Tag Archives: legacy

Death of a Leeds United Fan II – by Rob Atkinson

Younger brother Graham (left) with yours truly in happier times

Five years ago, I found myself in the unhappy position of having to pen a tribute to my Dad, a lifelong Leeds United fan, after he passed away due to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease a few months short of his 88th birthday. I remember that writing the article helped me come to terms with the fact that Dad really had gone from us; even though he’d been ill for a long time, I found it hard to comprehend that I’d never see him again, and it didn’t really sink in until a few months later, long after his funeral. I’m just not very good, I suppose, at accepting finalities.

This failing on my part to acknowledge or accept ultimate loss has been brought home to me again this last week or so, with the news that my brother Graham had died suddenly, over the weekend before last, at the age of only 56. Gray was actually two years younger than me and, although his health had been poor since a major illness about fifteen years back, he’d seemed to have made a recovery of sorts. Certainly the last thing any of us expected was to hear that he’d passed away, and again, I’m struggling to get my head around it. This feeling of disbelief is hardly helped by the fact that, like many brothers, we weren’t particularly close for long periods, and our disagreements and quarrels were many. Sibling rivalry, fraternal friction, call it what you will there was usually some strife. So, this sense of sudden loss is tinged with regret and a certain amount of guilt too – as if the death of a younger brother wasn’t bad enough already. The last year or so of his life was one of those extended mutual stand-off times, something I’ll clearly never be able to put right. It is what it is, sadly. Our Gray could be an awkward bugger at times – but, then again, so can I.

One thing that Gray and I always had in common was Leeds United; despite being two years younger, he started going to Elland Road a good few years before I did, and was privileged to see Don Revie’s Super Leeds in action, whereas I had to make do initially with Armfield’s Aces in 1975. And, as we all know, it was all downhill from there until Sergeant Wilko turned up 13 years later. But over those first few seasons of my fanaticism, Gray and I shared many trips to see the Whites play, especially at home games, when we’d board the old Ponte supporters bus on Horsefair in town and set off, more in hope than expectation. On one memorable occasion, I leaned too heavily on the emergency exit at the back of the bus as we pulled into the Elland Road car park, and fell out. I was left sprawling in the dust as my brother and his mates wet themselves laughing at my humiliation. It was a story he recounted with evident relish and amusement as best man at my wedding years later. He also mentioned the frequent occasions we’d return home after some dire defeat, to be met by our Dad with his doom-laden verdict of “Never again”. Dad had had enough of Leeds United by the eighties – I don’t think he’d ever really forgiven them for selling John Charles – and he assumed that we’d have had enough too, after each successive disappointment. I’d like to think that they’re continuing that argument somewhere right now, Dad and Gray, perhaps over some heavenly pint in the company of a few lost heroes.

Gray didn’t die as a result of the current COVID-19 crisis, it was his existing health problems that caught up with him. Still, lockdown has its effect on everything these days and, sadly, Graham’s funeral next Tuesday at Pontefract Crematorium will be a severely restricted affair, limited to ten mourners in the building itself. But funerals are mainly for those left behind, and the priority on the day for my remaining brother Mike and myself will be to support our Mum, who’s 83, as well as Gray’s two sons Stuart and Matthew, and of course his partner Julie. The idea is that, as and when this virus situation eases and we regain at least a measure of freedom, we’ll be able to organise something whereby Gray’s life can be celebrated properly, with a few drinks being sunk and a few hoary old anecdotes retold, as he’d most certainly have wanted.

Clearly, in the context of this blog, one particularly bitter regret is that Gray will never get to see Leeds United back in the top flight. I have a feeling that the achievement of promotion would have enabled us both to overcome our recent differences and disagreements, to mark the return of the club we’ve both loved for decades now, finally back to where they belong. It’s a milestone we’d doubtless have marked in a suitably drunken manner, which after all is how most reconciliations occur. That’s just a futile dream now, but still I hope that the club will be able to get over the line somehow, despite this awful bug and what it’s done to us all. It’s just such a shame that, when it does happen, Gray won’t see it.

It was my Dad and Graham who flew the flag for Leeds United in our family, long before I got hooked, so it’s somehow fitting that they’re now reunited as the club’s on the verge of a new era. It lends a new level of meaning for me to “Marching On Together”, and I shall definitely be raising a glass to them both when that glorious day finally arrives.

RIP Graham Atkinson.  10th August 1963 – 19th April 2020  MOT WAFLL WACCOE LUFC

West Ham Farewell Party Confirms the Love For Elland Road   –   by Rob Atkinson

Elland Road

Elland Road, THE place of worship for thousands

Just nine days short of 480 years since another Boleyn met her end, on a Tower Green scaffold one sad Tudor morning, the curtain finally fell on West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground last night. It was the climax of 112 years of East End football history, fittingly topped off with a thrilling late victory and then the obligatory lasers and fireworks – spectacular high jinks, warming the cockles before the cold reality of the bulldozers moving in to do their grim work. 

Poor little Queen Anne was snuffed out by a French swordsman imported specially for the occasion by her kindly husband King Henry VIII. One swing of that fine blade left la Boleyn shorter by a head – and it was deadly twin thrusts from another Frenchman that could have cut short the farewell celebrations at the Boleyn Ground. West Ham had taken an early lead, but two goals from French prodigy Martial threatened rudely to poop the Hammers’ party. Fortunately, not least for this hardly unbiased viewer, the Irons roared back with two late goals to secure victory and put the Champions League hopes of Manchester’s finest back in their own hands. What a game, what a night. But then, chillingly, comes the bleak reality of the following day.

Watching such a thrilling match and then such an emotional farewell event had me wondering how those Hammers fans were feeling as the night and the occasion went by. There must surely have been a slightly unreal air about the place. Is this really the last time? Is this familiar old place really going to be torn down pitilessly, along with all the memories of good times and bad? Those questions must inevitably have gone through thousands of baffled, barely believing cockney minds. 

I have my own recollections of the Boleyn Ground – or Upton Park, as it was also known. Only a few, but marked each time by a Leeds United win, which obviously makes for good memories. And enough of those memories to make the place quite familiar to me. So even I can hardly credit the fact that, so soon, it will all be gone. But if I had to guess, based on my own forty-odd years of football fandom, just how those West Ham fans were feeling last night, I’d wager there was a lot of sadness and a sea of tears after the jubilation of victory, as the loss of a beloved place of worship started to sink in. And, I ask you, how on earth must they be feeling this morning?

It’s a bit hard to put myself in their shoes. The nearest comparison I can make is that last occasion, before the suits brought in the seats, standing on the Kop terraces against the Wendies. That was emotional enough. I literally can hardly imagine how I would feel if Elland Road itself – my second and spiritual home since 1975 – was condemned to be rased to the ground. Words would not be able to express the awful emptiness I would feel, the nightmare sensation of being cast out of my comfort zone, never to return. It came close enough – too close for comfort – to actually happening, with a firm proposal to relocate put to the vote in the 90s. For me, it didn’t really hit home or seem real at that time. I truly know that now.

I know it, because of what I saw in the coverage of the Boleyn’s last game. Because it’s a stadium I’m familiar with, I was suddenly forced to contemplate the same grisly fate befalling Elland Road. It’s a simply horrible thought. It certainly gave me nightmares and, this morning, I really feel for those displaced, dispossessed Hammers fans. 

Some will point to the grandeur of their new surroundings at the Olympic Stadium. Well, whatever floats your boat. And there’s the small matter of 52,000 season tickets sold already ahead of the next campaign. The Hammers are moving up to a different level, it’s a whole new ball game now. So it may well be. But is it worth it? Well, you could rebuild the Bernebeu or the Camp Nou in Roundhay Park and, for me, the answer would still be no.

It’s a bit different for us. We’ve been the best, on more than one occasion, and we’ve sustained that excellence at a fortress called Elland Road. So much of what Leeds United have achieved is part of the concrete, the steel, even the hallowed turf of that venerable old stadium. Maybe it would have been harder for us than it’s turning out to be for those Hammers who said “goodbye” last night. But honestly, I doubt it. I think it’s going to be very hard indeed on those fans, once the dust has settled. 

All I can say for myself is that last night reinforced for me the emotional pull of Elland Road, the fundamental attachment I so strongly feel for the place. I’m quite certain that the same is true for thousands of other Leeds fans. Perhaps it takes being a spectator at an event like last night to really bring home what being at home is actually all about. And what losing that home would heart-breakingly mean.

Hammers fans still have their memories; they’ll still be able to replay the mind’s eye video of countless great matches and famous victories. But the place where all those things happened will soon be dust, and there’s an awful finality to that. When the place is gone, the memories will be harder to put into their proper setting. Even ghosts need a place to float around in.

Every time I see Elland Road, a thousand precious memories become real again for me – some pretty bad ones too, make no mistake. But they’re all part of that fund of recollection any football fan builds up, and they’re inextricably linked with that loveable ramshackle old stadium, with its incongruously shiny newer bits. Even they’ve been with us over a quarter of the club’s lifetime. I love every inch of the place, down to the last rivet and the smallest blade of grass. Part of my life would be gone, if I had to go through what the Hammers fans went through last night. What they’re only starting to get used to this morning. 

Congratulations to West Ham, on a fine victory and a fitting way to mark the end of an era. I’m really pleased for you – and yet I’m sorry for you too. God knows I’d love the experience again, of beating that lot and reducing them to misery. I’ve always loved that. But – at the cost of a large chunk of my soul? I think not. I really think not.