I woke on Monday with an underlying sense of depression which threw me because life’s good, and then I remembered I’m in a long-term dysfunctional relationship with Leeds United.
We’d lost the day before, which isn’t unusual lately, other results hadn’t gone our way and now we are probably going to be relegated.
I’ve supported Leeds for 50 years and think I’ve got some objectivity on the ‘ups and downs’ we sing about in the club’s anthem, Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Yet no matter how I try to keep some perspective, the fact the brilliant Marcelo Bielsa promotion of three years ago and the subsequent top-10 finish have been squandered leaves me feeling really uneasy.
How could we go from playing his total football, that even reds such as Gary Neville and Roy Keane admired, to not building a Premier League squad around him, then firing and replacing him with a human motivational poster in Jesse Marsch before staggering through two more emergency appointments until we’ve reached the impending drop?
When they fired Bielsa it was like they’d killed Santa. Really. Leeds fans who love him call themselves Bielsa Widows. Last spring his ever-decreasing squad was in freefall but that was mainly down to a massive injury list and having enjoyed success with the Argentinian maverick, the biggest disappointment is that the board couldn’t forge a relationship that allowed Bielsa to be Bielsa while the club built a deep enough squad so that fans weren’t looking to Eddie Gray’s 15-year-old great nephew, Archie, for hope.
Leeds may be relegated from the Premier League this weekend after a nightmare campaign
Supporting the club is a landscape of good and bad experiences and thinking about the past
Gallows humour sees the fanbase joke about their side’s tendency to peak and then drop away
James Brown, the former loaded and GQ editor, is a life-long Leeds United supporter
I’d rather have been relegated with Bielsa and come back up again than be where we are now. He wasn’t perfect but he was inspirational. I think he would have bounced back. Now LUFC WhatsApp and Twitter discussions burn late into the night, a bonfire of anger, blame, sadness and black humour. The most common point of view of the longstanding fan is ‘that’s Leeds’. We peak and then drop away.
An undulating landscape of good and bad experiences, and once the present is broken you can’t help but think back over loads of memories of the past. I’ll support Leeds whatever division we are in, but I’d rather I wasn’t looking back again.
As a little boy I lived opposite our striker Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke, on the outskirts of Leeds. My mum and his wife, Margaret, were friends and I was in and out of their house playing with their poodle Pele, trying on Allan’s England caps and watching him unpack his suitcase after the 1970 World Cup. Living so close to my hero made anything seem possible but there were so many great things about the club then.
The football obviously, but the sock tags and the smiley badge and the Airtex, Admiral yellow away kit with blue-and-white stripes down the arms. Our players captained Scotland, Ireland, Wales and even England. As kids Peter Lorimer had the hottest shot in football and Jack Charlton had won the World Cup. Norman Hunter had been in the squad too. This is the stuff that ensured a life of allegiance, love and obsession.
When I left Leeds and started a career in magazines in the 1980s, first at NME and then in the 90s as editor of men’s titles like loaded and GQ, I’d get as many Leeds players into my magazines as I wanted. Then in 1998 I started a new type of official club magazine with the energy of the men’s mags and the humour and passion of the terraces. It was like a fanzine with total access to the playing staff. They were brilliant times.
On the plane to Madeira for a UEFA Cup tie I found myself with my big, brown curly hair sitting between Lee Bowyer’s Bash Street Kids spiky crop and Lee Sharpe’s platinum blond mop, while behind us goalkeeper Nigel Martyn sang the theme from the Hair Bear Bunch cartoon.
Brown grew up living opposite striker Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke (left) on the outskirts of Leeds
Marcelo Bielsa wasn’t perfect but he was inspirational and would certainly have bounced back
Following Leeds is all-consuming and supporters have now braced themselves for the worst
James’ important Leeds facts
Leeds United appeared in an episode of Porridge where Old Man Blanco claimed to have buried his treasure under the pitch.
And Benny Hill appeared in a sketch about a Leeds supporting vicar.
Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby also supported Leeds.
Nelson Mandela’s favourite player was Leeds captain Lucas Radebe.
Attacker Duncan MacKenzie could throw a golf ball the full length of the pitch and once did so before a match. Topping it off by jumping over a mini!
Both Peter Hooton of The Farm and Liam Gallagher have lead festival audiences in Leeds in mass singing of ‘Marching On Together.’
Four members of the Gray dynasty have played for Leeds, brothers Eddie and Frank, Frank’s son Andy, and Andy’s son Archie.
Famous Leeds fans include Russell Crowe, Father Ted actor Ardal O’Hanlon who played innocent Father Dougal, Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones, various top golfers and former England goalkeeper David Seaman.
Legendary Ghanaian striker Tony Yeboah once sold me his brand new BMW Z3 sports car before it had even been delivered as he left to join Hamburg. At the turn of the 21st century David O’Leary’s ‘babies’ gave Leeds United an unexpected popularity among London cabbies who would wax lyrical about Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Co.
A decade before that in 1992, when we’d won the last First Division title, we’d introduced Eric Cantona to English football only to inexplicably sell him to Manchester United, for whom he would kick-start a decade of dominance. Even when we were up we could soon hurtle down.
The questionable financial mishaps of Peter Ridsdale saw us plummet to the bottom of the old third division, League One, to start the 2007-08 season at Tranmere on minus 15 points with the cantankerous former Chelsea owner, Ken Bates, running the club. It sounds like a nightmare but I watched us win in the last minute and after five victories we soon reached zero points. The number of games we won over the next three years made League One largely really enjoyable.
Even when we were down we were up. The trips to Plymouth, Yeovil and Hereford gave an insight into the wider football world, where fans would bite your hand off for a full international and old ladies served tea and cake in guest lounges.
Following Leeds is all-consuming. When we were promoted from League One I threw my eldest son, Marlais, so high in front of the press box his flight received a mention in match reports.
His little brother, Billy, and I were at Brentford for the last game of last season, guest of Bees captain and former Leeds legend Pontus Jansson, when Jack Harrison scored in the closing minutes to secure another year in the Premier League. Jackie will probably stay in the top division, albeit in another team’s colours.
The questionable financial mishaps of Peter Ridsdale saw Leeds plummet to the bottom of the old third division
The current board have made mistakes but taken the club to a better place (above: Andrea Radrizzani)
Whatever division Leeds find themselves in, fans will continue to love the players and the club
Unless something highly unlikely happens on Sunday and Leeds beat Spurs while Everton and Leicester both lose, I will feel terrible but I’ve been preparing for it on and off for months.
The board have made so many mistakes it’s easy to see now how they’ve done for us, but for so long I supported them because they gave us Bielsa, Raphinha, Kalvin Phillips and promotion. Their avalanche of errors is enough to make fairweather fans walk away but the truth is the club is in a better position than when they found us, staggering around under the madman Massimo Cellino who emptied the players’ swimming pool and made them bring their own packed lunches.
Me? I’m already thinking about the first day of training in July when I’ll be examining photos of new and returning players, trying to glean some sort of insight into the fortunes of the season ahead from the way they are jogging.
Whatever division we’re in I’ll still be in love with the white shirts at Elland Road and proudly singing: ‘We’re Leeds United and we rule supreme.’ Even if reality suggests otherwise.
James Brown’s memoir Animal House (Quercus) is published on Friday in paperback. Visit https://geni.us/AnimalHouse.
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