Walking out of a football match is like walking out of your mother's funeral, no matter how painful you just shouldn't do it. This Leeds United fan should know - he learned the hard way.
I blame Mark. I’d never left a Leeds match early until I started going with him.
‘Another one goes in and I’m off’, he says, or ‘If it’s still three nil with ten to go I’ll see you in the boozer’.
And on occasions I’ve followed him. I’ve not done it very often and it’s a pet hate to see fans leave early but I have done it. And it’s wasn’t to get a flyer out of the car park or to catch an earlier train but to escape whatever torture was being dished up on the pitch. How many times have I done it? Five maybe? And always with Mark. So, as I said, I blame him.
November 2003 and Leeds United were going through ‘a period of transition’, ‘a feet-finding mission’, ‘a rebuilding exercise’ if you will. In other words we were s***. Manager, Peter Reid had cobbled together a team from late summer deals, remnants of David O’Leary and Terry Venables’ previous endeavours and a Frenchmen called Cyril. Instantly forgettable recruits included the likes of Lamine Sakho, Zoumana Camara and Roque Junior. The latter, we seemed to be constantly reminded, was a World Cup winner for Brazil. However, what was never really apparent was the sport at which he was victorious. Rarely have I seen a defender so clearly out of his depth and comfort zone who fast-tracked incompetence to unprecedented levels. We were fighting for our Premiership lives and clearly losing the battle. And so to Portsmouth away.
It felt like the build up to a funeral, standing around and waiting for the coffin to arrive.
The previous Saturday we’d lost 4-1 at home to eventual champions, the invincible Arsenal team. An expected defeat perhaps but surely at Portsmouth we could get something and improve on our meagre eight points. Leading up to kick off there had been a power cut. Fratton Park was cast in early winter semi-darkness with only occasional cigarettes being lit providing brief moments of illumination. With no power, this meant no public address system and no music. It felt strangely subdued and the crowd were in the dark all round as to what was happening. Once 3pm had come and gone the sporadic singing of both sets of fans died away replaced by a gentle buzz of chatter in the cold gloom. It felt like the build up to a funeral, standing around and waiting for the coffin to arrive.
The kick off came eventually and within sixteen minutes Leeds were a goal down. Alan Smith equalised two minutes later but this was to be just a stay of execution. With Roque Junior (a World Cup winner, you know) proving to be as desperately inept in midfield as he was at the back, we were continually carved apart and on the stroke of half time Portsmouth made it 2-1. Early in the second half 3-1 soon followed. Hayden Foxe, a player I can only describe as having the mobility of a large wardrobe and who would later sign for us, swivelled to crack home a volley and make it four. It was too much. My mate, Mark, grunted something and we turned and shuffled away in silence. Up the terrace, down the steps, through the gates and away from Leeds United. We walked to Fratton Station in silence, with heads down and hands deep in pockets. The only sound was the Pompey crowd, cheering and chanting. Another roar meant another goal and another bullet to the heart. We stood on the train platform with one or two others and yet another cheer went up, 6-1. I gazed towards the stadium where I had stood a few minutes earlier. No ‘Useless b*****ds’ was spat, no ‘let’s write this one off’ - we were going down and we knew it.
The journey back north seemed endless. I walked into the house and took a can of lager from the fridge, went upstairs and stared out of the window into the night. Then tears filled my eyes; a reaction I’d not anticipated. It was relegation we were staring at, not an imminent death for God’s sake! I hadn’t even realised that I could raise such emotion for Leeds. I thought back to 1982 and West Brom away, the last time Leeds were relegated. I didn’t go to the game but listened on the radio as we slipped to defeat and into the Second Division. The next day at school we had PE as the first lesson of the day, followed by Music. I went though the motions with little physical exertion, got showered and changed and trudged sombrely to the music room. Kids, mostly mates gathered at the windows awaiting my arrival. I saw them laughing and pointing as they scurried back to their desks upon seeing me. I walked into the classroom and on a supposed given cue; the music teacher struck the piano keys. He played jauntily and loud and the kids sang along, ‘Going down, going down, going down, going down, going down, going do – own…’ I stood in the doorway with wet hair and an Adidas sports bag while they all chanted at me. I didn’t buckle and waited until they’d finished, sat at my desk and took my books out. Twenty one years later and I think of it again. The hurt inside. I’m in my house staring out of the window with a drink in my hand and I’m twelve years old sitting at a desk in the music room. Once again Leeds were going down, going down, going down and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I finished my beer and went to bed hoping to wake up five years later.
Two years have passed and I’m on a train going to watch Leeds at Southampton. It was our second season down and despite going into the game in the dizzy position of fourth, things were not going quite to plan. We hadn’t taken maximum points from any of the previous five matches and the football being played was approaching and often beyond dreadful. The manager, Kevin Blackwell, when questioned on our form, continued to trot out his stock statements of how, when he had arrived at the club there was only him, Gary Kelly and the tea lady on the staff. It was true that following relegation and financial mismanagement the squad had been wearing thin but so were his excuses. With Kelly in the team at St.Mary’s that day was Paul Butler. Most teams have at some point employed the services of players who can best be described as a BRB (Big Rough Bastard). Think Micky Droy, Larry Lloyd, Sam Allardyce and so on. These are players who are there to stop others. Players who are not blessed with the finer nuances of the beautiful game perhaps. Paul Butler was our BRB. This man had somehow contrived to become internationally recognised for the art of stopping, albeit a single cap for Eire. He was cumbersome. He was a liability. He was s***t. It was said that Butler was actually running the show behind the scenes so I’ll blame him for how poor we were at the time.
After traditional liquid refreshment I took my position in the ground with fellow seasoned away travellers, Mark and Smurf. So what delights were we about to be regally spoilt with? Would it be the nonchalant passing of previous Leeds v Southampton encounters, with the Whites carving the hapless Saints to ribbons or would we be playing with the swagger, style and beauty of Brazil 1970 or the Dutch team that followed?
‘I’ll tek a f***ing draw now’, said Mark.
Southampton were kind to us and sportingly waited until the twenty seventh minute to score their first. Theo Walcott ripped through us and two more goals followed with Leeds offering little resistance – three-nil down. Around me, people were shaking their heads both bemused and amused. It was as bad as it had ever been and nothing could get us out of it. Blackwell’s position was discussed amongst the faithful; formations weren’t working, players were out of position and there seemed to be no leadership. We couldn’t defend, we couldn’t attack and we couldn’t create. It wasn’t a case of where was the next win was coming from but where was the next goal? Mark thought long and hard about the dismal display of Leeds United as the last player left the field at half-time with the boos raining down. He bit his bottom lip and reflected on what he’d witnessed. This was a man of reason but also a champion ranter when given a suitable platform. But he was quiet. Thoughtful. What wrathful disdain was about to be ejected or would it be an optimistic rallying cry for the downtrodden troops? Here it comes. A glance round the ground, eyes narrowing, deep breath, lips apart…
He looked hopefully at me and Smurf. This was new territory. I was a fledgling member of ‘the early getaway club’ and a reluctant one at that. A half-time departure had never been mentioned on the application form. A couple of minutes from the end when getting hammered and drenched maybe but HALF TIME? This needed careful consideration and reasoned judgement. A whole new ball game you might say.
‘Aye’, I replied, ‘f*** it’.
We itched along the row of seats and under the stand. Smurf followed, seemingly eager too for solace in alcohol. At the heavy red gates I turned and he was ten yards behind looking perplexed.
‘Where you off?’ he asked
‘I thought you meant a drink in here. I’ll pass ta…’
Mark and I walked out of the ground with Smurf’s last words tapping away at our shoulders – ‘… owt could happen’.
We hurried through the damp streets back towards the city centre. It felt wrong to be leaving a ground where Leeds were still playing but as long-time sufferers we’d seen it all before. Why should we stay? For the thousandth time we’d got up at a daft time to travel two hundred miles only to be treated to clueless, directionless football. We were being embarrassed, AGAIN. We were being outfought, AGAIN. We were about to get tonked, AGAIN. And so we trotted on.
As the Guinness started to kick in I didn’t feel quite so bad any more at not being there.
This was no Portsmouth 6-1 and we chatted and joked and laughed at the spectacle we’d witnessed, almost revelling in how poor it had been. Walking into the pub we were met by twenty or so more like-minded Leeds fans, fellow early risers and complainants. All were laughing and drinking. There was nothing else you could do. But I felt uneasy, this wasn’t right, I shouldn’t have been there. I should have been back at the ground taking the defeat on the chin. What did the song say about up and downs and staying with Leeds forever? I felt detached as I drank my pint. The TV was on and a glance up confirmed that it was still 3-0 with twenty minutes to go. That would be a reasonably respectable score on reflection. Then, as I was still watching, the score changed and my phone vibrated with an incoming text. It was from Smurf. Butler, the BRB, had made it 3-1. A consolation goal. This was definite respectability now. As the Guinness started to kick in I didn’t feel quite so bad any more at not being there. Okay, I’d missed a goal but I was in a warm pub on a cold day watching the scores whilst chatting and relaxing.
Soon after, my phone buzzed again. I looked at it and my eyes widened in a slight panic. Robbie Blake had scored for Leeds - it was now 3-2 with thirteen minutes to go.
I forgot everything about warm pubs and cold days and stared at Mark, ‘If we f***ing score again…’ but I was shot down.
‘We won’t though, we’re Leeds. There’s more chance of me shagging the Pope.’
Mark was right. Both scenarios were highly unlikely. We’d staged comebacks before; the 4-3 wins at home to Derby and Liverpool for example, but these were at Elland Road in front of big noisy crowds, not at the other end of the country in the driving rain. I kept on glancing at the TV, selfishly hoping for full-time and the match report, ‘Southampton 3 Leeds 2 – a spirited fightback was thwarted by stout home defending’, or ‘A respectable effort by Leeds but they couldn’t quite conjure up the all important equalizer. A third goal was to prove a bridge too…’ On the table my phone vibrated again. I couldn’t look. I daren’t. But I had to. Deep breath. Oh my good God, we’d just equalised. I felt empty as I raised my eyes from the text and told Mark the news and then how I was never listening to him again. David Healy had come off the sub’s bench and scored with an eighty-fourth minute penalty. This was bittersweet. I could only imagine the scenes in the Leeds end as fans tumbled over seats where I’d been sat, hugged each other and looked to the heavens.
I think I was still going on and on about the fact that I’d never left a match early before I’d met him to Mark when Smurf’s next text came in. Misspelt but clearly readable, it informed me that not only had Liam Miller now made it 4-3 to Leeds but that ‘WERE OFF F***IN MENTL!’
I smiled, I had no option, and showed the phone to my disbelieving mate, took a long draw on my pint and declared, ‘We are never, ever, EVER, going to live this f***er down’.
How could they do it? How could Leeds possibly do this to me? The years of dedication I’d given them at home, away and in Europe. The credit card bills I’d racked up, the weddings I’d missed, the sickies I’d pulled - and this is how they reward me…by winning! The bastards.
The result came up on the screen and a pub half full of Leeds fans could only shake their heads, or smile, or cry. The choice was ours. I was a victim of cliché as my jaw genuinely dropped and I was rendered speechless. I wanted the next match now. I wanted today to be five matches ago. I wanted it to be ‘Can you remember when Leeds came back to win 4-3 at Southampton?’ and I say, ‘God, that was some years ago now’. I dreaded the next few days. What was I possibly going to say when people ask how it was? Does it make up for all the bad times? Was it worth all the effort of getting there now? What the f*** would I say? ‘Well actually I left at half-time because my tit of a mate said let’s go to the boozer’, But I was the tit because I’d followed him and as a consequence had missed probably Leeds’ greatest ever comeback for the sake of a few extra pints.
I woke up on the train fifteen minutes from home and checked my phone; twenty odd texts and numerous missed calls. I deleted them all and did what I knew I couldn’t put off any longer. The truth had to come out sooner or later. I typed a text, ‘Left at half time, missed all goals’ and sent it to everyone I could think of and turned the phone off. I thought of them all reading the message and saying. ‘I don’t believe it, what a d***’. So, in the following days I faced the backlash. Ridicule came in droves and I deserved every bit of it. No one let up - and why should they? I’d do the same to anyone else in that situation.
My wife, my work colleagues, my mates, the postman, in fact anyone who had spent more than eight seconds in my company seemed to rise up as one to rip the complete p***out of me. It was a long few days but the worst was yet to come. The Tuesday night after the fiasco, Leeds were at home to Burnley. I dreaded going into my usual home match pub but the inevitable had to be done and so I swallowed what minute speck of pride remained and opened the door. I did so just as Mark, the Pied Piper to my rat, was entering too. I knew we had to face the music but this was to be the London Philharmonic as, gathered in the corner, were all the lads we knew who’d stayed at half time and not thrown in the beer towel. They’d had their ‘ups and downs’ and they’d ‘marched on together’ while I’d been asking ‘for another in there and whatever he’s having’. A cheer went up when we were spotted and the insults came thick and fast. All I could see were mouths moving at a hundred miles per hour as they fought to be heard over each other. ‘Knobs’ was one frequently-used word, ‘t**s’ another and a fair few ‘d***heads’ were offered. None of these I could refute as being anything but the truth. We stood there taking the lot and other drinkers started sniggering and shaking their heads when they realised what we’d done. Everyone was mocking, even the bar staff.
Then I abandoned any loyalty I had, any ‘We’ll see it through together, mate’, and stepped back from Mark. Like a kid who’d just smashed a volley through the greenhouse window, I pointed in his direction, ‘It was him’ I said, ‘he made me do it.’ ‘He’s right’, Mark offered meekly, ‘it was my idea’ and shook his head with a hint of despair. Then the laughing continued and I felt bad for trying to wriggle out of something that I should have taken on the chin. But it was his idea.
We beat Burnley 2-0 that night. It was 0-0 at half-time and whilst I was still muttering feeble excuses regarding my early exit to anyone who’d listen a text came in from Mark that read:
‘Fancy a pint?’
I didn’t respond.
I don’t leave matches early any more. How could I? I’m shackled now, waiting for a repeat of Southampton away, waiting to put things right. I’ll be the one who’s still in the ground when we’re 5-0 down and the board’s gone up indicating two minutes of injury time thinking, ‘Come on, we can still do it, this could be the one, I could make amends, put the ghost to rest’. But it ain’t going to happen and I realise that. I ballsed up and there’s no denying it. Occasionally, I start making my way down the steps as the referee is looking at his watch. Or I might hover annoyingly at the exit to the displeasure of anyone whose view I’m selfishly blocking. But in the main my a***e is welded to the seat until the last peep of the ref’s whistle has drifted over the stands. After all, owt could happen.
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