No other creature in nature has to master the intricacies of camouflage as completely as an away fan wishing in potentially hostile territory, as Don Watson explained in WSC 105, November 1995
26 February ~ This time it’s a phone call, which at least gets it over quickly. “All tickets for the away game at Tottenham,” trills the voice on the recorded message you get while waiting for the Leeds ticket office to answer your call, “are sold out.” She doesn’t even have the courtesy to sound disappointed about it.
It's been worse. Sometimes you wait for weeks, until a printed form letter arrives with those dreaded words: “Dear supporter...” There is no choice - miss the game or (cue some music that strikes home a sense of dread - the theme to the House of Elliot perhaps) sit with the home fans.
It’s become a fact of life in these post-Taylor Report days as away sections shrink, even at grounds where they’re usually a long way short of their capacity. Often there’s one fixture you have to attend to prove your devotion to the team, thus ensuring you get every ticket applied for until the end of the season. The year after Leeds’ championship win, it was the League Cup fixture against Watford, which I had the misfortune to be present at, thereby ensuring me the misfortune to be present at every subsequent defeat I volunteered for too.
The next year I would have had to trek three hundred miles on a weekday night to watch the first leg of our customary humiliating early exit in the same competition at Sunderland. Not being quite that mad, the next away victory I saw, my first in two years, had to be greeted with a barely perceptible twitch at the corners of the mouth.
Sitting with the home fans is dangerous. My enjoyment in the harmless sport of disliking Manchester United was seriously interfered with a couple of seasons back when a group of their fans were spotted just behind me at Elland Road. A few of the brickheads the club hasn’t managed to shake off in the last few years surrounded them.
Now I’m old enough to remember when "trouble" was a routine part of going to a football match, but this one was a sickening sight. Most of the violence I’ve seen before has been little more than theatre than anything else, with both sides happy to play the part. This lot weren’t looking for a fight, they just wanted to see a vital match on the run in to a Championship, and this was their only way. There was nothing provocative or inflammatory about the match. Leeds displayed a woeful lack of spirit for a game that usually stirs something beneath a white jersey, and were well beaten.
Watching them sitting there looking like rabbits caught in headlights as the chants of “Scum! Scum! Scum!” started up was horrific. It took minutes until the first punch was landed. Was I, in the words of the cliche, ashamed to be a Leeds fan? Well, no, actually, because the whole of my row were up on their feet trying to attract the attention of the stewards.
Finally the police got the message and came rampaging through us, wielding truncheons and thanking us for our co-operation with the traditional police words of gratitude “Sit down you bastards!” You’re welcome officer.
I’m not stupid enough to sit among the Reds at Old Trafford, even if I could get a ticket, and I tend to boycott Chelsea on price grounds anyway, so I’m probably fairly safe in most of the grounds I go to. But all the same I keep my own counsel. No matter how strong the urge to stand up and shout, “Lukic you stupid bastard!” I restrain myself, which of course takes a large part of the fun out of the whole proceedings.
Remembering how my Scottish accent used to perplex trouble seekers asking me the time at away grounds in the 1970s, I make sure to wear my enamel Celtic badge as a mark of neutrality. At Arsenal I wore an Ireland World Cup cap, which didn’t endear me as much as I thought it might to the locals. In fact one lout behind me spent most of the first half yelling “Immigrant!” at Gary Kelly.
On that occasion, I found myself sitting next to a Leeds fan, who I identified within a matter of seconds by the timing of his sub-vocal tuts and sighs. But this provided little comfort - he was no bigger than me, and if I could suss him out... We spent half time conversing as if we were two Arsenal fans, simply taking a healthy interest in the opposition’s tactics. Mind you, it was the first time that Brian Deane was employed as a winger, which many would find worthy of comment no matter where your sympathies lay.
When Masinga stumbled the ball into the net for Leeds’ third, and one of the funniest goals I’ve ever seen, the pair of us were on our feet. Eyes were on us. Some of them nasty, set in mean faces. We looked at one another in a moment of panic, then shouted in unison, “Seaman you f****** idiot!” which gave us both an outlet for our emotions and simultaneously killed all suspicion.
“Are you a Tottenham supporter?” asks the voice of the Spurs ticketline. “I’m a neutral,” I lied in an enhanced Scottish accent, adding, “I’m just in town for the weekend,” quite unnecessarily. No doubt she registered that, this being the case, it was strange that my credit card was billed to a London address, but decided not to mention it.
There is nothing to illustrate the Newtonian law about equal and opposite reactions quite so effectively as sitting next to an opposing supporter. You may try and adopt a guileless neutrality, but the passion with which the lout next to you wants your team to lose only stirs reciprocal emotions.
In this case I have a 17-year-old, who it’s safe to say is not a dispassionate connoisseur of the finer things in the game, yelling, “Get that Yeboah - kick him,” and, every time Spurs put more than a pass or so together, acclaiming, “Luuuvwllley, Luuuuuwwllley.” Within minutes I’m praying for something reminiscent of Yeboah’s jaw-dropping strike against Liverpool, so that I can bellow, “Luuuwwllley!” back at him. And let’s face it, if we didn’t both feel this way, we’d be developing the mentality of sports journalists, which would not be a good thing.
When Leeds do score it’s a short-lived equalizer, but when it happens half the stand are on their feet, none of them even pretending to abuse what admittedly was some pretty slack marking in the Spurs defence. There’s a flurry of hostility, but nothing serious, and certainly nothing which Sheringham’s rather comical winner couldn’t cure.
As we file out at the end, I notice something. The levity among the home supporters is almost infectious. For some reason I don’t feel that cloud of depression which a crowd of like-minded souls can conjure up between them. Perhaps there’s something to be said for sitting with the opposition after all, or maybe it’s easier to take a freak defeat philosophically than a deserved drubbing.
At least we get to play at Wimbledon once a year – no home fans to have to think about. Don Watson
Photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photos: Fans watch Leeds v West Brom at Elland Road in 2007