There are four of us. We meet every other Thursday in the back room of a working men’s club. At this time of year, we shuffle in from the cold. All year round, we maintain the same hushed tones for fear of being overheard. For when we speak, we arrange words into sentences that are rarely heard outside of this room. Sentences such as: “I’m not a Leeds fan, but I actually quite like them”…
Artistic licence, granted, but there cannot be many people who would list Leeds United as their second favourite team. Even I wouldn’t, but I am growing to like them more and more as time goes on.
Every division needs a cartoon villain and Leeds probably fill this role in the Championship at present. Crawley Town are the team that supporters of League Two sides love to hate for the significant helping hand they receive from shady investors, while no reason is necessary for mentioning Milton Keynes of League One in a similar breath. Of course, Leeds haven’t moved an entire club to a different county or employed a convicted criminal as manager. They’re just Leeds.
Other Championship clubs have tried to muscle in on their status. Even four cities couldn’t displace Leeds though. Coventry City and Birmingham City both handed contracts to Marlon King. Cardiff City created an us-against-the-world mentality under Dave Jones and included perennial anti-heroes Craig Bellamy and Michael Chopra among their number last season. Leicester City have spent a portion of their millions this summer on niggly characters like David Nugent, Matt Mills and Jermaine Beckford. Yet none of these clubs are Leeds.
Or, to give them their full name, Dirty Leeds. This is where it all starts to fall down. Under Don Revie in the 1970s, Leeds were pretty dirty by all accounts. Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and all that. And nowadays? Jonny Howson doesn’t quite inspire the same fear.
Nor does Elland Road for teams like Blackpool that go there, play three attacantes and score five at a canter. But visiting Leeds or the visit of Leeds still marks a special occasion in the calendar for most opposition supporters, as much as some may try to pretend otherwise.
Leeds recently came to my club’s ground and won, but – on an entirely personal level – their victory on our turf didn’t represent same gut-wrenching experience that it once would have. This was partly due to the way Championship football can grind you down. When you’ve visited countless flat-pack 32,000-seater stadia up and down the country all year, financed by opportunists from the Far East and populated by smug supporters of the latest club to be labelled the Barcelona of the Championship, the stigma attached to Leeds United is refreshing. It feels as close to proper football as we get these days at such a high level.
So when one of their midfielders placed an exquisite shot into the top corner from just outside the box and ran to celebrate with their jubilant sold-out section in the corner of the ground, it didn’t bring that sinking feeling to quite the same degree felt during similar successes in the past. The ability to take defeat is an important step in the life of becoming a well-rounded football supporter and I prefer losing to a club whose fans sell their entire allocation and sing their hearts out all game than… well, insert a club of your choice here.
I didn’t like seeing that ball hit the back of the net and I didn’t enjoy trooping away having seen my team lose but at least that moment in which a player performed a knee-slide in front of over 3,000 travelling fans gave me an iconic image to take away with me. And at least one set of fans went home happy. Every set of fans will create their own version of these scenes over the course of the season, but not all make the most of it like Leeds do – falling down rows of seats and savouring the moment rather than falling into line and clapping soon after that initial burst of exuberance – and that is always to be admired.
We can also empathise with Leeds more in the current climate. They have lost key players over the past couple of years and barely spent a penny in transfer fees to replace any of them. These aren’t the same players the national media always point to either. The likes of Viduka, Kewell, Ferdinand and co still seem to work their way into a disproportionate number of articles about the battle Leeds face to reclaim their long-lost Premier League status. I’m talking about players like Max Gradel, Jermaine Beckford and Fabien Delph – clearly not of the same standard to which Leeds fans became accustomed, but still stolen away by bigger clubs despite becoming heroes at Elland Road. We can all empathise with that feeling.
Most of us can also empathise with the struggle Leeds fans are currently going through. Most of us know what it’s like to have an owner we would prefer to be as far from our club as possible. Most of us have baulked at the ticket prices we are charged at Elland Road this season. Imagine that every other week.
It’s an overall feel so it’s difficult to talk specifics. It is nevertheless important to try to dig down into things a little. Not just throwaway words like tradition and history but the tangible sensation of visiting a ground that means something to so many people thanks to an album of events built up over a long period of time. There are so few of these places left to visit. Side with the fans rather than the owner. Nobody should be glad to see attendances begin to dwindle at Elland Road.
And few opposition supporters seem to acknowledge that while the national media obsess over Leeds returning to the Premier League and battling it out with Manchester United and Liverpool again, their presence in the Championship helps to prevent an endless procession of trips to identical football grounds reproduced in different colour schemes. Their three, four, five-thousand visiting fans bellowing for all they’re worth despite being a goal down is what all football supporters should aspire to (and you can argue the toss about this all you like – no other team in this country matches Leeds in this department). They shouldn’t be singing any more, but they probably still are.
Maybe this isn’t such an uncommon thing. Maybe I’m not alone. Let’s see. I’m not a Leeds United fan, but I actually quite like them. Your turn.