Tag Archives: football violence

Bradford Fire Disaster 30th Anniversary – by Rob Atkinson

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Horrific scenes as the Bradford main stand burns fiercely

30 years ago today, I went to watch Leeds United play at St Andrews, Birmingham City‘s ground, in order to support the United lads, who still had a faint mathematical chance of promotion. These were the bad old days, when football violence was still highly fashionable, and it was predictable that things would get out of hand given the slightest excuse. Well, Leeds went one down, it was a crap game, and get out of hand things certainly did. There was a mass riot, invasions of the pitch from both sets of supporters, police horses tried to get between the warring groups and general mayhem ensued for quite a time. Inside the ground, a 12 foot wall collapsed and a young lad was crushed to death. It was a tragedy of the times, crowd disturbances were commonplace and only 18 days later, trouble at the Heysel Stadium in Belgium would cost the lives of 39 Italian fans as the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus was fatally marred by ugly scenes of violence.

As the Leeds fans emerged from Birmingham’s ground though, we were totally unaware that an event had been unfolding back home in Yorkshire that would cost 56 more lives, leave hundreds injured and traumatised and form another catastrophic part of that dreadful month of May 1985. At Valley Parade, the antiquated home of Bradford City, a fire had broken out in the main stand, a ramshackle construction of timber with an oft commented-on build-up of litter beneath the wooden seats – a calamity waiting to happen. On that Saturday afternoon, as spectators packed the old stand to greet their promotion-winning Third Division Champions, the calamity did happen, and with unbelievable speed and ferocity.

At about 3:40 pm, ITV commentator John Helm noted that there appeared to be a small outbreak of fire in the main stand. Within four minutes, on a dry and windy day, the fire had engulfed the whole of the stand, trapping many in their seats. People dashing to the back of the stand for fire extinguishers found none – they had amazingly been removed for fear of vandalism – and the fleeing crowds were forced to break down locked exits in order to escape. Others escaped forward onto the pitch, and within the burning stand there were acts of outstanding heroism as some people tried to assist those less able, without regard for their own safety. The design and build of the ancient stand conspired in its swift destruction; the roof was of wood covered with tarpaulin and sealed with asphalt and bitumen. The whole structure was, in effect, one big incendiary bomb which had been waiting to go off for years.  Now, a single lighted match or cigarette, dropped under the seats onto the accumulated litter below, had started a conflagration that raged out of control before anyone could summon help. It was a miracle, aided by the selfless bravery of many of the spectators who rescued their neighbours, that more weren’t killed.

As it was, 56 deaths and hundreds injured left its mark on the game, and rightly so. The Popplewell Inquiry led to the introduction of new legislation to improve safety at sports grounds, and construction of new stands from wood was banned at all UK sports venues. Thankfully, the death toll had been somewhat limited by the absence of perimeter fencing around the pitch, a lethal factor in the 96 deaths at the Hillsborough disaster 4 years later. Bradford City’s ground now is unrecognisable from the ramshackle stadium I remember as a student in the city in 1981, when I attended a League Cup tie against Ipswich and marvelled from the open Kop at the sheer age and dilapidation of the wooden stand to my right. A magnificent state-of-the-art main stand now crowns the development which has taken place on all four sides of the arena – a credit to the City, to the Football Club and to the memory of those fans who died – 54 from Bradford City and 2 from their opponents that day, Lincoln City.

Later that year, in July, I attended a Bradford City memorial game at Elland Road when the majority of the 1966 World Cup Final teams, England and West Germany, turned out for a rematch. England won again, 6-4 with Geoff Hurst scoring another hat-trick, Uwe Seeler scoring a quite magnificent goal at the Kop End, and the late Alan Ball notching for England too, as did Martin Peters – the other Three Lions scorer in ’66. England were captained by the late, great Bobby Moore, and our own Jack Charlton appeared with lesser-known brother Bobby. It was a wonderful occasion and a fitting tribute to the dead and injured of the Valley Parade fire, raising many thousands towards an eventual total of £3.5 million for the Bradford Disaster Appeal Fund.

On this pleasant late spring day, when the memories of that awful summer of 1985 are receding further and further into the past, let us pause and remember those who died this day 30 years ago, as well as the victims of the Heysel Tragedy – and not forgetting young Ian Hambridge who died when that wall collapsed at St Andrews while football fans unknowingly rioted all around. Ian would be 45 now; he and 56 others at Bradford were robbed of their lives by the events of the day. Rest in peace, all of them – and let’s be thankful that we’ve seemingly moved on from that dark period in football and stadium history.

Millwall Boss Holloway Must Apologise After Rotherham Riot – by Rob Atkinson

Holloway - looking the other way

Holloway – looking the other way

Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything has often in the past railed against the casual attitude of the football authorities towards the lunatic fringe of Millwall fans, a band who seemingly act as they please with little or no fear of official sanction. At various times, the FA, the Football League, police forces around the country and apologists within Millwall FC itself have leant over backwards to excuse those loveable, chirpy cockneys for the mayhem, violence and misery they routinely inflict on defenceless and innocent match-going fans of other clubs – even, on one infamous occasion, involving children wearing their own colours at Wembley as the ‘Wall fans turned on each other during their semi-final defeat. Today, yet again, this blog finds itself totally vindicated by events in its view of Millwall FC and those who follow that club.

Now, after the latest disgusting exhibition of uncivilised brutality at Rotherham United‘s New York Stadium on Saturday, we hear that “the guilty ones will be caught”. Well, it’s way past time that they were. This is not, after all, a secret problem; everyone knows that the London club has far more than its fair share of thugs. And yet as recently as a couple of weeks ago, after another defeat at Leeds United, Millwall’s manager Ian Holloway was raging about the travel restrictions that kept the away following down on that occasion, complaining that this contributed towards his team being beaten and insisting the Millwall fans were reformed, reinvented, just the type of people you’d want to see your daughter bring home when the vicar’s round for tea, more or less.

The blind stupidity of such a claim has been adequately demonstrated, yet again and at the usual human cost, at Rotherham. Which begs the question: will Holloway now apologise for his ludicrous remarks after the Leeds game? Will he, in fact, reiterate the entirely more sensible position he espoused after the opening day fixture, when Millwall fans disgraced themselves by their habitual references to murders in Turkey? On that occasion, Holloway vented his disgust at the Millwall hate mob; his position since then appears to have been revised – but not in a good way. First there was his ridiculous rant in the press after the Leeds United loss – and after Rotherham? Well, he said he “hadn’t seen it”. Selective blindness, Mr. Holloway? Most convincing, I don’t think. Monsieur Wenger does it rather better, as he does most things compared to you.

It does rather make you wonder whether Holloway had cause after that opening game to regret lambasting his own fans. His volte face since then suggests that he may have come under pressure to lay off the criticism of the Millwall support, who are after all a group of people accustomed to attacking others both verbally and physically, and yet curiously sensitive to any hint of criticism directed against them. There is some speculation today about whether Holloway has “lost the Millwall fans”. If he has managed to do that – could he perhaps teach the rest of us the trick?

I know how those fans simply can’t abide any criticism from personal experience; after previous articles I’ve written to have a go at the least civilised group of supporters in the UK, I’ve had my Twitter feed clogged with hateful bile, venom directed at my family, earnest attempts to find my home address with encouragement from the sidelines to pay me a visit and “sort me out” – all that kind of childish, playground rubbish. And of course they’re always ready with a leer and a Galatasaray top or a Turkish flag, to have a laugh about the murder of two Leeds fans in Istanbul and pose for a malicious photo opportunity – all in impeccable taste and good clean fun, of course. Just today, I’ve had them attempting to poke fun at my Dad’s death – it’s par for the course with that lot, and it just goes in the spam bin. But it’s funny how it doesn’t happen with any other club’s fans – only Man U come anywhere near – and contrary to their paranoid and egotistical belief, I do have a go at other clubs from time to time.

For dishing it out and yet being completely unable to take it – and only for that – Millwall fans must be the top firm in the country. Their unwillingness to travel to Leeds in numbers, mumbling pathetic excuses about travel restrictions, tells its own tale of keyboard warriors who shy away from any actual old-fashioned confrontations with one of the more notorious northern sets of fans. They evidently felt a lot braver going to Rotherham, where the victims of these big brave lads included at least one female steward.

All in all, it’s not a very impressive picture and, despite the bewildered ravings of the manager, there is absolutely no sign of improvement. As long as there are soft targets, with almost zero chance of any real resistance, the Millwall troops will be up for it; it’s only when there is some inconvenience or danger involved that they stay nice and safe at home. Holloway, in his more recent comments, would have you believe that they are a much-maligned lot and should be given a break. But that kind of talk can be dangerous; it can motivate self-righteous and yet violently-inclined people to take the next safe opportunity to demonstrate that, yes – they see themselves as having been victims of an injustice, and that they’re going to wreak havoc in revenge.

And another thing: could the Holloway rant also have had the effect of persuading South Yorkshire Police to take a less restrictive line than their West Yorkshire Police colleagues had followed for the Leeds game? Certainly, the Millwall fans were far more numerous at the New York Stadium than they had been at Elland Road. That made for a tinderbox atmosphere; the violence and hatred only really became extreme when Rotherham scored their 85th minute winner, but it seems that it was bubbling under all afternoon.

It’s also a fact that Rotherham and the local Police did have intelligence that trouble could be expected; a Rotherham United club statement read, in part:

“We were aware that a section of Millwall supporters were planning on attending this game intent on causing disorder. Contingency plans were in place to deal with this outcome with extra stewarding and Police resources in place to deal with the anticipated threat. Despite the extra resources deployed this group made numerous attempts to seek disorder throughout the afternoon resulting in the despicable scenes towards the end of the match.” 

So, why wasn’t more done to control the movements and travel arrangements of the visiting support? The events of the afternoon can surely have come as no surprise to anybody connected with either club, the Police, this blog – anybody at all, with the possible exception of the naive and credulous Mr Holloway.

It’s high time that this persistent problem was stamped out. The FA and the Football League have virtually unlimited powers to act against a club with a troublesome support, as we at Leeds have learned ourselves in the past for far smaller transgressions. Millwall are a little club who create problems out of all proportion to their size and standing in the game. That much is self-evident. So how many more times must their “fans” be allowed to besmirch the name of their club, their city and football in general, before something is done? Answers on a postcard, please.

Something needs to happen, and soon. It’s only a matter of time before this sort of thing costs a life, maybe more than one. No football club is worth the spilling of one single drop of blood, and it’s way overdue that Millwall FC realised its own continued existence is far less important than the safety and security of every single man, woman and child who attends a fixture involving it. But the first person who needs to apologise, publicly and profusely, on a charge of making light of a real problem and offering hope and succour to a band of degraded thugs, is Millwall manager Ian Holloway. That could conceivably start off a process whereby the problem might be acknowledged and addressed.

Defeat at Rotherham left Millwall six points away from possible Championship safety, a gulf that this blog earnestly hopes they will not bridge. That’s not in any spirit of wishing them onto League One; after all that division has done nothing lately to upset me. But the bigger sphere of the Championship has earned a rest from what comes along with Millwall, and it would be a happy day that sees their relegation confirmed. That currently looks more likely than not to happen; watch out for a celebratory blog post as and when.

Shame on Millwall FC, shame on their fans, shame, most acutely and deservedly, on Ian Holloway, a man who spoke long before he thought two weeks ago, and who surely must be regretting that now. Shame is the watchword where the Lions are concerned.

When you’re gone, you will not be missed.

How Yesteryear’s Thugs Have Become Today’s Sad Old Men in LUFC Cyberspace – by Rob Atkinson

Aggressive (but well-disguised) - the archetypal old-time Leeds thug

Aggressive (but well-disguised) – the archetypal old-time Leeds thug

The idea of some “glory era” of football hooliganism is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Football hooliganism, as practiced by adherents of many football clubs around the world, was never about glory. Rather it was an outlet of sorts for testosterone-fuelled negative energy among mainly younger men, who delighted in the potential for a physical confrontation loosely based on sporting rivalry. There was nothing glorious about it; usually in fact there was a dependence upon an element of surprise and the advantage of greater numbers to emerge as “winners”. It was a pain in the neck for authorities both inside and outside of football; for the public who just wanted to support their team – and for what might be called innocent bystanders, who just happened to be in the vicinity when these idiots met looking for savage fulfilment. Football thugs were scary only to each other, really. To those above such primitive displays of attention-seeking, they were no more or less than anti-social pests.

The problem with any mob is the impressionable and easily-led types attracted by the feeling of “belonging” and the adrenalin rush induced by the thought of being pitched against an opposing force. One theory is that those involved will, in time, grow out of what is basically an extension of unruly little boys fighting in a playground. Bewilderingly, though, some people show no signs of wanting to abandon childish pursuits, and are still attempting to demonstrate machismo and aggression well into beery middle-age. There’s an obvious element of compensation going on; the individuals concerned know that their youth and vigour has gone, but – lacking any alternative outlet due to inadequate intelligence – they can’t let themselves admit it.

Today's Service Crew hoolie

Today’s Service Crew hoolie

Comically, the main outlet for such types – in these days of omnipresent CCTV, anyway – is the internet. Cyberspace is, it turns out, a peculiarly friendly environment for those who wish to continue espousing anti-social and violent sentiments, even at an age when they should have grown up and moved on to more adult preoccupations. The capacity of the internet for preserving the anonymity of an individual or group with negative intentions towards society at large is a gift for your average ageing ex-thug. There are several benefits of such a very incognito way of carrying on, which play into the hands and cater for the needs of overgrown playground warriors.

The main thing today’s ex-hooligan turned internet tough old man needs is the presence of a good few like-minded chaps of sufficiently feeble intellect and, ideally, that yearning need to recapture those long-ago days when they could scare people in real-life physical confrontation. Then, as now, the important thing will be the ability to identify with a cadre of “lads”, sticking together in the face of authority and anyone who might wish to challenge such an outdated point of view. It goes back to that urgent need to belong, so characteristic of those who always did feel unable to stand alone and plough their own furrow. It’s the herd instinct carried over into the virtual world: don’t mess with us, we are many and you are few. So it was back in the day, and so it is today – only, with advancing years the ability to either absorb or dish out any genuine punishment has dwindled away to nothing. But advancing age doesn’t seem to encourage the overgrown “lad” to wish to grow up and act as an adult. The former thug has become, against his own will and self-image, what is essentially a sad old man – and there’s a great deal of mutual reassurance from other desperate, sad, internet tough-guys needed to salve that particular wound.

Disappointingly, my own club has as many of these pensionable hooligan types acting in its name as any other. In days gone by, Leeds United had this “firm” (that’s what they called themselves, with no apparent appreciation of irony) who were known as the “Service Crew“, due to their predilection for raising hell after being conveyed to away games via rail and other services, knocking on for forty years ago. At that time, the Service Crew were one of many notorious “firms” who used the occasion of their respective football clubs playing each other, to meet and anthropologically posture at each other. Actual explosions of violence were by no means the norm, although such incidents as did occur naturally made the headlines. But so much of it was the kind of ritual aggression-displays you see on David Attenborough documentaries, where mindless animals, driven by raging hormones, act ridiculously from the onlooker’s point of view – simply to establish territorial or sexual claims. The parallels to be drawn between hooligan and ape are almost irresistible – but it’s important to remember that, while the ape is exhibiting instinctive behaviour vital to establishing itself within a peer group, your average yob is showing no more than a weak intellect and an inability to take on board more than a few pints without descending to the level of dumb beasts.

In this regard, the Leeds Service Crew were no better and no worse than many others. Their claims of predominance notwithstanding, the Crew were just another bunch of pests making life a misery for other sections of society on regular Saturday afternoons around the country. The tragedy of today is that – although football hooliganism has been marginalised by surveillance technology, almost to the point where, as a phenomenon, it is dead – nevertheless, some ageing boneheads refuse to let go of the compulsion to identify themselves as “lads”. In middle-aged men, that’s not only bizarre – it’s laughably embarrassing. But the fact remains that, even nowadays when their former exploits have been just about stamped out, the Service Crew still feels the need to identify itself as a collective which misses what it would term as the “good old days” of football violence. So, they have this forum, where they can chortle about those old days, swap memories both real and apocryphal, share their hideously outdated political and social positions and generally carry on like a gang of anti-social kids even though many of them are well into physical dissolution and should be doing something healthy like sorting the garden out.

The Service Crew forum actually used to serve a purpose not all that long ago. Like its slightly watered-down counterpart WACCOE, it used to be a half-decent source of Leeds-related news and gossip, although obviously there was still that element of tough talk, threats and posturing going on in the background. Boys, after all, will be boys – even old, fat, bald ones.

These days – and this applies equally to the Service Crew forum and WACCOE – the useful content has almost disappeared. Both sites have degenerated into what might best be described as a virtual “peeing highest up the wall” contest, as the usual crowd of insecure inadequates strive to out-do each other, whether that be in the context of weak jokes, fascist propaganda, or simply ganging up on any contributor who doesn’t conform to the group ethos. The surprises come in the lengths to which some will go in order to seek the approval of their bone-headed peers. Desperate for kudos, some middle-aged or elderly morons will happily transgress boundaries of behaviour that an adolescent would think twice before crossing – and will receive the sniggering approval of his fellow reprobates. You find yourself having to shake your head, reminding yourself that some of these people are grandparents. The mind boggles.

From some points of view, of course, all of the above represents progress. Football violence has died an unlamented death as a major player in modern fan culture. It rears its ugly head so rarely today, and is confined to just a few notorious clubs – so as a social irritant, it’s more or less disappeared – which at least makes the match-going experience that bit more pleasant for the grown-ups. But the price for all this would seem to be an insidious process whereby formerly quite readable fan sites are becoming hackneyed examples of mass attention-seeking, virtual posturing, recurrent cyber-bullying and the expression of views and standards deemed unacceptable in this century. It’s a pity – for anyone who might wish to trawl the net for anything useful in connection with their favourite football club.

For myself, as a moderate Leeds United fan with left-wing views, some areas of the net are becoming almost no-go areas – always allowing for the fact that I find it amusing to wind up some fairly hard-of-thinking and gullible types who find their refuge on the more extreme, FV-nostalgic boards – the Service Crew Forum being probably the most obvious example. On such occasions as I do engage with these less-than-able types, it’s usually a salutary reminder that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. But the sad thing is that another formerly usable site has become useless – and there aren’t enough truly well-informed and worthy places on the web for that to be something we can afford.

Some consolation may be derived from the thought that, just as actual hooligans have decayed and become too old to indulge in the physical stuff, so too will this middle-aged and elderly generation of virtual thugs eventually pass by and disappear into doddering senility – some self-evidently, earlier than others. The general trend is one of progress towards enlightenment, towards a time when the negative factors are removed, one by one, from the game that most of us can love without feeling the need to kick somebody’s head in, or even indulge in a little cyber-posturing. Such a desirable state of affairs would probably imply the demise of the Service Crew forum, of WACCOE, and of a couple of other havens for the insecure and deluded latterday “lads”. And that – as any intelligent recent visitor to either of the sites referred to above might agree – would be no bad thing.

Where Did All Those Leeds United Thugs and Racists of the 80s Go? – by Rob Atkinson

The darkside of the net

The darkside of the net

In the early eighties – and for much of that sorry decade – the experience of being a match-going, non-racist Leeds United fan was lonely and disgusting. The atmosphere around Elland Road was rancid with bigotry, skin-headed, bone-headed racists sold “The Flag”, a right-wing snot-rag, outside the ground. It was done openly, brazenly.  Dissenting voices, when raised, brought upon their owners the risk of violence.  The club was inert and complacent.  The police sat by and watched.  It was depressingly, shamefully awful.  And then, things started to change.

Civilised, intelligent Leeds United supporters, unable and unwilling to accept the evil being dispensed in the name of their beloved club, organised themselves into Leeds United Fans Against Racism & Fascism.  Fanzines were sold expounding the voice of reason against the bigoted filth being peddled by the racists.  More decent supporters woke up to what had been going on, joined the anti-racist movement, bought the fanzines, started to raise the voice of protest against the ignorance and malice of the terrace chants against visiting black players.

Even the slumbering Leeds United itself reacted positively to the changes afoot. Black players were signed, the first since the brief but bright Leeds career of Terry Connor. Noel Blake, affectionately nicknamed “Bruno”, loved by the Kop. Vince Hilaire, quicksilver winger reviving memories of Albert Johanneson in the sixties, the first black player to play in the Cup Final and a Leeds hero when the Revie revolution was still new.  It was a painfully long, slow job – but Leeds United finally managed to all but rid itself of one of the most degradingly awful reputations for racism and bigotry anywhere in the game – and they largely did it as an institution, by the efforts of enlightened fans supplemented by the club’s more enlightened transfer policy at a time when there was still an unofficial bar observed by the likes of Everton FC.

I’m extremely proud of the way my club tackled its problems.  The Leeds United of today bears no resemblance at all to the sick club being brought to its knees 30 years ago, dying of the cancer of racism.  The whole world has moved on, though pockets of the disease still exist at home, yet far more significantly and overtly abroad.  We now live in a time when these manifestations of hate and ignorance are a palpable shock to the system – and that in itself is a massive change for the better.  Such inhuman behaviour has never ever been acceptable, but now it’s seen to be completely unacceptable, and that is the very essence of progress and reinvention.

But what actually happened to all of those who revelled in the racism and violence that was so much more prevalent in the 1980s? Have they given up on football support altogether?  Have they, perhaps, defected en masse to Millwall, where both problems still rear their ugly heads with depressing semi-regularity? The sad fact is that, far from removing their loathsome presence from the world of Leeds United, many of these idiots are still very much around – older, but no wiser; and still determined to espouse their Daily Mail recycled views even if they’re no longer up for a barney in the physical sense.

As you can tell from the match-day experience, the people physically present at the ground are more prosperous these days, less inclined to fisticuffs as a means of recreation and certainly not given to racial slurs and abusive chants based on those slurs.  It’s become unfashionable – and as that cultural change has occurred, so the attraction of being at the match has waned for those of the more extreme attitudes.

Like it or not, the tendency towards racism and xenophobia is closely linked to the extremes of right wing thinking – I use that word in its loosest possible sense.  Those of a more left-wing outlook do not, as a rule, tend towards racial abuse and other such prejudice-driven behaviour.  As with any rule of thumb, there will be isolated exceptions – but for the most part, racism and the tendency towards its expression in violent and abusive terms is a right-wing phenomenon.

This is still relevant today, despite the fact that the physical manifestations of such behaviour are greatly reduced at our football grounds, notably Elland Road. It’s relevant because there is one remaining stronghold where these people gather together, share their views, yearn for the “good old days” and jealously guard their out-dated views against infiltration from what they see as left-wing or liberal weakness.  That stronghold is the internet, or at least isolated parts of it. Where Leeds United is concerned, my experience as someone who feels the need to challenge the uglier tendencies of the Right is that some boards and forums – notionally just about support for Leeds United FC – are no-go areas. You’re not welcome if you try to push an agenda that runs contrary to the prevailing right-wing views; indeed you are likely to be gagged for “provocation” if you persist in this.

Such has been my recent experience on the WACCOE board, where the resident hard-of-thinking types get very hot under the collar if they feel that their cosy, right-wing, casually racist views are being challenged.  The same sort of thing applies equally if not more so on the Network 54 “Service Crew” Forum, where people who are decidedly old enough to know better still talk in fondly nostalgic terms of the days when a good old punch-up was part of the weekend’s entertainment, and when no away trip was really worthwhile unless a pub or two had been smashed up, and there’d been an “off” with some opposing “lads” with maybe the chance to bait an identifiable ethnic minority, just for fun.

The sad thing is that, on both of these sites, there is frequently plenty of interest to read and to get involved in discussing – but, inevitably, as you become more of a contributor, your own views become known – particularly if, as I have done, you share blog posts and argue your corner. Then, the moderators or admin types move in, because they feel that you’re rocking the boat and upsetting the precious little racists and ex-thugs that seemingly make up the bulk of the membership. It’s all so depressingly juvenile and exclusive – when it could actually be a valuable resource for thrashing out the real issues that face Leeds United and its fans today, in a world that has changed radically from that of 30 years ago.

It was only going to be a matter of time before I was silenced on one or both forums – and now I have no voice on WACCOE; something that fails to fill me with regret or chagrin.  My offence was to speculate that UKIP are set fair to harm the Tories at next year’s election, by splitting the racist idiot vote.  It was a mildly provocative line, calculated to upset and draw out the real xenophobes on the site – but naturally it descended into a free for all, and now I’ve been found to be an unhealthy influence – so I’m gagged in order that the resident mini-Farages can chat happily among themselves – frequently starting their comments with “I’m no racist, but….”.

The fact that I’ve now been silenced is not something I’ll lose any sleep over for my own sake – but it did make me think about the type of person who is still out there, parading under the banner of Leeds United supporters and identifiable as such to those outside the club – who might then judge us all by what a few unreconstructed idiots have to say, while more moderate views are being suppressed.

I honestly believe that the problems of racism and gratuitous violence in football stadia are virtually solved now; that the perpetrators of both types of unpleasant, anti-social behaviour have either been chased away from the grounds, or are so outnumbered and closely monitored that they have no option but to keep their nasty little ways to themselves – and to other venues. Even though you still do get the odd isolated incident – as with the moronic Aaron Cawley at Hillsborough last season – they’re rare enough to be virtually a thing of the past.  But we live in a digital age, and the fact is that Leeds United FC is a massive presence on the net – much, much more popular than all but a few Premier League clubs.  That being the case, we have to look to our reputation in the virtual world just as much as we do in the real-life match-day environment.

The presence of at least two relatively high-profile web-sites, which appear to harbour many whose views and tendencies are inimical to modern-day standards, is not good news.  It’s to be hoped that, maybe, more enlightened moderation could yet induce more grown-up attitudes and behaviour – or at least so alienate the extremists that they fade out of view altogether.  At the very least, I’d earnestly hope that – whoever from opposing or rival clubs ever takes a look at WACCOE or the Service Crew Forum – they won’t judge the bulk of genuine Leeds United fans by the childish, ignorant and prejudiced rubbish they might read on those particular two sites.  It’s not big, it’s not clever – and it certainly has nothing to do with 21st century Leeds. 

Leeds United Book Review: Heidi Haigh’s “Follow Me and Leeds United” – by Rob Atkinson

ImageThe first thing to make clear to anybody reading “Follow Me & Leeds United” is this: adjust your expectations relative to what you might expect from just about any other football book you’ve ever picked up.  This is a departure, something new.  It’s certainly not another in the long, long list of formulaic football fan reminiscences, with accounts of great games thrown in here and there, and a basically linear narrative taking you from the first game the fan ever attended right up to recent times. With that sort of fan memoir, there’s usually an attendant sense of growing disillusion as the “good old days” recede ever further into the past and the author writes tragically of past heroes and present ticket prices. Those books have a place – but it’s refreshing to read something different, as – for instance – Gary Edwards’ books were in the past couple of years.

Heidi’s book is even more different still, in style, perspective and tone. Once you have adjusted to these – because they really are quite unique – you find yourself drawn in and engrossed as you are put into a seat on the coach taking a young Heidi to Arsenal or Middlesbrough – or any of the many and varied other old-style grounds full of old school fans.   The descriptions of what these away days were like are gritty and real, and the sense is very strong of them having been plucked virtually “as is” from the pages of the author’s diary.  This gives an “instant” feel to the book – an impression of being in the moment, as a brick comes through the coach window, or as a lass that basically isn’t at all keen on violence witnesses it time and time again.  These were naughty times – unenlightened and often offensively sexist times.  Women who go to football matches today would do well to read this book for a vivid idea of exactly what it was like in those far-off days when, if the girls were spoken to at all, it was all about the size of their boobs or what a nice bum they’d got, usually with an accompanying nip or pinch.  This behaviour would send today’s female fan screaming to the nearest officer of the law, and quite right too.  Back then, it was simply part of the scene – and the lass either stuck up for herself and administered her own justice with a sharp kick or two, or she had to grimace and bear it.

Don’t expect either a book with a distinct beginning, middle and end.   This is a work of random recollections, dotting about in time to give it the feeling of being a little like Tom Hanks’ box of chocolates in “Forrest Gump” – you simply never know what you’re going to get.  What you do know is that it will be the sharp and impactful recollections of someone who was there, someone the players – legendary figures from the glory days of Leeds United – knew and acknowledged as she passed by, sometimes putting her in peril on hostile territory.  The violence and the difficulty of being female in an overwhelmingly male environment are both ever-present factors. Most of the recollections and anecdotes are flavoured by these two central themes, and less attention is paid to the scores and action of the games – which, let’s face it, we can get from the internet any old time – than to this sense of what it was like to be there, back in those days, when attitudes and behaviour were so very different to the way things are today.

As a fan’s retrospective it’s so unlike anything else I’ve ever read that really it demands attention.  For the women who accompanied Heidi back then, it will strike familiar chords aplenty.  The women who attend football today will raise their eyebrows and wonder how she stood all the unwanted attention, all the scary situations when she so often ended up “shaking like a leaf”.  And men reading this book are afforded an insight into the female perspective – the horror that violence can arouse, and yet how sometimes fellow Leeds fans were spurred on to “get” and “knack” opposing fans, because that was the way things were.

You’re reminded a little sometimes of scenes in the famous movie “Quadrophenia” when so many scenes of violence were witnessed by girls, who hated it and yet were caught up in the moment, half scared, half fascinated, totally immersed in the experience.  We’ve all heard how football lads get a “buzz” off the fights and the confrontations; this book tells us how the experiences of women are subtly different and yet not totally un-related.  As much as the physical violence, harsh words could hurt, tears could flow because of name-calling at away trips when strangers would recognise a girl who had attracted media attention because of the curiosity that she was; a female who attended football matches every bit as fanatically and faithfully as the lads.  Some of these lads worshipped her as an icon with her distinctive blonde hair and her beret.  Others saw her as an easy target for spite and cruelty, born out of hollow bravado and a sense of inadequacy – because she was well-known by fans and players alike, which was uncomfortable to certain resentful males who were stuck with their humdrum anonymity.  Throughout it all, you’re aware of a feeling of what it must have been like, because the memories recorded here are so raw and so real.

I have a very individual reason for recommending this book, but wider ones too.  My own particular reason first; I took to this book simply because of Heidi Haigh’s heart-warming (to me) convention of refusing to give the dignity of capital letters to the despised man utd.  All the way through the book, whenever she has to mention them, it’s man utd. That alone makes this title worth a place on my shelves – but there are other recommendations too.

If you were a fan in the seventies, read it.  You’ll recognise the times, you’ll be reminded of long-forgotten scenes.  If you’re a woman who watches football today, read this.  You’ll see how things have come on and how, though there’s still a long way to go, you can expect to be treated these days as other than a freak or a second-class citizen.  Both of those treatments were almost the norm in the seventies, when football was the working man’s sport and the working man relaxed and let his loutish side show – probably a reaction to a TV diet of “Love Thy Neighbour” and “The Sweeney“. And if you’re a bloke – read this.  It’ll teach you things about football support, and especially football support back in the day, that you never knew.  It’ll give you some perspective.

It’s a good read, it’s punchy and honest, it’s by one of our own, and it puts you right back to when Leeds United were simply the best. It doesn’t set out to be “War and Peace“, but it has its own appeal for those who want to know what those days were like. Do yourselves a favour and read it.  Or buy it for the Leeds fans in your life for Christmas. They won’t be disappointed.

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Heidi & friends – the Daily Express girls