There should be an air of panic around Elland Road, but it’s hard to locate. Have the past few years been so traumatic that no one can yet admit that a season ticket starting in August could be for League One? Al Needham investigates
Norris. That’s who I think of automatically when Leeds United’s glory years come to mind. Not Don Revie with his reams of dossiers, or sock-tags, or the Smiley badge, or seats on the pitch of the Parc des Princes. I think of horrible, devious, pill-pushing Norris, the ginger vermin of Slade prison who conned poor Blanco out of his treasure map in that episode of Porridge, only to find himself desperately scrabbling away in the dead of night in front of the imperious East Stand with the floodlights at full glare and the police advancing.
They don’t have proper floodlights at Elland Road any more and the new East Stand is anything but imperious – it’s another cookie-cutter hunk of seats plastered with the legend “the BIG yellow skip people”, which sounds like the house band of whatever club Scooby-Doo and his mates go to when they’ve discovered that the ghost in the funfair was really a bloke in a costume. More importantly, ain’t no more glory years in this part of Yorkshire – six years after “living the dream”, Leeds have woken up under a flyover with drool seeping from their mouths, wondering where their trousers are.
As Norman Stanley Fletcher would say, Leeds have been dropped firmly in the clarts. Were it not for the good people of Southend, they would be absolute bottom of the Championship. The projections of getting out of colossal debt by 2007 have completely gone for a toss, ruined financially by comparatively poor attendances and being outshone by the local rugby league team. And, in the bitterest of ironies, the club is run by Chelsea old boys Ken Bates and Dennis Wise, presumably in an attempt to make the rest of the country hate them again.
It’s not working. Leeds were one of those clubs that George Michael was referring to when he sang “It’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate”. Nowadays, they inspire pity and serve as an ominous reminder to almost every big club in the land: this could happen to you, too.
“I blame local businesses,” says the cabbie as he spirits me away from the station in the teeming rain. “When we were in the Champions League, you couldn’t keep ’em away from the ground. As soon as it went tits-up, they were either flogging off every single asset going or attaching themselves to the Rhinos.” I’m tempted to drop the name that begins with “P” and “R”, but the protection mechanisms installed in black cabs are there to prevent assault on the driver from the passenger, not the other way round.
At first glimpse, even through the sheet-metal sky and driving rain that virtually all midwinter games in Yorkshire are required to have by law, Elland Road still boasts the trappings of the home of a modern-day big club: there’s a Subway and a McDonald’s across the road (even though the biggest queue is outside the United Fisheries, which is how it should be); there’s a whacking great statue of Billy Bremner looking like Mick Hucknall after winning the 100 metres at the Popstars School sports day; and the front of the club shop positively screams out heritage and tradition, festooned as it is with Admiral shirts and trackie tops of yore.
If you’re still looking for portents of doom, you won’t find them in the club shop: trade is comfortably roaring and at no point do you feel you’re witnessing the death throes of a once-great club. No one is looking at the highlights of the lunchtime game between Liverpool and Chelsea with a wistful expression of what used to be, the on-duty coppers are nattering away with the West Brom supporters who have drifted in and everyone’s happy. Especially me, as I spotted Football Manager 2007 with £20 off.
It’s not until I take my seat and flick through the three quid programme that it dawns upon me that things are not right. At all. For one, it’s freezing. For two, the upper deck of the East Stand and chunks of the John Charles Stand are barren. For three, Ken Bates’s programme notes are doing my head in. His relocation to Yorkshire appears to have turned him into the kind of mill owner who refuses to countenance the idea of guard plates on the Spinning Jennies, pausing every now and them to veer into some of that trendy London-speak. On the subject of kids-for-a-quid programmes, he opines: “In your dreams, baby, get real – get a life!”
So, I’m watching two teams who would rather be anywhere else than here and are already sick of the sight of each other (after having already met in the third round of the Cup), in weather that makes contact lenses feel like you’ve got Fox’s Glacier Mints stuck to your eyeballs, being told to get a life by Ken Bates. The kid in the seat in front of me has already got out his Nintendo DS. I envy him.
Luckily, Leeds are up for the game, even if their supporters aren’t. Not three minutes in, new signing Tore Andre Flo (one of three players dragged quickly through the transfer window) takes advantage of a very early WBA panic attack in their box to rise above Neil Clement and Curtis Davies and ping the ball over Russell Hoult. With West Brom fielding a very under-strength side and having an appalling away record, the omens are looking very good indeed.
So naturally, Leeds achieve the seemingly impossible and make West Brom look like a really good team for the first time in decades. Four minutes later, the equaliser comes from the first of many piss-poor Throstle free-kicks. It ricochets off a kneecap, is picked up by Jonathan Greening and is driven home with considerable panache. The away support explodes into life, everyone turns to the plasma screen in the corner of the ground and gloom resettles over the beleaguered home support.
West Brom spend the remainder of the half looking like a Premiership team in waiting, rubbish set-pieces aside. Not only do they look like one of the few British teams who can get away with wearing an all‑dark kit, but they also pull Leeds apart like they are dissecting a frog. The second goal is not long in coming – Hungarian striker Zoltan Gera and Senegalese counterpart Diomansy Kamara combine to effortlessly sweep the ball past Neil Sullivan and it’s effectively game over. It’s definitely game over when Kamara makes it 3-1 just before half-time, and the away support break into that renowned song of intimidation and superiority, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” – reminding us all of the odious C of E/Protestant sectarian element that has blighted Black Country football for decades.
By the time the second half begins, my attention switches from the pitch to the stands, trying to suss out what your average Leeds fan is thinking – because from where I’m standing, it hasn’t dawned upon them yet that their team is deep in the shit. When not cricking their necks to look at another conceded goal or playing Mario Kart DS, they react to every misstep and hoof like exasperated Relate counsellors. “Oh! Show some commitment, Leeds!” they howl, but gently. By this time, Dennis Wise has been banished to the stands. He can have my seat if he likes. I’m going for a pint.
I see the final goal of the afternoon (in which Alan Thompson demonstrates to the Albion how one should take a free‑kick) on the TV screen opposite the tea bar, along with 200 or so other people who have equally had enough of the game. It’s great down here, even though the ad banner at the bottom of the screen keeps screaming “WORRIED ABOUT CHLAMYDIA?” and “SUSPECT YOUR MATE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE? TELL THE POLICE”. I suspect that there are dozens of people who spend £28 every other week who hardly look at the pitch and prefer to be in the warm, chatting up the tea girls, holding penalty shootouts in the fire exit with an empty plastic cup and having a bit of banter with their mates.
Despite pulling a goal back, there’s no way that Leeds are coming away with anything and they know it. I would ask the fans if they’ve resigned themselves to League One or if they’ve they’re still clinging on to the belief that they’re too good to go down, but I hate to intrude on private grief.
Long after the game, while willing a bus to appear after an hour of waiting, I swear that I could hear the scrape of Norris’s shovel in the turf. It’s hard to feel sorry for a club that was built on a reputation of dour nastiness and ludicrous overspending, but that’s Leeds United: habitual wasters who accept defeat as an occupational hazard, and presumably accept impending relegation in the same casual manner.
From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month