Monthly Archives: April 2016

For Liverpool FC, The 96, The Families and the Friends   –   by Rob Atkinson

Hillsborough

Hillsborough: Justice at Last

The bodies laid out on the hard wooden floor
Motionless all, side by side
Robbed of their lives and let down by the law
Give us justice, they silently cried

They came for the football, their heroes in red
Part of a jubilant tide
Who knew such a day could end up with them dead?
Give us justice, they silently cried

In loud expectation, with glory the goal
They’d sung and they’d shouted their pride
Now shrouded in silence, each newly-fled soul
Give us justice, they silently cried

Betrayed by their guardians, those officers high
While the hacks and the suits squirmed and lied
With family and friends left to ask how and why
Give us justice, they silently cried

Inquest proceedings, foul slurs in the press
The guilty with so much to hide
These innocent victims with naught to confess
Give us justice, they silently cried

And what of the mothers and dads left behind
The sisters and brothers beside
As months and years passed they were not left resigned
Give us justice! they angrily cried

Through decades of struggle, they kept up the fight
Their arguments oft undermined
Yet they never lost hope nor extinguished the light
Give us justice! they angrily cried

Pouring scorn on the tabloids, exposing the Sun
Sharing the Truth far and wide
Politicians and journos and chiefs on the run
Give us justice! they angrily cried

Banners and flags on the Kop all these years
Venting the fury inside
Pressing the point through the veil of their tears
Give us justice! they angrily cried

At last the truth spoken, the guilty revealed
The living and dead unified
In one voice as they ask for their scars to be healed
Give us justice! they angrily cried

Seven and twenty the years that have passed
A lifetime of justice denied
The ones who were lost can be peaceful at last
And the families, who stood by their side.

RIP – You’ll Never Walk Alone

Rob Atkinson

Spurs as Champions? It Would Have Seemed Silly   –   by Rob Atkinson

Spuds

Spurs – still no Title pedigree

If Tottenham Hotspur finish this season in a Champions League qualification place and – more importantly, in the eyes of many of their fans – above loathed North London rivals Arsenal, then this season will be deemed by the vast majority of those fans to have been a resounding success. This, despite the fact that they will have failed to have taken their most realistic chance in over half a century to finish as Champions of England. This is why Spurs, despite their superficial glamour and appeal, cannot be regarded as a big club.
 
This might sound strange coming from a fan of 21st Century also-rans Leeds United. But, for all their recent woes and the chaos that characterises life at Elland Road under Bates, GFH and Cellino, Leeds remain a big club. The expectations are still there, the voracious hunger and imperious demand to be up there with the best. At some point, those demands will be met – because the expectations and desire of the fans are what, ultimately, define the size and potential of a football club. Leeds have all that – Tottenham simply don’t. A cursory scan of their Twitter feed, since Spurs capitulated against West Brom on Monday, is ample illustration of this. 

I was really expecting to find anger, dismay and deep, deep hurt among the Spurs Twitteratti, at the careless throwing away of a once in a lifetime chance. It wasn’t there. I thought too – equally erroneously – that there would be angst and an abiding sense of betrayal. I based this on an empathetic knowledge of how I or most other Leeds supporters would feel – how it would leave us bereft and fuming to see such a rare opportunity passed up. But then – we’re Leeds, and these people were merely Spurs. There’s a big difference.

Last time Leeds joined the big time, back in 1990 – and the time before that, in 1964 – the Whites wasted no time merely admiring their surroundings or being overawed by their new peers. They took a brief, almost scornful look around, allowed themselves the barest of minimum settling-in periods, won their opening fixture back at this new, rarefied level – and proceeded to dominate proceedings thenceforth. Don Revie‘s wonders went within a whisker of the double first time out, and were the best team in Europe within five years. Sergeant Wilko‘s Warriors were Champions inside twenty months. This is the mettle and appetite of a big club. There is no fear and mighty little respect in the staff and players. There is an abounding self-belief and naked ambition among the fans. So it was with Leeds United. So it will be again. 

There is none of this with Spurs. Despite the excellence of their squad, they lack the inner conviction and the aspirations of Champions. At its heart, the club is effete and decadent, content to play pretty football while perceived lesser mortals – the Leicester Citys of this world – scrap and fight, working hard, giving no quarter, exerting every fibre of their being in the pursuit of victory. In a game of fine margins, it is this muck and bullets approach that can close the quality gap and make the difference when the prizes are handed out. 

On the evidence of social media reaction since West Brom killed off their hopes, the Spurs fans are as much to blame as the soft centre of their club. It’ll be nice to finish second, they trill. We’d have snatched your hands off for the chance of finishing higher than Arsenal. We’ll be favourites next year, they croon, hopefully. But next year never comes – not when the real big boys, the Citys, the Arsenals, the Chelseas and the Liverpools, will be waking up from their one season slumber. 

Thinking back to the early nineties, when Leeds were the hungry new kids on the block – we hoped and craved for a chance to be the best again. Whether we really expected it to come along so soon is a moot point. But we were raucously demanding of it. And when that chance presented itself – especially at the expense of our most hated foes – there was no suggestion of “well, it’d be nice, but second wouldn’t be too bad either”. We’d have been gutted to the depths of our very souls, if our heroes in White hadn’t seized the day. It would have been impossible to express the wretchedness we would have felt. The Spurs fans this week, with their mealy-mouthed acceptance of failure and honeyed words of congratulations to conquerors Leicester, have betrayed their club and shown themselves, as well as Tottenham Hotspur, unworthy of being regarded as champion material. 

In the end, any league gets the champions it deserves and, barring last-gasp miracles or calamity, it’ll be no different this year. Spurs will have shown why they haven’t been The Best since 1961, when JFK was president, the Beatles were playing beery dives in Hamburg and I was only just seeing the light of day. Leicester, with their indomitable self-belief and determination to make the most of every opportunity under the brilliant guidance of one-time “Tinkerman” Claudio Ranieri, will thoroughly have deserved their Premier League Title. They will be Champions every bit as deserving, and more, than the Leeds United tyros of 1992. 

Leicester City, Champions of England. It has a ring of authenticity to it that’s been hard fought for and deeply merited. Whereas “Champions Spurs” – well, it just doesn’t sound right. It sounds instead like cheap fiction; and, as long as the club and the fans retain their current losers’ mindset, that’s just how it will remain. 

The Hillsborough Disaster Warnings That Weren’t Heeded – by Rob Atkinson

Hillsborough - an Anfield tribute

Hillsborough – an Anfield tribute

Incredibly, 27 years have flashed past already, since that awful spring day in 1989, when 96 football fans turned up to follow their team towards Wembley – and never came home again. I was one of a paltry 14,915 at Elland Road that day, watching Leeds United eke out a 1-0 home win over Brighton as Sgt. Wilko’s first half-season meandered to an uneventful close. When the news filtered through that there had been “trouble” in the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, the initial reaction was as predictable as it was wide of the mark: “the scousers are at it again.” Heysel was still fresh in the memory, English clubs were still banned from Europe – and nobody judges football fans quite like other football fans (or, at least, so we thought until the Sun got going). We were tolerably certain, as a bunch of Leeds supporters, that the Liverpool fans had caused more bother, and we glumly predicted another indiscriminate backlash that would envelop us all.

As we were on our way out of Elland Road, though, the full, awful impact started to hit home. There were deaths – people had actually died at an English football stadium – something that hadn’t happened on anything like this scale before. Apart from the Bradford fire – a very different disaster – the only comparable event in England had been the Burnden Park tragedy at Bolton, when 33 had lost their lives in a crush at a hopelessly inadequate ground with over 85,000 attending an FA Cup quarter final. That had been well over a generation before, in 1946. Surely, it couldn’t really be happening again, on an even greater scale, in the shiny bright late eighties?

But as we looked on in horror, the TV and radio news brought increasingly sombre statistics while the death toll steadily mounted – and later the sheer ghastliness of the event would be magnified as the tale of criminal incompetence and official negligence was revealed – and as the filthy end of the press, abetted by weaselling functionaries in Government and the Civil Service, jumped on the “blame the fans” bandwagon that other football supporters had vacated as soon as the scale and nature of the catastrophe became apparent.

If you were a Leeds United fan, a chill ran through you when you thought about what had happened; when you realised that this had, indeed, been a disaster waiting to happen. The Hillsborough Stadium was so oriented that the organising authorities found it easier, more convenient, to allocate stands to the fans of opposing semi-finalists based on where the bulk of those fans were travelling from. So, in 1989, Forest got the large Kop End, while the much larger Liverpool contingent were shovelled into the Leppings Lane End behind the opposite goal. It was the same the year before, when the same two teams contested the 1988 semi-final. And, similarly, in 1987, when Coventry of the Midlands faced Leeds United of the North, the greater Leeds numbers found themselves packed tight in Leppings Lane, while the smaller Coventry band enjoyed the wide open spaces on the Hillsborough Kop.

So two years prior to the Hillsborough Disaster, I and thousands of others were packed into the smaller Leppings Lane End on that April the 12th of 1987. The atmosphere was electric; it was United’s first FA Cup semi for ten years and Billy Bremner‘s men had been in terrific form as they challenged for a double of the Cup and promotion to the old Division One. We were jammed in like sardines on that terrace; looking up you could see fans climbing out of the back of the crowd, up over the wall and into the upper tier of the stand where space was more freely available.

Down on the packed terrace, it was swaying, singing fever pitch from before the kick-off right through to the heart-breaking climax of extra time. You weren’t an individual, you were part of a seething mass that moved as one, shouted and sang as one and breathed – when it could – as one. When Leeds scored their two goals, it was mayhem in there – you couldn’t move, you couldn’t breathe, you just bobbed about like a cork on stormy waters, battered by the ecstasy of the crowd, loving it and, at the same time, just a bit worried about where your next gulp of oxygen was coming from. Leeds took the lead early, David Rennie scoring down at the far end. That shattering celebration was topped when, having gone 2-1 behind, Leeds clawed it back right in front of us as Keith Edwards headed an equaliser and the United army exploded with joy. It was the single most jubilant and yet terrifying moment of my life to that point.

Later, after the match was over, as we trailed away despondently from the scene of an heroic defeat, there was time to reflect on what had been an afternoon of highs and lows, with the physical reaction of that epic few hours inside a pressure cooker swiftly setting in. With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, it’s easy enough now to look back over twenty-nine years and think: “Yes, we were lucky.” Lucky that the incompetence threshold wasn’t passed that day when we were there. Lucky that enough of the terrace fans got into the upper tier to relieve the pressure ever so slightly – was that a factor?  So lucky that it wasn’t us, when it easily could have been. Lucky, ultimately, to be alive and kicking still. The warning signs were there – they just weren’t perceived by those of us – the fans – for whom it had just been another somewhat uncomfortable but thrilling spectator experience. That those signs weren’t recognised or heeded by the people responsible for public safety is a far more damning fact.

Poignantly enough, the luck we’d had that day wasn’t shared by 96 Liverpool supporters two years later. They set off happily, to support their heroes – and, tragically, they never returned. Twenty-seven years on, the wait for justice has been torturous for all concerned. The families and friends left behind, veterans of over a quarter of a century of grief and loss, have never given up their courageous fight, despite cover-ups and official brick walls, despite scurrilous press coverage which reached an obscene and disgusting low point with the Sun – that vanguard of the gutter press – and its sickening lies. 

Now, there is an inquest verdict at last. We have the official findings of unlawful killing and, surely there is finally justice for The 96. And indeed for all of the friends and family they left behind. Yet, even now, with the South Yorkshire Police Force unreservedly accepting the inquest findings, we still have the likes of Thatcher aide Bernard Ingham refusing to apologise for his own scandalous remarks in the wake of the disaster, now utterly discredited as he himself has been. There is no remorse or regret from Ingham, who stands as a symbol of official ignorance and deceit. All he is good for now, this bitter, bigoted old man, is sitting at home and growing his comedy eyebrows.

Twenty-seven years is far too long for anyone bereaved of their loved ones to wait – but justice is worth waiting for, if only so that the dead can sleep more peacefully and the living can have closure of a sort – and move on with the business of being alive. And – as a footnote – how appropriate it would now be if Liverpool FC could go on to win the Europa League after that thrilling victory over Borussia Dortmund – just for the families, the friends and those that were lost on that fateful day and in its aftermath..

There could be no finer or more fitting tribute to The 96, surely, than this long-awaited justice that has been served today – and the return of the Champions League football to Anfield.

Let it be.

How Will Cellino Try to Justify the Sacking of Steve Evans?   –   by Rob Atkinson

cellino-crotch

Cellino’s chopper seems to be ready to swing again

As our promised “beautiful season” drags its weary way to a mid-table close, amid a welter of unexpectedly good results, the burning issue now at hand is what we will be told when loco owner Massimo Cellino scratches that itch and sacks yet another manager.

The revolving door at Elland Road will surely also need replacing soon. It must be on its last legs after the unprecedented number of staff arrivals and departures over the last few years, as Cellino continues to feed his voracious ego. The only truly secure position at Leeds United appears to be that of Il Duce himself – and that’s only by the grace of the unusually tolerant football authorities. They have Cellino taped for what he is and yet, unaccountably, they fail to act. By his own admission, Cellino has been a dire failure at Leeds. Get rid of me if we’re not back in the Premier League by 2016, he trumpeted on arrival. There was also some stuff about repurchasing Elland Road. None of it has happened, of course – yet still Cellino is here, hiring and firing like there’s no tomorrow.

That process seems certain to continue in the near future; Steve Evans has been doing a miraculous job in circumstances that would be unbearable for less determined and self-assured men. But nevertheless, he is likely to go soon; the writing has been on the wall for a while now. Cellino’s modus operandi is a wearily familiar one: undermine and publicly rebuke your victim-in-waiting, tell him to keep quiet while you hog the headlines yourself, aim to stir up the negative feelings and prejudices of the gutter end of the United support. This campaign is in full swing against Evans, but there’s one niggling problem. The dratted man has done better in post than any of his predecessors since promotion-winner Simon Grayson. How inconvenient for Cellino is that?

How, indeed, will Cellino set about justifying the imminent betrayal of yet another solid football pro? It’s undeniable that Evans has made something of a silk purse out of what was definitely a sow’s ear when he arrived. Yes, he’s vocal at times, and has a tendency to proclaim his successes and his favoured managerial techniques. But are these really bad things? With the axe hovering above our heads as it has been for Evans, wouldn’t any of us point out as often as possible that we’re actually doing a decent job? Lifelong Celtic fan Steve Evans could, it is said, stroll into Celtic Park and occupy the manager’s chair if he so desired. But he wants to stay at Leeds. Shouldn’t we admire and relate to that?

What’s more, shouldn’t Cellino display some passing regard for a man who has overseen what looks like being our best finish for a good long time? But that would be out of character for someone who is far more at home sniping and griping at those who are trying to do their jobs under his crazy stewardship. Even Cellino, though, probably recognises that this sacking will be even harder to explain away than the others. The results have been OK, some of the displays haven’t been too bad – and we cannot now finish lower than our recently-favoured final position of fifteenth or so. Still, it’s likely that Evans will be gone, a Scot fired because Cellino says he can’t get on with English managers. That’s Massimo logic for you.

What have we to look forward to, then? Cellino appears to have put his money where his mouth is with a “season ticket part refund” undertaking if and when we fail to make at least the play-offs next season. That’s a big gamble, and there have to be concerns about the financial state of the club going into season 2017/18 if season-ticket holders have to be refunded up to half the cost of next year’s outlay. Still, that’s a promise conveniently far away. And it’s not as if Cellino has felt bound by his word in the past – is it?

And so the lunatic merry-go-round carries on apace. The next few weeks should be very interesting, though probably not in a good way, as we wait to see which direction Cellino’s grasshopper mind will jump next. The only thing that seems certain, based on the Italian’s record so far, is that stability – a commodity badly needed at Elland Road – will be as elusive as ever when il Duce once again clears the decks on the foundering ship that is Leeds United.

It’s NOT the Name of Leeds United Being Dragged Through the Mud   –   by Rob Atkinson

cellino-crotch

The real culprit in this sorry, sorry affair

In the wake of the Lucy Ward Industrial Tribunal verdict, there has understandably been a welter of press and social media comment, some of it informed, some of it less so. Leading the way, as is only right and fair, is the Yorkshire Evening Post, which today carries a front page editorial piece entitled “How Much More Can We Take?”. For the most part, this is a justifiably explosive torpedo of a piece, aimed accurately right between the eyes of United owner Massimo Cellino and his cronies past and present. This blog has no argument at all about that.

All the main aspects of what came out of Ms. Ward’s successful Tribunal appeal against her dismissal (with an associated successful claim that she suffered sex discrimination) were accurately covered in the YEP article. This is as one might expect from a reputable publication with United’s – indeed the whole city’s – interests at heart. The YEP carries a banner tagline, Twitter style, of #championingleeds. Most laudable, if a little ironic, in the light of the tone parts of this front page article carried.

In summary, we read in the Post of “this sorry, sorry affair”, with suitably disapproving reference to the Tribunal findings that Cellino did indeed make sexist comments to Ms. Ward (Football is no place for women. They should be in the bedroom or beauticians). The Tribunal found Lucy Ward to be an honest and truthful witness, whereas the testimony of the witnesses ostensibly representing the club had scorn poured upon their veracity and credibility. All very damning for the losing side in this legal play-off; for Lucy Ward it was a day of triumph, tinged with sadness at the treatment she has received whilst working for the football club she loves.

The nagging problem with the coverage of this case, though, is a tendency for both Press and Judges to lay blame at the door of Leeds United as an entity. The Post refers to a once proud club being dragged through the mud. Leeds United is still a proud club, ladies and gentlemen of the Press. Its history and achievements are reason enough for that, as well as its large and fanatical support. Football clubs don’t make sexist comments – it’s ignorant, loutish people who do that – people like Massimo Cellino, convicted fraudster and an unreconstructed male chauvinist who has no place in the 21st century, let alone in charge of a world famous sporting institution. The club, and its iconic name, are not being dragged through the mud. If that were the case, then we’d all of us, all those thousands of fans all over the world, be liberally daubed in the sticky stuff. Whereas, in actuality, the reaction I’ve seen so far is of pleasure and relief that Lucy Ward has been vindicated – together with anger and resentment that our maverick owner has yet again disgraced himself whilst associated with our great club.

The Tribunal panel was at it, too, according to the Post. They professed themselves to be astonished “that this respondent (Leeds United) had no awareness of the ACAS code or what it contained and that it failed to comply with what are regarded as basic principles”. Well, with all due respect to the august members of the Tribunal panel, that is just so much nonsense.

Football clubs, let’s face it, are neither aware nor unaware of ACAS codes, proper procedures or basic principles – because they’re institutions, not sentient beings. As such, they are at the mercy of those who own and run them. To blame Leeds United for failing in any particular matter of legal principle or process of arbitration – is like blaming the RMS Titanic for pranging on an iceberg. It’s plainly ridiculous because the blame resides with the man at the helm, if anywhere. And this is more important than you might think. Because it’s no mere matter of semantics.

If Leeds United were capable of taking the blame, or of having its name sullied, as has been suggested, then its adherents – we, the fans – would find ourselves tarred with the same brush (as we have been tarred on our own account often enough in the past half-century). But, as we have seen, the majority are firmly behind Lucy Ward and delighted that she has found justice at last. Meanwhile, if the focus is lost as it threatens to be, the true culprits may be permitted to dodge the spotlight that should properly be exposing them to the public glare of disapproval. So let’s not lose our focus here. It’s people, fallible, wrong-headed, unscrupulous and deeply misguided people, who are to blame for what is indeed a sorry, sorry affair. And we all know all too well who those people are.

I’ve got no problem with the Yorkshire Evening Post, or any other reputable paper, shouting from the rooftops for justice, whether it be for Lucy Ward, the United fans or Leeds United itself. More power to their elbows, I say. Good on them. But, please, YEP – keep your aim true and don’t be led down side alleys of deflected blame. Because, when you say “But this sorry saga isn’t about just about Mr. Cellino alone“, you make a very basic and damaging mistake. This sorry saga is about Mr. Cellino alone. He is the sole arbiter of club policy and the buck should rightly stop with him. He may even have some dim awareness himself of this; he was certainly noticeable by his absence for the Tribunal verdict.

Cellino has the attitude of the French king who proclaimed L’Etat, c’est moi. (I am the State). Louis XIV established absolute monarchy in France, and left his descendants to pay the price to Madame la Guillotine. This is what makes those of us calling for Cellino’s head feel that we have a point – there’s that same arrogant “don’t blame me, just obey me” feeling about the Italian. To say that the club as an entity should take even a morsel of blame for his failures and wrongdoings is not only a category mistake – it’s damned unfair. Let’s be in no doubt that Cellino is the proper recipient of all the blame. Newspapers, and indeed Tribunal judges, should know better than to suggest otherwise.

Ask Lucy Ward, who has suffered grossly unfair treatment at the hands of a sexist nutcase whilst working at the club she loves and has served so well. She knows who is to blame, as she knew all along. She’s seen to it that the relevant people will be held to account – not the bricks and mortar, glory and history, blood, sweat and tears of Leeds United Football Club. In this, she may well have done our beloved United a great service, somewhere down the line.

In a nutshell, then: Owners may come and owners may go, with their associated scandals and baggage. But Leeds United is still Leeds United, and always shall be. Let that be properly understood.

Leeds Utd Needs More Than Just Major Investment for Success – by Rob Atkinson

doing a leeds

As Leeds United head for Birmingham tonight, for what we all hope and trust is another meaningless game in our “beautiful” Championship season, the thoughts of many will be directed towards what is needed in order to avoid a repeat next season of what has been, in reality, another pallid and frustrating bore-fest for Whites fans. Most will rightly focus on player recruitment, and that will certainly be a challenge that Leeds must meet head-on. But it’s also fair to say that there’s much more to put right before we can realistically hope for on-field success.

With relegation to League One now increasingly unlikely and the play-offs a distant dream, it’s probably time for the seasonal post-mortem to begin. Any assessment of what went wrong must surely encompass yet another early-season sacking for the “head coach”, throwing away any strategic plan which may have emerged from the vital pre-season training period. So, yet again, there was a new man in charge before the campaign had even begun to take shape; a new coach, unfamiliar with his charges – who were not, in any event, his own choices. On top of the unwisely optimistic close season predictions about how much we were all going to enjoy 2015-16, such early disruption cannot have been helpful to the playing and coaching staff as they set about competing with better-prepared clubs.

The problem now is that there is most likely going to be further such disruption in the near future. Rumours of Steve Evans‘ imminent dismissal refuse to go away – and, sad to say, many Leeds fans are champing at the bit for this to happen. The United fans can be a funny lot. They can frequently be heard moaning about a manager who is deemed to have failed in the short term, and too many of these fans – especially the vociferous Twitter lot – seem to have bought into an increasingly crazy hire-and-fire policy. Yet the perceived wisdom relating to football management emphasises the acute need for continuity and stability at a club hoping to be successful. And, the more you think about this, the more it makes sense.

Any club that establishes itself as favouring a managerial revolving-door policy is, historically, a lot less likely to succeed than one which is prepared to be patient. The patient club will have players who know what they’re working with and who will, therefore, be more likely to knuckle down and accept the training and tactical regimen they’re presented with. But a club like Leeds, where managers frequently last for a shorter period than a sunny spell in Manchester, really has to expect a different frame of mind among its playing staff. The players will be thinking, or perhaps subconsciously feeling, “This guy won’t last any longer than the others. Why bust our balls for him? Let’s just tick over and pick up the salary cheques“. It doesn’t take too much of this kind of attitude, in a game where the margins between success and failure are tighter than ever, to effectively hamstring the whole operation. Lo and behold, you have an under-achieving club. This is the Leeds United we have been following for the past several years.

At some point, under some or other ownership, Leeds are going to have to identify their man, and then stick with him unless truly dire circumstances dictate otherwise. And the players are going to have to be left in no doubt that this is the case, in order to encourage a more professional approach in a more stable and secure atmosphere. Fans’ criticism of the manager should not be heeded if at all possible. As fans, we are simply not well enough informed, not knowledgeable enough about the goings-on behind the scenes, to call it correctly in the matter of whether or not a manager’s course is run. We’ve had so many managers in the past few seasons. Are they really all failures? Look at the job Neil Warnock is doing now at Rotherham. And, apparently, Evans himself is in demand among rival Championship clubs, in the event of him being kicked out of Leeds. Are his suitors wrong? How much longer can we at Leeds continue with such a very volatile policy? The definition of insanity is “To keep doing the same thing and expect different results“.

Our club will certainly not be able to mount a promotion challenge on a shoestring budget. One of the things that United are going to have to embrace is the need to speculate, in order to accumulate. This will be particularly applicable next season when, besides the challenge presented by the usual suspects in this league, we’re going to have to compete with (in all likelihood) Newcastle and Sunderland as well as the already doomed Aston Villa. These are all massive, well-resourced and well-supported clubs, with an enormous advantage afforded to them by Premier League parachute payments. Add in the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and even Nottingham Forest – and next season’s dog-eat dog-fight will be even more rabidly competitive than usual. The prize, though, is truly massive. Whoever goes up this season or next will be transported into a whole different class of financial support. The Sky, quite literally, will be the limit – and clubs like Leeds are equipped to derive the maximum benefit.

Leeds United, after so long in the doldrums, must at the very least be competitive next season. We have to be involved, and at the right end of the league. Fan apathy and in-fighting are already dominant features of a once fiercely United support; these are symptoms of terminal decay. No matter how big the football giant, no matter how glorious the golden history, no club can survive as a force in the game with the sort of inertia Leeds have settled for over the past few seasons. So it’s imperative that United make the kind of policy decision they took under Leslie Silver‘s stewardship 27 years ago in the summer of 1989. Manager Howard Wilkinson laid it on the line as to what was needed – and the board under Silver, to their eternal credit, drew a deep collective breath and went for it, in a big way. But they were also prepared to put their trust in their manager, and stick with him, deferring to the professional football man in matters relating to football and footballers. The rewards Leeds reaped from this enlightened and far-sighted policy are now a matter of history and of treasured memories for so many of us who go back that far.

Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything calls upon Leeds United to make the necessary investment (net investment, not merely the partial reinvestment of proceeds accruing from the sale of youth policy diamonds). That will provide the tools to at least tackle the job. But, before a penny is spent, the club has to commit itself to a division of responsibility between football and company matters; they have to appoint and stick with a skillful CEO to lessen the damaging public impact of more maverick forces within the club; above all they have to commit to a manager, or head coach, or whatever label you might wish to stick on the guy – and they have to trust and put their faith in him. He must not be sniped at, he must not be publicly undermined, he must not have his hands tied in matters of player recruitment, team selection or any other area that is properly the province of a football manager in this country.

It will also be vital for the infrastructure of the club to be overhauled and restored to a “fit for purpose” status. Horror stories are emerging from the Industrial Tribunal currently proceeding, which is looking into the circumstances surrounding the departure from the club of Lucy Ward. Wherever your sympathies might reside in that matter, some of the details emerging must be seen as deeply, deeply worrying. Sickness among junior players and staff following the sacking of club cleaners. The training complex consequently shut down for deep cleaning, sundry other staff including security staff dismissed, their functions shared out among other employees whose own responsibilities already fully occupied them. If even half of this is true, it all points to the need for a broken club to be mended, and pronto.

There’s so little time and opportunity in the world of professional football to do anything other than try like crazy to keep going, keep fighting, keep your head above the water. Leeds United has been failing in these respects for far too long, and it’s been tragic to behold for anyone who has the club at heart – anyone who truly loves everything about Elland Road and those white shirts. It’s heartbreaking, really – and the pain is compounded by the amount of wrangling among people of different views regarding some aspects of the club – though they all love Leeds United. That in-fighting in itself is a bad sign, a symptom of the sickness at the heart of the club. And it’s for the club now to sort itself out, to put itself in a position where it can once more be proud and competitive. And this has to be done now, while there is still time.

Because, however much and deeply thousands upon thousands of people undoubtedly care about United – another season or two like this one, and there may not be much left to care about.

Some Encouragement in Defeat at Burnley for Leeds United   –   by Rob Atkinson

Burnley v Leeds

When Leeds United‘s defence stood politely aside to allow Burnley’s Scott Arfield to score in the first minute of Saturday’s early Championship encounter at Turf Moor, it looked like a long lunchtime ahead for long-suffering Whites fans. And, ultimately, a defeat is a defeat – even by that solitary goal. It’s clearly never welcome. But the way this game panned out carried more than a little encouragement for Steve Evans‘ troops, and for that loyal travelling army. Credit too, to Steve Evans, much maligned by a section of the Leeds support and in the most ignorant and offensive manner. Evans has retained his dignity in the face of this, and he was there in the dugout – despite a family bereavement – as enthusiastic in the cause as ever.

The fact is that the dread prospect of a couple of hours watching Silvestri pick Burnley goals out of his net never actually transpired. Over the piece, as Leeds grew into the game instead of reeling from that early shock, it was United who carried the greater threat. They had more of the possession, found better spaces, forced more corners and generally bossed proceedings – save for that annoying little habit of failing throughout to trouble the scorers.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. The only detail anyone’s ever really bothered about at the end of a football match, is that telltale scoreline to indicate who got the points. Burnley added three of those valuable items to their league total as they consolidated their position at the top of the league. But almost every other aspect of this match could easily have had you fooled as to which of these teams is sitting proudly astride the Championship.

The tragedy for Leeds on the day was their lack of a decisive finish to so much good work. On many another occasion, Chris Wood – still rusty after a long injury absence – would have had at least two goals to help rehabilitate his season. Looking at the plus side, he was at least actually there to miss the chances, an important part of any striker’s CV. Less positively, he certainly should have snapped them both up, and he will know he has no excuses. There are reasons though – form, confidence, match sharpness. In time, this burly young striker will hit a real hot streak. Will that be in a Leeds United shirt, though? Only time and perhaps the attitude of the less patient Leeds fans will help decide that.

On this occasion, and in marked contrast to many recent performances, I feel that Evans has much to take from the game. Sadly, that doesn’t include any points, despite the fact that United deserved something from a match they dominated for long spells. But, at this stage of our promised “beautiful” season, the ugly truth is that points are not all that relevant. The threat of relegation is almost gone, and any fanciful ideas of play-off chances have long since been laughed out of court. It’s evidence that Leeds can perform as a team that matters now – and there was plenty of that at Turf Moor.

The sooner yet another bleakly disappointing season is over, with United safe for another year, the better. Then, it’ll just be a matter of waiting for the positive spin to start emerging from Elland Road, with “We’re looking to get our business done early” the ante post favourite. For the time being, let’s be grateful for the extremely small mercy of a decent performance, albeit in defeat. 

For Leeds United fans, in these bleak and troubled times, that’s about as good as it gets. 

Leicester City Are on the Brink of Doing a Leeds… In a Good Way   –   by Rob Atkinson

 

The Last Champions


The Premier League season, which has been simmering away for the past eight months or so, is now coming nicely to the boil – and it looks set fair to produce quite the most appetising and satisfying feast of the Murdoch era so far. Not for over twenty years have we seen such unlikely and thrilling Title winners as Leicester City would be. Back in 1995, Blackburn narrowly won the crown of Champions, just pipping Manchester United. But they did it by out-spending the big spenders – and it was their third year back in the big time. Leicester are threatening to be top dogs on a budget – and in only their second season at the top table.

Many pundits are going back years before Blackburn’s success in an effort to find a precedent for what the Foxes seem likely to achieve in this momentous campaign. As far back as 1978, the Nottingham Forest of Clough and Taylor won the old Division One title in their first season after promotion. Forest took the league by storm, with a thrilling brand of football based on neat passing, hard work, collective responsibility and a pulsating team ethic. The parallels with this Leicester side are easily drawn – but again the timescale was different for Forest, as was the whole vista of English football compared to the moneybags Premier League of today.

The closest resemblance to the scenario now panning out for Leicester was the very last Football League Championship campaign in 1991/92, when Leeds United took the title in their second season after promotion, precisely the situation that Claudio Ranieri’s men are now attempting to bring to fruition. Leeds had gained promotion in 1990, and had finished a respectable 4th in their first elite season. Leicester, on the other hand, struggled badly first season up, and were bottom of the Premier League exactly a year ago. But they performed spectacularly to avoid the drop, and they have carried that form over into what appears more and more likely to be their debut season as English Champions.

The similarities between Leeds of 1992 and the modern day Leicester are persuasive. Leeds relied on a fast-paced approach, closing down the opposition to win the ball back quickly, creating mayhem with a strong and talented midfield and reaping the rewards of some lethal strikers up front. Most of Leeds’ strength 24 years ago was in their midfield, where Strachan, MacAllister, Batty and Speed were a potent engine room. In Leicester’s case, Vardy up front has been a revelation, and not only for his goals. This is a player who has shone in Leicester’s hard-working team plan, running the channels tirelessly, never giving defenders any peace, always pulling them around and disrupting many a rearguard for the benefit of his team-mates – and to show off his own clinical finishing.

Both Leeds and Leicester were unfancied for title success (Leicester were 5000-1 against at the start of this season) – both faced main rivals of historical pedigree who had yet failed to win the top prize for far too long. In Leicester’s case, they are looking to deny Spurs, a club with no titles to its name since 1961, the same year Don Revie began his masterful process of creating a Super Leeds machine. Spurs have won a few cups since then, but have never threatened to top the poll. Now, just as they seem better equipped than for decades past to do just that, they could be fated to fail again, as a nerveless Leicester side simply keep on grinding out the results that are inching them towards the ultimate success. Leeds performed similarly in 1992, appearing destined to lose out to a Man U side looking for their first title in 25 years. But Leeds hung in there, waited for the weaknesses of their rivals to show – and then mercilessly exploited the situation to emerge winners by four clear points.

As a Leeds United fan with vivid memories of that last old-style title campaign, I can easily understand the feelings of all connected to Leicester City right now. I remember turning up for games towards the sharp end of that season with nerves stretched taut, utterly unable to enjoy myself until the points were won. And I remember being glued to the radio, waiting and hoping for news of a slip-up for the boys in red. It was exhausting, exhilarating, devastating and miserable by turns; for every upturn on that roller-coaster of a run-in, there was a downturn that had you tearing your hair out. When I watch the Leicester games now, all of them under the microscopic gaze of the Sky cameras, I see the close up shots of fans suffering those same agonies and exulting just as we did when things go well. The animated faces are the faces I remember from almost a quarter of a century ago; the despair is the same, as is the delight.

Whether the outcome will be the same remains in the lap of the Gods – or, at least, the Spurs. But I wish Leicester well, as they try to finish off the job I can so well remember my heroes in White doing all those years back. It would be wonderful for the game if Leicester could do it – just as I understandably feel it was brilliant for English football that Leeds United were the last old-style champions. Not many agreed with me back then; we celebrated riotously, but in a vacuum of indifference and resentment. Then again, Leeds never were everybody’s cup of tea. And that’s one major difference with Leicester. The whole country outside of North London is rooting for them to secure the first League title in their 132-year history.

Doing a Leeds” has negative connotations, more to do with a precipitous fall from grace and financial collapse than any sporting success. So, if Leicester can close out this season as Champions, perhaps we can rightly say that they’ve “done a Leeds” in a good way – as no club has really managed since those dear, daft days of the early nineties. If anything, Leicester’s achievement would be even greater, a marvellous, unprecedented thumbing of a poor man’s nose at all the sleek moneybags types they’ve left struggling in their wake.

All the very best to the Foxes, who could conceivably find themselves a whopping ten points clear with only 5 games to play after this weekend. We’ll look forward to raising a celebratory glass to you, when you can finally call yourselves Champions.

Leeds Utd Players Take Note: April 5th is NOT Just Any Day – By Rob Atkinson

Leeds Fans

We Are Leeds, We Neither Forgive Nor Forget

There have been many famous rallying speeches over the whole history of combat, whether it be in the theatre of war or merely a matter of winning a game of football. We can all name the famous motivators in each sphere: Elizabeth I or Henry V, Admiral Lord Nelson or Winston Churchill, each of whom fired up their troops to give their all in battle for England. Sir Alf Ramsey did the same for the Three Lions heroes of 1966 and of course our own Don Revie was unrivalled as he created a team who would run through walls for him, inspired by the steely cry of “Keep Fighting”.

But sometimes, tub-thumping speeches should not be necessary – the occasion speaks for itself and demands pride, passion and commitment more than any mere words could possibly do. The Leeds United players who take the field against QPR tonight, 5th April, should be fully aware that today is a date when nothing less than every last drop of blood, sweat and tears will suffice. The United army will demand that – and more – as will those glued to their radios at home. And rightly so.

Chris and Kev - RIP

Chris and Kev – RIP

For April the 5th is a date carved painfully into the hearts of Leeds fans everywhere. On that fateful day 16 years ago, we lost two of our own as Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight were cruelly, foully murdered by savage, uncivilised scum in Taksim Square, Istanbul. This evening’s match is therefore not about League points or position, it’s not even about the farcical running of the club or the inept administration of an incompetent and bumbling Football League. It’s about pride, passion, respect and commemoration – and those four qualities need to burn white-hot within the very being of each man wearing that big Leeds badge over his heart at Elland Road.

If there are any Leeds players unaware of the significance of this occasion – well, shame on them.  And shame on the staff at the club who should be making sure that their charges are at least on nodding acquaintance with a reality beyond their own pay packets.  It’s not been easy to admire many of the Leeds players lately; with a few notable exceptions, they’ve played in a distracted fashion and displayed a distinctly chicken-hearted attitude to the business of playing for the shirt and getting results.  They should be left in no doubt at all that such frailties will not be tolerated tonight – not on April the 5th.  For this match, they should imitate the action of a tiger, as Henry the Fifth put it.  They should stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood – and get stuck in, just as if they really did have the hearts of lions.

Nothing less will do, it’s the very least they owe the Leeds supporters everywhere.  If they don’t know this, then it should be made abundantly clear to them prior to kick off.  They should run out there onto that pitch with no thoughts of money or other distractions: they should emerge onto the field of combat ready and willing to give their all for the Leeds United fans, and especially for the memory of those two lads who never came home.  This should be an occasion for the restoration of pride, for remembering that they have the honour to represent the greatest club in the world, in front of the greatest fans in the Universe.  Defeat is permissible; a defeatist attitude and a failure to step up to the mark is not. Not on April the 5th.

Perhaps the match against Rangers can be a starting point for the Leeds United team, the first steps on the long climb back to respectability.   It really needs to be – there is simply no more appropriate date for the launching of a fight-back, even though this season is now meaningless – apart from the still lingering threat of relegation.  If the Leeds lads can get out there and fight tonight – show that they care, battle for the cause, demonstrate some respect for the fans and those we’ve lost – then maybe they can start to recoup some of the respect they’ve undoubtedly squandered over the past few months.  It’s to be hoped so, because you get nowhere in any professional sport without earning respect.

The April 5th anniversary of the shocking events in Istanbul really means something to the Leeds support.  More than any other date, it’s when we remember and pay our respects – and the players should participate fully in this.  It’s part of deserving to wear the shirt and the badge.  Fans of other clubs love to show their disrespect, they love to wear the shirt of that awful Turkish club whilst grinning and gloating.  Millwall fans, Man U fans – scum like that.  April the 5th is when we rise above it all, in dignity and pride.  The players need to join in with that, too.

Do it tonight, lads – get out there and fight, give everything.  Do it for Chris and Kev, do it for all the rest of us who remember them sixteen years on.  Do it for the shirt, do it for the badge.  Make us proud of you again, on this day above all others.  Then, perhaps, we can go Marching On Together towards a better future, whatever the next few days, weeks and months might bring.  All it takes to start fighting back is that pride, passion and respect. That’s how we commemorate those who died, and that’s how we’ll forge the togetherness we need to restore this great club to where it belongs.  Let’s start that process of fighting back and climbing upwards, on this sad and solemn anniversary, at Elland Road this evening – let’s show them what we’re made of.  If we have enough tigers and lionhearts on the park, Queens Park Rangers will at least know they’ve been in a game – which is the very minimum requirement for any true warriors of Elland Road.

After all: “We’re Leeds – and we’re proud of it”.

RIP Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight, taken far too soon. April 5th, 2000

Why Would ANY True Leeds Fan Trust In a Man Like Cellino? – by Rob Atkinson

MASSIMO-CELLINO

il Loco himself

Possibly the most startling thing so far about the reign of Massimo Cellino at Leeds United, is that he enjoys the continued faith and support of a vociferous minority of United fans who still insist that the Italian has “saved” the club. That this misguided loyalty is based almost entirely on smoke and mirrors is clear enough to the rest of us, and indeed we are inclined to marvel at the hopeless naivety of a group which seems willing – indeed, remorselessly determined – to overlook so much on the debit side of il Duce‘s ledger. It is for this reason that the majority of Leeds fans, those eager to see Cellino go, are wont to refer to the minority inexplicably keen to keep him in charge as “Flat Earthers“.

A few salient facts and quotes should be enough to justify the question in the headline of this piece: why would any true United fan want to keep this mendacious chancer in the owner’s chair? For instance, there’s this glowing endorsement of then Head Coach Neil Redfearn on May 7th last year: “I am in love with Neil and I don’t want to talk to anyone else about the job. I have always believed in him and I gave him his big chance”. Ten days on, and Cellino’s ardour had cooled dramatically: “Neil Redfearn does the (Leeds fans’) salute. He challenged me. If you are good I can accept the challenge. But not if you are a bad coach. He has to respect the chairman. He has to respect the club. He’s like a baby. He’s been badly advised and used by someone. He is not a bad person but he has a weak personality”.

Dear me. Where to start? For one thing, any true Leeds fan would confirm that doing the Leeds Salute is perhaps the best single way of showing respect for the club. As for respect for the chairman, or President, or Captain on the Bridge, or whatever he chooses to call himself on any given day – well, that has to be earned. And Cellino did precious little in the course of that outburst, or at any other time in his tenure, to earn anyone’s respect – let alone that of a grizzled old football pro like Redfearn. To refer to a current employee as a baby, and a weak personality, shows Cellino in the worst possible light and certainly does not merit respect. Not from the most deluded fan. And to view the Leeds salute as a challenge to himself personally serves to expose the egocentric, narcissistic personality of the Italian. It’s all about Massimo, you see. Woe betide any mere employee who shall presume to usurp his imagined place in the fans’ affections. Houston – the Ego has landed.

In between those two wildly varying quotes from Cellino, in that ten day gap during which he fell out of love with Redfearn (and Neil went from being believed in to being a baby with a weak personality) il Duce had indulged in a 70 minute car-crash of a press conference to mark the return to Elland Road of newly-appointed Executive Director Adam Pearson. That cringe-fest of a press event also featured the mockery of Redfearn’s Leeds Salute and, additionally, of its use by United fans. Normally, any such lack of respect for such an institution of the club as our trademark salute would be enough to have the offender marked for severe disapproval and censure by a constituency of at least 20,000. Given such alarmingly unbalanced and erratic behaviour, pockmarked with instances of what amount to virtual treason – how the hell does Cellino retain any support at all? Is it merely pigheaded stubbornness – or has it descended to outright stupidity?

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the disaster which has been Cellino’s tenure at the club is the following list. It is a list of senior staff who have been fired by the owner, or who have otherwise departed during what is still a fairly short reign. But it’s not a short list:

Brian McDermott, Nigel Gibbs, Richard Naylor, Leigh Bromby, Andy Leaning, Paul Dews, Benito Carbone, Graham Bean, David Hockaday, Junior Lewis, Darko Milanic, Novika Nikcevic, Matt Child, Steve Thompson, Nicola Salerno, Neil Redfearn, Steve Holmes, Steve Head, Martyn Glover, Lucy Ward, Matt Peers, Adam Pearson, Uwe Rosler, Julian Darby, Rob Kelly, Paul Hart.

Some of those names will be unlamented by many Leeds fans. Others – Steve Thompson, Adam Pearson and recent departure Paul Hart, to name but three – represent a real loss and a further stage in the downward spiral of team performance. But the sheer number of departures surely has to reflect on the wisdom and judgement of the man at the top. That would apply to any organisation of this size and profile. There is also the question of the cumulative cost to the club of severance, compensation, gagging orders, etc. etc. It’s a damning litany of failure and – in the opinion of Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything – it damns Cellino far more effectively than could any of the imaginary demons that seem to haunt this strange and superstitious man.

As I mentioned earlier, the one thing that characterises the pro-Cellino minority – apart from their apparent lack of any judgement, or pride in what Leeds United used to stand for – is the vocal and outspoken tone of their dogged support for their deeply flawed “hero”. I’ve seen evidence of this whenever I’ve written an article that is seen to be critical of the owner. And yet I would welcome their input on this latest piece as I am genuinely, profoundly puzzled as to why – why?? – and how they feel able to retain faith in a man capable of the kind of crazy, schizo behaviour referred to above. And, remember, that was no exhaustive list of the man’s nuttiness. There has been much, much more, all of it well documented. So tell me, guys – why?

It would be interesting and instructive to hear some points of view, particularly as this whole “praise, damn, knife in the back then sack” cycle appears to be on the point of repeating itself for a second time since the demise of Redfearn. Don’t just rant on Facebook – stand up and be counted. But – keep it clean and decent, though. Please. It’d make a pleasant change, after so much vicious abuse in the past, to hear from a Flat Earther who doesn’t actually sound like one.