeat, or rolled your eyes and intoned: “Never again”, I felt like snapping back and reminding you that it was your bloody fault in the first place. All those dreadful defeats and Cup exits. But there were also some good times…

Football support is such an individual thing, yet there are themes which are surely common to all football supporters. Over a period of years, seasons, decades of loving a football club, there will have been hot-blooded highs, and there will equally have been the coldest of despairing lows.  This will be so, whatever the size of the club we love, however successful or otherwise they may be.  It’s certainly the case for me – I can look back over my forty year love/hate affair with Leeds United, and there they are, all the memories, all the feelings, all the good and the bad that an obsession can visit upon a hapless fanatic. My Dad didn’t quite make it to my 40 year anniversary – he died in February, just in time to avoid a home defeat against Watford. But I will still have him to thank, when the good times roll around again. So, watch this space, Dad.

My Leeds United era started on April 5th 1975, timed to perfection for me to witness the death agonies of what was then still Don Revie’s great team, which had dominated English football for over a decade – albeit now under new management in the urbane form of Jimmy Armfield. This says all anyone needs to know about my fatally flawed sense of timing. During those years of success and near-success, when I could have been sharing the roller-coaster ride with my younger brother as he accompanied Dad on so many Saturday afternoons at Elland Road – what was I doing?  Why, I was curled up with a book, or watching some elderly MGM musical on BBC2 with Mum, completely unaware of the appeal, the magnetic attraction of Leeds United. How could this be?

In retrospect, it seems amazing that I should have missed out completely on the most sustained period of success United ever knew. But I was always a bookish lad, and I leaned far enough towards home and hearth, and far enough away from the Big Lads’ Club relationship between our kid and my Dad, to be happy with my nose in the goings-on at Greyfriars, or sampling the adventures of dare-devil astronauts on a Journey to Jupiter. On the day in 1972 that Leeds United won their only FA Cup, I was at the Town Hall in Pontefract winning second prize for poetry at the annual Music Festival. I wuz bloody robbed out of first place, too – on one of the few occasions when United weren’t.  But them’s the breaks, and it’s not as if I was straining at the leash to be off to t’match.  I just had no idea of what I was missing, and my treacherous brother and father didn’t see fit to enlighten me.

I really should be bitter about this – even now, my brother seeks to claim the moral high-ground as the one who saw Big Jack and Top Cat Cooper play, the one who saw us torturing Southampton with a cruel bout of possession at 7-0 up, the one who saw, for whatever it was worth, Georgie Best – on the few occasions he emerged from Paul Reaney’s back pocket. But the fact is, I’m not that bitter. I’d have liked to have seen for myself some of the vintage Glory Years stuff, and some of the Osgoods, Laws, Greaves and St Johns of the opposition; but it seems to me now that so many who witnessed all that were spoiled by it, and lacked the character to see it through when the good times stopped.  It was never easy to be a Leeds fan – even then in what we may fairly call glory, glory days, we had far more than our fair share of disappointment and defeat, and we reaped the bitter fruits of hatred, from all sections of the game, not least the referees – as I’ve ranted about elsewhere.

So, it was clearly no cakewalk even at its best, but still a time to be envied and marvelled at by those of us who came afterwards, and who had to starve for success until Sergeant Wilko stomped through the door. The thing is – not having seen the hits and near-misses of those days – I and many more like me were better able to subsist on the poor diet of the late seventies and especially the eighties. Many of the relatively success-sated Revie period fans fell by the wayside during these barren years, my dad and sibling included, and the essential character of the fan base changed from almost complacent to virtually feral.

So, there I was, thirteen years old and still a Leeds United virgin, slouching happily home from school one weekday evening in March 1975, and never a suspicion that my life was about to change.  I’d have had homework on my mind, quite possibly – a French translation to do, or some equations to balance. First it’d be tea: burgers peas and chips or something equally mundane, with Nationwide on in the background, then the homework, then some telly and whatever book I had on the go.  I was a happy and grounded child, in those pre-football angst days.

When I got home on this particular day, though, Dad had a surprise for me.  Off you go upstairs, he said, look in our bedroom and tell me what you find. I was more intrigued than fired with enthusiasm by this – what was I expecting?  A new book, maybe. A tube of Smarties and a Milky Way, perhaps. Anything, I’m sure, but the six oblong pieces of stiff paper on my Dad’s side of the counterpane.  Two tickets each for Dad, me and our kid, Liverpool at home on Saturday, and then – the biggest game on the planet that next Wednesday evening, Barcelona at home, Cruyff, Neeskens  and all, in the semi final home leg of the European Champions Cup.

Dad beamed over my shoulder as I stared at the tickets.  Biggest two games of the season, those are, he said. I remember I nodded my head, the idea not growing on me as yet, but somehow aware that this was a grand gesture on my dad’s part. Unwilling to disappoint him with apathy, I turned, smiled and said, great – thanks Dad. Now, of course, I know that it was a watershed in my life. Then – well, I just wanted to catch the last bit of Hong Kong Phooey, before carrying on with my familiar evening routine. And so, the last few days of my innocence passed, before it was time to get into the car and be taken to Elland Road football ground for the very first time.

It’s surprising what stays with you, years and years later.  So many of the countless games I’ve seen at Elland Road, and at other grounds at home and abroad, have faded into blurry anonymity.  I suppose my first game was special just because it was the first; and the second – that European night – had a magic all of its own, which was apparent even to a rookie such as me.  I can recall little of the Liverpool match itself. The colours were vivid – we didn’t have a colour TV at home at that time, and I think I imagined that football was a grainy experience, a mixture of grey and darker greys.  The Technicolor reality of it hit me with an impact I can readily bring to mind even now.  The field seemed to be vast, and brilliantly green, but the ground itself, viewed from under the pitched roof of the old Lowfields side, wasn’t as huge as I’d imagined it.

The strongest memory is still that of the Bay City Rollers’ “Bye Bye Baby” being played over the tannoy (they were tannoys in those days, none of your fancy PA systems). That one naff record is a massive reminder of that day, even now, and it remains one of the guiltiest pleasures on my nostalgia playlist. The green of the pitch, with the all-white strip of our lads, and the all red of Liverpool, the composite sound, Dad’s loud pessimism against a background of the grumbling roar of the crowd, the smell of tobacco and the taste of hamburgers and onions washed down with Bovril – and the pressure of the crowd behind, in front, everywhere – this was the assault on all my senses that blew away any thought of resistance as I entered a whole new world.

Already, I was hooked, and I knew it. We lost 2-0, but I was far too lacking in cynicism or expert discernment to let that detail bother me. Dad and our kid were sulkily disappointed, having seen it all before, and seen far better, but I loved it, loved the whole thing. If I’d known at that moment that I was in for a string of league defeats, and not even a league goal to cheer until the first day of the 76-77 season – well, would I have wanted to carry on?  I would have, I’m emphatically sure.  I loved Leeds United, completely and uncritically, and I was champing at the bit to get back to Elland Road.  And CF Barcelona, with their galaxy of exotic stars, were just four days away.

Over the next year or so after these initial matchday experiences, I was taken to a few, carefully selected games, something I settled for willingly, rather than going back to being completely excluded. I don’t remember if Dad’s pattern of support was dwindling even then, or if perhaps he still preferred to go as the original dynamic duo with my brother, the anointed “favourite son”. Whatever the reason, it soon became a standing joke that my visits to Elland Road were guaranteed something-nil defeats. I saw the Liverpool game the following season.  We lost, 0-3.  I saw us play Norwich towards the end of that season, when we were actually handily placed near the top of the league, with games in reserve. We lost 0-3 again. There was a growing desperation that I should break my duck, so the next game chosen was Sheffield United, who were already relegated. We contrived to lose that one as well, 0-1 with the grey-haired Alan Woodward scoring for the Blunts.

I was obviously a Jonah, carrying the can for the team’s inability to live up to the recent glorious past. I would never see Leeds win, or even score, not if I went along to Elland Road till I was ninety.  Or that’s how it felt.  Of course things did improve, but I’ve never quite been able to shed the Jonah part of my make-up, and many is the game I’ve cost us, simply by being there and wanting too much for us to win. Or maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s just Leeds. Whatever the case, it was an inauspicious start – in the league at least.

That European campaign though was different.  The whole city, the whole county it seemed, was buzzing with excitement, and the feeling that Don Revie’s Champions of Europe dream was about to be realised was irresistible. After the hors d’oeuvre of the Liverpool game, I was ready for my Catalan main course and, despite my début defeat, I just knew we were going to win. With the all-consuming passion of the new convert, I anticipated the game, how the arena would look under the floodlights, packed to the rafters with hysterically expectant Leeds fans. Cruyff, the Dutch master, the most expensive player in the world (nearly a million pounds!), would not, could not, stand in our way. We beat Barca over the two legs and, in my naivete, I was sure we would now be unstoppable. Bayern Munich were ours for the effortless taking in Paris. We were going to win the European Cup.

And that peak of optimism prior to crushing disappointment was as good as it got for me and for Leeds United, for the next 15 years, anyway. As any Leeds fan of a certain age will be aware, there’s a whole separate blog in what happened next at the hands, not primarily of Bayern, but mainly of a bent French ref acting in the best traditions of the game’s masters. Having hit the heights against Barcelona, we were to be cast down yet again, and it was the end for Revie’s boys. For me, however, it had barely yet begun…

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Leeds United Remembers Chris and Kev: Always in our Thoughts – by Rob Atkinson

In Memoriam Chris and Kev 5.4.2000

In Memoriam Chris and Kev 5.4.2000

Fifteen years ago today, two of our number – two brothers in White – were brutally murdered by cowardly thugs in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight travelled abroad to support their heroes of Leeds United play in a UEFA Cup semi-final against a team representing a club that glories – still to this day – in generating an atmosphere of evil and murderous hatred. UEFA themselves were ineffectual back then and have largely remained so, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to repeated instances of this awful club’s “fans” disgracing the name of football.

That’s the background that we’re all too well aware of. But today is about remembering two lads who loved their football club but had their futures stolen from them in a manner that has nothing to do with the Beautiful Game. As has often been said since, nobody should ever set off to a football game, only to lose their lives. The tragedy and poignancy of that bleak sense of loss weighs our hearts down still.

The poem below expresses far better than I ever could this sadness – which is yet tinged with pride that Leeds United has such support, that we are a massive global family which suffers together over such a tragedy and that we will never forgive or forget. Justice has dragged its heels, but the Leeds family has always been there to remember those two lads who never came home.

I came across this poem just yesterday, and was blown away by it. Sadly, it was written by someone who has since passed away himself – I know only his first name, Dennis. But it expresses what we have all felt ever since that terrible day in 2000 when we lost two members of our Leeds United family.

These beautiful verses seems to me to say it all – so I reproduce them here, with thanks and much respect to the late Dennis, who wielded a pen, not a knife – and proved himself a true fan of football and Leeds United. Just like Chris and Kev.

I dreamed I saw Chris and Kevin 
Down at Elland Road today 
Said I but lads, you’re some years gone 
We never left said they 
We never left said they

Still stunned and dreamy I asked of them 
Why do you linger still? 
Your love and kindness is our bread 
We stayed to eat our fill 
We stayed to eat our fill

Is this just one last show from you 
Then forever you’re away? 
It’s true you may not see us here 
But here we’ll always stay 
But here we’ll always stay 

So tell us what’s your darkness then 

Pray tell us where’s your light 
It’s darkest when your heads go down 
When you sing our world is bright 
When you sing our world is bright

But are we not just mortals, lads 
Whose time will pass us by? 
Our kin and Leeds are part of us 
A part that will not die 
A part that will not die

I dreamed I saw Chris and Kevin 
Down at Elland Road today 
Said I but lads you’re some years gone 
We never left said they 
We never left said they

R.I.P. CHRIS LOFTUS and KEVIN SPEIGHT

Taken from us far too early 5.4.2000

Sunderland v Newcastle Rivalry Not in Same League as Leeds Against Man U – by Rob Atkinson

Hate Man Utd - We Only Hate Man Utd

Hate Man Utd – We Only Hate Man Utd

Football rivalry – the antipathy between fans of rival clubs with a keen edge of hatred in extreme cases – has been going on for as long as two teams of eleven players have gathered together to dispute possession of an inflated bladder over a green sward. And I will proudly say here and now: Leeds United is an extreme case. We are top four material when it comes to despising our foes. But we like to think we’re quite picky about it. None of this “regional rivalry” nonsense for us.

Let’s face it, hating another team and its supporters for mere reasons of geographical proximity is pretty silly. I can understand it to a certain extent where two clubs share a very small area, like a town or adjacent districts of a city. There’s a territorial thing going on there that recalls the days when a team’s support was derived largely from its immediate locality, though that’s not really the case any more now with the mega clubs who have fans all over the world. After all, why would a Man U glory-hunter in Singapore or Seattle really care if Man City are based only a few miles away from “his” club? He’s more bothered as to whether or not his favourites can buy more trophies than anyone else, City, Chelsea, Arsenal, anyone.

At Leeds, hatred tends to be reserved for those who have earned it, and who are – by independently verifiable standards – intrinsically despicable. Man U pass both tests with flying colours, and it’s certainly woven into my DNA to detest them. Call me a blinkered bigot (guilty, m’Lud) but I can never really understand why Sunderland and Newcastle, who meet in derby-day combat this afternoon, share such mutual loathing when quite frankly both would be better off directing their energies towards hating someone who deserves it.

Many at Leeds have the time and energy to revile other clubs, Chelsea prominent among them. The Ken Bates era at Leeds was an uncomfortable time for these types in particular – they hated Bates for his Chelsea connections (I hate him too, but mainly for his own not-so-sweet self.) Bates never seemed keen on Leeds either, not since – during his reign at Stamford Bridge – a group of freelance demolition contractors from Yorkshire travelled down to SW6 and saw off his scoreboard. But for me, Chelsea (and Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest) are only relevant insofar as they have teams that can beat Man U for much of the time, and as long as they do that, they’re just fine and dandy as far as I’m concerned.

In Yorkshire the situation may best be summed-up as follows. All other Yorkshire clubs hate Leeds United, and Leeds United regard all other Yorkshire clubs as beneath our notice – except on those annoying occasions when temporarily reduced league status means we have to soil our boots by playing them. This attitude does nothing, of course, to endear Leeds to the likes of Bratfud, Barnsleh, Uddersfailed and the Sheffield dee-dahs – but really, who cares?

I have more respect for fans of clubs like Birmingham or Everton or – yes, even Man U, who hate Leeds for reasons other than just sharing a county with us. That fits better with my world view. Ask a Newcastle fan why he hates the Mackems, and he might blither incomprehensibly for a while (well, they just talk like that up there) – but no rational reply will emerge. I could talk your ears off about why I hate the scum, and I know many Man U fans who can do the same when invited to say why they hate Leeds, which is more than many other Leeds haters can say.

The fact is – whatever the pious purists and holier-than-thou types might say – there’s nothing wrong with football hatred, properly expressed and stopping comfortably this side of actual violence – as I’ve previously written here. It adds some passion to a crowd and to a football occasion, and football would die a lingering death in the sort of sterile atmosphere some of these self-righteous hypocrites seem to want. All I’d say is: if you must hate, then hate for a good reason.

Read my other articles, and you’ll find my reasons for hating Man U – the reasons why I firmly believe anyone might reasonably hate them – are a regular feature in the occasional rants to which I’m prone. They’re nothing to do with why Southampton hate Pompey, or why Forest hate Derby (although I CAN see the Clough factor in the latter case.) Pure regional tribalism is at work there, and I suppose there’s a place for it. But that sort of thing is slightly irrational to me, while hatred based on facts and history is not. Hatred is a genuine human emotion, and the football variety is a safety valve which is useful in diffusing a lot of the negative emotions in society at large. It’s a therapy of sorts. So chew on that, you pious, pseudo-intellectual gits who preach at rabid football fans and utterly fail to understand what’s going on.

I’m happy to admit that I have a healthy hatred for the scum, and I’m equally happy that it’s so lustily reciprocated – with any luck the depth of these feelings will see the game of football, still so dependent on the atmosphere generated by its match-going followers, survive for a good long time to come.