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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14 responses to “Forty Years Ago Today: Getting Bitten by the Leeds United Bug – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Chris Heath

    Lucky you didn’t see them lose as many games as now Rob.,Like you at the time I thought losing 3 on the trot was the end of the world.

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  2. Gripping stuff Rob and brings back a lot of similar emotions for me. I know its different these days for us but I still think every young lad (or lass) gripping his dads hand as he walks up the steps to the ground for the very first time and seeing that green patch of land illuminated by floodlights (if its an evening game which are always the best) will have a feeling that he’ll never better in his life – (with the possible exception of witnessing his first child born??) lol It’s absolutely magical and I would love to go through it all again. It reaches somewhere deep within your heart and can never be forgotten- oh how I wish a was a young lad again so I could go through it all again- being a Newcastle fan In hindsight I think I may just have told me dad to P*** off!! ha ha, seriously though Rob- cracking stuff mate.

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  3. Rob!
    As usual, a very, very readable piece, similar to my own experience, although it was a friends Dad who took me to my first ever game in 67/68 when I was 11. I had little interest in football before then and immediately I was hooked. Gary Sprake with his green cap and the sparkling white of our shirts and the red away kit of our opponents (West Brom) though the pitch was mostly brown (mud) and not green! Happy days……

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  4. David Smith

    Rob… as usual an enjoyable read. I too have brainwashed my 18 year son into supporting Leeds and on numerous occasions over the last ten years he has threatened to report me to Childline for the hurt I have caused as a result !! One day (but probably not in my lifetime)… he’ll thank me !

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  5. Iain Alcorn

    Hi. Rob,
    In the early 1950’s l saw United play a friendly against Hearts l spent much of the match sitting on my fathers shoulders so that l could see. In 1952 l went to Becketts Park Junior school and three years later l was playing for the school team and had the benefit of a free school pass behind the goal on what was a cinder banking (boys pen) sorry girls, at that time you were not considered to be interested. Through the years l saw some very good players in an average side, John Charles, (he broke the net with a header) Jimmy Dunn, Grenville Hair, Eric Kerfoot, Georgie Meek, Wilbur Cush etc. etc. Every week on a Saturday after our School match l travelled by two buses to Elland Road to watch both the first team and the reserves in the Central league. When Don Revie became manager l was in my early teans and was amazed to see him pick so many young players we were used to watching in the reserves, l could not believe it when at a first team match he chose one Norman Hunter in the position of Left Half (that shows my age) having seen Norman play left wing for weeks. In the reserves he was one player who you would have bet would never make a footballer. Yet there he was and played magnificently……for years.
    Todays team remind me very much of those early Revie days. We have some superb youg tallent with even more coming through. What we lack is an “old head” in my opinion we have at least 5 possible no probable future British internationals, Taylor, Byram, Mowett, Cook, Dawson and probably the best 4. under 21 midfielders in the country. Why did it take so long for someone to realise that Byram was the best midfielder on the books, it was obvious to me in his first year. Add to the home grown tallent Murphy and Cooper, and with the youngsters that we have brought in from abroad Del Fabro, Adrianne, Sloth, Benidici, Montenegro, we have a quality squd for years to come. We just need a bit of experience.
    All in all l am more optimistic now than at any time since the glory days.
    Im just a bit disappointed that we are looking like letting Stephen Warnock leave, with Taylor looking so good, it could have release him to play a more central role in front of the back 3 or 4 he readsxthe game so well and is probably the best interceptor in the club plus the most experienced.
    The futures bright the futures LEEDS UNITED

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    • There’s so much pessimism and negativity about right now – so it’s wonderful to get such a positive and optimistic comment, from someone who’s been around the club so long and who has seen it all. Brilliant – many thanks, sir. MOT – and may your faith be amply justified!

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      • Duane Gill

        Rob,

        A fantastic article as always and one that filled me with some football nostalgia of my own. At the age of 11 I began my love affair with Leeds United and this was simply because I had just started secondary school in 1991. Being callow year 7’s had just been ass kicked in a lunchtime football match by the year 11’s and I remember one player for them who was outstanding.

        The lad in question was wearing the Leeds away strip which I liked and I recall asking him what team it was and he replied in a pubesant and somewhat pitchy deep voice ‘Leeds United’. Since that day I never looked back, prior to that I was a Spurs fan courtesy of my father trying to brainwash me.

        You, like many others will say I saw the light perhaps. I could have became a manure fan or a Liverpool fan like many others but I chose Leeds and even though we have had our ups and downs I don’t regret choosing the mighty Leeds. M.O.T and R.I.P to Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight.

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      • Great stuff! 🙂

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  6. Pingback: Death of a Leeds United Fan – by Rob Atkinson | Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything

  7. My first visit to Elland road was when I was 11, up from Cornwall to visit family, ManU complete with all the names were the opposition.
    The teams exited the tunnel, the crowd cheered, that with the occasional view between the masses meant I ,at about 4ft saw nothing, but for some reason that did it. It could and would be Leeds forever after that.

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  8. Stephen Gibson.

    Good evening Rob,

    An excellent, poignant article. I believe that the game against Barcelona was the last time that there was 50,000 in our famous old ground, what a night it was.

    It’s 50 years and 2 days since i went to my first game, a 2-1 victory
    against West Ham, 41000 inside the ground, with goals from Billy
    Bremner and Alan Peacock settling the match in our favour. I remember arriving at the ground circa 1-30pm, and my Dad taking me to the front of the old Scratching Shed. I was well and truly hooked.

    I was a lot luckier than you, insofar that i never saw us lose in the flesh until the F.A Cup semi final v Everton in late April 1968, must have gone to probably 30 games before then, so proved to be a lucky talisman!

    Many highs and lows over the years, the personal lows for me were the European Cup Final defeat, relegation at West Brom in 1982, and defeat in the 1987 Play-Off Final against Charlton. Remember being in tears after all three, in 1987 i was a grown man of 30, but because it was my hometown club it meant so much to me.

    Haven’t gone regularly since my bond finished in 2000, and never went at all for five and a half years after Bates retained contro taking us into administration and buying us back in a pre-pack within hours.

    Money has destroyed top-flight football, the chances of someone like Revie., Shankly, Clough, Stein or Busby (sorry to have to mention him too) turning ploughed fields into formidable footballing fortresses are now non-existent.

    Despite living in Huddersfield for twenty odd years i also follow my other two city clubs, Leeds RL & Hunslet, but it’s United who hold a special place in my heart and always will. I agree with your sentiments earlier this week about Cellino, and it would be great if Russell Crowe could generate a takeover with some of his minted mates. He’s done a terrific job at South Sydney Rabbitohs, and has nailed our colours to his mast for many moons.

    I always enjoy reading your articles, very best wishes for the future, and keep your powerful pen (keyboard fingers these days) poised for many years to come. Steve.

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  9. Gary Leonard

    Great article, Rob. I’ve been following the Whites since I was six in ’69. I was aware they’d won the league but really got on board after the ’70 cup final and EC semi-final – despite the outcome of both. Living in Dublin, the only options were MOTD, Sportsnight & The Big Match for English football ( in black and white until the mid ’70s, just for good measure! ) I eventually got over for a few games in the ’80s and ’90s. Like you, I was certain that they’d beat Bayern after the heroics against Barca and was sick for weeks when they lost the final. I often wondered would The Don’s presence have made a difference. There have been some highs and too many lows these last forty years and it looks like Cellino is another false dawn – but we must remain positive. As for Hong Kong Phooey and the Rollers? I’m straight back to second year and Miss McCarthy’s knee high leather boots! Cheers

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