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As West Ham Say Goodbye to Upton Park, Memories of a Leeds Fan – by Rob Atkinson

wright hammer

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Happy Wright

Tonight we bid a sad farewell to Upton Park, or the Boleyn Ground, long-time home of Olympic Stadium-bound West Ham United. The ‘Ammers, as they’re known locally, have usually been obliging victims for Leeds United teams of most eras, and were particularly notable as lenders of a helping hand towards the end of our title run-in of 1992, when they defeated Man U in a game that turned Alex Ferguson the deepest shade of exasperated purple I’ve ever seen. So it’s fitting, as another proper London football ground bites the dust, that I should write a little about the ‘Appy ‘Ammers; some of my fondest memories are of victories there, particularly this MayDay romp in 1999.

It was an encounter, played out in front of a packed Boleyn Ground crowd of 25997, that found Leeds United in a rich run of form; ten games unbeaten since an early February reverse to Newcastle at Elland Road, after which they had reeled off seven consecutive league victories followed by three draws on the trot. The Whites’ determination to get back to winning ways after those six dropped points was exemplified by the fastest possible start.  A mere twenty seconds had ticked by when the ball nestled in the West Ham net, put there emphatically by the ebullient Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who ran at a retreating Neil Ruddock before finishing neatly with a left-foot shot past Shaka Hislop. And then the game went ever so slightly mad.

Jimmy’s goal apart, the first quarter of an hour had seen both sides engaging in tackles which tended on the thuggish side of enthusiastic. West Ham’s Eyal Berkovic was a victim early on, and Lee Bowyer was on the end of a clattering as the home side sought revenge. Then Ian Wright, no stranger to controversy and the disciplinary attentions of referees, led with his elbow when challenging for a high ball, and copped for a yellow card that looked a lot more justified than the second yellow he got after only 15 minutes, following an altercation with Ian Harte, Harte, Harte. So Wright was on his way back to the stand after a mere quarter of an hour, loudly protesting the injustice of the case and hell-bent, as it turned out, on venting his frustrations on the décor in the ref’s room. 

For the next half-hour, leading up to the interval, Leeds proceeded to make a one man advantage look anything but as West Ham pressed them back, causing panic in the away defence as the promptings of Berkovic and Paolo di Canio created some decent chances to possibly level the game. Leeds had managed to be distinctly the poorer side in that opening 45 minutes, and yet – as if to prove once again what a daft game football can be – they hit West Ham with a sucker punch in first half stoppage time. David Batty appeared to have committed a foul in midfield which might well have justified a booking had the ref not totally ignored it and waved for play to continue. Harry Kewell duly obliged, picking the ball up wide on the left and mesmerising the overstretched Hammers defence before cutting the ball back from the by-line for Alan Smith to convert gleefully.

2-0 then at half time and – for once – it had pretty much all gone Leeds’ way. We had been outplayed for most of the game so far, but were somehow two goals and one man to the good; courtesy, it has to be said, of some not exactly even-handed refereeing.

The second half began much as most of the first had been spent, with Leeds on the back foot and defending precariously. Straight away, the dangerous Berkovic bamboozled Jonathan Woodgate, turning him inside out before supplying di Canio with the perfect chance to pull a goal back. 2-1 to the visitors then, but the balance of the play had been with West Ham, and maybe now the momentum was theirs too. None of us could feel over-confident despite a man and a goal advantage, because all of us could recall Leeds blowing such enviable positions many times in the past.

This time, though – for once – we were not to be let down. A rare defensive slip just after the hour from the otherwise excellent Marc-Vivien Foé saw Hasselbaink sprint clear to round Hislop, who then brought him down. Penalty to Leeds and, despite the presence of defensive cover, Hislop was sent off. It was a slightly unfortunate second red card for West Ham, who felt compelled to replace Berkovic with reserve keeper Craig Forrest as the calamities mounted for the home team. Forrest’s first act was to pick Harte’s penalty out of the back of the net, and Leeds were 3-1 up and cruising against 9 men. Foé, we will remember, sadly died four years later at the tragically young age of 28, from an unsuspected heart condition whilst representing his country in the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Now at last Leeds started to dominate as a two-man advantage would suggest they should. The best goal of the game arrived on 78 minutes, Bowyer hitting an unstoppable right-footed shot from twenty-five yards, which curved slightly as it found the corner of Forrest’s net.  Just a minute later, Alf-Inge Haaland sprinted on to a Hasselbaink pass into a massive amount of space on the right hand side. Unchallenged, he was able to advance into the penalty area and beat Forrest with an accurate shot just inside the far post.

The eight outfield players in claret and blue were clearly finding the pace too hot, and suddenly there was room aplenty all over the pitch for Leeds to exploit, and exploit it they did.  Aided by the fact that the Hammers – to their eternal credit – were still trying to attack Leeds in spite of their depleted resources, Leeds were granted the licence to ping the ball about, always able to find a man or two in space, making the tired home players work overtime to chase possession as the Upton Park faithful bayed their hate at the referee. Truth to tell, we could easily empathise with the ‘Arrassed ‘Ammers; far too many times down the years we’d been in their shoes, watching impotently enraged as some git of a ref casually destroyed our afternoon. It was somewhat bizarre to watch the situation unfold in reverse – but what the hell. We made hay while the sun was shining, and happily the team was doing the same.

The game had long been over as a contest and, at 5-1 up with no credible opposition to deal with, Leeds seemed intent solely on playing out time. Smith still managed to miss a passable chance to make it 6-1 and Clyde Wijnhard contrived to get himself booked, eliciting maliciously ironic chants of “Who’s the bastard in the black” from the jubilant Leeds fans, who displayed an ironic gallows humour not altogether appreciated by the home supporters. Finally, hothead Irons defender Steve Lomas allowed his mounting frustration to get the better of him, launching an agricultural challenge in the direction of Harte and duly collecting his marching orders to reduce the hapless, helpless Hammers to eight at the death.

It had been a strange game, a romp for the Whites on the face of it – judging by the lop-sided score line anyway. But it had never been quite like that; not that our awareness of having been outplayed for long stretches diluted our joy one tiny bit. It’s a sad fact that 5-1 away wins do not come along very often, and we enjoyed this one to the full. We enjoyed it for the whole of the slightly perilous walk back to the tube station, and we were still enjoying it when we beheld the distinctly pissed-off figure of Leslie Grantham heading down the stairway to the platform where we were celebrating noisily. Leslie Grantham, soap-opera legend as Eastenders arch-villain Dirty Den; Leslie Grantham who had done serious time for killing a German taxi-driver; Leslie Grantham, Hammers fanatic, who – despite being accompanied by his two young boys – bore a grim aspect which looked rather as if he wouldn’t mind adding a couple of Leeds fans to that record.

Tactful and understanding to the last of private grief, we wisely kept our distance and refrained from seeking autographs. It had been a memorably bizarre day for Leeds United and an equally happy summer evening awaited us in the sinful fleshpots of London, crap, watery cockney beer and semi-hostile natives notwithstanding.

Dirty Den 1, Dirty Leeds 5.

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Time to Unleash Hell on This Leeds United Soap Opera Farce – by Rob Atkinson

Time for Crowe to enter the arena.

Time for Crowe to enter the arena

I’m going to keep this short and sour, because it’s late and I’m tired – and more than a little naffed-off after yet another day when Leeds United appears to have done its level best to give itself a good old kicking in the gonads. Whatever the ins and outs – assistant coach suspended after playing his part in a recent recovery, leading goalscorer marginalised for fear of him (horror of horrors) scoring more goals for his club, head coach bemused and disillusioned and considering his exit strategies – the net effect is simple and unambiguous. This is just not good enough. It absolutely will not do. Leeds United is a world-renowned football institution of proud history and immense reputation, with a loyal and fanatical global following – it deserves better. We deserve better – all of us.

Today is one of those days when the little flame of hope and optimism you’ve been warmed by recently flickers and blows out, leaving you cold and in the dark. It’s a day when you realise that the current incarnation of Leeds United is a sick joke. I won’t even say soap opera or farce, as per the title above – because no-one would have the brass neck to write it. It’d get laughed off stage or screen and the author carted off to the funny farm to wear a back-to-front jacket and take his ease in a comfily-padded cell. The thing about sick jokes is that they’re frequently just not funny. Such is the case – as far as Whites fans are concerned – with their beloved Leeds. The rest of football, though, will be chortling happily away, bad cess to them.

This latest experiment has failed. It’s time for the owner and his confused, confusing little band to back off and let someone else have a go. I say this with a heavy heart as someone who has backed Cellino as he fought against the Football League, an organisation I despise for hypocrites and buffoons. It was a case of “mine enemy’s enemy is my friend” – but there’s a limit. We had the humiliating succession of failed coaching appointments in the early part of the season. That was enough to stretch anyone’s loyalty. But still, many of us stayed loyal, wanting to believe in an anti-establishment maverick. At his best, Cellino just seemed so Leeds. He seemed to “get” the whole United thing. But it was a false dawn that has heralded a succession of depressing and soul-destroying days – the latest of which we have just winced and cringed our way through. It’s time to try yet another new direction.

The long-running Russell Crowe story has refused to go away and, it has to be said, the flames have been fanned more than somewhat by the man himself. Some raise doubts about his financial clout, but few seem to doubt his Leeds-supporting credentials – and what we need now more than ever is a fan in high places. And Crowe can attract financial muscle, as witness his involvement with the oddly-named Rabbitohs RL club in Australia. Crowe has the global profile; if he can carry along with him someone of sufficient wealth, then for goodness’ sake, let’s move on and give him a chance. How much better could we really do, given the current bleakly depressing state of affairs?

Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything is not ashamed to reassess its attitude towards the current regime at Leeds United. We’re being held up as a laughing-stock and that is simply intolerable. So let’s get behind the concept of change, not for change’s sake, but with a view to getting a real fan on board, someone who feels the pain and hungers for glory. Someone as impatient and pissed off as we are. Someone like Russell Crowe, and such minted partners as he may well be able to muster – and the newly-formalised fans group LLP. Why not? Leeds United remains an incredible opportunity for the right person or group of people. It’s the last true sleeping giant. It’s iconic and oozing potential.

Let’s do this – let’s unleash hell – before we all end up there.

BBC: ‘Eastenders’ Goes For Cockney Cred by Introducing Man U Family – by Rob Atkinson

Mr Harris and his ex-pug wife

Cockney reds, Mr. Reg “Prawn Baron” Harris and his ex-pug wife, Frankie Knuckles

Any soap-addicted Leeds United fan will be able to recall the most legendary reference to football in the BBC’s flagship offering, Eastenders. Saying farewell to a departing character bound for a new life “Ap Norf” in Leeds, Mark Fowler (played by Grange Hill‘s Tucker Jenkins) extolled the sporting virtues of West Yorkshire’s Number One city. “They’ve got a good football team!” he enthused, raising a glass in the Queen Vic and causing manly chests all over the Broad Acres to swell still further with justified pride. After all, at that time, the “good team” thing wasn’t even an exaggeration, as David O’Leary modestly watched “moy babies” take all comers apart with consummate ease. It was all a long, long time ago.

Now, though, as part of its quest to bring maximum realism even to its soap opera output – and building on the recent publicity surrounding the Eastenders’ 30th anniversary – the BBC has announced it will be introducing a family of Man U fans to Albert Square. It’s a move some regard as long overdue, reasoning that it’s impossible accurately to reflect life in the capital without a proliferation of glory-hunting, armchair-dwelling, plastic “cockney reds” skulking around every corner, tragically clad in the latest tacky 4th away strip. The Eastenders production office has promised us a family who will breezily reinforce all of those too-true stereotypes that make Man U the club we all just love to hate – even now that they’re crap.

The head of the family, a retired East-End boxer named Frankie “Knuckles” Kray, rules her household with an iron fist inside a chain-mail glove. No stranger to violence, she can be relied upon regularly to engage in some aggro in the Queen Vic, claiming afterwards that it was Leeds fans on the way back from Chelsea. Frankie is 46 and started supporting Man U as long ago as 1993. She is already on her fourth armchair.

Her common-law husband, Reg Harris, has also been a Man U fan since 1993, prior to which he had supported Liverpool from afar, only defecting when they “turned rabbish, squire, and stopped winning nuffink.” He is buoyed up in his change of allegiance by the fact that his hero, Zoe Ball, did exactly the same thing in order to revive a flagging career. Reg, who is in the Norwegian prawns import racket, says that supporting Man U has had a similarly positive effect on his own fortunes. He now supplies the executive boxes at the Theatre of Hollow Myths, and names Roy Keane as his least favourite player ever. He has never been to a football match, believing that he needs an up-to-date passport to venture north of Watford.

There are two children in the Kray/Harris family, Ryan and Eric. The lads were born in 2000 and 2009 respectively (coincidentally, nine months after each of the Pride of Devon‘s two most recent Champions League flukes). Both boys are fiercely proud and lifelong Man U fans who are now seriously considering defecting to Chelsea to avoid being ribbed and tweaked at school. Most of their mates have already switched clubs since Sir Taggart retired, and the lads now find themselves frustrated in their instinctive glory-hunting tendencies and laughed at by the teachers. Despite such ideological doubts, however, both are still forced by their parents to sleep in branded Cantona Kung-Fu pyjamas and, emotionally scarred, have been in touch with the NSPCC twice about this. Ryan, the elder brother, has been force-fed Quorn since he was weaned and is consequently bow-legged and afflicted with boils, wind and close-set eyes.

The BBC are certain that the introduction of this family, with all of its obvious tragicomic potential, is a sure-fire ratings winner. “We expect to consolidate our pre-eminent viewing figures position in London and the Home Counties,” said a Corporation spokesperson, “as well as making inroads in the West Country and Devon/Cornwall. We may even pick up the odd viewer in the North…” he speculated, feverishly, as he checked the JICTAR figures on his iPhone.

Dirty “Den” Watts, erstwhile West Ham supporter, is dead. Twice.