The Thrills Of Lower League Football

The hope of a new season disappears in double quick time when your team loses that first all important fixture - but Leeds fans are used to the disappointment by now.
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It usually starts like this, someone who knows you are a Leeds fan looks at you and asks ‘what has happened to your club?’ No longer living in Leeds this happens a lot to me...

You look back at them and work out whether it’s a football question or a question of gloating. And how they continue to talk usually gives you an insight whether or not they would follow their own club down from the heights of the Champions League semi-finals to a cold Tuesday night in Crewe.

All of you know what’s happened to Leeds, a select few at the club were ‘living the dream’ and paying themselves fantastically with public money, continuing to pay massive wages to players and managers no-longer even working for the club, and the football club dived into such a spectacular financial meltdown that the chairman even had to get rid of his club financed goldfish.

From one of the hottest young teams in Europe bypassing Milan, Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna and anything else that Russia, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Czechoslovakia could throw at us, to out and out laughing stock. A couple of months ago a Spurs fan I know asked me ‘what’s happened to your club?’ And by now I’d had enough and replied “Well we’ve got the leading goalscorer in England, possibly Europe, we’ve been to the play-off finals twice in three years, we’re on course for the play-offs again, last season we got 91 points despite starting minus fifteen and we’ve just won 11 games in a row at home. So how does that compare to Spurs right now?”

And he had to concede that it didn’t sound too bad at all. And that is how it is. The Curious Case of The Former European Cup Finalists, the winners of the last League Division One, the subjects of a Hollywood movie, still drawing crowds of over 30,000 and setting attendance records wherever we go away. Only Man City and Fiorentina fans can understand. And what you have to understand is belief because that’s all it comes down to. You could call it ‘delusion’ or you can call it belief but when I turn on Sky Sports or Match of The Day and see the players of the great O’Leary generation scattered across the Premiership I can’t help thinking that some of them (Woodgate, Milner, Smith, Carson and co), the ones that didn’t want to leave, are still secretly Leeds players.  And that without a shadow of a doubt it will only be a matter of time, promotions and maybe even owners before we once again occupy a regular Top Five place in English football. And the mean spirited might laugh but I bet there wasn’t a single Man City fan in the world who, when they were fighting it out with Gillingham for promotion out of the Third Division, believed they would one day be seriously attempting to sign the Kakas and Terrys of this world. But I bet all of them believed they would make it back to the top.

I think it was Seinfeld who said that if you consider the turn over of talent, throughout a lifetime a loyal sports fan is essentially only supporting laundry. And being down here in the Third Division of English football that can actually be a buzz. Having grown up as a Leeds fan when they had their greatest ever team, they were to me everything. (That’s why I didn’t like The Damned United film; it insulted and disappointed the little boy in me. It has helped give Leeds more publicity and profile than any other Third Division team ever though). And that’s what I still feel when I’m at a ground within touching distance of the players, where crowd control is a rope or a small wall or a small hoarding. I look at the players at such close proximity and think ‘That’s Leeds United’. It’s only when they go two down to the opposition, which occasionally happens that the disappointment kicks in.

Much as a homeless person probably feels the same person inside, just without a roof, it doesn’t really feel that different to support Leeds, wherever we are. And that’s something you can only learn from sinking this low. A Man United or Arsenal fan wouldn’t know that feeling. It seems a long time since we dropped out of the Premiership. Eddy Gray told me at the time that he thought it would take Leeds five years to get back established in the Premiership and I can remember thinking he was being a bit overly cautious. That was my first mistake; my second was, after losing in the Championship Play Offs first time around, vowing not to shave until we’d got promoted again. Following that season’s unexpected relegation to League One I was walking round looking like Dave Lee Travis, a look Paul Weller mentioned last week to me as “not a good one”.

As our song says we have had our Ups and Downs, even whilst heading down we’ve had our ups. For a start, as one poster on, pointed out football at this level feels more like football and less like going to the pictures. Anyone who still backs Roy Keane’s prawn sandwich inspired exasperation that football has become too corporate and middle class should just drop a few divisions and experience a terrible 0-0 draw away at Wolves (the worst game I’ve ever seen where a Neil Sullivan penalty save was one of the few times the ball went forward under head height). Or drop another division and find yourself nicking a plastic matchday sign from Edgar Street saying ‘Hereford Town V Leeds United’ and then having to put it back because you realise it will probably cost them a lot to replace it.

The Uppermost of the Ups is right there in my all time favourite matches, “Southampton 3 Leeds United 4”, a game described by the Independent as “In any other walk of life, a gang of young men pulling off a heist as audacious as Leeds United did on Saturday could expect to be banged up for a 10-year stretch.” And by Harry Redknapp as “one of the worst results of my career.” A David Healey, Robbie Blake and Liam Miller inspired come-back from 3-0 down with 19 minutes to go. The gloating Saints fans seem to slowly suffer an attack of Bell’s palsy as their faces slid from euphoria to disbelief in just a quarter of an hour as four great goals flew in.

Of the downs there have been so many. The starting line-up for the Championship Play Off Final in Cardiff against Watford, when pacey young centre-back Kilgallon who might have shackled Marlon King was pushed to left back to accommodate club captain Paul Butler alongside fellow clogger Sean Gregan. At that point, before we’d even kicked off, it felt like Blackwell had bottled it and been unable to keep the team that had negotiated a tricky playoff match against Preston.

A personal low was Heston in the FA Cup final last year. Whilst Heston rightly read the weather and played to their strengths by banging it down into the puddles in the corners and chasing down the confused full backs as they headed backwards with nowhere to play it but out, Gary McAllister had us playing little triangles in our own half between the midfield and the defence.  As Peter Taylor once said of this tactic, ‘they can keep possession as long as they want in their own half, it doesn’t bother me if they’re not winning’.

This really was an occasion when the fans probably had more personal experience of playing near to this level than the manager himself. One of the greatest challenges has been not so much the turn over of managers as the timing of their arrival and departure. Hardly any of them – Blackwell, Carver, Wise and Poyet, McAllister have had a full season. And all of them have seemed to do well from the off and fade badly. Despite being initially disliked Dennis Wise and Gus Poyet made a fantastic start to the season we started with minus fifteen points and managed to produce five straight wins to get us onto level pegging. Poyet had the players producing a whole array of imaginative dead-balls, once he’d gone – Eric Morecombe to Dennis Wise’s erm Ernie Wise – we lost the guile we’d shown. Dave Bassett came in and Seb Carole, the jinking French winger who’d been feeding Beckford, was ditched. Without his mate to help him and boost his popularity the appeal of the challenge faded for diddy Den and he followed the path of gold up the A1 – via Notting Hill.

The turn over of players, certainly under Blackwell, made the club seem more like a motorway hotel than a sporting outfit. Marlon King, John Oster, Brett Ormerod and Geoff Horsfield  all popped in and out for short unproductive stays and that’s just four I can remember. There are at least another twenty journeymen who’ve pulled on the white shirt, never to do so again once it had got mildly dirty.

As well as the badge, the laundry and the heritage the fans are essentially supporting each other down here. On average the club might be down 16,000 fans per match from the great European nights but away from home Leeds arrival in Carlisle, Bristol and Brighton prompts mass excitement. Before the locals can get a word in, the black humour of the downtrodden and demented, ring out with ‘We’re not famous anymore’. And there is indeed humour, at London Road last season the commercial team had decorated the toilets with adverts promoting STD screenings to which the travelling Leeds fans chanted ‘You’ve got chlamydia, we’ve got McAllister’ for pretty much most of the game. When they weren’t doing that, they were giving Darren Ferguson such a horrendous verbal battering for his assault on his ex wife and his parentage, that the local newspaper columnist was still spitting feathers six months on. One of the best things about being where we are is we see football from a different perspective, the last four years has been like an episode of The Secret Millionaire, only it’s not so much of a secret when all away games are sell outs, the police helicopter gets a match to watch, and kick-off times are inexplicably altered to noon on a Sunday for teams like Wycombe and Gillingham.

Whilst we undoubtedly miss the big battles with Liverpool, Man U and co (and who wouldn’t, when asked what he missed about England whilst at Inter Milan Paul Ince replied “I miss going to Elland Road with Man U’) meandering round country lanes to places like Yeovil and Hereford has been amusing and almost charming. Whereas most clubs make sure the allegedly Viking-esque Leeds fans are penned up under heavy police guard Yeovil had happily sold tickets to anyone anywhere in their ground. There biggest gate ever saw their main end full of about 300 Leeds fans in something that resembled a rugby union crowd for mixed allegiances. The best away ground I’ve visited has been Bristol Rovers, where the fans have a strong sense of identity, and sing like a band of grounded pirates and are delighted when they unexpectedly get something from the match. No other team in Britain seems to have as many club nicknames as Rovers. So you see heading this far down from our former position has been educational as well as entertaining.

Right now it’s been the hitherto unknowns like Robert Snodgrass, Luciano Becchio and Richard Naylor who have given Leeds fans a sense of optimism under the low profile Simon Grayson. In our first year down from the Premiership Leeds spent masses of money on  Healey, Harding, Hulse, Gregan and Blake and that didn’t get us promoted. Then we had a go with famous ex-professionals like Gus, Dennis and Gary in charge and that hasn’t worked and so now we must hope that a hard working, no-nonsense team, a tight defence and whoever comes in to replace the outward bound Beckford and Delph will get us up.

Beckford must have been the least popular record setting centre forward we’ve ever had. Despite all his goals Leeds fans, who adore attitude only when partnered with endeavour, would as easily lay into Beckford as big him up. Once the cat was out of the bag with Delph he had a much quieter half of last season. I wish both would stay, they’ll probably play more games and score more goals with Leeds going for promotion again than wherever they end up competing with even bigger, more adept team-mates.

In the last four years I have only experienced Premiership envy once, that was when walking from the Holloway Road to the front of Arsenal’s Emirates taking my son to see a Champions League match. Glancing up at this massive space ship of a ground, it seemed a longway from the Sixfields Stadium I’d visited a few days before. At Arsenal’s luxurious Diamond Club we were offered blankets and hot chocolate to watch a pointless match in a group Arsenal had already qualified from. Whereas at Northampton Town I had watched Leeds run riot and smack in five goals including one from local left back Ben Parker who ran round three players and fired in his first goal for Leeds. He ran back to our fans behind his own goal clenching his fist with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen. That’s what this is all about. It’s football, it’s passionate and it’s at close quarters.