In recent times just as in the Glory Days of the past, Leeds United have always been at their best when there’s a bit of adversity flying about, some mountains to climb – maybe a few unfair obstacles to overcome. This is what is sometimes referred to as the “siege complex”. It’s what S’ralex Fergie used over the years at Man U to help them – with the valuable assistance of refs, authorities and media – to achieve honours and dominate in a way that teams of their relative mediocrity would not otherwise have managed. The not-altogether-likeable Taggart was a past master at this – it was his greatest asset, much more effective than the tiresome “mind-games” which the gutter rags so loved to harp on about, but in which he was consistently out-manoeuvred by the likes of Wenger, Dalglish, Mourinho, Wilkinson and Benitez.
In a smaller way, and in humbler circumstances, Leeds teams over the past few years have benefited from this sort of togetherness, forged in the white heat of hatred and contempt from outside the club. The “sod ’em, chaps – just get out there and fight” approach was never more clearly in operation than at the start of the 2007-08 season, United’s first in the third tier, when they began their battle to return from obscurity with the penalty of a 15 point deduction hampering them. We all know that they started that season on fire, despite the scratch squad assembled cheaply and at the very last minute, due to transfer restrictions imposed by the Football League. A sort of “Dunkirk Spirit” bound those players together as they fought to recover from 15 points behind at the foot of League One, to actually top the table just before Christmas. Overcoming such monumental calamity brought out the best in Leeds United.
So it was back in the sixties and seventies, when Leeds United swiftly became the most hated team in the land. Possessed of some world-class players of devastating skill, capable of the most beautiful and effective football, the team nevertheless suffered from the media labeling it as “Filthy”, a tag that has never quite gone away. A bond grew between those lads, a brotherhood nurtured by Don Revie, simply the best manager there ever was. The Don, partly assisted by this early example of “siege complex” transformed an ailing provincial club with virtually no history by giving them, ultimately, the finest team in the world.
More recently than the Minus 15 era, we have had still further adversity to overcome, and this time it has brought out the best in the fans as well as the players and the club itself. The malign influence of Bates created a different atmosphere around Leeds United right from the start. All of a sudden we had a despot at the head of the club, and not one of the “benign” variety – someone whose extreme personal charmlessness infected the way United were perceived outside the club. There was a strong feeling as well that Bates was here to pursue his own agenda; certainly not one that was favourable to the future prospects of the Elland Road outfit. In 1984, while chairman of Chelsea, Bates had responded to some freelance demolition work carried out on his Stamford Bridge scoreboard by a gang of contractors from Leeds by saying: “I shall not rest until Leeds United are kicked out of the football league. Their fans are the scum of the earth, absolute animals and a disgrace. I will do everything in my power to make sure this happens.” On the face of it, these are not the words of a man determined to restore Leeds United to former glories, and the fans twigged the subtle shades of meaning in the quote well enough to suspect that Papa Smurf meant us harm.
This led to the most concerted campaign of publicity and action by Leeds United fans in living memory. They wanted Bates out of the club – and from a position of no representation, little power and organisation and zero support from the media (who you suspected found it quite funny that Leeds-hater Bates held the destiny of United in his gnarled hands) – they rallied round, gathered support, organised and hit the streets with protests and campaigns aimed at achieving a power shift in the Elland Road boardroom. Out of these beginnings, eventually, came the Takeover Saga – TOMA – and ultimately, reluctantly, Bates went. By distinct contrast, Man U fans have gone so far as to form a whole other club, without having achieved anything like the same amount of success. After all, the Glazers are still there – despite FC United of Manchester, despite thousands of cockneys at the Theatre of Hollow Myths waving what looked for all the world like Norwich City scarves. But out of adversity, dedicated Leeds fans helped achieve real change – that’s something to be proud of.
Now, even though Bates is gone from within the club, he’s still hanging around outside it, like a nasty smell that won’t entirely go away. He has offices just over the road, and he’s busily plotting litigation after tasting the bitter fruits of defeat and being winkled out of his Presidency. Seemingly, he can’t drag himself away from the club he stated so clearly all those years ago that he hated and wanted to see brought low. Now we’re on our way back up again and he’s been forced out, he still won’t retire gracefully back to Monaco and die in the Mediterranean sun. It’s a rum do.
But maybe, and here (at last) is the point of this article, we still need his loathsome presence, the occasional sight of him slithering his way around Elland Road, or even holding court to his favoured toadies in Billy’s Bar. Maybe he represents that negative influence we seem to need around the club, to bring out the best in us and get us fighting fit and ready to rumble? We had Brian Mawhinney, the Football League’s repulsively-oily agent of disaster in 2007, battering us with the points deduction and rallying support from the likes of fellow reptile Paul Scally. We’ve had Chairman Bates, till he was forced out. Both of them acted as a focus for the fighting spirit of this club, without which we tend to fall back into apathy and complacency.
Now, we have the right manager in Brian McDermott – and we look as if we’re getting to the point where the team is coming together. We just need that extra spark, the anti-Leeds influence that we know we have to overcome, that will produce the flames of that United fighting spirit. Maybe Bates is just what we need to provide that spark – a Bates now relegated to an impotent role, but still as repulsive and loathsome as ever. He can serve as a reminder of what we had to put up with and what we managed, together, to overcome. He can be the symbol of the world outside Elland Road, the world that still hates Leeds United and wants us to fail. Given that, we can unite and fight, get behind the team, agitate for more and more improvements in the way our club is run.
That’s the way forward for Leeds. We’re not meant to tread an easy path. Out of adversity we’ve always wrought our greatest triumphs. Given an enemy outside our gates to rally and unite us, we can do so again.