By Rob Atkinson
When I was just a little boy
I asked my mother, what should I be?
Should I be Chelsea? Should I be Leeds?
Here’s what she said to me…
Of course, it wasn’t like that for me, nor was it for thousands of others. For the vast majority of us, Mum was blameless; our Dads were the ones to thank – or blame – for starting an obsession that would run through the rest of our lives. Yeah, cheers, Dad. Every time you’ve taken the mick after another grisly home defeat, or rolled your eyes and intoned: “Never again”, I’ve felt like snapping back and reminding you that it’s your bloody fault in the first place. All those dreadful defeats and Cup exits. But there were also some good times…
Football support is such an individual thing, yet there are themes which are surely common to all football supporters. Over a period of years, seasons, decades of loving a football club, there will have been hot-blooded highs, and there will equally have been the coldest of despairing lows. This will be so, whatever the size of the club we love, however successful or otherwise they may be. It’s certainly the case for me – I can look back over my 38 year affair with Leeds United, and there they are, all the memories, all the feelings, all the good and the bad that an obsession can visit upon a hapless fanatic.
My Leeds United era started on April 5th 1975, just in time for me to witness the death agonies of what was still Don Revie’s great team, which had dominated English football for over a decade albeit under new management in Jimmy Armfield. This says all anyone needs to know about my fatally flawed sense of timing. During those years of success and near-success, when I could have been sharing the roller-coaster ride with my younger brother as he accompanied Dad on so many Saturday afternoons at Elland Road – what was I doing? Why, I was curled up with a book, or watching some elderly MGM musical on BBC2 with Mum, completely unaware of the appeal, the magnetic attraction of Leeds
United. How could this be?
In retrospect, it seems amazing that I should have missed out on the most sustained period of success Leeds ever knew. But I was always a bookish lad, and I leaned far enough towards home and hearth, and far enough away from the Big Lads’ Club relationship between our kid and my Dad, to be happy with my nose in the goings-on at Greyfriars, or sampling the adventures of dare-devil astronauts on a Journey to Jupiter. On the day in 1972 that Leeds United won their only FA Cup, I was at the Town Hall in Pontefract winning second prize for poetry at the annual Music Festival. I wuz bloody robbed out of first place, too - on one of the few occasions when United weren't. But them's the breaks, and it's not as if I was straining at the leash to be off to t'match. I just had no idea of what I was missing, and my treacherous brother and father didn’t see fit to enlighten me.
I should be bitter about this – even now, my brother seeks to claim the moral high-ground as the one who saw Big Jack and Top Cat Cooper play, the one who saw us torturing Southampton with a cruel bout of possession at 7-0 up, the one who saw Georgie Best. But the fact is, I’m not that bitter. I’d have liked to have seen for myself some of that vintage stuff, and some of the Osgoods, Laws and St Johns of the opposition, but it seems to me now that so many who witnessed all that were spoiled by it, and lacked the character to see it through when the good times stopped. It was never easy to be a Leeds fan – even then in what we may fairly call glory days, we had far more than our fair share of disappointment and defeat, and we reaped the bitter fruits of hatred, from all sections of the game, not least the referees – as I've ranted about elsewhere.
So, it was no cakewalk, but still a time to be envied and marvelled at by those of us who came afterwards, and who starved for success until Sergeant Wilko stomped through the door. The thing is – not having seen the hits and near-misses of those days, I and many more like me were better able to subsist on the poor diet of the late seventies and the eighties. Many of the relatively success-sated Revie period fans fell by the wayside during these barren years, and the essential character of the fan base changed from almost complacent to virtually feral.
So, there I was, thirteen years old and still a Leeds United virgin, slouching happily home from school one weekday evening in March 1975, and never a suspicion that my life was about to change. I’d have had homework on my mind, quite possibly – a French translation to do, or some equations to balance. First it’d be tea, burgers peas and chips or something equally mundane, with Nationwide on in the background, then the homework, then some telly and whatever book I had on the go. I was a happy and grounded child in those pre-football angst days.
When I got home on this particular day, though, Dad had a surprise for me. Off you go upstairs, he said, look in our bedroom and tell me what you find. I was more excited than alarmed by this – what was I expecting? A new book, maybe. A tube of Smarties and a Milky Way, perhaps. Anything, I’m sure, but the six oblong pieces of stiff paper on my Dad’s side of the counterpane. Two tickets each for Dad, me and our kid, Liverpool at home on Saturday, and then – the biggest game on the planet that next Wednesday evening, Barcelona at home, Cruyff, Neeskens and all, in the semi final home leg of the European Champions Cup.
Dad beamed over my shoulder as I stared at the tickets. Biggest two games of the season, those are, he said. I remember I nodded my head, the idea not growing on me as yet, but somehow aware that this was a grand gesture on my dad’s part. Unwilling to disappoint him with apathy, I turned, smiled and said, great – thanks Dad. Now, of course, I know that it was a watershed in my life. Then – well, I just wanted to catch the last bit of Hong Kong Phooey, and then carry on with my familiar evening routine. And so the last few days of my innocence passed, before it was time to get into the car and be taken to Elland Road football ground for the very first time.
It’s surprising what stays with you, years and years later. So many of the countless games I’ve seen at Elland Road, and at other grounds at home and abroad, have faded into blurry anonymity. I suppose my first game was special just because it was the first; and the second - that European night - had a magic all of its own, which was apparent even to a rookie such as me. I can recall little of the Liverpool match itself. The colours were vivid – we didn’t have a colour TV at home at that time, and I think I imagined that football was a grainy experience, a mixture of grey and darker greys. The Technicolor reality of it hit me with an impact I can readily bring to mind even now. The field seemed to be vast, and brilliantly green, but the ground itself, viewed from under the pitched roof of the old Lowfields side, wasn’t as huge as I’d imagined it.
The strongest memory is still that of the Bay City Rollers’ “Bye Bye Baby” being played over the tannoy (they were tannoys in those days, none of your fancy PA systems). That one naff record is a massive reminder of that day, even now, and it remains one of the guiltiest pleasures on my nostalgia playlist. The green of the pitch, with the all-white strip of our lads, and the all red of Liverpool, the composite sound, Dad’s loud pessimism against a background of the grumbling roar of the crowd, the smell of tobacco and the taste of hamburgers and onions washed down with Bovril - and the pressure of the crowd behind, in front, everywhere – this was the assault on all my senses that blew away any thought of resistance as I entered a whole new world.
Already, I was hooked, and I knew it. We lost 2-0, but I was far too lacking in discernment to let that detail bother me. Dad and our kid were sulkily disappointed, having seen it all before, and seen far better, but I loved it, loved the whole thing. If I’d known at that moment that I was in for a string of league defeats, and not even a league goal to cheer until the first day of the 76-77 season, would I have wanted to carry on? I would have, I’m sure. I loved Leeds United, completely and uncritically, and I was champing at the bit to get back to Elland Road. And FC Barcelona, with their galaxy of exotic stars, were just four days away.
Over the next year or so after these initial matchday experiences, I was taken to a few, carefully selected games, something I settled for rather than going back to being completely excluded. I don’t remember if Dad’s pattern of support was dwindling even then, or if perhaps he still preferred to go as the original dynamic duo with my brother, the anointed "favourite son". Whatever the reason, it soon became a standing joke that my visits to Elland Road were guaranteed something-nil defeats. I saw the Liverpool game the following season. We lost, 0-3. I saw us play Norwich towards the end of that season, when we were actually handily placed near the top of the league, with games in reserve. We lost 0-3 again. There was a growing desperation that I should break my duck, so the next game chosen was Sheffield United, who were already relegated. We contrived to lose that one as well, 0-1 with the grey-haired Alan Woodward scoring for the Blunts.
I was obviously a Jonah, carrying the can for the team’s inability to live up to the recent glorious past. I would never see Leeds win, or even score, not if I went along to Elland Road till I was ninety. Or that’s how it felt. Of course things did improve, but I’ve never quite been able to shed the Jonah part of my make-up, and many is the game I’ve cost us, simply by being there and wanting too much for us to win. Or maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s just Leeds. Whatever the case, it was an inauspicious start – in the league at least.
That European campaign though was different. The whole city, the whole county it seemed, was buzzing with excitement, and the feeling that Don Revie’s Champions of Europe dream was about to be realised was irresistible. After the hors d’oeuvre of the Liverpool game, I was ready for my Catalan main course, and
despite my debut defeat, I just knew we were going to win. With the all-consuming passion of the new convert, I anticipated the game, how the arena would look under the floodlights, packed to the rafters with hysterically expectant Leeds fans. Cruyff, the Dutch master, the most expensive player in the world (nearly a million pounds!), would not, could not, stand in our way. We were going to win the European Cup. And as any Leeds fan will be aware, there's a whole new blog in what happened next.