My Second Team: Leeds United
I first attended a football match at Elm Park, Reading in October 1976. Amid a torrential downpour, the home side thumped local-ish rivals Swindon Town 4-1, with Robin Friday, one of the most immortalised players in lower league history turning out for the Royals on the day.
So far, so impeccable – a club’s original home, a cult hero, a derby victory of sorts – and all before ‘modern football’ extended its tentacles into our lives – as authentic experiences go, this is certainly one to drop into conversation. So what, heaven help us, were the forces that led a seven year old to develop a parallel liking for Leeds United?
This was ‘dirty’ Leeds, as since so accurately portrayed in David Peace’s The Damned United , gnarled representatives of the evil arts, prone to on pitch skulduggery of various hues, terrace intimidation and just about the most disliked team of any era.
Exactly how I developed my regard for the Peacocks is lost in the mists of time and while the club’s extraordinary run of success that saw them dominate English football over the course of a decade – two League titles, two Fairs Cup titles, FA and League Cup wins and an appearance in the European Cup Final – might provide a clue to anyone wishing to accuse me of glory hunting, those achievements had all been and gone by the time I jumped on the bandwagon circa 1977.
In my defence, this was before you could buy a Reading replica kit at the stadium, let alone on the high street of the town, a period where you could go five years or more without even a 30 second excerpt of your team on television. Short of going to Reading games – and I soon became a regular – a kid needed a team to compare to those your friends at school followed, a team that might occasionally appear on Match of the Day or the odd report in the national press.
Still, picking Leeds United, a team that never recovered from the injustice of defeat to Bayern Munich in Paris in 1975, still seems contrarian – akin to backing Blair post-Iraq, cheering on Lance Armstrong after his maudlin confession or eulogising Be Here Now as the high watermark of Oasis’ career.
For it truly was an alarming slide for the Elland Road men. Jimmy Armfield, a hero then and now for his position as the sine qua non of co-commentators, was left with an impossible job to pick up from Don Revie after the architect of the club’s glory years upped sticks for England; Jock Stein lasted a day longer than Brian Clough had done a few year’s previously; Jimmy Adamson and Allan Clarke presided over sharp decline, resulting in relegation to the second tier in 1982.
Based as I was in Berkshire, my main opportunities to see Leeds were on their regular visits to London and amid the dross, there were occasional fine memories – Tony Currie excelling in an entertaining first day of the season draw at Highbury and Peter Lorimer rocketing in a trademark screamer at Stamford Bridge stand out in particular – but the narrative soon became one of forgettable draws at QPR under the lights and being led a merry dance by Tottenham’s Argentinians.
Despite relegation, I remained keen but Eddie Gray proved to be the next in a long line of managers unequal to the task of resurrection. Of course the side story to all this was one of hooliganism, always interwoven with parochialism and not infrequently with racism. As a long distance fan who had at this point still to attend a game at Elland Road, I was perhaps spared the worst of these impulses but even as a youngster, I never bought into or sought pride in these elements of siege mentality as so many Leeds supporters sadly seemed to do.
I was present at Stamford Bridge to see fans ripping up seats to use as projectiles in a particularly nasty encounter – thankfully, the dog track proved wide enough to help fans escape serious injury – not the case in one of Leeds’s darkest moments – an inability to take defeat on the chin in a promotion thwarting defeat at Birmingham City led to the collapse of a wall and the death of a fan. It was a day overshadowed by the Bradford fire, an event cruelly evoked when United fans were alleged to have set fire to a chip van at their neighbours’ temporary home of Odsal stadium the following Autumn. I was present at neither match but did not escape opprobrium at school – at a time when admitting to being a football fan at all was akin to confessing a liking for stealing sweets from kids, to support such a pariah club was never going to help me escape feelings of distaste.
With Reading achieving promotion at the end of the 1985-6 season, the clubs were finally in the same division and fate threw my two favourites together for an August fixture. Never having ventured north of the proverbial Watford, we headed to the Yorkshire city en famille . My main memory of the day is of cages and what must have been close to a record low attendance. Reading were plucky and, led by the ungainly but effectiveTrevor Senior, took a two goal lead only for the sublime skills of John Sheridan to engineer a comeback. Keith Edwards, not the first failed recruit Leeds had acquired from Sheffield United, plundered a rare goal and the whites won 3-2.
Billy Bremner’s Leeds restored my faith to an extent and a thrilling run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1987 provided the opportunity to see one of my teams on TV once more. There followed my arrival at Manchester University that autumn and, student pennilessness notwithstanding, the chance to take the Trans-Pennine expresses to the Road. Leeds at the time was an unwelcoming city indeed, dark and grey and if not quite the hellhole of Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, a prime example of Thatcherite disregard for the North and its industry.
Enter Sergeant Wilko and a canny rebuilding of the side based on ‘hard to beat’ principles. Vinnie Jones, Chris Fairclough, Lee Chapman and Chris Kamara came in to make things tricky for the opposition and Leeds clinched promotion at Bournemouth in 1990 in a match yet again spoilt by the behaviour of the off field contingent. That the Leeds of the era were a functional side was without question but Howard Wilkinson’s master stroke was to bring in Gordon Strachan from Manchester United, a tremendous blend of skills and experience and the perfect leader.
In an era when Reading were beginning to get themselves noticed nationally with a Simod Cup win at Wembley in 1988, Leeds were on a roll. A fourth place finish post-promotion prefaced an unlikely league championship the year before the Premier League broke. I still attended far more Reading games and, back in the South, I was forced to watch the title decider at Bramall Lane in a Slough pub with my Sunday League team mates.
With youngsters such as Gary Speed and David Batty fundamental to the club’s success, it was an appealing Leeds side and post-Hornby, post-Michael Thomas and post-Gazza’s tears, hooliganism was also on the wane. As a keen student of French and weekly subscriber to France Football my feelings when enfant terrible Eric Cantona joined the fray were akin to being asked out by a long term crush and my final months as a Leeds supporter were at times as exciting as any over the proceeding decade and a half.
But if someone gives you Glasgow Rangers as an opponent with the chance of a Champions League quarter final, you bite their hand off – right? After a dramatic if slightly iffy victory over Stuttgart in the preceding round of the continent’s primary trophy, the cultured Gary McAllister’s early goal at Ibrox seemed to indicate certain progress – but the wiles of Ally McCoist and Iain Durrant proved too much for the Elland Road club and my disappointment was crushing.
Leeds did finally make it further in the competition under David O’Leary but I had long since parted company with the whites at that point. Reading’s nineties and noughties were to prove transformative with promotions, multiple play-off appearances, tripled gates and, eventually, two spells in the Premier League utterly altering the DNA of the club. Now when the two teams meet, it is usually Reading who win – and expectedly so – while the feelings I have for Leeds are nada. I visit the city regularly and am a huge admirer of the town if not the club, even organising a hugely enjoyable Socrates football bloggers’ meet up a couple of years back, but I am often left scratching my head at the remembrance of supporting Leeds United. I had a second team once and I may do again – but at the moment, I’m a true Biscuitman.