Alan Smith. Eric Cantona. Rio Ferdinand. Three Leeds United players who opted to transfer their allegiance to the Evil Empire over the wrong side of the Pennines. In so doing, they attracted hatred and brickbats aplenty from Leeds followers. After all, they’d gone to the club we despise above almost any other, certainly as far as anything these islands can provide. So too, much earlier, had Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen, along with the less-well remembered examples of Arthur Graham and Peter Barnes in the relatively small collective of former Leeds players who have identified themselves with the Pride of Devon and their repellent supporters. These individuals, heroes to Leeds fans at one time or another, were held individually and as a category to be traitors to the real United, of Elland Road. Figuratively speaking, as well as almost literally, they had sold their souls to the Devil.
But really, all that “treachery” stuff, as applied to a small group of misguided men is just so much nonsense. In some cases, it’s even an injustice – Alan Smith, for example, made his move against a background of a Leeds United desperate for money (does this sound familiar?) He even waived his own cut of the deal so that his former club could derive the maximum financial benefit. If that’s treachery, then Steve McClaren is a Dutchman.
For real treachery – allied to on-going bad taste and a degree of insensitivity that makes expenses cheat Maria Miller look like Mother Teresa – let me commend you to Harry Kewell Esq, formerly of this parish. Kewell, wearing the number 10 shirt, was one of the Leeds United side that emerged into a cauldron of seething hatred as the stricken Whites were forced to play the first leg of a UEFA Cup semi-final against Galatasaray mere hours after the savage murder of two of their supporters. The home side refused to wear black armbands, demonstrating utter and callous disrespect. They would later demand that the second leg should be played at a neutral venue, should their disgusting fans be banned from an Elland Road return.
The players of Leeds United looked up to the crowd that night and saw snarling faces, disfigured by feverish hatred, fingers drawn across necks in the time-disgraced but locally admired “throat-slitting” gesture, the whole nightmare scene played out against a backdrop of “Welcome to Hell” banners as the bestial home fans taunted the United support, who simply turned their back on proceedings at kick-off in what must count as the most dignified display of protest in recent history.
Kewell cannot possibly have failed to absorb that evil miasma of hate and malice. He cannot have failed to appreciate the intentional hurt inflicted by the Galatasaray club – and especially their cowardly fans – to the feelings of everybody concerned with the Leeds United cause, especially of course the bereaved families of Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight. Kewell must, surely, have felt as threatened and disgusted by the atmosphere prior to and during the game as any other United player that night. It was a match that, in the circumstances, should not have been played. Not that night, not so soon after those lads’ life-blood had been spilled. Perhaps never. Only the buffoons of UEFA could have made such a ridiculous decision as to rule the game should go ahead. It was an infamous night in the history of football.
If, on that night, you had predicted that any United player would, at some point in the future, willingly embrace that atmosphere, happily align himself with such a notoriously uncivilised set of “supporters” – you could have offered odds of ten thousand to one, and no takers. You’d have been laughed out of court, possibly with a few bumps and bruises for your own bad taste and lack of judgement. And yet, a few short years afterwards, Harry Kewell – “Mr. Anywhere-For-A-Fat-Contract” himself – elected to join that awful club and play for those despicable fans. It was an act of calculated disrespect to the victims, their families, their friends, the wider Leeds United community and decent football fans everywhere. It was base treachery in the raw; the act of a man who cannot see beyond his own narrow interests and who, frankly, could not give a damn.
At the time, he spouted a few mealy-mouthed platitudes about wishing to reconcile two sets of fans divided by tragedy. Yeah, OK Harry. Nothing to do with money after all, then? He could not have more effectively alienated Leeds fans everywhere if he had sat down and thought about how to do so for a year. It was an act of a vain and stupid young man whose God-given talent had set him up financially for life, but whose poverty of taste, sensitivity and loyalty would make the poorest beggar in the street look rich. Any player who had ever been connected with Leeds United should have realised that such a move was the ultimate in terrible ideas. It’s not something that should have needed explaining, not even to the meanest intellect or the most self-involved and vacant young man.
Now, fifteen years after the murders in Taksim Square, and with his football career at an end, Kewell is once more involved in English football, for the first time since a dilatory and uncommitted stint at Liverpool, as a member of the Watford FC coaching staff. Leeds fans will not welcome his return; for us, his copybook is blotted beyond any hope of redemption. Kewell put himself beyond the pale by the manner of his leaving Elland Road, when he and his agent held the club to ransom (in stark contrast to the example of Alan Smith, cited above) ensuring his pockets were well-lined, to the detriment of the club that gave him his start. His subsequent betrayal of the soul and spirit of Leeds United, by signing for that tawdry outfit from Istanbul, added gross insult to what was nearly a mortal injury.
Words like “Judas”, “traitor” and “treachery” are bandied about a bit too freely, sometimes. That tends to become obvious only when you see a glaringly obscene example of the real thing – only then does it stand out that some dubious acts thus labelled are actually as water unto wine when it really comes down to it. So forget about those who have crossed the great divide between Elland Road and the Theatre of Hollow Myths – their defections mean nothing at all in the grand scheme of things. We have been amply repaid over the years anyway – luminaries such as Johnny Giles and Gordon Strachan have made the opposite journey and have found glory in all-white. At the end of the day, all of that is just about football – and beside the matter of life, death and justice, football remains very small beer indeed.
Life and death were the issues on that April night so long ago, and events panned out such that two lads, who simply wanted to follow their heroes at a football match, never came home – and have never received real justice. One of them had a son, George, who has had to grow up without his Dad, and who, once upon a time, angrily wanted to point out to a thick-headed footballer the betrayal he believed that footballer was guilty of perpetrating, by his thoughtless act of offering a Galatasaray shirt as a prize in an online competition. George Speight received no apology, no understanding, no acknowledgement from Kewell – just a casual insult and a hollow accusation of racism. There is no greater treachery than that, no baser example of ignorance and poor taste. And now the traitor is back among us once again. It’s very difficult to wish Watford anything but ill-luck and failure, just on this one account.
Harry Kewell: one-time Leeds star, has-been footballer – and the worst example of self-seeking treachery it’s been my misfortune to witness.