With every passing football season, Waterstone’s must devote a little more shelf space to Leeds United. Most of the books look like this one: Bremner up top with the FA Cup, pained-looking fans from the 2007 relegation at the bottom, a blurb from David Peace, “author of The Damned United,” as if you didn’t know. “It is as if we are trying to hammer the old world of sideburned centre halves, sock tags and Smiley badges into the emptied scenes of our childhoods. The good-old-bad-old days are being revisited, and rewritten, by people … writing books and commissioning dramas about their formative years.” And that’s Anthony Clavane himself writing in the conclusion to Promised Land, his own contribution to the LUFC library. “A love letter to the beloved Whites of his childhood,” it says on the back, but Clavane is attempting to buck the long-standing ‘Awaydays’/‘Fever Pitch’ trend for confessional memoir by presenting his book in a slightly awkward academic wrapper. There’s that ‘Conclusion’ for one thing, and he really does write at one point that, “Wilkinson, like Fukuyama, declares the end of history”; then there is the list of illustrations (redundant since the photos all have captions anyway), then a Prologue, and then an Introduction; eventually, on page 17, the book itself starts – or at least, Part One starts, with a quote from Charles Dickens, before the first of Part One’s three chapters begins on page 19: “Leeds is a schizophrenic city.” Well, phew, finally. You could argue that Promised Land is a schizophrenic book, because underneath all these faux-serious section headings and false starts is something thoughtful, readable, and nothing like as heavy as all that flim-flam would suggest.
Promised Land sets out to pull together three strands – Leeds the football club, Leeds the city, and Leeds’ Jewish community – into one interlinked narrative, but this, especially when it comes to the modern day Leeds United, is a bit of a stretch. Where Promised Land excels, though, is in a re-reading of the Revie era that places Don Revie and his team alongside Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’, David Storey’s ‘This Sporting Life’ and John Braine’s ‘Room At The Top’ as a work of art by, and about, northern man. The Britain that swung through ‘The Long Sixties’ (stretching that era to 1975), defined by the glamour of “Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, David Bailey, David Frost, Terence Conran, Mary Quant and Michael Caine” was largely confined to London, and that confident, careless party never truly reached the still just about industrial north. In Yorkshire instead were a generation of artists who wrote about their exclusion, their blunted desires, the insecurities that held them in their old jobs and their old homes; men who found a voice by making books, plays and films that shrieked at the world like a factory whistle. These works of art by “edgy provincials” became their very means to “barge through the privileged rank of the elite”; the New Wave authors were at the vanguard of “a northernisation of culture,” with West End hits, Oscar nominations, and critical acclaim for the art that was born of their very provincialism.
Alongside Keith Waterhouse and Billy Liar, argues Clavane, add Don Revie and Super Leeds. Each chapter of Promised Land’s lengthy section on the Revie team begins with a quote from Waterhouse’s book (and play, and film), and the parallel is a strong one: Leeds United, the perennial runners up, the eternal chokers; recast as Billy Fisher, the frustrated northern man so convinced of his own potential, if he could only get the breaks, yet who, with everything he ever dreamed of there for the taking, will always leave Liz (Julie Christie! Julie bloody Christie!) alone on the train to London, will always sabotage his own chance of happiness and go back for the milk.
Revie was mocked at first for his big ideas – when he switched the team strip to emulate Real Madrid, Leeds were adrift near the bottom of Division Two – like Billy Fisher on the backroom stage of his local pub, people were laughing at him, not with him. But when a dream begins to become real – a football team wins promotion, wins a cup – a London comic promises to use your jokes – people become forced, unwillingly, to respect you. And then, as Liz tells Billy, “It’s easy. You get on a train and, four hours later, there you are in London”; or you go to Paris, beat Bayern Munich, and there you are, European Champions. And yet something always prevents you: “Paris encapsulates the two contradictory narratives of Leeds, Leeds, Leeds,” writes Clavane. “One, that we have a manifest destiny to triumph, and, two, that we never do triumph.” Peter Lorimer scores, but the referee won’t allow it; Julie Christie hands you a ticket to the Promised Land, and yet you know you can’t go with her.
Although Clavane doesn’t examine them all in depth, the comparisons extend beyond Billy Liar. Joe Lampton, in ‘Room At The Top,’ is consumed by his determination to break into the establishment at all costs, just as Leeds’ pursuit of victory in all competitions resulted in fixture pile-up, exhaustion and defeat. Arthur Seaton’s bald statements in ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ – “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not,” “I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda” – speak of Leeds United’s refusal to conform, the ire they drew from the FA and the London press. When Frank Machin, in ‘This Sporting Life’, sneers, “Stars? There are no stars in this game. Just men like me,” he calls to mind Billy Bremner’s guiding philosophy of, “Side before self, every time”; when rugby club and factory owner Mr Weaver says of Machin, his team’s star player, “He’ll have to learn he has to pay something for his ambition,” he tells the whole story of Revie’s Leeds United’s brand of anti-establishment success. Machin thought he could have success his way, and enjoy it to the full, only to find out that it could all end if you fell out of favour with the city’s ruling class; just as Leeds thought they could win it all, only to have success stolen from them by a succession of referees and the men who backed them: Ray Tinkler against West Brom, Christos Michas against AC Milan, Michel Kitabdjian against Bayern Munich. Billy Fisher, Joe Lampton, Arthur Seaton and Frank Machin were heroic yet tragic figures, smelted by their authors from a uniquely northern compound of confidence and defeatism; their outsider’s pursuits of glory against the odds had late-sixties silver screens burning white-hot depicting the pain of their inevitable defeats. Leeds’ pain had its own close up, in 1972, as the world watched them win the Centenary Cup Final and Mick Jones, his elbow painfully dislocated, his arm strapped makeshift to his side, was helped up the thirty-nine Wembley steps to receive the medal he had fought for and won. It’s as symbolic and as memorable as any New Wave film’s closing scene: with his right hand, Mick Jones shakes hands with The Queen of England; with his left, he clutches his medal, even as the pain shoots through his arm; his face tells the story of his determination to have his due, and the hurt it is costing him. The moment of Mick Jones’ greatest glory, bestowed by the highest authority, laced with the most vicious pain. “What a tragedy,” says David Coleman, commentating on Leeds’ only FA Cup win. “And what a moment of emotion.” If Jones had been fit to play Wolves two days later, Leeds would surely have won the double that year: aye, you have to pay something for your ambition.
Leeds United were a team of heroes that existed only through the irresistible force of the will of Don Revie, bearing the indelible hallmark of both his brilliant blueprint for success, and of his fatalistic lack of confidence. Chelsea’s troupe of flash, brash, nightclub-hopping dandies were an expression of swinging London, but Leeds’ greatest side were an expression of the personality of just one man. The sensible haircuts, the carpet bowls, the bingo; the spectacular football, the innovation, the 7-0 wins; the time-wasting, the hard tackles, the win-at-all-costs mentality; the dossiers, the superstitions, the crippling fear of losing; these were all facets of Don Revie, impressed upon a team of players who depended on Revie the way characters in a novel depend upon their author. Revie fused his every character trait – the good and the bad – with the character of his team, until the two were inseparable; like Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore, he moulded Super Leeds as a monumental reflection of his self, and was every bit as much an artist. “Revie’s Leeds are not often lumped together with Billy Liar, The Beatles, David Hockney, the New Wave writers, the Liverpool poets…” writes Clavane, but he makes a persuasive argument that they, The Beaten Generation, should be. Leeds United as art is not as far-fetched as it may seem: the urban myth still persists that the Smiley badge was designed by Andy Warhol, and I could look for hours at a photo of the Super Leeds team, lit like film stars by the tallest floodlights in Europe, waving to the crowd in their matching tracksuits. Don Revie’s achievement, and his failure, was to make Leeds United into a full representation of his own personality, its brilliance, its style, and its flaws. It isn’t hyperbole to call that a work of art, as well as a work of football management.
Interspersed with Clavane’s self-confessed “love letter” to the Revie side are his memories of growing up in the Jewish community in Leeds 17, and the strong bonds that formed in the middle of the last century between Leeds Jews and Leeds United. Clavane portrays Leeds United as outsiders, latecomers to the national game in an area that held as long as possible to the supremacy of rugby league; as a club that alway looked for outsiders it could embrace and call their own – Eric Cantona, all but retired from football in an angry fit when he came to Leeds; Tony Yeboah, frustrated by racism on the terraces in Germany. “We are Leeds and we are always trying to escape the inescapable, embrace the exotic, worship the Other – a Michael Marks, a Montague Burton, an Albert Johanneson, a Lucas Radebe”; and as a home for the ‘Other’, Elland Road became a haven for the city’s newly affluent Jews. After Leeds lost to Liverpool at Wembley in 1965, Clavane’s uncle wrote in the Jewish Gazette of, “an air of bereavement in the Day Centre Discussion Group … younger congregants whispered ‘Don we wish you long life’ instead of the loyal prayer.” Albert Johanneson, David Harvey, Mick Jones and Peter Lorimer all lived in the Chapeltown-Moortown area; Don Revie lived in the former home of Leeds director Manny Cussins, with a “framed photograph of him and Bill Shankly … and, fastened to the outside wall, there was a big Star of David.”
Clavane doesn’t try to claim Leeds as a “Jewish club”, but uses this success story of social mobility and integration for a comparison with the increasing gap between rich and poor in modern Leeds, and as leverage for a weighty chapter on ‘Bowyergate’ that examines Leeds United’s relationship with the Asian community in the area around the ground today. I admit I winced at first at Clavane’s invocation of the 7/7 bombers – surely that wasn’t Leeds United’s fault, too? – but his point that Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, like hundreds of other young Asians, preferred to spend Saturday afternoons playing football on Cross Flatts Park, just a mile away from Elland Road, is a point worth making about the gap between Leeds United and its local community. Clavane sees Ridsdale and O’Leary’s decision to continue picking Bowyer and Woodgate during their trial in the face of local outrage as having driven an insurmountable wedge between Leeds United and the local Asian community, and although Ridsdale was justified in his innocent-until-proven-guilty stance – both were found not guilty of the worst charges, after all – it was inevitable that it would cause resentment and anger. O’Leary’s claim in Leeds United On Trial that, “misguided Asians … wanted to declare a jihad on the players,” wasn’t exactly helpful either, but then few of O’Leary’s pronouncements ever were. Clavane sets forward the theory put forward by, “some British race relations experts … that thirty years after the establishment of any sizeable ethnic minority community there will be riots.” The frustrated second generation – whether Irish, Jewish, Caribbean – experiences a crisis, often violent, at which point the mettle can be seized, the slate wiped clean, and a basis for integration established; and points to ‘Bowyergate’ as that crisis for Leeds and its Asian community, but as an opportunity squandered, a chance lost; illustrated by Harpal Singh’s transformation from Yorkshire-born poster-boy of modern Asian football to, in the aftermath of the trial, a cast-off traipsing from Stockport to the Irish league. One can only hope that, as with the years between the sale of Terry Connor and the arrival of Vince Hilaire, this period of animosity is a temporary estrangement that can be mended with time, rather than a permanent breach.
Although the ‘Bowyergate’ chapter is strong, Clavane has a less sure touch in the rest of his treatment of the modern era. The ‘long sixties’ chapters combine Clavane’s passion for Revie’s Leeds with his passion for the New Wave authors to absorbing effect; but the distance created by his growth into adult jobs, as a teacher in Sussex and a journalist for the Sunday Mirror, means that zeal isn’t present for the modern era, and turns his descriptions of the post-Ridsdale fall into an ‘and then this happened, and then that’ tranche of tired journalese. Howard Wilkinson, although recognised as the only manager apart from Revie to bring silverware to Elland Road (“dragging [Leeds] out of the wilderness and into the elite in only half the time it had taken the Don”), is dismissed in a few pages that follow the same-old script: won league, sold Cantona, went mental, got sacked. I do wonder if anyone will ever take a fresh look at the Wilko era, or whether we’re just going to wait until he is dead before doing justice to his time at Leeds. Clavane also falls into the trap of placing too much emphasis on the role of Eric Cantona, mostly because it fits with Clavane’s idea that Leeds had moved away from its acceptance of the ‘Other’, and that it was still, like Billy Liar, scared of success. “The acrimonious divorce,” he writes, “was a clear signal … that Leeds were, once again, selling themselves short … Dirty Leeds couldn’t handle supremely talented players.” But then again, this section does mention “influential local fanzine The Square Ball”, so it isn’t all bad.
There are some neat touches. The eighties Leeds United are likened to the writer’s block that afflicted David Storey around the same time: “He now whiled away the hours scanning the ‘S’ shelves in bookshops, looking for copies of his novels”; and the “joyous reception [outside Leeds] that greeted the club’s post-Paris collapse … was celebrated with a fervour normally reserved for the ceremonial dynamiting of a high rise” – Leeds United and the backlash against brutalism. But an attempt to liken Peter Ridsdale’s Leeds to Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists – feted and ultra-modern, but obsessed with the past – isn’t fully developed, which is a shame: what else was Seth Johnson but a diamond-encrusted skull, what were Peter’s goldfish if not a pickled shark in miniature? Clavane’s teenage enthusiasm for Revie gives way to the perspective of a respected middle-aged journalist employed to interview PLC board members, and while this does result in an interesting concentration on Allan Leighton’s role in the spend-spend-spend years (Clavane quotes the ex-supermarket executive as saying, “For Asda, read Leeds United,” as he burbles about extracting “zap” rather than “sap” from the Leeds “brand”), it also explains how he comes to describe Loaded‘s James Brown, the Kaiser Chiefs and Corinne Bailey Rae, “bopping at happening nightclubs like … Planet Earth.” Planet Earth – home of the revolving sticky dance floor and drinks for 80p? Daddy-o seems a bit out of touch with the kids, here. A stronger book could have been made had Clavane written another hundred pages that fully explored Revie and the New Wave and then stopped there, rather than a half-hearted examination of the nineties and a twenty page retread of the last ten years that tells us nothing we don’t already know.
Clavane ends, in what seems like a hastily written conclusion (a mis-spelt ‘Risdale’ crops up, a pet hate of mine), by hoping that Simon Grayson can “break free of the double-edged legacy [of Leeds United] … usher in a new era of reinvention … That Billy Liar will get on the train.” That is some hope. That ‘double-edged legacy’ is defined repeatedly in the book as, “one, that we have a manifest destiny to triumph, and, two, that we never do triumph”; and while Grayson is a good manager, I’m not sure that the FA offer coaching badges in ‘overcoming manifest destiny.’ As Clavane well knows, no matter how many times you rewind the tape, Billy Fisher will always step off the train at the last moment; no matter how hard you will him to go to London, no matter what oaths and curses you yell at the screen – “It’s Julie bloody Christie!” – Liz will slump into her seat, headed for the bright lights on her own; and Billy will march home, beaten, but triumphant. And if it didn’t happen that way, every time, we probably wouldn’t care about Billy, and we wouldn’t put the film on, and watch it again and again; we wouldn’t watch Billy Liar, and we wouldn’t watch Leeds United. Who needs hope, after all, when glorious failure is yours by right?
From The Square Ball magazine 2010/11 issue two.