By Mark Rasdall
King Alfred lived for fifty years, twenty eight of them as King of Wessex. He saw off the Vikings who came to conquer our island and was famous for his financial and military expertise. He was much loved and admired and, following his death in 899, became known as Alfred the Great. No other English King has been revered in the same way.
He was also famous for a tale I first heard in school back in the early 1960's which was that while taking shelter in the house of a peasant woman on the Somerset Levels he was asked to watch over some cakes that she had left cooking on the fire. Alfred agreed but found himself worrying instead about his own problems across the kingdom and let the cakes burn by accident. The woman was not impressed - king or no king.
I was thinking about this today. I have supported Leeds United for almost fifty years - equal to the whole of Alfred's life - and I also love cakes! However, that does not mean that I would be as successful at making them as eating them.
To make a cake you need a good mixing bowl. I remember my mum having one of those light brown-coloured china bowls which seemed to be used to make absolutely everything. When it cracked, my father - also a cake lover - quickly bought her a new one. Our football club had a crack in it, through which our own glorious history nearly fell through, never to be repeated. Various people tried to paper over the crack and some even considered taking our bowl to a second-hand market stall to make money on it, but none of this worked. At last, a cake lover from a far away land learned of our plight, travelled all the way to our country and bought us a new one.
We had long ago joined a group of friends called The Football League in the hope that they would help to keep our new mixing bowl safe but, unlike King Alfred, they weren't really interested in their people, only the money they could raise from them. They were also deeply jealous and suspicious of a man who appeared to walk on water in order to save us and, asked to carry the bowl to the oven, they promptly dropped it on the floor on purpose several times. Miraculously, legend tells us that the bowl would not break. It was and is unbreakable because of the strongest material a bowl can be made out of. That material, glazed all in white, is known as Leeds United Fanbase. I have long been a constituent part of it and it is truly magical.
Ingredients for a cake are vital. We have had to use some sub-standard ones from time to time such as the Kandol and the Varney but still we have given them the chance to rise or fall, bake or burn in the cooker - also known by some as 'the furnace of Elland Road'. We knew that some were unlikely to make the grade, much less admired across the land, such as the Bremner or the Speed. Some like the Pearce and the Paynter we cooked for too long, in the hope that they would eventually blend with the others to produce cakes we could all enjoy. We now have a number of fresh new ingredients with names such as Cook and Mowatt and even a Murphy that we thought would never be able to rise to the occasion.
We have also asked various cooks to mix the ingredients and make them work to produce the best cakes. We had the Warnock whose cakes were high and without any real substance, the McDermott whose always looked the part but flattered to deceive and now the Redfearn whose cakes are fundamentally sound and tasting better by the week,
The difference between the recent cooks has been that the Redfearn has not been afraid to mix the ingredients in a different way to get results; neither has he thrown away his trusted ingredients at the first opportunity. He hasn't been afraid to change the recipe, though many in the realm have doubted the wisdom of this and have questioned his abilities often.
I trust in the benefactor who finally gave us a new bowl in which to mix our cakes. I am excited by the new ingredients we are using and the man charged with mixing them together to produce beautiful results consistently. Many have simply spent time blaming every part of the process or bemoaning the fact that the cakes don't taste the same as they used to. What they were really doing is what Alfred did: allowing the cakes to burn while spending their time pontificating on the problem rather than giving others enough time to find a better solution.
Alfred was not a particularly healthy man and some scholars have suggested that he may have suffered from a form of Crohn's Disease. But he persevered. He won over the doubters, won the battles and eventually won the war. It is all there for us as it was for him. The icing is yet to come.