At various times over the past few years, since Leeds United’s well-documented “fall from grace”, there have been those in the media who have been all too eager to drone on about how the Whites are no longer Yorkshire’s top club. At one point, some local TV hack – it may or may not have been Harry Gration, I simply can’t recall – almost salivated over his autocue in his eagerness to get out the obviously pre-prepared line “Yorkshire’s top club Hull City”, showing no outward trace of the embarrassment he must surely have felt. It was all so cringeworthy, as if any temporary arrangement of league placements could ever alter the immutable fact that Leeds United are Yorkshire’s number one, as they have been for well over half a century.
Now, one game into United’s first top flight season since 2004, even those who thrive on bare, soulless statistics are left without an argument, as Leeds’ only fellow Premier League Yorkshire club fell to a routine home defeat at the hands of Wolves. This left Leeds, despite their thrillingly gallant defeat by the odd goal in seven at Anfield, as the highest placed Yorkshire club, further reinforcing their historically predominant status in God’s Own County.
For Sheffield United, it may well be that “second season syndrome” will blight their campaign which, judging by their Blunt attack, could well develop into a struggle for survival. It’s early days, obviously, but there could hardly have been more of a contrast in the first game performances of the two Yorkshire clubs. It’ll be interesting indeed to see how their respective fortunes progress from here on in – but, for now, it’s good to see the league table confirming what we all know was always the case; Leeds United are Yorkshire’s Number One.
The FA, after a short session of head-scratching, have responded to accusations that Liverpool’s first penalty award against Leeds United at Anfield yesterday was in direct contravention of the latest guidance on handball via deflection. The relevant passage, shown below, appears to state unequivocally that, when the ball touches a player’s arm or hand directly from another part of their body, a penalty will not be given.
In the Liverpool v Leeds United game on Saturday, however, when the ball deflected upwards from Robin Koch’s leg onto his arm, referee Michael Oliver almost spat his whistle out in his eagerness to blow for a spot kick after only four minutes. From that moment onwards, United were on the back foot, eventually losing by the odd goal in seven, despite coming back from behind three times.
Even Liverpool stalwart turned Sky pundit Jamie Carragher bemoaned the rank unfairness of that early penalty, making particular reference to the fact that VAR failed to overturn the decision, despite the obvious deflection before the ball struck Koch’s arm. Given the clear and undeniable nature of the injustice, surely the FA would not be able to defend the decision making process from the referee and VAR perspectives?
After a brief but agonised period of reflection, during which the “Official FA Manual on Defending the Indefensible” was intensively consulted, the following statement was issued.
“The FA wish to point out that the guidance referred to specifically mentions “Premier League players” and therefore its effect is limited to that group. In the instance of Liverpool versus Leeds United on the 12th September, the penalty was awarded only four minutes into the first game of the season, which was also Leeds United’s first Premier League game since 2004. In these circumstances, the referee and the VAR officials decided that no Leeds United player could, at the time of the incident in question, yet be regarded as a Premier League player. We would also point out that referee’s decisions, subject to VAR ratification, are final – so really, it’s a bit cheeky of you to question this point.”
It is further understood that the FA, concerned that this explanation might not be acceptable to all, made a specific request to the BBC Match of the Day programme, to the effect that any discussion of the first penalty award should be omitted, with Alan Shearer nominated to make a brief remark to the effect that it was the right decision before going on to heap platitudinous praise on the plucky performance of the Premier League newcomers. The FA are confident that this further measure will effectively put the issue to bed.
Leeds United declined to comment on the matter, beyond a terse statement to the effect that, at this rate, they expect to concede 76 penalties this season. Match Referee Michael Oliver was unavailable for comment, having been advised by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited(PGMOL) not to make himself look any dafter.
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.
For ten years, Leeds United has been the jewel in the EFL crown, a gem of a club amid the various also-rans, has-beens and nonentities which made up the Football League roster in any given season. Leeds was the fixture they all looked out for, everybody’s Cup Final, the club they just couldn’t stop talking about. That jewel in the crown status was always undeniable, everybody knew that United represented the biggest asset in the sub-Premier League game.
But Leeds were a diamond that was neither treasured, valued nor lovingly polished – instead they were continually chipped away at, treated with little or no respect, sniped at routinely, whenever the opportunity presented itself. Minus 15 and the golden share, Spygate, over-celebrating. The trumped-up charges kept on coming, a run of 59 games without a penalty exemplified a corrupt organisation’s determination to cling on to its biggest asset and favourite whipping boy. For the EFL, it was good while it lasted. With perennial TV stars Leeds United as its most famous, infamous and notorious member, the League retained a certain cachet, despite the sparkling allure of the Premier League.
Now Leeds United has disappeared from the English Football League and, bereft of its biggest draw, that sorry organisation must now reflect on what it has left to recommend it. And, whatever efforts might be made to talk up the spectator and viewer appeal of Derby County, Nottingham Forest or even, comically, Brentford, the inevitable conclusion will be that, without Leeds, the cupboard is pretty bare.
There was a certain karmic satisfaction, inevitably, in seeing United celebrate at the home ground of one of their most envious and resentful rivals. Binoculars of the mime variety were brandished by Leeds personnel on the pitch after United’s 3-1 success at Derby confirmed that our hungover reserves were more than a match for anything the EFL has to offer, with the pressure off and the title in the bag. Off the pitch, a jubilant Victor Orta had thoughtfully sourced some actual binoculars to help him cavort with the unrestrained joy of winners against the odds, for this title success has been the story of a club winning a league that wished them anything but success. How teeth must have been gritted, how bile must have been swallowed in the corridors of power as those scenes unfolded at Pride Park.
A guard of honour had been reluctantly formed prior to the game, with the Derby players, who had gleefully rubbed United’s noses in play-off defeat a year before, now having to applaud the Champions. The attitude of “we’ve got to do this, but we hate it” was exemplified by one silly young man in the Rams line-up who thought it cool and edgy to slow-time his clapping. He came across as a sulky kid, but his demeanour neatly summed up the attitude of the whole organisation that Leeds were now, gladly, leaving. A charge of “over-celebrating” followed, petty but typical. We reflected that, a year previously, Derby had escaped censure despite one of their number defecating on the Elland Road dressing room floor in a typically disgusting gesture of disrespect. One rule for Leeds, another for the rest. The game’s rulers were staying true to type right up to the bitter end.
Derby, of course, went on to play-off defeat against Villa, leaving that solitary win at Elland Road, after three previous defeats in the same season, as the highlight of their recent history. It’s still celebrated across their social media with unconscious irony, a determined focus on winning a battle before losing the war. A turd on the dressing room floor is such an apt symbol for that club.
But will I now feel moved to gloat over the reduced status of the Championship? Will I laugh triumphantly over the fact that Derby are currently preparing to host Barrow as United look forward to a visit to Anfield? If you think I’d be ready, willing and able to indulge in such blatant Schadenfreude – then you’d be absolutely, one hundred percent spot-on correct.
It’s a real tragedy that fan participation is missing from the current euphoria surrounding Leeds United’s magnificent achievements this season. Sadly, though, this is the world we’re currently living in, our rights and privileges suspended for now by a nasty little virus (no comparison with Frank Lampard intended).
It’s clearly very tempting to defy the current protocols and just get out there to lead as normal a life as possible anyway, consequences be damned. You can see this everywhere you look, with packed beaches all over the place, apparently populated almost exclusively by compulsive litter bugs. But in these instances, only the generality of selfish idiots can be identified, so the focus of scorn and retribution is diffuse. That is not the case with tribal football celebrations, and most particularly not where the fans of Leeds United are concerned.
As ever, critical and unfriendly eyes will be on Leeds United, watching beadily for any chance to have a go at the club, or at its fans; there is the usual eagerness to drag the name of Yorkshire’s finest through the mud wherever possible. The next obvious opportunity to present itself is United’s final match of a triumphant season, at home to Charlton Athletic tomorrow. The game is not selected for live Sky coverage, as the remaining promotion issues will be settled elsewhere. But you can bet your mortgage that cameras aplenty will be focused on the roads and areas outside the stadium, hoping to record scenes that will drop Leeds, both club and city, right in it yet again.
It’s sadly inevitable that some will turn up, ill-advised and careless of consequences, still intoxicated on the heady wine of long-awaited success. It’s going to be a matter of scale – will it be an “understandable” turnout that can be condemned but lightly given the circumstances? Or will it be a massive breach of the safety measures in place, leading to public outrage and the usual suspects calling for United to be demoted to the National League Division 5? I hope for the former, but I fear the latter.
Please exercise your discretion tomorrow, always the better part of valour. Don’t be one of the people who turn up, selfishly disregarding the potential effect on the club. Stay away from Elland Road tomorrow, carry on your celebrations safely in your homes. If the worst case scenario pans out, we can expect neither understanding nor sympathy from those who are always champing at the bit to do us down. They’ll seize the day if we give them the chance, have no doubt about that. Don’t be one of the thoughtless ones who afford them that chance.
Remember: actions have consequences, and Leeds United rarely get away with anything. Stay home tomorrow, save your celebrations for the time when we can all celebrate without let or hindrance. It’ll feel just as good – and we won’t be risking sanctions for a great club emerging from dark times into the sunlit uplands of public approbation and the Premier League. You know it makes sense.
I make no apology to Sky Sports for nicking their “Leeds Promoted” image above. They owe us, I feel, for their snide and needless overlay of “Leeds Are Falling Apart Again” during their live lockdown coverage of a recent home game. Ultimately, Sky were wrong about the falling apart thing, as United clinched automatic promotion and the Championship Title, with two games to spare. A more apt motif for this season would be Angus Kinnear’s remark to the effect that we wouldn’t be dicking about with playoffs this season, and so we didn’t. Other teams have that nightmare before them, and they’re welcome to it.
Thanks go to Huddersfield and Stoke, both of which clubs I love very much, for making this weekend a riot of celebration and alcohol-based dissolution. You’ve been as wonderful for my spiritual well-being as you’ve been disastrous for my short term health; on balance, I’m deeply grateful.
All I need to do now is to add “As Championship Champions” to the above image, by dint of some PhotoShop type wizardry which is currently beyond me due to the effects of grain and grape. But I can do all that when I sober up, maybe sometime toward mid-August. In the meantime, I love all of you too, you’re my best mates, honest you are, salt of the earth to the very last Jack & Jill of you. Hic!!
There’s no better motivation than self-interest so, while you’d never normally expect Derby County to be caught doing any good turns for Leeds United, the Rams’ next two fixtures present exactly that possibility.
The fact is that, if Derby’s season is to bear any fruit at all, then they will have to win points from games at West Bromwich Albion and at home to Brentford. From a Leeds United point of view, draws in those two fixtures would be almost as valuable as Derby victories – always supposing that the Whites do their bit and dispose of Stoke and Swansea. But, for their own aspirational reasons, Derby will need to go for the wins. Ambition is all, and the Rams, along with their bitterly Leeds-phobic support, will reluctantly set aside their morbid fear of doing United a favour, if the upshot is that they once more end up in the play-offs.
Derby’s rancid hatred of Leeds has always puzzled me slightly, with a tinge of amusement in there too. It’s largely a one-way affair, though last season’s play off debacle hardly warmed the cockles of United hearts as far as our view of those sheepish rivals was concerned. Possibly, quite probably, the animosity towards Leeds is down to the Brian Clough factor, as is so much else in the tripartite history of Leeds, Derby and Nottingham Forest. In those latter two footballing communities, Clough is revered as a god; Derby and Nottingham sometimes forget to hate each other in their shared adoration of Old Big ‘Ed. But Clough’s Brief tenure at Elland Road exposed the fact that, without his significant other Peter Taylor, Cloughie hardly emerges from the ranks of the ordinary. Unlike legends such as Revie, Shankly and Busby, who stood alone with their assistants in the background, Clough and Taylor were much more interdependent, the whole being rather more than the sum of the two parts. Maybe it was this exposure of their idol as being stood upon feet of clay that both East Midlands clubs find it impossible to forget or forgive.
Whatever the causes and history, Derby County, the club and its supporters alike, have cordially hated Leeds United for decades now. So how ironic would it be, a year on from that freaky, fluky night at Elland Road that saw last season expire in a White haze of misery, if it now fell to the Rams to butt our two main rivals out of our path, leaving the road to glory clear before us? Irony probably doesn’t do it justice, this would be Schadenfreude as cold and sweet as a classic Riesling, leaving a tingling aftertaste to thrill the jaded palate of any Leeds fan.
The cherry on the icing on the top of the cake, though, would be the chance to clinch promotion or even the Championship title itself on Derby’s home soil, administering that ungrateful serpent’s bite in the wake of the Rams having given us a reluctant leg up. Or is that simply too much to ask? Possibly it is, but a bit of gluttony for glory is understandable right now.
It all starts later this afternoon, with Derby’s visit to WBA. They should be fired up and ready to do or die. For once in a very long while, the blog wishes them the very best of luck, and a solid victory to build on with Brentford next in their sights. Come on you Rams!
Yesterday was just one of those bad days at the office, that curious and frustrating Leeds United mixture of dominance and fallibility that so often gifts three points to inferior yet hard and determined opponents. That’s nine defeats this season now and, as one of the commentators remarked during the match at Cardiff, United have arguably been the better side in all nine. Whatever is behind this phenomenon, it’s the kind of thing to induce the collywobbles in even the most unflappable Whites fan, along with the predictable epilogue of clueless moaners having a field day on Twatter and Farcebook. All in all, it was a day to forget, but that’s easier said than done.
And yet, after reading one particular tweet, I was inspired to take my own steps with the aim of either staving off disaster on a cosmic level, or of assuring myself a little fiscal compensation if the worst should come to the worst. In short, I had a punt at 12/1 against on Leeds United failing to go up. I’d set aside £50 so that I could be treated to a new LUFC top in sparkling Adidas for my birthday – but instead, I lumped it all on the worst case scenario, and that breaks a lifetime non-gambling record, as I’d never previously had so much as a flutter on the National.
I have to say, it’s immediately made feel better, having been in a foul mood straight after the final whistle in Wales. I had expected to be able to take defeat philosophically, thanks to the efforts of Brentford and Birmingham at Fulham and West Brom respectively. But I was gutted, given the dominant nature of our performance, to see Leeds sustain two self-inflicted and fatal wounds. It was just such a poxy way to lose, and such a poxy team and club to lose against. Anyway, whatever the pros and cons, or swings and roundabouts, I was down in the dumps until this tweet inspired me to lump on Leeds missing promotion. As I’m a perennial loser in games of chance, I’m pretty sure I’ve just made United’s elevation to the Promised Land a stone cold certainty. As a stereotypical Yorkshireman, I could never normally have imagined being so eager to lose £50, with that slight dread of winning £600. But I do feel I’ve got the bases covered now, and I’ll be happy to miss out on a new LUFC shirt, if it means being back where we belong.
I’m not trying to induce anyone to start gambling here. It’ll be a cold day in hell, or at least a dry day in Manchester, before I repeat the exercise. I’m just glad I’ve done it this once, as it’s lifted my mood considerably. And I have high expectations of an outcome worth a lot more than 600 lousy quid.
Incidentally, I should mention at this point that I’ve not felt moved to write here since my brother and fellow lifelong United fan Graham died suddenly and unexpectedly in April. I’m really not quite sure why that is; maybe beside our Gray’s death and this whole lockdown thing, football suddenly seemed pretty small beer. But it’s back now, and so am I – and this is my first chance to say thank you for all the kind and sympathetic messages I received after I wrote my brotherly tribute two months back. They were all much appreciated and greatly helpful.
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