Did you ever play piggy-in-the-middle as a child? It’s a game for three, with one in the middle, trying to intercept a ball that the other two are throwing between them. It’s fun for the two, not so much, after a while, for the one – so every now and then, if the unfortunate “piggy” doesn’t succeed in catching the ball, the players will swap around so as to share the enjoyment. That’s only fair, after all.
If you’re a Leeds fan, you might well identify with that unfortunate player in the middle. For that’s just how it feels, being trapped between the club on the one side and a voracious media on the other – both of them seemingly doing the best that they can to ensure you, as the fan caught between them, have the worst time possible. The difference between the game and this real life situation is that the poor sap trying to break out from the role of victim never actually seems to get that break. Thus, football’s best fans (by a country mile) continue to suffer as club and media pile the agony on, week after week, month after month, season after depressing season. And yet there may be some hope, as we shall see. Perhaps this darkest hour may yet herald a golden dawn.
Leeds fans are the best in the business – but they are currently caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, there is the bumbling incompetence and woeful lack of vision of a succession of club owners, ensuring that Leeds United are always seemingly engaged in trying to shoot themselves in the foot. How the fans would like to catch that side out, in order to have a go themselves.
And then, on the other end of the piggy-in-the-middle game, you have the assembled national media, for whom Leeds United have long been the target of choice. The media, in their various repellent forms, have been demonising and attacking Leeds for decades now – always ready to seize on yet more bad news to ram it down the throats of the hapless supporters in the middle, who had had enough way, way back – when I first took an interest as a fan. The fans would like to catch that side out too – and some are trying to make their feelings heard, little by little.
It really has been going on that long for the Fourth Estate in this country. Leeds United have been hated in print and over the airwaves for the whole time since Don Revie‘s boys climbed out of obscurity and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. The difference back then, of course, was that it was more a siege complex than piggy-in-the-middle. The club – back then – had far more than its share of misfortune. But, in a marked contrast to the current tragic state of affairs, it didn’t appear to be actually complicit in all the bad stuff and the suffering of the fans. The maxim for Leeds in those days was displayed proudly on the dressing-room wall, visible to terrified opposition players as they walked past in the corridor outside. “Keep Fighting”, it said – and did they ever. The press decided that this was just not on – and war was declared. It’s a war they have waged ever since, long after Leeds as a club apparently gave up the fight to resist.
Nowadays, the press are as watchful as ever for any negative news they can publish and trumpet as propaganda. There’s something virtually every day. Only this morning, some online refuge for amateur hacks is gleefully speculating that ‘the “Redfearn controversy” could force talented youngsters to leave Elland Road’ – words calculated to ensure that any Leeds fan will feel that bit worse over his or her Bank Holiday cornflakes than he or she might otherwise have done. And this piece of spiteful speculation, propped up by a line from some willing rentaquote ex-player, springs from yet another in a long and depressing series of own-goals by the club, which has foolishly isolated a manager in Neil Redfearn who had been doing just fine, thank you.
So Leeds United – a club currently rotten from the top and teetering under the strain of decades of mismanagement – provides yet again the raw material for a vindictive press to launch still another salvo of propaganda and negativity. And yet again, the fans – the best and most loyal set of supporters anywhere – are caught between the two opposing forces, powerless to do anything but despair and wonder when and where it will all end.
The hope for the future, such as it is, remains vested in those amazing fans. This is a group of supporters who continue to follow the club – that famous though latterly tarnished name – the length and breadth of the country, at any antisocial hour of the day or day of the week, in their vociferous thousands, out-singing and out-shouting home support wherever they go. It’s a modern phenomenon that attracts grudging respect from rival clubs, rival fans – even areas of the press. And maybe – just maybe – those remarkable fans hold somewhere among them the hope that this still determined and pugnacious piggy-in-the-middle might yet break out, and start having a say on either side of the game.
There has long been the facility – afforded by social media and the network of blogging sites – for fans to make their voices heard against the babbling background of the popular press. So now, if this or that gutter rag comes out with something particularly stupid and vindictive, the fans’ voice can be heard, comparatively faintly perhaps, but still there – and still defiantly raised in scorn and protest. The press and other media, though remaining powerfully unaccountable for the most part, no longer have it quite all their own way – and, particularly at local level, journos and broadcasters are having to take account of that steadily more audible fan voice. It’s a vox populi process that will only continue and become more effective over time.
And now, even the club itself – and its succession of incompetent and unscrupulous owners – may yet be vulnerable in some measure to the effect of the fans. Just this past week, seven days wherein United have managed a couple more spectacular PR own-goals, an initiative has been taking off whereby at some point a group of fans might be able collectively to purchase a stake in the club – something that could lead to supporters having a real and inalienable right to a say in exactly how Leeds United should be run.
Leeds Fans Community Benefit Society (Leeds CBS) has attracted such interest among the support that it has brought forward the date on which the fans can invest in the possibility of buying a stake in Leeds United. Any fan can now become a Leeds Fans CBS shareholder – click here to see how – with the chance of playing their part in a future, supporter-shared, ownership. It’s an initiative that has won the approval and endorsement of respected local journalist Phil Hay of the Yorkshire Evening Post – for years a principled local oasis in a national desert of Press derision where Leeds United is concerned.
The fact that Hay – a resounding voice in the Leeds United press world – writes so encouragingly about a supporters’ initiative is highly significant. There is a sense that something serious might be happening here – a possible game-changer. As Hay puts it, during an apt summary of the Leeds CBS mission, serious financial backing can only enhance the fans’ cause – in other words, money talks, and the more of it there is, the louder that voice. The prospect of serious money, contributed by fans in support of a fans’ initiative, could now be the difference between more well-intentioned rhetoric and a real chance of a real say in the future running of the club we all still love – warts and all. And that could put us in on the ground floor of fan ownership in this country if, as some believe, it’s the way forward in a future that sees the corporate bubble finally burst.
For Leeds United and its amazing support, it’s been piggy-in-the-middle now for far too long, and the fans are sick of being trapped between two opposing yet equally malign forces, impotent – up to now – to do anything that might break the cycle. But it may be that this powerlessness – this feeling of just having to sit back and suffer – could finally have an end in sight. If the fans can have their voices raised against an uncaring and vindictive national media on the one hand – and if they can contribute their own hard-earned cash towards improving the running of the club itself on the other – then there might just be some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. And – you never know – this time it might NOT be an onrushing locomotive bent on dashing all of our hopes and wishes. You never know.
Between us, the sayers and the doers might just have the means whereby that helpless piggy-in-the-middle – represented by the finest supporters anywhere – finally breaks out and has its long-awaited day in the sun.