I remember clearly the days in the last century when the only real signs of division among Leeds United fans came during the occasional bouts of mock rivalry on the Gelderd End. It was light-hearted stuff, back then; a message to the rest of football that, such was the unity and togetherness of the White Army – even during the bleak second division eighties – we had to invent stuff to disagree about. Thus it was that half of the tightly-packed Kop would bellow “Rangers!” to a counterpoint of “Celtic!” from the other half.
The sectarian viciousness of the real thing north of the border was missing; it was just a bit of fun – usually when the lads on the park were doing quite well. By way of variety, when the mood was even more ebullient, Rangers and Celtic would be cheerfully abandoned for the rival claims of soap characters Amy Turtle and Albert Tatlock. They were crazy, happy, terraced and crush barrier days, bouncing around on your own favourite “spec” behind the goal, baying for victory but happily aware that, if you lost, you’d only wasted thirty bob or so.
Even when there was genuine discontent – during the “Adamson Out” era for instance, or in the wake of Eddie Gray‘s first sacking – the fans tended to be united in their disapproval. We won together and lost together, we celebrated or complained together. We marched on together, as our very own anthem had it. From the modern day standpoint, even the bleakest of times back then seem like heady days indeed. There was less to moan about in those days, maybe – and, again, the very cheapness of the matchday experience perhaps made it less likely that even the most vociferous of supporters would get too het up about matters Leeds. And there wasn’t such widespread and instantaneous communication then; before the Internet, with its Twitter and Facebook and its football message boards; before mobile phones, before even fanzines – before any of these, the main focus of any discontent was the supporters’ club bar or various pubs on matchdays, home or away. Nowadays, the burning issues flare up all that much more quickly and dramatically for the very ease and global reach of communication. If there’s a grievance, everybody knows – and, naturally, we all have an opinion.
So in this modern era, we pay through the nose for the dubious pleasure of seeing our club trying and failing to recover from the disaster that befell it at the dawn of the 21st century. With massively higher prices have come increased levels of discontent; with journeyman footballers “earning” in a week what we mere mortals might expect to gross in a year, has come bitter disillusionment. In that environment, issues that may have provoked only mild levels of discord in the post-match pub debate (pre-social media), now become divisive in the extreme on a pan-global scale. Positions are taken and defended, the loudest voices gather supporters about them and pitched battles are fought between opposing camps on the virtual battlefields of the World Wide Web. What was once, famously, a fiercely united band of supporters has become riven and polarised, pro-this and anti-that, rather than simply Leeds. The one-time rallying call of “We’re all Leeds, aren’t we?” has become more of a plaintive plea, an attempt to pour soothing oil on troubled waters. We might all be Leeds – but sadly we’re reduced to warring factions and there is little or no unity of purpose.
Positions have become so entrenched over the course of this last fifteen years or so – the era of Bates, GFH and Cellino – that unity, far from being something we can assume as part of the Leeds-supporting condition, has become an unattainable pipe-dream. The damage being wrought by that very lack of accord is surely visible to all who love the club, whatever side of the current divide they might occupy. Regardless of the pros and cons of the current ownership, and whether the net effect of that ownership is positive or negative, it will be hard beyond belief to restore our club to former glories whilever this deep schism in the ranks of the support persists.
For this reason, I’m taking a day or so off from airing my views on the current situation at the top of the club. Anyone who reads this blog is aware of those views anyway, and it’s struck me lately that, just now, the manifest symptoms of supporter disharmony coming out of whatever ails the club might well be doing more damage than whatever the root cause of that sickness might be.
What seems abundantly clear to me is that the current owner, whether he is A Good Thing or A Bad Thing as football club owners go, is highly unlikely to be the unifying force that is so sorely needed right now. That’s not me having a go, it’s what I believe to be a statement of fact, one that even the most passionate pro-Cellino advocate would find hard to dispute. Things have gone too far now for a spontaneous recovery. If we want a unified support – and, as far as such a thing is possible, that’s something we surely should want – then we have to acknowledge that someone is needed at the head of the club behind whom the vast majority of fans can unite. Failing that, and if things carry on as they are, then the support is bound to remain divided, to the detriment of all.
I’ve certainly never known Leeds United supporters to be so badly split, so rabidly at each others’ throats, as they have been over much of the time since the club’s precipitous fall from grace. It’s been a painful spectacle – and I’ve probably sinned as much as most in defence of my own strongly-held views from time to time in the past three years. But it’s now becoming an issue in itself, independent of the vexed question of who owns the club for good or ill. This hurtful division is an issue that needs urgently to be addressed, or we’re going to lose something that used to be a byword among football fans everywhere. We’ll lose the unity and purpose of Leeds United fans and, once that’s gone, it will be very, very hard to rediscover.
The battle lines are currently drawn, Leeds fan against Leeds fan, all over the internet. Let them be erased. Leeds fans are banning Leeds fans from discussion groups, simply for holding the “wrong” opinion. Let debate be free and unfettered. How much longer before we see Leeds-on-Leeds fighting in the stands, Millwall style? What begins on the Internet can so easily spill over into real life. Let’s not have that happen. We should be talking about what’s best for the club, and I believe that means a conversation about who, if anyone, can heal these rifts and see us United once more. We’re all Leeds, aren’t we?
Let’s start to act like it.