I Wish Leeds United Were Playing Chelsea Tonight
That statement sounds a bit odd I grant you. Have I had too many bitters at the Christmas do? Well, no. Because whilst the internet pups and keyboard warriors of both sides are now out in force ahead of the league cup quarter final at Elland Road this week, the fixture for me has nothing of the resonance it would've had a decade ago. In theory it's a game with an agenda every media outlet can put their arms around: North v South, Bates vs. Abramovich, Coal not dole. But whilst the broad strokes are there, the fine detail no longer rattles; it's an exaggeration to say we don't care, but the context of any rivalry now is distorted, a macrocosm of how “Modern football” has anaesthetised every value that made the game the focal point of my existence whilst growing up.
Previews this week have been long on focussing on the sixties origins of the antipathy between the two clubs, of Chopper and Billy, cheating refs and national grids being knocked out. Barely a teenager in 1983, none of that meant anything to me however. The combatants of the past were paper tigers, ghosts who in the pre-internet era might as well have been Attila the Hun, Napoleon or the Krays for all I knew or cared. My first ever game at Elland Road was against Chelsea on a freezing cold February afternoon that year, and what was notable is that the oral tradition had carried down the terrace hostility in song even though the vintage on field pugilism had long since departed. To the tune of Que Sera Sera, the nostalgic Koppites serenaded a thousand Metropolitan travellers with “..and shoot the Chelsea scum”. It was the first Leeds United song I ever learned. I still whistle it now.
The game itself was a macrocosm for following United, and probably Chelsea at that point. Eddie Gray's fledgling side led 3-2 into injury time before the mercurial veteran put through his own goal; pens 3 and 4 of the Lowfields duly exploded as if they'd been dynamited. By that point this was a fixture being played not at football's top table, but in the Second Division, both clubs slipping into a financial abyss created by falling gates, the rise of hooliganism and the authorities stigmatisation of the game in general. Chelsea would gain promotion the following season – the finale between the two outfits at Stamford Bridge notable for it's almost Droog-esque levels of violence – whilst Leeds would need to wait a further seven years. But throughout this period, the rivalry remained dynamically awake, surmounting that held by Leeds fans with the older enemy across the Pennines.
Much has been made of the contrasts between the two as the basis for informing this mutual lack of respect. What's perhaps more accurate is that the Leeds and Chelsea shared far more attributes as the twentieth century came to a close than in which they differed. Each looked backwards to a halcyon era fast reaching the horizon, and to an extent wallowed in it. Neither would win many popularity contests amongst visiting fans as Elland Road and Stamford Bridge remained decaying edifices to these briefly held glories. Moving cautiously around each rather than working with them, the game itself gradually began it's rebirth stealthily, hoping that these problem children would wise up, or whither away.
It was with a degree of inevitability however that both sides eventually elbowed their way back to the top table, United by winning the league title in 1992 and Chelsea later via the FA cup. For more than a decade the mutual loathing swelled, as the northern monkeys generally gained slightly the upper hand, and games between the two were raucous, unforgiving, s*it and bullets affairs which snarled their way back in time to the monochrome era, no quarter asked for and none taken. It was a battle of culture. Of ideology. It was hatred. It was football as I knew it.
The arrival of Roman Abramovich has had long reaching consequences for every aspect of British football, but ironically much more far reaching for Leeds United than many others. As a result of the Russian oligarch removing Ken Bates from his position, the latter eventually came to a halt up North – well, on the days his tax exile status will allow – after first being rebuffed by the board at Sheffield Wednesday. Irony then imitated life grotesquely, as Bates then installed former Chelsea icons Dennis Wise and Gustavo Poyet as first team coaches following the sacking of the hapless Kevin Blackwell, the inept duo promptly taking Leeds down into the bowels of League 1. In the meantime Chelsea have had to build another annexe to their trophy cabinet, whilst Leeds have needed nothing more in the museum that large amounts of Pledge.
Irony again will surface on Wednesday night. Bate's motivation for “Rescuing Leeds from the abyss” - Chelsea fans stop me if you've heard that one before – has always remained as opaque as the club's ownership, but you always sensed that sticking it to Abramovich has never been far from his thought process. A horribly sluggish takeover process has been ongoing since the summer at Elland Road, one which the fans hope will finally bring an end to the financial chicanery which has been a facet of Bates' troubled reign, but then low and behold, 48 hours before he is to relinquish his stake in the club, the two sides meet for the first time since we were relegated from the top flight in 2004.
For “The Chairman” as he prefers to be known as around the newly refurbished East Stand it's likely to be a night of near Old Testament pleasures. But the Chelsea that arrive will not be the club or fans which I grew up sparring with, there'll be no Spackmans, Bumsteads, or Dixons to abuse, no lairy over dressed geezers in the opposite stands to mock. Instead on the pitch we'll have upwardly mobile interlopers from around the world, barely able to remember which county they're in, let alone take on board the idea of Norman Hunter and Ian Hutchinson having it, or Ronnie & Reggie having a word at half time with the match officials (Allegedly). The reality is that we get our journeymen vs. their mercenaries, a David & Goliath spat which sounds romantic on paper, but has no longevity in real terms when an owner is willing to spend the price of a hospital wing on a man who can kick a ball. It's an obscenity, but at least I suppose it's their obscenity.
I went to my child's school nativity play in North Leeds this morning. Halfway through the three kings turned up carrying a bag full of gifts. One of them was carrying a Chelsea holdall. It didn't bother me that much then. And neither will it really when we take on not a team, but a brand on Wednesday night. Que Sera Sera...