I will never tire of watching Leeds United clips from the 1989-1996 era. Prior to that, having been a regular visitor to Elland Road since 1978 I had experienced nothing but the vapid decline of a once great club; dwindling fortunes, dwindling finances and dwindling crowds. Not that it felt like that at the time, as a fresh-faced seven year old untainted by the impending emotional stain of a lifetime of shattering let downs. Every match was exciting, an experience to lock away in the memory bank; new smells, new songs, new swear words.
Irrespective of what was happening on the pitch, and in Leeds case in the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s, often what was happening off it, the all-encompassing thrill of attending your first football matches is something you can never re-create.
In the late 1980’s Billy Bremner galvanised the club and awoke them from a dormant slumber. Howard Wilkinson picked up the gauntlet and suddenly there was tangible success on an unprecedented scale for a Leeds fan in his teenage years. The years 1989-1996 represent a halcyon period where the naïve excitement of simply attending matches along with noisy, grown up people began to give way to stimulating intoxication at being one of the crowd, invigorated by watching winning football played by a group of players who seemed to share your spirit. As an impressionable youth, there was no better era to feed off the passion and unity of the crowd and the players on the pitch. They were our representatives in white shirts; Sterland, Fairclough, Batty, Jones, Baird, Shutt, Speed. The list is almost endless. It was a magical time that slowly gave way to board and team mis-management, jobs, mortgages, responsibilities, Premiership greed and a dilution of the mesmerising match day adventure.
They were our representatives in white shirts; Sterland, Fairclough, Batty, Jones, Baird, Shutt, Speed.
The years 1989-1996 also represent the span of Gary Speed’s first team career at Leeds United, and hence the relentless viewing of video clips of that period over the last few weeks following his untimely death, have triggered a strange mixture of emotions; nostalgic pride in what was achieved, romantic sentiment over an exhilarating period of your life, and devastating regret over a life gone too soon.
Leeds fans have received significant credit from all areas of the football world for how they have reacted to the death of Gary Speed and how they have remembered and celebrated his life. I have personally never known such goodwill from supporters of other clubs towards Leeds, and whilst it is in tragic circumstances, it is heartening to know that the hateful tribalism that surrounds the game can still be punctuated by human decency when it really matters.
Leeds United as a club have also reacted to Speed’s death in an immensely honourable and respectful manner, and it is here that maybe the undeniable whiff of nostalgia that Speed’s death has evoked can produce a galvanising effect on the clubs flagging spirit and on-pitch fortunes. In circumstances nobody wanted or predicted are Leeds United about to find the harmony, zest and collective valour that has taken them to great places in the past?
You see, attending Elland Road in 2011 is a very different experience to my teenage years. Maybe it is the onset of duty and dependents, the prioritising of family and work life that means I am wondering what to do with my daughter tomorrow morning rather than why Bradley Johnson can’t find a team mate with a simple ten yard pass? Maybe it is the self-indulgent public image of the modern day footballer which means I do not have the same empathy with Ross McCormack as I used to with John Sheridan or Peter Haddock? Maybe it is the sanitised lack of atmosphere that all-seater stadiums and corporate boxes create, that mean I am not rocked to my very foundations by the noise and buzz reverberating around Elland Road like I was when swaying around a humming and dangerously packed Lowfields Road terrace in 1989?
It all adds up to the Elland Road experience becoming an interminable slog
Add to all this the downbeat ambience generated by the fractured relationship of the club itself with the common fan. Through a perceived lack of investment and an apparent dichotomy of priorities, ticket prices, the confused and muddled issue of the club ownership, the general belief that the lifeblood of the club are an aggravating inconvenience; whatever your thoughts on those issues, it all adds up to the Elland Road experience becoming an interminable slog rather than an energising pleasure.
The Leeds fans honouring of Gary Speed at Nottingham Forest on November 29th, just two days after his death, was perfect in many ways, and the teams response blurred the edges of a previously sharp divide. A 4-0 win and the all-round performance demonstrated that the players understood and valued the situation. Perhaps it was the dressing room influence of Speed’s former team mates Simon Grayson and Glynn Snodin, but the players reacted in a style befitting of and reflecting the fans pride, honour and respect.
The following Saturday I found myself with renewed verve for a home game, and I had the buzz in my stomach that I hadn’t felt for years. The Millwall game was to be a fitting memorial to Gary Speed and the pre-match arrangements were poignant and deeply gracious. The club had worked with supporters to produce a banner which was allowed to be passed around the ground, and a touching video montage of Speed’s greatest moments in a Leeds shirt was played on the big screen, tugging deeply at the heart-strings of fans of all ages. This was followed by title-winning heroes Strachan, Batty and McAllister laying a wreath on the pitch before a minute’s applause.
The spirit of 1989-1996 should serve as a reminder as to what this beast can achieve with harmony, direction and the collective energy
After that, the match itself was understandably low-key until the second half when Leeds, again recognising the nature of the occasion, stepped up a gear and came out resounding winners, for the first time in five home games. Suddenly key players are in form, vigour has returned to the club and momentum is building, so it was not so much the result that mattered on the day.
Walking home afterwards you felt a galvanised spirit amongst the fans, a healthy glow of maybe not satisfaction but reaffirmation; a building of bridges. Leeds United had extended a hand and we had taken it. We might still have our differences and there are still things to work out but amid the harrowing sense of loss, and beneath the disheartened undercurrent the strength of the relationship was there for all to see.
Twitter feeds and chat forums talked only of positive things, the bitter in-fighting was forgotten, there was a brotherhood and a desire to comfort, we all revelled in the reasons why we do this in the first place, and the common goal suddenly became clear again.
Whether this can be fortified and used to re-build the irresistible force of old is in the hands of the three main parties; the club, the players and the fans. Who has the greatest influence is open to conjecture, but certainly the spirit of 1989-1996 should serve as a reminder as to what this beast can achieve with harmony, direction and the collective energy of everyone involved. Who doesn’t want that again?
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