“These things even themselves out over the course of a season” is a phrase beloved of many bland and beige football pundits and commentators as they seek to dismiss blatantly criminal refereeing decisions as marginal calls. I’ve sat there and seethed many a time after yet another complacent attempt to put into soft focus yet another massively unfair travesty of justice perpetrated on my long-suffering football club, aptly dubbed “The Damned United”.
It’s been a bit different over the past week or so though, certainly last night at Newcastle, when the decision to deny United new boy Dan James a penalty, when he was blatantly chopped down in the area with the ball nowhere near (picture above) was met with incredulous derision and explicit criticism. To hear this from respected ex-pros almost provided an atom or two of comfort after witnessing the latest in a long, long line of “We wuz robbed” situations for the Whites (or the Lilacs, on this occasion). So often, as a Leeds fan, you catch yourself thinking, bloody hell, how on Earth did he make THAT decision? And words like “conspiracy” and phrases like “bent as a nine bob note” start whirling around your possibly paranoid brain. Then a Carragher or even a Neville (Don forgive me, I’m even forgetting how to hate Neville) chirps up to agree that said decision ranks alongside Brexit for sheer mind numbing stupidity – and, for once, you feel the tiniest bit validated. And, given our history with referees and pundits, that really is a bizarre and novel feeling.
It was the same last week, with several luminaries making it very clear that they found the decision to send off Pascal Struijk utterly wrong. Again, there was an oddness to the incident, with the ref initially appearing to wave play on – even though Leeds were in possession, so clearly it wasn’t a standard advantage call. The inescapable conclusion is that the ref didn’t feel it was a foul, so it follows that his decision to show a red card must have been prompted by his realisation that the young Liverpool lad was badly injured. And THAT really does open a can of worms.
Even so, hard on the heels of the usual feelings of frustration and downright resentment, there came a minuscule crumb of comfort that people were seeing what’s happening with Leeds, and that they’re prepared to speak out about it. Once that starts happening, it’s surely not long before people other than rabidly biased Leeds fans start to wonder what’s going on. Would van Dijk have been sent off if he’d been the one making the challenge for which Struijk saw red? (Answer: no – he’s made an identical challenge and not even a yellow resulted). Would Cristiano Ronaldo have been awarded a penalty kick if it was him being chopped down playing for the Pride of Devon, instead of Dan James of Leeds? (Answer: of course he would, don’t be so deuced naive).
Once those questions start being asked on a regular basis, and assuming that the likes of Mike Dean will continue to hand Leeds the crappy end of the stick, then a pattern will eventually form, and the scales will start dropping from complacent eyes. And then, it may not be just us Leeds fans who are asking: is the game actually pursuing a vendetta against Leeds United? And, with myriad similar incidents burned into our brains going back the thick end of fifty years, we all know the answer to THAT one.What will be fascinating to behold is what will happen when others realise it too.
Any Leeds fans with nightmare memories of the number of occasions last season, when Leeds United had ridiculously tight VAR calls go against them, might have gone into today’s game against the Pride of Devon hoping for better, or at least fairer, things. It’s fair to say those hopes were dashed, and thrice dashed, making an opening day defeat at the Theatre of Hollow Myths an even bitterer than usual pill to swallow.
Let’s start with an admission – Leeds deserved nothing better than defeat on the day. It’s the scale and manner of that defeat I’m taking issue with, and although I’m probably going to be accused of blinkered bias, I’ll say here and now that two of Devon’s goals were as dodgy as a seven pound note – AND we should have had a penalty near the end. As ever, I’ll welcome comments that disagree or agree with my not entirely objective view – but I’d be grateful to see reasons, pro or con.
The first goal came directly from our young keeper’s less than habitually accurate kick out, gifting possession to the Devonians and allowing Bruno Fernandez to score. No quibbles here. In the second half, Ayling’s howitzer of an equaliser was a thing of beauty and a joy for a few minutes, until Greenwood managed to get by Pascal and score. 2-1 to the European Super League wannabes – and that’s where the game started to go bent. For the third home goal, I remain unconvinced that the whole of the ball crossed the line. Where was the computer graphic of last season, showing clearly the position of the ball relative to the line? All I saw was an unconvincing and blurry freeze frame, and my dander was well and truly up from that point onwards.
The fourth goal looked offside to me in real time, and again I was unconvinced by replays – the lines so often drawn last season seemed to be on leave of absence, and it felt as though justice was not seen to be done. I’d heard the lines were supposed to be thicker, not AWOL. As I said earlier, I’d welcome other views on both of these “goals”, perhaps I’ve missed something while tearing my hair and gnashing my teeth.
The fifth goal was down to lax and demoralised defending, too much room in our box, ‘nuff said. But then we should have had a penalty (yes, I know that’s unrealistic at Old Toilet, but this was a stonewall penalty). Contact was demonstrably made with Tyler Roberts’ trailing leg, and a commentator mouthed something along the lines of “not enough to make him go down”. But Roberts was moving at speed, and any contact was going to be enough to put him on the deck. I guarantee that, if the incident was in the other area, with a Franchise player measuring his length on the turf, the ref would have whistled long and hard.
So, there we have it. No complaints about the result, but there was some devil in the detail, and those injustices were salt rubbed into a raw and painful wound. At least I’ve got this off my chest, so now maybe I can look ahead to other battles where perhaps we’ll acquit ourselves rather better. It’s just that, after one game, admittedly against opponents who notoriously always get the benefit of any doubt, I have this feeling that Leeds United will not benefit from this supposedly fairer application of VAR. I guess we’ll see over the next 37 games.
They used to say that the only two things you can rely on in life are death and taxes. Those were more innocent times though, and the list has perhaps grown a little since – you can add Tory lies and elite greed, for instance, to life’s acknowledged certainties. And one more that I will advance with no fear of contradiction is the comical and deluded sense of entitlement exhibited by just about any and every fan of Manchester’s second club – the one that used to be half-decent when they had a manager everybody was scared of. Despite the fact that Fergie is long gone, with the current incumbent of the manager’s office best known for his failure at Cardiff City, these innocents – encouraged, it must be said, by a complaisant media – still believe they follow the biggest and best club in the world, and they do not hesitate to allow this delusion to lead them into flights of fantasy that are guaranteed to make proper football fans dissolve into helpless fits of laughter.
They’ve been at it again today, all over Twitter in the wake of Kalvin Phillips’ midfield masterclass throughout England’s victory over Croatia in their opening game of Euro 2020. Phillips was at his imperious best, supporting Declan Rice in the protection of England’s defence, but also surging forward to add bite and purpose to the Three Lions’ attacking endeavours. In the first half, Kalvin was the only player to complete every attempted pass, and he also had England’s only shot on target. And in the second period, the Yorkshire Pirlo provided the assist for the game’s only goal, with a deliciously weighted through ball for Raheem Sterling to score.
All of this was far too much for the supporters of the club I still – despite the rival claims of Chelsea, Spurs, Galatasaray and Bayern – despise the most. I hate them, not for any geographical rivalry, nor even from any misplaced envy. I detest them because they’re inherently detestable, and their legions of armchair supporters around the globe, frantically tapping away at keyboards in their eagerness to perpetuate their most fondly-held delusions, continually demonstrate the truth of this. Within an hour of Kalvin Phillips’ triumphant Wembley display, these tragic devotees of football’s funniest club were reminding us all of just why, despite all they’ve won over the years since Sky bought the game for them, they are routinely mocked and laughed at. “Sign Phillips!”, they were tweeting in their hundreds and thousands. And, the thing is, they truly believe that all they have to do is wish a thing, and Lo, it shall come to be. It seems to have passed them by that the game’s moved on, and that they’re no longer the Fergie-fuelled power of years gone by. They sit in their Devon armchairs and weave their fantasies, certain in their long-outdated belief that the club they worship from afar can still have anything they want.
Money talks, of course, and Leeds United – in the past – have too often listened to its siren song. But ask yourself – would you willingly swap the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa for the year or two before the Glazers sack Solskjaer? I doubt that Kalvin, a lad with his feet firmly on the ground, would commit such an act of folly, even if Leeds were tempted to countenance what would be a disastrous PR decision. Phillips will be only too well aware of exactly who has realised his potential and guided him towards his current state of midfield mastery. I feel that there’s a fair way to go yet on that journey, and any club with realistic ambitions of recruiting the Yorkshire Pirlo will have to have deep, deep pockets.
Meanwhile, let’s all give thanks for those hilariously deluded Pride of Devon Twitteratti – it’d be a duller game without ’em. And now that Leeds United are seemingly embracing a new reality of competence and ambition – well, we need something to laugh at – don’t we?
Let’s face it, it’ll be a bit of a shock if there isn’t a penalty awarded against Leeds United today. The media darlings of man u seem to be able to rack up the spot kicks if any opposing player so much as glances at Rashford & Co in the box, and with today’s ref being a mancunian from a family of Old Trafford season ticket holders, it would hardly be a surprise to see at least one awarded today.
Leeds, we understand, are going to venture into the swamp playing their normal game, which tends to give knowledgeable Whites fans the collywobbles, thinking of all that space for St Marcus to sprint into, prior to doing the half pike with double twist once in our area. The concentration from Leeds today will have to be exemplary if we’re to avoid that scenario, along with the adjacent one of having somebody vital red carded early doors. Both of these doom-laden outcomes have come about in my recent nightmares, and they could so easily translate into reality against the Pride of Devon later this afternoon.
Whatever happens, we will doubtless carry on as per the instructions of our deity incarnate, Marcelo Bielsa. And that’s just as it should be, as he’s long ago earned the right to our unquestioning trust and confidence. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that we can acquit ourselves well against the fourteen men of Manchester, and that our eleven lads will walk out there with heads held high and do battle as we’d all wish them to.
In a move hardly calculated to reinforce perceptions of fairness and impartiality, the FA have chosen Wythenshawe born official Anthony Taylor as referee for this Sunday’s meeting of Manchester United and Leeds United at Old Trafford (kick off 4:30pm). It is, of course, quite possible that this appointment is free from any taint of bias and favouritism. The question remains: with the choice of any Premier League referee, why pick one from a man u stronghold six miles from Old Trafford, whose family are strongly rumoured to hold season tickets for the Red Devils?
Actually, it’s not quite true to say that any Premier League referee could have been picked to referee this particular match, as Yorkshire’s Martin Atkinson is ineligible due to his White Rose roots – do you begin to see the difficulty here?
The problem for Anthony Taylor is that he does not wish to be excluded from involvement in some of the so-called “biggest games in the Premier League calendar”, and is therefore most anxious to scotch any rumours that he has any emotional ties to Old Trafford. In fact, he claims, winking furiously and concealing crossed fingers behind his back, he’s a supporter of Altrincham FC – so that’s ok then.
It is further claimed in defence of Mr Taylor’s impartiality that he is a founder member of a Manchester-wide organisation of football people which was formed to promote Mancunian football as a whole, rather than the interests of any one club. Soccer Can Unite Manchester(SCUM) has been close to Anthony’s heart for many years, according to one neutral Mancunian who wished to be known only as Fred the Red. Another witness for Mr Taylor who doesn’t even live in Manchester, hailing instead from Devon, has pointed out that Leeds United’s last visit to Old Trafford had ended up with man u going out of the FA Cup. “We’m didn’t even get a penalty and Jerrrmaaaaine Beckford was only a yaaaaaarrrd onsoide, and it wasn’t fair,” said our man in Ilfracombe, neutrally, “So ‘opefully Aaaaanthony can help set thaaaat record straight”.
All eyes will be on Anthony Taylor this Sunday, which is perhaps not the most conducive of circumstances in which to operate in a professional manner. Everybody is also aware that Man U have had an extraordinarily large number of penalties awarded this season and last, and many punters are placing heavy bets, not on whether the home side will get a spot kick, but rather on how many they will get, with two being the marginal favourite. But the FA have defended their appointment of Mr Taylor, saying “We are sure that, as Howard Webb has now retired, Anthony is the best possible man for this match, and that he will act entirely as we expect him to. Come on yooouu Reeee-eds!”
Alan Hardaker, 108, has let it be known (through a medium) that he entirely approves of this appointment.
Manchester United, reeling from their 1-6 home defeat to Spurs on Sunday, and frustrated by Dortmund’s refusal to budge on top target Jadon Sancho’s £100m+ price, have admitted that their move to sign 33 year old free agent Edinson Cavani was prompted by the threat of losing a fan in the wake of their stuttering start to the season.
The once mighty Pride of Devon have been out of sorts so far in this new campaign. The season opened with a 1-3 home reverse to Crystal Palace, with neutral observers claiming that Palace could have had six. Then, the ailing media favourites had to rely on a penalty given after the final whistle to beat Brighton in their first away fixture, with neutral observers claiming that the Seagulls could have had eight. Most recently, it was back to the Theatre of Hollow Myths, where a first minute penalty was not enough to stop Tottenham Hotspur rattling in six, with neutral observers claiming that Spurs could have had ten.
In the wake of that second home defeat, Steve, a Leeds-based plastic armchair man u fan of forty years, shocked the football world by claiming that he’d had enough and was no longer a glory-hunting disciple of the ironically-dubbed “biggest club in the world”. Steve pulled no punches in his withering assessment of Manchester’s second club, ranting as follows:
“I’ve been a Man U fan for over 40 years and I’m afraid I’m looking for a new club to support after today’s shambles. I’m done with them. They are not a big club anymore, they’re an absolute shambles and it starts from the top. Until Woodward and the board go, they’ll have no success. I live in Leeds so I’ll probably support Leeds United. They’ve got one of the best managers in the business, their players are hungry for it, and they play great football.”
Sadly for Steve, the reaction among proper Leeds fans has not been particularly positive, with several commenting that they “would rather chew wasps” than accept a renegade Devonian as one of their number. It appears, then, that there is no welcome for Steve at Elland Road, and so hopes will burn bright from Milton Keynes to Singapore that he will keep the faith and maintain his front room devotion to Ole’s boys, however dire and dismal they are under the hapless Norwegian “demon pixie”.
The Trafford based club have reiterated their determination to retain fans like Steve, by making any signings necessary, regardless of the benefit or lack thereof to the team itself. “We mean business”, stated one man u insider, “and we’ll show our intent by the end of this window. If Cavani doesn’t do the trick, we’ll be approaching Derby for their star forward Rooney. Don’t rule us out yet, we’re going to do great things.”
Terry Christian, well-known Salford scally and professional man u fan, was unavailable for comment, as he’s hiding behind his sofa until Woodward and the Glasers are gone.
Each of Leeds United’s three old-style Football League Championship titles was clinched at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC and, appropriately enough, United’s destination on Saturday as they make their long overdue return to the top flight. In 1992, the Reds were good enough to beat a demoralised Man U 2-0 which, added to Leeds’ earlier triumph at Bramall Lane, saw the Whites as Champions by 4 points in the last ever pre-Premier League competition – which, after Man U had been such solid favourites only a week or so earlier, would have qualified any first time Leeds pundit for a well deserved best bet365 welcome bonus.
In 1974, Liverpool obliged at Anfield again, losing at home to Arsenal to ensure that they couldn’t overhaul Leeds at the top. I remember a TV programme going to an ad break and then an information board coming up which read “Football result: Liverpool 0, Arsenal 1 – LEEDS UNITED ARE THE CHAMPIONS”That simple memory still sends a tingle down my spine, even forty-six years on.
And of course – probably best of all – Leeds United’s first ever title success at the top level of the game came after a showdown between the two deadly but mutually respectful rivals on April 28 1969. Leeds had come to Anfield knowing that a point would clinch the league, and they set out their stall as only they could to obtain that point, in the toughest place possible. They would go on to beat Nottingham Forest in the last game of that season to reach a record 67 points – a mark that wasn’t beaten until Liverpool themselves recorded 68 points, ironically with a 3-0 win at Elland Road, in their fabulous 1978/79 Championship year.
That legendary Leeds United squad of the sixties and seventies hung on Don Revie’s every word, they would follow him into the pit of Hell itself and they trusted him implicitly. This was the cornerstone of the relationship between team and boss; the unit thus formed was formidable indeed and, on their day, there was no-one to touch them. It was often said of that Leeds side that if you cut one, they all bled – and then you’d better watch out, because they’d be after you as one man to seek retribution. They would do anything for each other and anything for the legendary Don – but on that historic night at Anfield over half a century ago, they must have come as near as they ever came to saying “You what, gaffer? Are you sure??”
On the final whistle, as the Leeds players cavorted with joy in front of their delirious fans at this first delightful taste of being The Best – and as the weary Liverpool troops, having given their all in vain, sportingly congratulated the new Champions – Revie came over to Billy Bremner and confirmed to him that he was to lead his team over to the Kop. This, remember, was at a time when crowd violence was becoming very fashionable. A similar gesture at a certain stadium down Trafford way, and sundry other less-than-welcoming grounds around the country, might very well have got you a crack on the head with a pool ball. It did rather seem to be pushing things a bit – but Revie was insistent, and he was very definitely The Boss.
So it was that Billy Bremner, captain of champions Leeds United, gathered his players together and led them on a long, slow walk to the legendary Anfield Kop. When it was realised what was happening, a hush fell on the ground. In near-silence, the heroes in white walked on, nearer and nearer to the most iconic terrace of them all.
As the triumphant yet apprehensive Leeds warriors finally neared the Kop, the long silence was finally broken as the first cry of “Champions!” went up, swiftly echoed by others on the still-packed terrace – until finally the whole 27,000 population of that mighty hill were acclaiming the title-winners with the same shout, over and over again: “Champions! Champions! Champions!!”
Later, in the dressing room, Leeds celebrated anew with champagne provided by Bill Shankly, whose quote was short and to the point: ‘Leeds United are worthy champions,’ he said. ‘They are a great side.’ Revie responded by praising Liverpool, the club, the fans and their fine team. ‘The reception given us by the sporting Liverpool crowd was truly magnificent,’ he acknowledged, ‘and so, for that matter, was our defence tonight. They were superb in everything.’ It was a night of triumph and disaster, as these decisive nights tend to be, depending on whether you were White or Red; but it was also, let us not forget, a night of dignity, respect and utter, unalloyed class – not least from those 27,000 Liverpool fans on the Anfield Kop.
Some unlikely candidates have put themselves forward as “rivals” to Leeds United over the last decade and a half, as Yorkshire’s finest have languished in the middle two tiers of English football’s four division structure. Some, such as Barnsley and Huddersfield, have had few pretensions to be compared size or history wise with United, but feel a tribal enmity based on geographical proximity, which is understandable enough. The same might be said of the two Sheffield clubs, or even Bradford City.
All these local clubs, together with the likes of Reading, Millwall, Derby etc etc have sought to exploit the reduced circumstances of Leeds for as long as their top flight exile lasted, to suggest that genuine two-way rivalries were in place. That bubble of delusion popped with United’s overdue elevation to the Premier League, and the realisation that the traditional enmities would now be cordially resumed. In the hearts and minds of Leeds fans, it was always about the likes of man utd and Chelski, with those clubs reciprocating the extreme dislike, even during our long absence from actual competitive involvement.
But, even in the Premier League, there are lesser clubs who clearly yearn to carry the mantle of “Leeds United’s rivals”, however ridiculous such a claim seems in the absence of any reciprocal antipathy, or indeed any real interest on the part of the Leeds fan base. Still, that hasn’t stopped certain clubs from fondly imagining there’s a rivalry there, and one in particular is extremely reluctant to give up on even such an outlandish notion.
For Brighton and Hove Albion – not so much the club itself, more their fans and adherent local press – the time since the end of last season seems to have been a prolonged and unaccustomed spell in the spotlight, due entirely to Leeds United’s pursuit of Ben White, who spent a gloriously successful Championship campaign on loan at Elland Road and was now wanted by United on a permanent basis. The move never happened, despite repeated efforts on the part of Leeds, and despite the player himself being widely regarded as wanting a return to West Yorkshire. In the end, Brighton stood firm, and Leeds, after making three offers and having them all turned down, reluctantly looked elsewhere and signed a German international for around half what they’d been willing to pay for White, who lacks any experience at all of top flight football, let alone the international arena. So Brighton kept their player, Leeds got a more than adequate replacement in Robin Koch, and Ben himself, at long last, got a contract acceptable to him, given the value placed upon him by his parent club. Case closed, so you’d have thought.
But no. The Brighton support and the local press for the region were not willing to give up so much delicious attention, and set about trying to force an unlikely rivalry with a club and support base hundreds of miles to the north, both of which habitually looked west to the red quarter of Manchester for its chief object of dislike and derision.
For Brighton, the Ben White tranfer saga evidently represented their biggest day in the sun since a Cup Final appearance (coinciding with relegation) 37 years ago. Looking further back, their only other real mark on history was a Charity Shield triumph sometime prior to the Great War of 1914-18, so it’s reasonably understandable that their fans should wish to prolong any spell in the public eye. But the ridiculousness of their efforts to talk up a “rivalry” is to be found in the fact that such efforts persisted even after Leeds ended their interest in Ben White, with the local press tagging Leeds in any tweets relating to his eventual new contract, and the Brighton fans on Twitter eagerly attempting to troll bemused Leeds United fans, who remained preoccupied with more traditional rivals and only thought of Brighton when Quadrophenia was on the telly.
It was all most unedifying, and it’s a stark warning that we can’t expect much more by way of dignity and restraint in the Premier League than we ever found at lower levels. I got drawn into the slanging match myself at various points before it became clear that, despite his wishes in the matter (confirmed today by his agent), Ben White would not be sold to Leeds at any price. At that point, I stopped taking the mick about Bielsaball versus Potterball, and moved onto more pressing matters – such as how the EFL would survive without Leeds United. But the Brighton fans persisted, becoming more evidently needy and utterly ridiculous with each passing day. Abandoning any sense of irony or perspective, they’re vying with each other to label United a small club, heading straight back down, which is insolence if you like, and pretty foolhardy stuff to boot. But the relentless tagging of LUFC by the Brighton tweeters and the Sussex Bugle, or whatever it’s called, continues unabated. This is a club unused to such attention, and clearly its supporters are desperate to prolong the experience as far and as long as possible.
The whole thing reflects pretty poorly on the Brighton support, certainly of the online variety, which has been encouraged in its collective acts of self-ridicule by a local press clearly cottoning onto the fact that tagging Leeds in any published piece will increase the number of hits exponentially. Again, I’ll exclude the club itself from those remarks, due to their determination in resisting offers from a bigger club, which you have to applaud. They also showcased Ben White in a video allowing him to express his appreciation of his time at Leeds, and to thank the fans for the support and adulation he received here. That was classy stuff, and there was no real need for Brighton to do it, so fair play.
Perhaps – just perhaps – Brighton & Hove Albion still remember that Leeds United helped save them financially when they were enduring hard times, by signing goalkeeper Mark Beeney for a significant sum, which went a long way towards alleviating a threatening situation at the time. That’s a factor that the local press down there, and the eager-beaver online fans might do well to take into account before bringing down even more ridicule upon themselves. However recent Leeds United’s elevation to the top level, it’s an undeniable fact that the Elland Road outfit is by far and away a bigger club than Brighton could ever dream of being, with a far more illustrious history, a fan base that spans the globe and (let’s face it) a much better coach and the makings of a squad that will compare well even with such an – ahem – established Premier League force as Brighton.
The moral of this tale is probably: choose your rivals well, and don’t punch above your weight – something the over-enthusiastic Brighton fans have flouted, thereby making themselves look several shades of daft. There’s a perfectly good south coast rival in Southampton, not an incongruously bigger beast as Leeds are, and therefore much less likely to reflect poorly on and embarrass the Brighton club. From here on in, it’s to be hoped that the Seagulls, fans and hacks alike, will conduct themselves in a more seemly and less cringeworthy manner – but I suppose we’d better not hold our breath.
In George Best, the football world lost a massive talent if not a truly great player, when the maverick Irishman died prematurely at only 59 in 2005. In the fifteen years since his tragic death, the debate has continued over his place in football, his ranking among the legends of the game. Best was a genius technically, blessed with the skills to enable him to do pretty much whatever he wanted on the football field. But he was also a flawed and addictive personality, less able than most professionals to deal with the pressures of professional football, more likely to be swayed from the straight and narrow by the temptations that would face any rich and over-hyped young man.
That being the case, Best could hardly have suffered a worse fate than to be taken onto the books of Manchester United as a callow youth, there to develop as a skillful footballer, but also to be lost in the maelstrom of hype and self-aggrandisement that has dogged the Old Trafford club since the start of the Matt Busby era and, particularly, since the Munich Air Disaster in 1958. For Best, it was the wrong club at the wrong time; he needed a different approach and a less relentlessly goldfish bowl existence. Stronger, less easily-led personalities than George Best prospered at Old Trafford, but the combination of George’s skill, personal attractiveness and extreme marketability made him ripe to be chewed up and spat out by the Man Utd/media publicity machine. Therein, the seeds of his eventual destruction were sown; Best was doomed by the unfortunate circumstance of becoming a Man United prodigy, his downhill path plotted even while he was enjoying such spectacular, early success.
It could all have been so different for George Best. What he needed was a better and more professional environment, somewhere his stellar talent could have been harnessed for the benefit of a crack team of inseparable brothers. Somewhere with a “Side before self, every time” mentality, with a manager who treated his players like sons and their wives and girlfriends like daughters-in-law, a place and a club where press flattery did not venture, but where instead a siege complex was fostered that strengthened the squad from within. George Best, had he but known it, needed Don Revie and Leeds United; if history had worked out differently, and Best had grown up alongside the likes of Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer and ex-Man Utd star John Giles, then I would venture to suggest that his development and indeed his whole existence would have been along such radically different lines, he may well have been still alive today.
George was let down by his football club, its management and the surrounding hype and overcranked worldwide acclaim. He was considered by many to be the greatest of all time, a view he would publicly endorse on his own behalf on many occasions. And that says a lot about George, about his inadequate standards and lack of humility. It’s something that would have been ironed out of him swiftly and early at Elland Road. Such conceit was frowned upon in the ultra-professional environment at Leeds, where individual skill was fostered and encouraged mainly within the pattern and demands of team requirements. Those were of paramount importance in Revie’s blueprint, so you had world-class talents like Gray, Bremner and Giles willing, nay, eager to devote their own brand of genius to securing the optimum team results. They’d have kept young George’s feet on the ground alright, and the Leeds backroom staff would have been there every step of the way, nurturing Best’s talent, inculcating the team ethic, bringing him down when that was needed, boosting him when necessary. The fact that Eddie Gray succeeded at Leeds was proof that a properly motivated and disciplined Best could have succeeded as well – and he’d have a had a long career, a longer life, if only that could have been the case.
It’s such a shame about George. The Manchester scene was all wrong for him, as would most probably have been that of London. Moreover, the club where he landed, at such a tender age, was in the business of producing legends, media stars to feed the delusions of their fans and meet the post-Munich hype and voracious desire to be the biggest, the best, the most glamorous. It takes a hardy seedling to prosper and grow in a hothouse like that and, despite early promise and a devastating few years of gaudy brilliance, George was doomed to wither and fade far too soon. The scars of that traumatic fall – he won his last club honour at only 22 – affected him for the rest of his life, leaving him easy prey for unscrupulous advantage takers, and for the buzz and temporary relief provided by alcohol. Who can deny that the more focused atmosphere and environment of Leeds United would have kept Best on the right path, providing him with a stage on which his technical genius could flourish, giving him the tangible rewards his prime deserved and yet never received?
In the public consciousness, Best was the Best – because we’ve been relentlessly told that’s the case, which has a lot to do obviously with the media circus and public adulation surrounding such an over-hyped football club. But sober analysis identifies Best as a genius footballer who was not a team player, not a very professional player and certainly not, over the span of his career, a world-class performer. Best, for all his talents, was not in the top twenty of all-time greats – but he should have been. He could perhaps have been right up there, among the best of the best. That he wasn’t and isn’t is something revisionists will deny, but a look at the facts and stats tells its own damning story.
George Best could gave been a much greater footballer, and he could still have been with us today. If only he’d been lucky enough to have started out, under Don Revie, at Leeds United, just as the Super Leeds legend was being born in the early sixties. What a different and infinitely happier story his might then have been.
I’ve never had much time for Sunderland, despite the fact that the Wearside club have never featured among the top echelons of rivalry with my beloved Leeds United. And really, how could they – when their sole claim to fame since the war amounts to one distinctly fluky Wembley success against Don Revie‘s overwhelming FA Cup Final favourites in 1973?
The thing is, though, that while Leeds United have generally had bigger fish to fry, the barren nature of Sunderland’s last three quarters of a century has meant that they’ve had to harp on and on about Stokoe, Porterfield, Montgomeryet al ever since that freak cup final, which found Leeds well short of their normal imperious form, while Sunderland rode their luck into a page of history. It was a major shock, alright – bigger than Southampton‘s success against the Pride of Devon in 1976, and much bigger than the Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club in 1988. And, naturally, the Leeds hating media waste no opportunity to rub our collective nose in what was really a day of humiliation for a club of United’s historic standing. But them’s the breaks, and we’ve had to live with that embarrasment ever since, just as Sunderland’s needy fan base have found it a straw to clutch at for nigh on 47 years.
There are compensations, though, and Netflix came up with a beauty just this week, screening the second series of Sunderland Till I Die, which features the Mackems in familiar self-destruct mode, contriving to lose not one, but two Wembley finals as the 2018/19 season reached its climax. That’s funny enough, but the fact that this serial disaster of a club gave their fans some false hope in both matches, contriving to take the lead before capitulating, raised the comedic levels to sublime. And the nature of the Wembley occasions is also rather funny, a Checkatrade Final (whatever that is) against Portsmouth, followed by the League One play-off against Charlton Athletic, managed by our old alumnus Lee Bowyer. In both games the Mackems were ahead, prompting feverish celebrations among their hopeful but dim support – and in both games, Sunderland lost at the last gasp, on penalties against Pompey and in the very last minute of injury time against Charlton. Just as the so-called Roker Roar dissolved into tears, so Leeds United fans with long enough memories had tears of mirth rolling down cheeks that ached with laughter. It was a double dose of Schadenfreude at the time, making up in some small degree for our own less than successful climax to last season – and now Netflix have produced a comedy epic out of the ashes of Mackem hopes, almost as if they wished to entertain us Whites all over again.
This double HA9 disaster was actually made up of the two most recent helpings of Wembley Karma for Sunderland, who have contrived to lose every single Wembley appearance since 1973, including another play off defeat to Charlton in 1998, on penalties, which is always a gratifyingly painful way to get beat for any club that you don’t particularly like. Towards the end of the Netflix Laughter Show, a tearful Mackem lady is showing sobbing “Why isn’t it ever us?” in response to their latest Wembley surrender. I’ll tell you why, love. It’s payback for 1973 and that git Stokoe prancing across the Wembley pitch to hug that git Montgomery. Lovely stuff, thank you Netflix and I shall look forward to the next series of this laughter-strewn classic.
As I said earlier, it’s not a full blown rivalry, and I wouldn’t want anyone to get me wrong on this. My negative feelings about Sunderland have more to do with their intrinsic lack of charm, than any real feeling of competitive dislike. The fact that they’ve been paying in installments of misery for the joy they felt on that long ago Wembley day simply makes me feel justified in celebrating their decades of unhappiness – it’s as if they’ve suffered all that pain and angst just for us. Which is most kind of them, when you think about it. And revelling in their last two disastrous seasons has certainly provided me with plenty of chuckles and entertainment during this annoying hiatus in the current campaign. In fact, it’s put me in such a good mood that I think I’ll nip off downstairs and watch Manchester United 1, Manchester City 6, and give my chorlte muscles another brisk workout.