Friday, April 29, 2011

Dirty Leeds

Seeing as we’re going to new territory this weekend (Elland Road) I felt it was important that I do some reconnaissance.

Another ground will be ticked off on the list of “been there, done that” and more importantly we’ll be trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding the “Dirty Leeds” subculture or species which continues to survive in the environs and history at Elland Road.

The Leeds fans are undoubtedly fanatical, with the club boasting attendances which would put many Premiership clubs to shame and which have barely faltered as the club began its’ downward slide eight or nine years ago. This enduring fanaticism is driven partly by past glories and partly by the feeling which has developed around Leeds that “nobody loves us but we don’t care”, akin their cousins in the south, Millwall and Wimbledon.

And let’s face it – traditionally nobody loved Leeds and they didn’t care.

In fact they loved it –so much so that they are slightly perturbed with the current populist sympathy vote which Leeds evoke - how many times do we now hear statements like “the Premiership needs Leeds”, or “poor old Leeds, play offs again”. It’s as though their pattern of failure has evoked sympathy and they’ve effectively donned the mantle of the poor guy in the corner in the wheelchair. Used to be a fine winger once, you know, so sad to see him like that now.

While public opinion may have removed them from the top of the most hated list and replaced with, quite rightly, the money boys at Manchester City and Chelsea and the perennial winners of everything, Manchester United, to Leeds fans their mantle is sacrosanct – a symbol of Northern defiance and of working class aggression.

So why were Leeds hated?

We need to go back exactly fifty years to identify the fulcrum, if nothing else. March 16th 1961 and Don Revie takes over as manager of Leeds United. During his tenure which ended in 1974, the club became one of the dominant forces in English football, winning a succession of trophies at the end of the sixties and in the early seventies, but also became reviled.

Like so many of his peer Northern managers, Revie grew up in abject poverty in Middlesborough and obtained an outlet from his grimy surroundings through the medium of football. His early upbringing nurtured both a ruthlessness and a desire for financial security (which was later to influence him in decisions surrounding the England job). The ruthless streak shaped his first actions on being appointed manager of Leeds – that of purging what he later called 'a dead club' of its rotten core – getting rid of 27 players in his first two years.

To those that he brought in, he adopted a different approach - Revie created brotherly spirit among the squad. 'Our whole ethos was built on loyalty,' says Peter Lorimer - 'We all fight for each other, we all work for each other. If someone kicks me, he kicks all eleven of us.' Revie involved the players' families, to heighten the sense of togetherness. He organised social nights for the players, including rounds of carpet bowls, dominos and bingo. 'We had 15 years of what no man gets,' Lorimer says. 'Every day you'd go to work and it was an absolute pleasure. You couldn't wait to get in your car and go down to the ground and be amongst the lads.'

But Revie's loyalty could reach a more sinister level. In 1971 Gary Sprake was involved in a drink-driving accident, seriously injuring a female passenger before fleeing the scene. When police turned up to arrest Sprake shortly after the crash, Revie intervened and the incident was covered up: the goalkeeper's car was reported stolen and he received a mere police censure instead of more serious charges.

Perhaps this ruthless and sinister approach was ultimately what gained Leeds their reputation on the pitch. They espoused a high-tempo pressing game suffocated opponents and overwhelmed those that tried to outpass them – was Ireland under Charlton modeled on this, without the skill? If your side tried to kick them, Leeds would kick back twice as hard. They feigned injuries, harassed officials and pinched, kicked and hit opponents. The player on the goal line at corners, taking the ball to the corner flag to waste time – all tactics reputedly brought into the English game by Leeds.

Revie created an attitude within the club not seen before in English football. At the time it was called 'professionalism', but this was no complimentary term; instead it encapsulated the cynicism, physicality and relentlessness of Leeds. To many, Revie is the man who ended English football's age of innocence.

The image of 'Dirty Leeds' was reinforced on the terraces, where their supporters earned a reputation for viciousness. The reputation endures - Elland Road has the highest number of Football Banning Orders compared with other grounds in England. Their supporters even now appear to revel in the criticism and condemnation heaped towards them. It will certainly be very interesting to see some of them at first hand, albeit those in the Billy Bremner suite may not be representative of the hardcore.

As we observe human nature and try to understand the psyche behind Leeds, let us remember that we have had one in our midst for the last thirty years. One who has been capable of inflicting horrific injuries to those around him with his renditions of the old Stylistics classics; or of insulting people in a heinous manner by falling asleep in mid-sentence in a London sports bar. So as you observe the local wildlife with removed indifference, stop and occasionally cast a brief glance closer to home.

Bring on the weekend.


The sad part is that behind the Dirty Leeds image was a team of exceptionally talented players. Norman Bites your Legs Hunter is often tagged as the face of “Dirty Leeds” but this overlooks the fact that he was inaugural PFA Players Of The Year in 1974 (voted by his fellow professionals – a question of honour among thieves maybe); Bobby Collins, Jackie Charlton and Billy Bremner all won Footballer of the Year; Leeds contributed seven players to the 1970 England World Cup squad; their 1969 title-winning team comprised a starting eleven of internationals; and of course Johnny Giles was the shining light in our own national team for several years. Add to this the fact that Revie was twice named Manager of the Year and you can get a very different impression of a complete footballing unit.

It’s probably best to conclude by remembering one of Revie’e first acts as new Leeds manager – that of changing the colour of the kit from royal blue to all white to emulate Real Madrid, the all-conquering European champions.

In the immortal words spoken to George Best by the hotel waiter – where did it all go wrong?