Leeds United's Cult Heros: From Tony Currie To Rodolph "The Beast" Austin

The tough-tackling Jamaican "Warrior" is the perfect heir to the throne of the great Tony Currie.
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The tough-tackling Jamaican "Warrior" is the perfect heir to the throne of the great Tony Currie.

It’s been a few years since Leeds United had a cult hero, and for a club with a tradition of them, it sometimes feels even longer. When I was a kid, Elland Road cult heroes seemed to come along almost as regularly buses.

I was too young to see the Revie era. I saw most of his players, but not when the Don managed them. My first match, a 2-0 victory over Arsenal, saw the programme notes being written by trainer Syd Owen, who had been placed in very temporary charge of first team affairs in the weird interregnum after Brian Clough’s notorious 44 day reign over the Damned United, a tortuous affair for both sides which led the smiling assassin Owen to exact a sort of revenge in his programme notes.

“Over the years, our players have been accustomed to a specialised type of training at Elland Road,” he wrote, his stern words at odds with a cheery picture of him in a Leeds United tie decorated with the famous LUFC “Smiley” badge. “It was a totally different procedure that was introduced by Brian Clough and Jimmy Gordon. The training sessions up until a few weeks ago had what I consider to be a free and easy attitude… we have taken steps to revert to the tried and tested formula of the last decade.”

But even as the ink dried on his notes, Owen was handing over the reigns to Jimmy Armfield, whose first game was that one against Arsenal and whose attempts to build on Revie’s decade of success would take Supa Leeds to the dizzy heights of the 1975 European Cup Final, which I watched them lose 2-0 on black and white telly in my pal Cameron White’s house and we were old enough to realise that the referee seemed determined to make sure Bayern Munich won the game.

We were old enough to realise that the referee seemed determined to make sure Bayern Munich won the game.

It was Armfield who brought in Tony Currie, who was the first of a heady stream of cult heroes I was lucky enough to see play in the flesh. Flesh is an appropriate word when describing Currie, which was part of the peculiar fascination. He looked like a guitarist in a mid-1970s glam band (specifically Mud, or the Sweet if such a magnificent male specimen could ever be coaxed into wearing make-up). He had a belly that suggested a biryani the night before, and I firmly remember older blokes in the Peacock loos casually mentioning that he liked a gin and tonic. But on the field, his passing range was breathtaking. Currie – a £250,000 snip from Sheffield United (imagine Leeds paying that in 2012, never mind 1976) – could control a game from the centre circle without breaking sweat, and swivel his beer belly to unleash a pass of devastating beauty. When Armfield finally sold him, to QPR in 1979, I was so upset and depressed I turned to listening to Joy Division.

He had a belly that suggested a biryani the night before, and I firmly remember older blokes in the Peacock loos casually mentioning that he liked a gin and tonic.

Armfield signed another cult hero of the Kop back then - Brian Flynn, the tiny Welsh international dubbed “the mighty Flynn”, who it was rumoured was so small he could actually fit into a pint pot. Clough, for all his supposed sins, had bequeathed him Duncan McKenzie, who was sometimes as flamboyant as Currie on the field and definitely off it, where his party piece was leaping over a Mini Cooper in the West Stand car park before games. In more recent times, our cult heroes have been the likes of Vinnie Jones, the Wimbledon enforcer turned (honestly!) occasionally silky midfielder for a year under Howard Wilkinson, where his trademark shaved crew cut was adopted by every third young man in the city and his tough tackling and endless commitment became a crucial component in the side that took us back to the (old, pre-Premiership) First Division. Sergeant Wilko, of course, signed Eric Cantona, whose ballet dance-turned-top corner smashed against Chelsea on the route to winning the League title in 1992 remains the most audacious goal I’ve seen at Elland Road. He also brought in Ghanaian goal machine Tony Yeboah, and “Yeboah! Yeboah!!” replaced “Ooh aah Cantona” as the cult Elland Road song, assisted by incredible strikes such as the missile-like powerhouse versus Liverpool. But those days seem ever so long ago. In the Champions League era, the entire team were stars and, signed for and paid incredible sums, perhaps (local lad Alan Smith aside) that bit too remote from the likes of us to become genuine cult heroes. In recent years, perhaps only “Jer-maayyne Beck-ford” and “The stars in the bright sky looked down where [David] HEA-LY! HEA-LY!” came anywhere close to the hero worship afforded LUFC’s cult heroes of yore.

In more recent times, our cult heroes have been the likes of Vinnie Jones, the Wimbledon enforcer turned (honestly!) occasionally silky midfielder

But this summer, something changed.

Like most of us, I had no idea who Rodolph Austin was when he was supposed to be signing for Neil Warnock’s rebuilt team from Norwegian league side SK Brann. His first name sounded like a red-nosed reindeer. A quick google revealed a bit more: Jamaican international. 27. “Tough tackling.” Warnock called him a “warrior.” Sounded promising.

Shortly afterwards, he was showing every sign of possible future cultdom before he’d even signed, but surely because it was a quiet summer and bored LUFC fans were having a laugh. A rumour started that he was as fast as Usain Bolt. A handful of hurriedly circulated YouTube videos suggested that – for a few minutes at least – he had been quite a player. Then the signing of the out of contract midfielder was confirmed, and the cult of Rodolph gathered pace when he revealed that his own hero was LUFC’s O’Leary-era midfielder Eirik Bakke, who he’d got to know at Brann.

It all seemed like a huge typically LUFC joke, but in his first game (in the League Cup, versus Shrewsbury) he looked everything Leeds have lacked for years – a hard-tackling midfield hardman who can pass the ball. In short, a Jamaican David Batty. Yes, it was only Shrewsbury, but his international class was obvious. He’d already been given a nickname that somehow sums up the way he plays. Rodolph is The Beast.

After just three games at home, Tuesday night’s League Cup home game against Oxford United saw Beastmania start to spread around the ground, and Austin responded with a masterclass in how to play the holding midfield role and rampage forward, and fight for every ball. He was everywhere – that man at the back helping out in defence? Austin. That man shepherding the ball out for a corner? Austin? That man banging in a fantastic goal? Austin – which, bless his fearsome legacy, is not something we often said of David Batty.

If anything, Austin’s strike reminded me of classic Peter Lorimer – a slide rule, granite hard lash into the bottom corner. A few minutes later, he almost scored again with an even more audacious strike – a pulverizing rocket that had it not bounced off the crossbar, would have been almost a replica of Yeboah’s against Liverpool.

A pulverizing rocket that had it not bounced off the crossbar, would have been almost a replica of Yeboah’s against Liverpool.

Warnock subbed Austin before the end of the game so he could lap up the applause. Surely it’s only a matter of time before the stadium is a mass of yellow, red and green and the team comes out to Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up (“don’t give up the fight”) , but one of the weirder aspects of Beastmania is that the Jamaican’s Man of the Match performance (with 73% of the votes in one poll) overshadowed another stellar performance from a kid who might end up as a cult hero himself. Like Austin, young right back Sam Byram was an unknown quantity when he suddenly and surprisingly broke into the first team in pre-season (so unknown that I managed to call him Stephen on the radio!) Now everybody knows about him: he’s quick, reads the game like a veteran and has taken to playing in front of the often unforgiving Elland Road crowd as if he’s been there all his life.  And if they didn’t know about him, they certainly would after his performance against Oxford. Easily his best display in a Leeds shirt, an all-round performance was capped off by one of the finest individual goals I’ve seen at ER in some time – reminiscent, even, of that Cantona goal. The ball arrived at the 18-year old’s feet just outside the box – Byram showed his astonishing confidence and maturity by nodded to experienced international El Hadji Diouf to leave it for him. Then he took the ball and with one audacious touch with the outside of his boot he left two defenders standing, then nipped between them to position himself behind the ball. The next bit was just unbelievable. Almost any other player would have wellied it, but this very young man chose to chip it over the keeper: it was a goal as breathtaking as it was arrogant, and had Elland Road on its feet.

These two players aren’t the only signs that things are starting to come together at Elland Road. The third goal – a header from young defender Tom Lees from a Diouf centre – sealed the win, but it was another excellent all-round performance. Yes, it was only lowly Oxford, who couldn’t live with us at all (although they were previously unbeaten) but it wasn’t long ago we were losing to the likes of Histon, or being humiliated at home by all manner of teams last season.

Warnock made six changes to his previous side for this match and still Leeds looked a side capable of giving anyone a game.  We’re solid in defence, lively in midfield and attack and most of all committed. Warnock – who shows every possibly of becoming a cult hero himself, not least when he caused howls of laughter by yelling “Zac, get here!” at young sub Thompson, like one would a sheepdog  – has built a side with parallels to  Howard Wilkinson’s ruthlessly organized team but created in his own image. The new-look Warnock Leeds may not yet be perfect – and there are still concerns about our strength in depth, especially upfront. But he is building a side of big characters who fight for every ball to the last whistle and whose commitment to the cause and fighting for the shirt fans can identify with and believe in.

That is the beauty of The Beast.

Dave Simpson’s book The Last Champions – Leeds United And The Year That Football Changed Forever is published by Bantam Press.
Buy it here

Dave’s blog http://lastchampions.blogspot.co.uk/

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