Book Review: Promised Land: A Northern Love Story
Promised Land: A Northern Love Story by Anthony Clavane
Published by Yellow Jersey Press
Growing up in the 90s, Leeds were a permanent top flight fixture and played at one of the country’s showcase grounds yet — unlike many other sides — I cannot remember coming across a single Whites supporter in my youth. Granted, it was spent hundreds of miles away from Elland Road in Plymouth but whereas the sight of Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs colours was about as common as coming across a green shirt, Leeds just didn’t figure.
Considering the size of this single-club city — England’s fourth largest urban area after London, Birmingham and Manchester — and United’s history, this lack of popularity is peculiar on one level but is far from beyond explanation.
Most obviously, they’ve enjoyed little genuine glory on the field and their only sustained period of success — under Don Revie — has been tainted by the ‘Dirty’ tag. Moreover, the Whites have long struggled with racist associations and its fans seem to carry that uniquely aggressive swagger which goads rival supporters into wishing failure and disappointment upon them and makes identifying with the club difficult for those born outside of the city.
But while many people may not much like them, that isn’t to say that they aren’t absolutely fascinating. I savoured watching Millwall condemn Leeds to another season in League One a few years ago, but United are one of only two or three English clubs that I’d be interested in enough to justify a related book purchase. Or two book purchases I should say, Anthony Clavane’s Promised Land being the second I’ve read that’s dedicated to the club after David Peace’s The Damned United (the screen adaptation of which was reviewed on these pages some time ago).
If I’m honest I struggled with Peace’s lyrical, almost dream-like style but the vivid picture he creates of 1970s Leeds — all grey and foreboding — will stick in the mind for many years to come, not least because it’s now been enriched by Clavane’s excellent narrative which goes further in linking the club’s character and trajectory over generations to the wider evolution of Leeds into a major UK (if not European) city, as well as the story of its Jewish population from which Clavane himself descends.
Of course, that’s a pretty quirky premise for a book and one which might have scared off many a trade publisher. But — as idiosyncratic as the book may appear at a surface level — Clavane manages to successfully weave the three different strands into a beautifully written, nuanced whole, creating a kind of social and sporting liquid history of the city in the process.
There’s an understandable emphasis on both the Revie era and the First Division Championship win in 1992, but all of the key periods of United’s history are covered to some extent. And though, as this review on Square Ball suggests, Clavane is strongest when writing about the club of his youth rather than his exiled adulthood, the broadness of his coverage lends itself well to a neutral audience interested in why Leeds have never quite managed to reach the same heights as other provincial city sides such as Manchester United and Liverpool and why the club’s fall into the third tier in 2007 wasn’t at all uncharacteristic.
Making connections to all manner of historical events, lives and works of literature — two of which, David Storey’s This Sporting Life and Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, make a number of appearances — this is a highly personal but gloriously cultured attempt at both chronicling and sociologically analysing one team’s history. Every club should have a book written about them like this.