Category Archives: Sport

Glittering Success and Glory Are So Close for Leeds United   –   by Rob Atkinson

Leeds, monopolising the silverware

Leeds United are not that far at all from a team that carries all before it, dominating the domestic scene with a clean sweep of sparkly honours, and looking set fair to succeed on the world stage. How good does that sound?

Sadly for most Whites fans, that glory and success, so close at hand that we can absolutely smell the silver polish, is represented by a different team in a rival sport, just a few miles up the road in leafy Headingley. Super League Champions, League Leaders and back-to-back Challenge Cup Holders Leeds Rhinos are the undoubted Kings of Rugby League, monopolising the cups, trophies and other baubles for both team and individuals. They have brought a sense of pride to the city of Leeds in a way that United used to do once upon a time, long ago – a way that the hapless and misdirected Whites can only dream of now.

That’s a bitter pill for followers of the round ball game in Yorkshire‘s biggest and best city. It’s a pill only slightly sweetened for those who, as I do, happen to follow Leeds in both sports. For those die-hard United fans who have no love for what they might term egg-chasers, it’s an unwelcome reminder that, quite frankly, we’re no longer top dogs on our own patch. And there’s very real danger inherent in that unpalatable fact.

The problem for Leeds United is that, in a proud city where there is fierce rivalry between devotees of competing sports, continued failure and monotonous mediocrity are simply not sustainable. Watching top level professional sport is an expensive business at the best of times – and the current times are patently not the best. With continued failure and disappointment, there is no feelgood factor to lessen the sting of high ticket prices. There’s no warm glow of value for money – and that’s a matter of real concern to any citizen of the People’s Republic of Yorkshire, where traditionally pockets are long and arms are short. There is a much-told tale that copper wire was originally discovered by two Tykes fighting over a penny. Apocryphal as that may be, there can be no doubt that denizens of the Broad Acres are careful with their brass, and will sniff out value for that commodity with a bloodhound’s zeal. Like it or not, there’s precious little value in Leeds United these days. 

If you’re a youngish person of limited income but some breadth of mind – someone whose memories don’t stretch back as far as real success for Leeds United – what are you going to do? Where will you go, if you fancy spending some of your hard-gained cash on a match-day ticket? The lure of Headingley and the rampant, success-sated Rhinos must surely be hard to resist. As for the football down at Elland Road – well, would you? With cash in short supply? It’s asking a lot, especially of youngsters who simply cannot know what a rocking stadium behind a successful United side is really like. 

Some people attempt to defend football’s ludicrous prices, citing pricey theatre tickets and the like. But you don’t set out to watch Swan Lake and end up coming home depressed on a cold, wet night, after watching a bunch of overpaid, under-motivated failures slide to yet another drab, morale-sapping defeat. Ultimately, in the quest for the Holy Grail of value for money, people will tend to vote with their feet – and that tendency will increase with each additional year of disappointment, disillusion and broken promises. Add into this mix of bleak depression a glittering counter-attraction just across the city – and the clear and present danger to a complacent and decadent football club is all too easy to see. 

The day might not be far off now when the Leeds Rhinos, masters of a vibrantly exciting, brutally committed, compelling spectacle of a sport, could well be not only Rugby League’s class act, but the top of the bill in their own city, on merit, with only feeble opposition from a poverty-stricken and dystopian LS11. And, Rhinos admirer though I gladly am, that’s a day whose dawn I really do not wish to see. 

Advertisements

Three Top, TOP Leeds United Away Trips – by Rob Atkinson

We all have our favourite LUFC memories, and many will relate to games away from LS11.  Here, in reverse order, are my three favourite road trips following The Whites.

3. Sheffield Wednesday 1, Leeds United 6 12.1.1992

Image

Sergeant Wilko

This was Sergeant Wilko’s first return to Wednesday since he had quit Hillsborough to become Leeds boss in 1988.  It would also be Lee Chapman’s last game before his season-threatening FA Cup injury, which resulted in the drafting in of one Eric Cantona – with all the long term consequences that would entail.  But Chappy was destined to be sidelined only temporarily, and he went out in the most emphatic style.

There was a crowd of 32228 at Hillsborough, the usual vociferous contingent of travelling Leeds fans rivalling the home crowd for noise from the outset, and completely drowning them as the game went on.  Leeds United were weakened, so it seemed, by the absence of the injured Gordon Strachan and suspended David Batty, half of their legendary midfield Fantastic Four.  Any side, surely, would miss performers of such calibre.  Leeds, though, seemed determined to make light of the problem, and tore into their hosts from the start.  Full-back Tony Dorigo made an early darting run, cutting in from the left and making good progress down the centre of the pitch, before unleashing a right-foot thunderbolt that Wednesday ‘keeper Chris Woods had to tip over.  From the resulting Gary MacAllister corner, Chris Fairclough rose to head downwards, and found Chapman in splendid isolation four yards out; his finish swift and deadly for 1-0.

For a local derby, the contest had been decidedly one-way traffic – Chapman was to send two towering headers just wide before Carl Shutt had a scuffed shot smothered by Woods in the home goal.  Then, a true champagne moment as Mel Sterland fed the ball to Chapman on the right.  In a completely untypical burst of pace and control, Chappy surged between two hapless Wednesday defenders, raced into the area, and unleashed a shot that beat Woods completely, just clipping the frame of the goal to rapturous applause from the Leeds fans at the Leppings Lane End.  I remember thinking at the time that anything was possible now, if Lee Chapman could do something so utterly out of character.  And so it proved as, from a free kick awarded just right of centre some ten yards outside the box, Dorigo stepped up to absolutely hammer a left foot drive past the helpless Woods.  Cue mayhem and cavortings as the Leeds hordes behind the goal, celebrated as clean a strike as you could ever wish to see, the ball a blur as it arrowed into the far corner with deadly precision and power.

At 2-0 down, the home side were making increasingly desperate attempts to gain some sort of foothold in the match.  This desperation was adequately demonstrated when, from a harmless-looking ball into the Leeds area, Wednesday striker Gordon Watson ran in front of Chris Whyte, continued on for another step or two, and then hurled himself into the air, landing in agonised paroxysms of simulation between a bemused Whyte and Leeds ‘keeper John Lukic.  Such obvious fraud and villainy could have only one outcome, and the stadium held its collective breath for sentence to be passed on the miscreant.  Instead – amazingly – referee Philip Don pointed to the spot.  Whether none of the officials had seen the extent of Watson’s ham-acting, or whether they were moved by sympathy for the mauling Wednesday were taking from a rampant Leeds, it’s impossible to tell.  The outcome was the same either way.  Ex-Leeds hero John Sheridan stepped up, saw his penalty brilliantly saved as Lukic tipped it against his right-hand post, and then gleefully belted home the rebound to give Wednesday a massively unmerited lifeline.

This act of base and scurvy treachery required nothing less than a riposte of the utmost nobility and beauty, so we said to ourselves, though probably in more Anglo-Saxon terms.  And, happily, that’s just what came to pass.  Only six minutes after the home side’s ridiculous blagging of a comically unfair route back into the game, Leeds took effortless control again with a goal sublime in both its conception and execution.  Lukic bowled the ball out to Dorigo on the left flank; he sent it first time down the line to Gary Speed, who took one steadying touch before sending a beautiful flighted cross into the Wednesday area.  And there, inevitably, was Chapman, horizontal in mid-air, neck cocked to hammer the ball unanswerably past Woods, the perfect counterpunch to Watson’s knavish low blow.  It was a gorgeous goal, sweeping the length of the left side, taking the entire home team right out of the game, and re-establishing the two goal margin which was the least Leeds United deserved at half-time.

The second half that ensued was simply a story of how a blood-and-thunder Yorkshire derby turned into a stroll in the park for Leeds United.  It seemed as if all the life had been sucked out of the home team – a Wednesday side who, let’s not forget, were unbeaten at home since the opening day of the season, and who would go on to finish third in the table.  So they were no mugs, but Leeds United were absolutely irresistible on the day, and would have hammered far better teams than the hapless, bewildered Owls.

It’s possible that Wednesday were simply embarrassed about that cringe-worthy penalty, possibly they were dog-tired, having been run ragged since the start.  Whatever the case, their heads dropped steadily further and further as the game progressed, and they offered little resistance as Leeds proceeded to throttle the life out of them.  Chapman completed his hat-trick five minutes after the hour, heading in after Speed had struck the bar from a corner.  Poor Speedo was looking the other way, bemoaning his bad luck when the ball hit the back of the net after all, turning his frustration to joy.  Then, perennial bit-part player Mike Whitlow ventured forward, just because he could, and rose unchallenged to meet Rod Wallace’s right-wing cross and head easily over a stranded Woods.  It was left to little Wallace to administer the coup de grâce, striding clear after a shimmering exchange of passes in midfield to dink the ball over the advancing ‘keeper, and put the suffering home side finally out of their misery.  A highly satisfactory awayday slaughter of the Wendies.

2. AC Milan 1, Leeds United 1 8.11.2000

Dom Matteo....Scored A Very Good Goal....In The San Siro...

Dom Matteo….Scored A Very Good Goal….In The San Siro…

This match is so famous that I barely need to recount the action kick by kick.  The Leeds fans at one end of the San Siro were in fully, throaty voice for most of the proceedings, drawing incredulous glances from the attendant Carabinieri who were in full-on riot gear but friendly enough, muttering to each other about lunatic English tifosi (hooligans.)  The first half was a decent contest – Milan were through already, but not disposed to give Leeds an easy ride – especially after paranoid noises emanating from Barcelona, who – nervous about their own prospects – had done their best to warn Milan off taking it easy against Leeds.  So Milan pressed in front of a crowd of 52289, and their winger Serginho was causing Gary Kelly plenty of problems.  In the 26th minute, a slightly soft penalty was awarded to Milan at our end of the stadium, and 6000 Leeds fans held their collective breath as Andriy Shevchenko took careful aim only to rap Robinson’s right-hand post, the ball bouncing away to safety as the masses behind our goal celebrated as if we’d actually scored.  And then, miraculously, as the first half ebbed away, we did score.  A Lee Bowyer corner from the right found Matteo rising majestically at the near post to meet the ball with a punchy header which soared high into the net.  Cue utter pandemonium at the Leeds end as all the tension, passion and belief exploded in one almighty roar which almost lifted the hi-tec roof off the famous stadium.

The party went on throughout half-time and into the second half, drawing more bemused glances from the Italian police; there was only a brief hiatus in the 67th minute when the superb Serginho deservedly equalised, but then it was mounting fan fever again all the way to the final whistle and beyond as Leeds held out to qualify for an equally difficult second phase of the competition.  The scenes after the game are at least as famous as the events of the ninety minutes; the team coming back out onto the pitch in response to the demands of the faithful who were held back in the interests of crowd safety.  What followed was described by respected football commentators (as well as Alan Green) as the best example of team/fan bonding they’d ever seen.  Fans and players – even a certain Chairman – swapped chants and songs in a spontaneous celebration of a joyous night.  Even the uncertain musical efforts of Lee Bowyer were greeted by a blast of friendly derision.  It was a unique experience, and the Latin cops were clearly by now utterly convinced that these English people were absolutely barking mad.  As football nights go, you’d have to travel a long way to find one more worthy of memory – only a trophy could have improved it, but the spectacle of the game and its aftermath is one I have seen imitated but never repeated.

1. Sheffield United 2, Leeds United 3 – 26.4.1992

Jon Newsome, Superstar

Jon Newsome, Superstar

If you’re a Leeds supporter, you’ll have seen the goals from this game hundreds, thousands of time.  It plays through now, all these years later, in the Football Highlights studio of my mind; joy for the home side as Alan Cork, gleaming of bald pate, pokes the ball home to give Sheffield the lead.  Then, a midfield tussle in the swirling wind, as Leeds try valiantly to come back.  A late first-half free kick, which Gordon Strachan races to take before the home defence can set themselves, he finds Rod Wallace in the area who tips the ball past home keeper Mel Rees’s attempt to save, defenders scramble to clear, only to hit Gary Speed who bounces the ball back to ricochet off Wallace – into the net.  Pandemonium in the away end.   Level at half time, we’re breathless with drama and the hurly-burly of it all, raucous with United anthems, nervous of what’s yet to come.

The crazy game continues crazily.  A dangerous ball across the Leeds box is retrieved by home defender and future Leeds man John Pemberton, who turns it back towards the goal-line where Lee Chapman sticks out a leg for an own-goal greeted with horrified stupefaction by the Leeds fans behind the goal and we’re level again.  Then enfant terrible Eric Cantona enters the fray, and within a few minutes he is chasing a loose ball into the Sheffield half, with Rod Wallace scampering alongside and home defender Brian Gayle lumbering back in a desperate attempt to clear the danger.  And it’s Gayle, former Man City man, who finally slays Man United.  From my vantage point at the opposite end of the ground I see him get his head to the ball, and the action is suddenly slow motion.  Gayle has headed the ball, poor Mel Rees is stranded far out of his goal, the ball goes over his head in a slow, slow loop, and bounces tantalisingly towards the unguarded net…

Then I’m watching at full speed from the far end as Cantona and Wallace raise their arms in triumph, wheeling away in delight, and even as I wonder what they’re up to I realise that the ball has nestled in the Sheffield United net.  A red mist descends, and I am utterly outside of my skull and beside myself in delirious joy and fevered madness, looking around me, roaring like a demented bull, face congested with blood, eyes bulging; I grab a helpless wee St John’s Ambulance man by his lapels and scream beer and spittle into his terrified face “Get me some oxygeeeennnn!!!  I’m going to have a heart attaaaack!!!”  The mad moment passes, I drop the ashen medic and some measure of sanity returns, but we’re still cavorting and diving all over each other, a seething, sweating mass of Leeds, because we know it’s over, we know that Sheffield are beaten, and we know that Man U don’t have an earthly at Anfield, not a prayer.  We were going to be Champions; on that windiest and gustiest of days, a Gayle from Manchester City has blown the Scum away and decided in an instant the fate of all three Uniteds from Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

And so, of course, it panned out.  Later I watched mesmerised on TV as Liverpool beat a demoralised Man U, Denis Law and Ian St John trying to put a brave face on it, Elton Welsby’s foot bobbing away in thwarted anger as the script turned out just as none of them wanted.  Ian Rush scored his first ever goal against Them, and it was settled late on as Man U concede a second.  “And now the title goes to Leeds without any doubt at all” intoned Brian Moore in the ITV commentary as I sat there with tears of joy streaming down my unashamed face.  Gary Lineker had called into the studio earlier to complain that Rod Wallace’s goal had been offside (it was).  St John and Moore bemoaned that Man U had had no luck at all, and Welsby ground his teeth in the studio as the Man U fans outside hurled abuse at him, heedless of the fact that he shared their bitter disappointment.  All was frustration in the media and the rest of football and Leeds fans everywhere utterly failed to give a toss.  My finest hour as a Leeds fan, and my greatest ever awayday.

-oO0Oo-

Two from the same season, and one abroad that was “only” a draw – but each had a special appeal for me among the many away games I’ve seen.  I could have chosen so many others, going right back to my first ever away game, a 3-1 League Cup win at Bolton in 1977.  Still in the League Cup, there was that 6-0 win over Leicester City at Filbert Street, on a night when Robbie Savage never gave up, but proved that he was even worse than we thought.  How could we have known that he’d be worse yet as a pundit?

The golden memories are so many, I could possibly have managed a top ten quite easily.  I’d love to hear which away games others rank as their best memories.

Warrior Warrington Becomes Latest Jewel in Dominant Leeds’ Glittering Crown   –   by Rob Atkinson

Josh Warrington: MOT to the top

Leeds’ own Josh Warrington: MOT to the top

Having been fortunate enough to witness many examples of sporting excellence in Leeds over the years, I was privileged last weekend, thanks to event sponsors Grosvenor Casinos, to see local Featherweight boxer Josh Warrington provide ample evidence that Yorkshire’s premier city is arguably the sporting capital of the whole nation.

If this may seem to some rather an extravagant claim, then the facts and the statistics will speak for themselves. Leeds as a city has a track record of success, history and reputation unmatched by other less fortunate sporting centres, certainly in terms of the sheer number of mainstream sports where it can boast brand leaders. Yorkshire County Cricket Club, just this week crowned County Champions for a record thirty-third time, is based in Headingley – a part of Leeds also graced by the home of the biggest Rugby League club and that code’s finest team, in the shape of Leeds Rhinos. The Rhinos, already Challenge Cup winners, are seemingly set to sweep the board this season and have been at the forefront of Rugby League for well over a decade.

Meanwhile, across the city at Elland Road, even Leeds United are showing promising signs that they might yet return to something approaching their former, peerless glory. They provided the warm-up to the Rhinos’ Challenge Cup success with a notable win of their own at much-fancied Derby County. This was an encounter embellished by a truly brilliant late winner from new signing Chris Wood, who has hit the ground running for Leeds. The Whites are unbeaten so far this nascent football season, and are being spoken of as dark horses for promotion to the Premier League.

Great times for Leeds, then. No other city, surely, can demonstrate such a high profile across the country’s three major sports – and now, with a boxer in Warrington on the very cusp of world class, it would appear that Leeds will be adding yet another asset to its portfolio of competitive excellence. At the city’s impressive First Direct Arena last Saturday night, Warrington faced the toughest test so far of a highly promising career. It was a test he passed with flying colours as he produced a display of controlled aggression, consummate skill and relentless ferocity to outclass completely a courageous opponent in Australia’s Joel Brunker.

Brunker’s gutsy and determined performance was worthy in itself of admiration, rightly so for a fighter of high reputation who had been beaten previously only once. Brunker hung in there over the full twelve rounds, refusing to fall before a veritable barrage of attacks as Warrington mixed it up and hit the Aussie from all angles. Brunker defended doggedly and landed some telling blows of his own but, as the fight proceeded, it was plain to see that his horizons were shrinking from initial ambition to mere survival in the end. That he stayed on his feet reflected immense credit on a brave but out-classed and well beaten boxer who finished up bloodied, but defiantly unbowed.

The eventual margin was as wide as it could possibly be in the absence of any actual knock-downs. Every judge awarded every round to Warrington, who can look back upon an exceedingly efficient night’s work that promises much as he raises his sights towards world glory. After this comprehensive victory, extending his perfect professional record to 22 fights and 22 wins, Warrington – a keen fan of Leeds United and Leeds Rhinos – was looking ahead to a possible appearance at United’s Elland Road stadium as he aims to make further progress towards a world title shot. At the age of 24, he may well ultimately have the world at his feet.

Josh Warrington has adopted Marching On Together – the anthem of both Leeds United and Leeds Rhinos – as his rallying cry, and the effect on his vociferous support is palpable, certainly at an event like last weekend’s First Direct Arena boxing card. The atmosphere was magnificent, truly electric, the signature song rocking the place along with the massively self-assertive We Are Leeds. There is some keen rivalry between the local followers of football, rugby and even cricket but, in Warrington, there has appeared a unifying figure; a man of great promise who can call on the support of the whole city, so it seems, as he aims for the very highest level of achievement as a proud representative of Leeds who wears his heart on his sleeve and his colours on his back.

As competitive as boxing’s Featherweight division undoubtedly is, crammed with quality and with several durable fighters between the aspirant Leeds lad and his ultimate goal, it’d be foolish surely to bet against Josh Warrington, in his beloved favours of blue, yellow and white, one day wearing a World Title belt. If he does, it will be a matter of immense pride for followers of Leeds sport everywhere – and yet another sign were any needed that here, indeed, is a sporting city without equal.

Is Watching Leeds Rhinos More Fun Than Watching Leeds United These Days? – by Rob Atkinson

Leeds Rhinos: Magical Entertainers and perennial Winners

Leeds Rhinos: Magical Entertainers and perennial Winners

Bear with me now, as we awake to another Leeds United match-day, if I write of the conflict between my feelings for the Whites and a whole other club in a whole different sport. Let me just put this painful dilemma out there.

Whilst I appreciate that by no means all the readers of Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything will be Leeds Rhinos fans, nor yet even Super League followers, nevertheless there will be plenty that are. I happen to have a foot in both football and RL camps, so I feel a certain tug-of-war going on deep inside, where my loyalties live. And, even given my dual affiliation, which goes back many years now, it was still the case not so long back that I’d have considered it to be strictly no-contest between Leeds United and any other sporting interest. But now, I must confess – I’m not so sure any more.

As I said, many of you out there will not be Super League fans. Feel free to be excused, or maybe just chat amongst yourselves. Still others will love Super League, or RL anyway, as much as I do. But perhaps you’re Cas Tigers followers, or Wakefield or – God forbid – Hull FC or even Saints (spit). Again, this isn’t primarily aimed at you, though I’d love to hear your opinion if you can be bothered (and if you can set aside your petty hatred of the Rhinos…!)

But the real target audience here is made up of those, like myself, who follow Leeds in both sports. Do you feel the 13-a-side game exerting an ever greater hold over you? Do you find yourself continually on the edge of your seat when watching the Rhinos – and sometimes on the point of dropping off when Leeds United are playing? Worrying, isn’t it?

The problem – if it really is a problem – may, of course, be wider than just a Leeds thing. There may be Hull FC and Hull City fans who find themselves wondering which sport offers the most. It’s just fairly acute for us double Leeds fans at the moment, because the Rhinos are undoubtedly the team in Super League, whereas poor old United appear to be settling more and more for mediocrity. Even Herr Rösler’s promised “heavy metal football” is coming across so far more as senseless noise, than anything with a real beat. It’s very worrying – and not a little unsettling, too.

The issue I have at the moment is the contrasting way I feel when I’m watching the Rhinos, compared with United. Watching the Whites still gets me wound up; the desire and passion are both still there, but there’s this nagging subtext of frustration a lot of the time – of exasperation at misplaced passes, of annoyance with the tedium of the game as our heroes currently play it. Horrible though it is for me to say so, I’m sometimes actually bored watching Leeds United – and even that’s preferable to the fear and resentment I feel when we’re getting a good drubbing off the likes of Hull or Millwall or even Bradford.

Watching the Rhinos though, can be literally breathtaking, win or lose. There’s such an insistent, throbbing, ebb and flow tempo to the game of Rugby League, and there’s also the awesome realisation of what those lads are putting their bodies through for eighty minutes. Watching Jamie Peacock ploughing forward with three defenders dangling from his frame – or Ryan Hall using his power and strength to surge unstoppably over the line – these have been the sporting moments over the last few years or so that have really got my imagination and passion fired up. It’s difficult to recall too many moments like that watching Leeds United – and, believe me, I truly hate saying that. But really – aren’t there some of you out there who, if you’re honest, feel exactly the same?

I’m not here to wind anybody up. It’s a niggling, worrying issue for me, and I’m genuinely interested in how others feel, whether they agree, or violently disagree. My passion for Leeds United goes back forty years – I’m bound to feel a bit like an errant lover, trying to seem less obviously guilty about his younger mistress. But the truth is that Leeds Rhinos have come to mean a hell of a lot to me as well. Is this wrong? They’re two completely separate sports, after all. So am I being unfaithful to United, or even to the Beautiful Game itself?

I’d love to hear your views, and I’ll try to be gentle and restrained when moderating comments in an area where feelings may understandably run high. But I’m in a real quandary here and it’s actually a bit heart-wrenchingly painful.

Fellow sufferers – and others – it’s over to you.

Stand Up, If You Hate Man United (And Think It Might Be TV’s Fault) – by Rob Atkinson

The Mighty Man U supporting experience

The Mighty Man U supporting experience

On Saturday 8th January 2005, Manchester United played Exeter City in the 3rd round of the F.A. Cup. It was something of a mismatch on paper, but surprisingly a plucky Exeter team held out for a 0-0 draw, and took the holders to a replay. A significant achievement for the minnows, but this game was noteworthy for another reason; to date it remains the last F.A. Cup tie involving Manchester United not to have been shown live on TV.

Even on the face of it, this is a remarkable statistic. Particularly in the earlier rounds, there are many matches from which TV companies can take their pick, and traditionally the perceived likelihood of an upset is a big draw. Given the perennial dominance of Manchester United until quite recently, it’s usually difficult to see much chance of a giant-killing, and the interest in games involving them, you might think, will be mainly for those occasions when they’re drawn against a Chelsea, or a Liverpool, or maybe even a Manchester City or an Arsenal.

Looking at the list of games included in this amazing run of uninterrupted TV spotlight, some of them really do make you wonder what the companies concerned hoped to achieve, with the chances of an embarrassingly one-sided contest surely outweighing by far any prospect of a surprise. It begs the question of whether broadcasters are putting too high a priority on audience over entertainment value. There may be a certain piquant charm in seeing the likes of Burton Albion gazing wide-eyed at the immensity of the Theatre of Hollow Myths, but some of the ties televised have lacked even this saving grace. Middlesbrough, Fulham or Reading at home? Hardly sets the pulse racing, does it?

Ten years on from that neglected Exeter tie, the unprecedented run of unbroken TV coverage shows no sign of ending. Despite a less than challenging tie away to either Accrington Stanley (who are dey??) or Yeovil to kick off their 2015 FA Cup campaign, the Pride of Devon have once again been selected for live coverage, much to the joy of their loyal fans from Milton Keynes to Singapore and back again.

Any hint of complaint about Manchester United will, naturally, bring anguished howls of protest from the direction of London and Devon, as hard-core Reds, some of whom may even have visited Old Trafford, loudly complain about this latest manifestation of “jealousy”. It’s become rather a knee-jerk reaction, but there’s really not a lot of foundation for it. Anyone truly motivated by envy (jealousy means something different, chaps, look it up) has a simple solution at hand – simply jump aboard the bandwagon. The prevalence of the Old Trafford club on our TV screens will certainly garner them increased “support” from those who just want to be identified with such a vulgar example of a club gorging (until lately) on success. It is the more negative effect of blanket coverage that should be worrying, not so much for Manchester United, but for the sport itself in a wider sense.

There is a danger here, after all, that the media have not only created a monster, but that they are actively encouraging that monster to eclipse all their rivals. The basis of any sport must be healthy competition, but there is disquieting evidence that the playing field has not been level for a long time now. It doesn’t take too much digging to unearth some unsettling trends. One study over a number of matches suggested that 88% of all marginal decisions went the way of Manchester United, and of course there was also a distinct lack of penalties awarded against them in league games at Old Trafford over a period of years.

There have also been instances of referees who had displeased former tyrant manager Alex Ferguson mysteriously disappearing for months from their fixtures. In a game of fine margins, as any game is at professional level, evidence that one club enjoys preferential treatment is a matter of concern. Such a trend, given the amount of money flowing into the game, could easily lead that one club into an unhealthy dominance, to the detriment, ultimately, of the spectacle as a whole. Fierce competition is so crucial to any healthy sport, that the importance of this principle is difficult to overstate.

Success, they say, is all about the steady accumulation of marginal gains. Manchester United as an institution appears fully to appreciate this, as any club should. But these days, the media are the game’s paymasters, particularly the TV companies – and when they start favouring one club above all others, then you have to fear for the ability of others to compete in the long term. It’s a matter of concern – and it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more coverage (of an almost exclusively favourable nature) promotes more support ever further afield for “United” as the media love to call them. And the more support they gain, the more of a market there is which will feed on their success, so the more commercially desirable their success will become – and commercial pressure speaks volumes when knife-edge decisions are to be made.

It would be difficult to imagine that any other club should have such a long, unbroken run of live TV coverage in their F.A. Cup ties. In the 3rd round of last year’s competition, they figured in their 42nd consecutive such event when Swansea knocked out the media favourites at the earliest stage possible amid national media mourning with black armbands de rigueur in press rooms everywhere.

As a Leeds United supporter, I’ve had cause to bless the tendency of TV companies to cover even the games where “United” seem certain to roll over the opposition. On January 3rd 2010, Leeds, then of the third tier, triumphed at Old Trafford before a live ITV audience, sending the Champions spinning out of the Cup at the first time of asking. But satisfactory as this was, it’s the exception, not the rule – normally the colossus will trample the underdogs, and their millions of fans worldwide will be happy. But what about the rest of us? Are we to continue paying our satellite subscriptions, and buying our match tickets, for the privilege of watching Man U clean up as the stakes become higher, and the odds become ever more skewed in their favour?

Nowadays, of course, there is hot competition between various companies for the right to show plum ties. Rightly or wrongly, the men in suits behind the scenes seem to regard any Man U tie as “plum” – whatever the opposition. They will wring their hands and argue (probably rightly) that if they don’t take the option of showing the next Pride of Devon cup event, then some other TV station will. For better or worse, there appears to be no prospect of any cup match featuring the media darlings being left off our screens – however boring, turgid or predictable such games might frequently be.

So the view seems to be that Man U are good for the TV companies, good for audiences, good for advertisers – and clearly the guaranteed coverage is good news for Nigel McWurzel and his plastic glory-hunting chums in their bedsits in Torquay. But it’s not good for the game, not good for fairness of competition, and decidedly not fair on other clubs. Will this situation be tolerated ad infinitum? probably not. At some point, worms will start turning and – at the risk of mixing metaphors – maybe the bubble will finally burst. Then, chill winds of reality will blast through the offices of the TV moguls. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Leeds’ Master Blaster Tony Yeboah – Which Scorcher Was His Best?

Tony "Master Blaster" Yeboah

Tony “Master Blaster” Yeboah

Mention the name Tony Yeboah to any Leeds fan – in fact to any football fan with a memory long enough to stretch way back to the mid-nineties, and you can bet that a faraway look will come into their eyes, and they’ll say “Ah, yes – that incredible goal against Liverpool.  Goal of the season, that.”  It’d be difficult to find anyone to argue the point.  But as a fanatical Leeds United fan who has a very special place in his Hero File for Anthony Yeboah, I’m going to try.

The Liverpool goal certainly was a brilliant technical piece of finishing; volleys from outside the box against a class goalkeeper invariably have to be.  At Leeds over the years, we’ve been lucky enough to see a fair few of these bazookas, and Yeboah’s late effort against the Anfield men stands comparison with any of them.  The fact of the goal being at the Kop End of Elland Road was of some assistance to the spectacle, but any way you look at it, this was a hell of a strike.  It wasn’t the first goal of this type in front of the Leeds Kop and against the Reds though.  A few years before, Gary MacAllister, a future Anfield hero, scored another fizzer, the ball being played to him in mid air from the left; he let it go across his body before wrapping his right foot round it to thunderous effect, the ball scorching into the net before the ‘keeper (the same David James beaten by Yeboah) could even move.

Yeboah’s strike though was probably marginally better.  It came from a headed knock-down forcing the Ghanaian to adjust his body shape slightly as the ball descended towards him, and he caught it so sweetly and with such ferocity that James was probably slightly lucky he didn’t get a hand to it; broken wrists have been known in similar situations.  It was a violent, arcing shot, the ball dipping slightly in its trajectory and just clipping the underside of the crossbar before bouncing down to rest, relieved, in the back of the net.  David James can perhaps count himself unlucky to have been beaten by two of the finest volleys I’ve ever seen at Elland Road, then again he might reflect they’d probably have beaten any two keepers on Earth.

The thing is though – tie me up and burn me for a heretic, but I don’t think Yeboah’s howitzer against Liverpool that balmy August night was his best goal for Leeds.  In my humble opinion, that came a few weeks later at Selhurst Park, temporary home of Wimbledon FC, when the phenomenal Yerbugger struck an even more vicious blow.  Reliable witnesses, standing close by as the man from Ghana hit his shot, swore blind that they actually heard the ball squeal in pain.   I am supported in citing this strike as Tony’s best by Guardian writer Dominic Fifield who, writing in 2011, saw it as his favourite Premier League goal.  He described it thus:

“Watching the ball cannon up from a series of scrappy headers and attempted clearances clearly tested the Ghanaian’s patience. Yeboah snapped on to the loose ball, controlled it on his chest then instep, exploded away from an opponent and lashed a glorious half-volley in off the underside of the bar from distance. It is the ferocity which is most impressive; a blistering effort.”

Sadly, I only saw this goal on television, though I’d planned to attend the match at Selhurst as I was due to be in London that weekend.  Four days previously though, I’d seen a pallid performance against Notts County in a 0-0 League Cup draw – and I just thought, well sod it, I’m not wasting my London time and money watching that sort of crap.  So I was exploring the delights of Selfridges when Yeboah broke Sky TV’s velocity-measuring equipment, and serve me right for a lapse of faith.  At least my wife found it funny, but I was understandably not amused.  Leeds won 4-2 as well, with Yeboah completing a hat-trick, and Carlton Palmer scoring a goal that might well have been Goal of the Month any other day, but which paled into insignificance next to the awesome might of Yeboah.

There are several YouTube videos devoted to paying tribute to Tony’s goals in his too-brief stay at Elland Road, and I’d heartily recommend a search, they’re well worth watching over and over.  I’d be interested to know what others think – I suspect that most will feel his effort against Liverpool was the best; it was a late winner after all, and scored in front of a packed Kop.  I should think this really, because I was actually there, stood right behind the line of the shot as it ripped past the startled James.  But I just can’t help harking back to what I think was an even greater goal, albeit in humbler surroundings.  How I wish that I’d been there for that one.  Tony Yeboah: thanks for the memories – and a belated Happy 48th Birthday from last Friday.

One Don Revie!! Why We Were RIGHT To Sing Through the Busby Silence – by Rob Atkinson

One Don Revie! There’s only ONE Don Revie!!

Twenty-five years to the day after we lost football’s greatest-ever manager, I’m irresistibly reminded of a tribute Leeds United fans paid to The Don of Elland Road, some time after his death.  It was a tribute paid in the face of compulsory mourning for Matt Busby, a manager rightly held in great esteem by the Establishment, and indeed by football as a whole – but this prescribed mourning was shoved at us as a fait accompli – like it or lump it.

We Leeds fans, deeply conscious of the fact that our own Don Revie’s death had been disrespectfully ignored by the FA, chose in our turn to ignore the official edict. So we paid our own tribute, singing the name of Don Revie instead of standing silent and resentful before an away game at Blackburn – and in so doing, we brought upon ourselves the self-righteous and sanctimonious disdain of many, many fools and hypocrites.

But the simple fact is that what we did at Blackburn that night in 1994 was absolutely right and proper.  It was not a calculated act of disrespect to a manager in Busby who had nothing to do with us.  Rather, it was a timely and positive tribute to our own legendary but marginalised manager, placed right in the face of official sanctimony, so that the whole world would know that it had been made – and why. Clearly, not everyone agrees with this point of view, many Leeds fans among those dissenters.  But here’s why they’re wrong to dissent.

The chanting of Revie’s name that night was admittedly pretty strong meat – it was a maverick stand to take at a time when the whole country seemed to have been brainwashed into accepting that one club’s heroes should be treated with a reverence denied to all others. Some misgivings I can understand – but I’m completely sick to death of hearing from those Leeds fans who profess still to be ashamed, all these years later, of the fact that we made the protest. The fact of the matter is, that this was the moment to stand up and be counted, collectively – and collectively, we’d not have been able to hold our heads up if some sort of gesture hadn’t been made at that game.

Look at the facts. The death of Busby was predictably and nauseatingly over-hyped by the scum-loving media. The FA-prescribed national minute’s silence was just the tip of the iceberg – there was also endless eulogising all over the TV and the sickeningly mawkish spectacle of the lone bloody piper at Old Trafford, beamed into all our front rooms whether we liked it or not.

On the other hand, the FA couldn’t even be bothered to send a representative to Don’s funeral, the hypocrites. So why the hell is there such a disparity, and more to the point, why the hell are we expected to just put up with it and go along with such blatant stinking hypocrisy and double standards? Are we supposed to have no pride? Well, I’m sorry, but sod ’em. Whatever anyone says – and I include the Leeds players of the time and those from Revie’s era who condemned what happened – the chanting of Revie’s name at Blackburn was a very necessary stand against the establishment view that Busby was a saint and Don was a sinner. It was a statement of our reverence for the Don, against a background of organised and compulsory national mourning for someone who was a hero only to Scum, City and possibly Liverpool fans. And it was an assertion of the fact that we are Leeds and nobody tells us when to show respect, especially when no bugger showed any respect for the Don in life or in death.

The players from any era who were wheeled onto camera to criticise the actions of the fans at Blackburn, have one thing in common. They haven’t got a bloody clue what it’s like to be a fan. They’re players, club employees, and they come and they go, even the best and most loyal of them. Strachan – not a clue. Eddie Gray – not a clue. Not one of them knows what it is to be a fan and continually to have the media’s favourite bloody club shoved down your throat, to the exclusion of everything and everyone you care about as a Leeds supporter.

I don’t give a toss for all the apologists who sit there bleating, oh it was a terrible thing, they dragged the name of our club through the mud. Well in case you haven’t noticed, the name of Leeds United is always being dragged through the mud, and not by us, but by the FA, by the buffoons of the Football League, by nonentities who work for or support other clubs, by the Daily bloody Mirror and other gutter rags, and by Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. So sod ’em. We did the right thing at Blackburn, just as we did in the Galatasaray ground years later, turning our backs to the field of play. We showed pride for our club, respect for our dead, and a big fat V-sign to all those who are so overtly against us.

It’s all about pride and self-respect at the end of the day – well, I was proud of us in the Ali-Sami-Yen that night in 2000, and I was no less proud of us at Blackburn. I’ll always be glad we didn’t just meekly toe the line and do as the hypocrites in the establishment wanted us to do, as every other simple-minded donkey did. I’m glad and I’m proud that we were big and angry enough to be different and stand up for our point of view.

That’s what it means to be Leeds – we are United, and we are the best.  You know what you can do with the rest.

 

Leeds United Fans – Why do Some Appear to Revel in Negativity? – by Rob Atkinson

Leeds, Leeds, Leeds!

Leeds, Leeds, Leeds!

I’ve read a couple of articles lately, both decently-written and making some good points – but both leaving me despairing over the massively negative attitude current among a certain section of Leeds “support”.  The tendency, in fact is not only massively negative, it’s eagerly, loudly, brassily negative.  It embraces negativity and holds it close like it never wants to let it go.  It’s the very antithesis of what support should be all about. It’s defeatism in its most depressing and demoralising form; if these articles had been written in wartime, they may very well have been taken out and shot.

The common theme of course, hammered home with relish and supportive statistics, is that We Are Not A Big Club Anymore.  The people saying this say it passionately and with conviction.  Not only do they wish to believe that Leeds aren’t a big club, the very idea that some fans may not believe this – may, in fact be holding dear the belief that United are still big – clearly upsets and offends them.  They crop up everywhere, these pallid little people, spreading their message of gloom and churning out invidious comparisons by the bucketload.  They’re becoming an effective voice wherever fans gather together to discuss matters Leeds.  In fact there’s only one real problem with their whole campaign. It’s utter, unmitigated bollocks.

The fact of the matter is, no club is bigger or smaller than its fanbase, its potential for support.  A very reliable gauge of this is freely available in these tech-savvy days we live in. It’s what is nattily called “online presence”.  Give your mouse some exercise and find out for yourself – if you don’t already know.  In cyberworld, second division, under-achieving, out-spent and unregarded Leeds United are absolutely HUGE.  This is the best barometer you could wish for of the measure of passion out there, the incredible hunger and thirst for any morsel of news, any topic of debate about the Mighty Whites of LS11. They’re out there, right now, all over the globe.  They’re clicking away at their computer terminals reading and digesting, or they’re writing in dozens of languages about Leeds past, present and future.  Our great days on the field are an increasingly distant memory, and a large proportion of the match-day support of a decade ago are marginalised and still priced out of actual engagement with the match-going experience, despite a return to relative sanity in the pricing structure.  But around the globe, in the ether, over the airwaves and most importantly inside the heads of millions of fanatics, Leeds United are top four, a phenomenon.

So, why this overweening eagerness to paint us as a small club?  Is it the tiresome need of social writers to dress themselves up as that bit different?  You know – slightly windswept and interesting, with that world-weary air of cynicism etching attractive lines into their fashionably-troubled yet intellectual brows.  It’s odd.  Any real pretensions to “cool” tend to be dissipated by the unseemly scramble to out-do each other in the negativity stakes, and they’re usually followed by eager-beaver starry-eyed acolytes who wish to attach themselves to any view that doesn’t qualify as mainstream.  Perhaps that’s the answer – are we dealing with an online football-flavoured brand of snob obscurantism?

I’m not advocating the other pole of this issue, by the way.  That worryingly Freudian habit of a certain Franchise’s fans to shout from the virtual rooftops about how they’re the biggest, the best and totally huge and wonderful throughout the world and all four dimensions of spacetime. I’ll mention no names here, but the initials are man u.  I’d be even more concerned if our collective attitude was as deluded as that, not least because – in the case of our acquaintances from over the hills – their Devon and Cornwall-based support have made of themselves a laughing-stock with such wishful thinking.  Certainly in Barcelona and Madrid, and in various other centres of realism too, not excluding Beeston.

No, all I want is for certain people to remember the basic meaning of the word “support”. It does not include the peddling of negative thinking, nor does it encompass unhelpful and misleading assertions regarding comparisons with such giants as Norwich and Dull City.  All of this is willful and groundless cant, calculated to spread misery and crush hope.

Support is about identifying yourself with the club you love, and spreading the word to those less fortunate who have not seen the light.  It’s about getting the shoulder behind the momentum of recent promising form – and being prepared to back it all the way, in the face of the withering carpings of naysayers as and when necessary.  Support is an overwhelmingly positive thing, and it needs to espouse and reflect positivity in everything it does.

Criticism is part of this, we are not simply a massive band of yes-men.  But criticism can be couched in positive terms too – this will not do for Leeds United, we said of Bates, and behold, he is gone.  The same applies to ticket prices, or transfer policy, or anything else we’ve been unhappy with from time to time.  We say “this will not do because We Are Leeds, and we demand better”.  So we can be critical – and that can be effective – but it’s still our overriding duty to be biased, and to talk the club up – because we’re supporters. Criticism that amounts to a wholesale belittling of the club relative to other clubs who may be enjoying some temporary success – that’s just ridiculous, and so counter-productive as to be a sin. Spreading alarm and despondency is not needed, not helpful, not to be embraced.  There are idiots enough in the media eager as all hell to do that, without people who are supposedly fans getting in on the act.

So please, those who peddle pessimism or deal in negativity, think again.  Think not only of whatever you’re getting out of venting these frustrations of yours, but also of your obligations towards the club you’re supposed to be supporting.  Let’s not give our enemies, among rival clubs’ support and within the media, such a cheap advantage.  If you’re a fan, then act and speak as one.  Support your club as a supporter should.  After all – We Are Leeds United, and we are the best.

Only One United? Leeds United Fans Know Better – by Rob Atkinson

1 LUFC

Talk to “football fans” of a certain glory-hunting persuasion, and at some point you’re more than likely to hear “Yeah, mate, but there’s only one United”.  Whether the accent of the speaker is Cockney, Irish, Devonian, Midlands or even – may God forgive them – Yorkshire; the pitiful delusion is common to all.  They “support” Man U, and they take it as gospel that they and their cosmopolitan breed follow the one and only, divinely anointed United.  The reasons for this can largely be laid at the door of our lazy and complacent media, who certainly do love their cosy tags and nicknames.  It saves them the bother of thinking, and that makes the job a whole lot easier for those who just want to churn out popular content-free pap.  So, as far as the various “sports news” outlets are concerned, “United” means one thing, and one thing only – and the media’s favourite myth is perpetuated.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the full given name of the Trafford outfit is misleading – because they’re not actually based in the City of Manchester – and also difficult for journalists of a certain age to say.  If you listen to Five Live for any length of time (I try not to, due to the annoying noise of the lamentable Alan Green), you’ll hear from Jimmy Armfield, bless him, who always tries to give it a go and use the full name – but it comes out as a bit of a corruption: “Manshernitid”.  Not too satisfactory, and not all that accurate, but a lot better than the arrogant assumption that one of football’s most popular suffixes can be used to refer to Man U alone.  That abbreviation “Man U” is preferable, and even easier to say; but the Man U fans don’t like that for some reason, in fact the Man U fans object to it quite strenuously – so much so that to my mind it forms the single most compelling reason for calling Man U “Man U”.  And anyway, it’s a lot less insulting than my usual name for them.

The fact is of course that there are many more Uniteds than just the Pride of Devon. Some have been “United” longer than Man U have – Newcastle were United when Man U were merely Newton Heath.  Some of them have more of a right on etymological grounds – “United” after all refers to the unity of a district behind one team.  So take a bow Newcastle again, Leeds as well, even Hartlepool and Colchester.  Not to mention the club just down the road from so many “Nitid” fans – Torquay United.  Let’s face it, Manchester – being mainly Blue – isn’t united behind Man U, any more than Sheffield is behind Sheffield United (due to the prevalence of Wendies).  So shame on you both, and get your act together.

Whichever way you look at it, the journos’ and commentators’ use of “United” to refer to Man U is as inaccurate and confusing as it is improper and unjustified.  They even do it during live TV games where the opposition is another United – West Ham or Newcastle, for instance – and then you hear them clumsily picking themselves up and correcting the mistake, only to do it again two minutes later.  It’s lazy and it’s unprofessional, but regrettably it seems to have seeped into popular culture, much to the delight of the Man U fans who, in their crippling insecurity, seize on anything they feel will back up their delusion that they follow a club which is in any way unique or special and of course “big” – especially now that they don’t have it their own way any longer ON the field. Sigmund Freud would have a field day with most Man U fans, and then the electrodes would have to come out.

There is a certain element too of the media going along with Man U’s own incessant self-promotion and relentless branding.  It suits the club to snaffle the term “United” all for themselves; it suits their marketing strategy to feed the mass delusions of their global fan-base.  So they peddle the “Only One United” myth just as frantically as they do the “Biggest Club In The World” fiction, and the media obligingly fall into line behind both lies, much to the amusement in the latter case of true giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona. Arsenal and of course Leeds United.

Then again a lot of the media have considerable vested interests in the ongoing success of Man U; more papers and satellite subscriptions are sold in Devon and Milton Keynes for every gratuitous mention of “United”, and let’s face it: the bulk of their “support” have no real interest in the actual location of Old Trafford anyway; they’ve never been there and probably never will, they just wish to be associated with the media phenomenon that has been built up over the years.  Next time you watch a live TV match between any two clubs apart from Man U, listen out for a mention of their name; I guarantee you won’t have to wait for long.  And that’s a little bit more reassurance for little Tarquin in Paignton or Torquay that he chose the right club to “support” and that Daddy bought him the right shirt.

All of this fits the bill very nicely in terms of commercial gains and the ongoing success of the Premier League leviathan as it thunders on, enriching the rich and crushing the rest – an apt metaphor for society at large.  But is it good for the game in the long term?  How much more can the media afford to inflate one club above all others?  Any football club needs realistic opposition to justify its very existence in a competitive environment; how much more can the media afford to marginalise the competition?  It’s about more than the silly hi-jacking of the term “United”, the manifestations of bias and favouritism extend into every corner of the way our game is run, and the statistics make for worrying reading in a game of fine margins.  It’s not really a level playing field anymore, and the recent predominance of the media’s chosen “United” is a barometer of this sad fact.

One day, inevitably, the Premier League bubble will burst, as any over-inflated bubble eventually must, and then it will be time to look for where to place the blame.  Will Man U by then be part of a European Super League, where they really ARE the only United? That might just be the most likely model for our domestic game going forward, and the way things are now I’d take a deal of persuading that it wouldn’t be an improvement. First though, they’d obviously have to sort out the current refereeing situation on the continent; as things stand Man U don’t have it as easy over there as they do domestically, and that’d never do, would it?

Meanwhile, we can expect the Big Lie to carry on being pushed by a media that doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s good for it in the long term – and how much longer will it be before Man U drop the tiresomely geographical “Manchester” from their badge?  After all, they dropped “Football Club” a long time ago, and it’s not as if the bulk of their “support” can identify with the northern city which is home to the current Champions, just over the border from Trafford.  If it made commercial sense, they’d do it; bet your life they would.

Watch this space – nothing surprises me where Man U are concerned.

England Internationals Should Play for Free – by Rob Atkinson

Image

Three Lions – all the incentive needed and more.

After England’s successful World Cup qualifying campaign, the dust is now starting to settle, and thoughts are beginning to intrude along the lines of: Oh, Christ, spare us another World Cup finals performance like the last one.  It’s a memory just too depressing for words as highly-talented yet grossly over-paid young players sulked around the pitch as if they’d forgotten exactly how lucky they were to be there at all.

The fanatical travelling army which follows England everywhere were shocked into spells of stunned silence at the lassitude and sheer incompetence of some of their so-called heroes in an England team made up, as is usual in these money-mad times, of multi-millionaires, millionaires, and perhaps two or three of the merely very rich.  The fans turned to each other and asked, what the bleedin’ hell is going on?  Well, situation normal, isn’t it?  What a load of overpaid rubbish.  We’ll stay at home and watch it on the box another time. It goes without saying though, that the fans will always be there.

With the money in the game, the long-established infrastructure, and the size of our nation relative, say, to a country like Holland which produces excellence as a matter of course, we should be doing better in these massive pan-global tournaments.  But however easily, or even gloriously we manage to get there, it always seems to go wrong – at least it has so far this century.  The relative glory days of Mexico ’86, Italia ’90 or even England ’96 are a long time ago now.  Something is rotten in the state of England.  What are the missing ingredients?

Allow me to propose an old-fashioned answer: Pride and Passion.  Those two words sum up the edge that England teams, maybe lacking in the technical gifts of continental and latin american players, used to possess; attributes that used to see us through against higher levels of skill and flair. These are the qualities our national team has shown too little of over the years, qualities the fans still possess in abundance.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the players who represent England are lacking totally in either commodity, but I would venture the opinion that they is no longer the over-riding motivation.  Money – oodles of it – always looms far too large within the game.  To clear the players’ heads, to rid them of competing considerations and leave them focused on the job in hand, to nurture the mindset that they are representing their country, and carrying the hopes of millions, I would propose – quite seriously – that we abandon henceforth the practice of paying players to play for England.

This is not a new idea, not by any means.  Before World War Two, players selected for England were invited to choose a match fee OR a souvenir medal – not both.  They invariably opted for the medal – and this in an era when professional football wages were capped at a level not far above those of a skilled worker.  But pride and passion motivated them.

Nowadays of course, footballers earn a vast amount, and some would say good luck to them – but do they really need to be paid over and above their club contracts for what is still a signal honour?  The playing employees of Liverpool, Man U, Man City, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and the rest pull down many, many times the average wage and exist on an entirely different plane to those who shell out their hard-earned to watch them perform.  How does this affect the way we see them?

As things stand, the emotional distance between the crowd and the players is magnified by a patently enormous gulf in financial status, which breeds resentment among the fans when things aren’t going well on the field (look at him, fifty grand a week, and he couldn’t trap a bag of cement). Would the frequently toxic nature of that crowd/team relationship not be improved if the players were really playing for the shirt and the cap, and nothing else?

Removal of monetary rewards would not be universally popular among the players – but might this not help sort out the committed from the opportunist, and thus – to risk an archaic phrase – engender a more positive team spirit?

There would be no unpalatable need for the FA to profit by the players’ noble sacrifice.  The money that now goes on match fees and bonuses should instead be diverted to a charity of the players’ choice – and would this not only provide an additional incentive to win, but also enhance the team’s good-guy credentials?

They might feel, deep inside, that they’re a cut above the opposition – who are shamelessly, brazenly, doing it for the money.  It might even give them that crucial edge. Success is, after all, about the steady accumulation of marginal gains.

No match fees or any bonus, not a red cent – just an international cap.  No taint of lucre in the motivations of the players, who would in any case be set for life even if they never earned another penny.  No charge of “mercenary footballers” from a disgruntled crowd – rather it would be:  well done lads, you’re doing it for England and glory.  If you didn’t win – well, we know you were giving of your best, for love of the shirt and charitable causes.  Think of that.  Wouldn’t our England players rather be loved and admired, than just that tiny bit richer?

Can there really be a better incentive than national pride and sheer altruism, uncluttered by the financial bottom line?  Wouldn’t there just possibly be a whole new dynamic around the currently unfancied England setup that might even take us onwards and upwards? Am I being hopelessly idealistic or even naïve?

Well, perhaps I am – but I would humbly suggest that it’s got to be a better way, and is certainly worth a try.