Some unlikely candidates have put themselves forward as “rivals” to Leeds United over the last decade and a half, as Yorkshire’s finest have languished in the middle two tiers of English football’s four division structure. Some, such as Barnsley and Huddersfield, have had few pretensions to be compared size or history wise with United, but feel a tribal enmity based on geographical proximity, which is understandable enough. The same might be said of the two Sheffield clubs, or even Bradford City.
All these local clubs, together with the likes of Reading, Millwall, Derby etc etc have sought to exploit the reduced circumstances of Leeds for as long as their top flight exile lasted, to suggest that genuine two-way rivalries were in place. That bubble of delusion popped with United’s overdue elevation to the Premier League, and the realisation that the traditional enmities would now be cordially resumed. In the hearts and minds of Leeds fans, it was always about the likes of man utd and Chelski, with those clubs reciprocating the extreme dislike, even during our long absence from actual competitive involvement.
But, even in the Premier League, there are lesser clubs who clearly yearn to carry the mantle of “Leeds United’s rivals”, however ridiculous such a claim seems in the absence of any reciprocal antipathy, or indeed any real interest on the part of the Leeds fan base. Still, that hasn’t stopped certain clubs from fondly imagining there’s a rivalry there, and one in particular is extremely reluctant to give up on even such an outlandish notion.
For Brighton and Hove Albion – not so much the club itself, more their fans and adherent local press – the time since the end of last season seems to have been a prolonged and unaccustomed spell in the spotlight, due entirely to Leeds United’s pursuit of Ben White, who spent a gloriously successful Championship campaign on loan at Elland Road and was now wanted by United on a permanent basis. The move never happened, despite repeated efforts on the part of Leeds, and despite the player himself being widely regarded as wanting a return to West Yorkshire. In the end, Brighton stood firm, and Leeds, after making three offers and having them all turned down, reluctantly looked elsewhere and signed a German international for around half what they’d been willing to pay for White, who lacks any experience at all of top flight football, let alone the international arena. So Brighton kept their player, Leeds got a more than adequate replacement in Robin Koch, and Ben himself, at long last, got a contract acceptable to him, given the value placed upon him by his parent club. Case closed, so you’d have thought.
But no. The Brighton support and the local press for the region were not willing to give up so much delicious attention, and set about trying to force an unlikely rivalry with a club and support base hundreds of miles to the north, both of which habitually looked west to the red quarter of Manchester for its chief object of dislike and derision.
For Brighton, the Ben White tranfer saga evidently represented their biggest day in the sun since a Cup Final appearance (coinciding with relegation) 37 years ago. Looking further back, their only other real mark on history was a Charity Shield triumph sometime prior to the Great War of 1914-18, so it’s reasonably understandable that their fans should wish to prolong any spell in the public eye. But the ridiculousness of their efforts to talk up a “rivalry” is to be found in the fact that such efforts persisted even after Leeds ended their interest in Ben White, with the local press tagging Leeds in any tweets relating to his eventual new contract, and the Brighton fans on Twitter eagerly attempting to troll bemused Leeds United fans, who remained preoccupied with more traditional rivals and only thought of Brighton when Quadrophenia was on the telly.
It was all most unedifying, and it’s a stark warning that we can’t expect much more by way of dignity and restraint in the Premier League than we ever found at lower levels. I got drawn into the slanging match myself at various points before it became clear that, despite his wishes in the matter (confirmed today by his agent), Ben White would not be sold to Leeds at any price. At that point, I stopped taking the mick about Bielsaball versus Potterball, and moved onto more pressing matters – such as how the EFL would survive without Leeds United. But the Brighton fans persisted, becoming more evidently needy and utterly ridiculous with each passing day. Abandoning any sense of irony or perspective, they’re vying with each other to label United a small club, heading straight back down, which is insolence if you like, and pretty foolhardy stuff to boot. But the relentless tagging of LUFC by the Brighton tweeters and the Sussex Bugle, or whatever it’s called, continues unabated. This is a club unused to such attention, and clearly its supporters are desperate to prolong the experience as far and as long as possible.
The whole thing reflects pretty poorly on the Brighton support, certainly of the online variety, which has been encouraged in its collective acts of self-ridicule by a local press clearly cottoning onto the fact that tagging Leeds in any published piece will increase the number of hits exponentially. Again, I’ll exclude the club itself from those remarks, due to their determination in resisting offers from a bigger club, which you have to applaud. They also showcased Ben White in a video allowing him to express his appreciation of his time at Leeds, and to thank the fans for the support and adulation he received here. That was classy stuff, and there was no real need for Brighton to do it, so fair play.
Perhaps – just perhaps – Brighton & Hove Albion still remember that Leeds United helped save them financially when they were enduring hard times, by signing goalkeeper Mark Beeney for a significant sum, which went a long way towards alleviating a threatening situation at the time. That’s a factor that the local press down there, and the eager-beaver online fans might do well to take into account before bringing down even more ridicule upon themselves. However recent Leeds United’s elevation to the top level, it’s an undeniable fact that the Elland Road outfit is by far and away a bigger club than Brighton could ever dream of being, with a far more illustrious history, a fan base that spans the globe and (let’s face it) a much better coach and the makings of a squad that will compare well even with such an – ahem – established Premier League force as Brighton.
The moral of this tale is probably: choose your rivals well, and don’t punch above your weight – something the over-enthusiastic Brighton fans have flouted, thereby making themselves look several shades of daft. There’s a perfectly good south coast rival in Southampton, not an incongruously bigger beast as Leeds are, and therefore much less likely to reflect poorly on and embarrass the Brighton club. From here on in, it’s to be hoped that the Seagulls, fans and hacks alike, will conduct themselves in a more seemly and less cringeworthy manner – but I suppose we’d better not hold our breath.
Marching On Together.