A lot of things were missing, presumed lost, from the performances against Rochdale and Sheffield Wednesday. Not just small things, but things that go into making a football club a football club; things that define what Leeds United are all about.
Passion, pride, determination; in the wake of Hillsborough, I saw one fan write on a message board that the players need to take a good long look at the shirt they wear. Macron have limited the use of that idea at the moment, but the point still stands: this is Leeds United Football Club, and humiliations – to use the word Brian McDermott used – like these erode what Leeds United Football Club is all about.
It goes beyond the immediate problem of our first eleven, though. In normal circumstances a player’s bad performance reflects first of all upon himself; we’ll remember how badly so-and-so played, but the standing of the club remains unaffected. The circumstances of Spotland and Hillsborough went beyond players just having bad games on bad days, though, and that’s one of the reasons why these two games hurt so much.
These weren’t just kickings; these were kickings, hard and direct, right square in our tradition.
T.S. Eliot argued that every new book affects all the books that went before it; that you have to constantly redefine the ‘tradition’ of literature in the light of every addition to it. People read Dubliners differently, for example, after James Joyce had written Ulysses six years later; the later book affected how people thought about the earlier book.
The same applies with football. Your club’s tradition isn’t a finite and protected thing; it changes, ever so slightly, with every passing game. That Champions League semi-final, for example, that everyone always goes on about; the way we view that has changed with every season since, from a moment of real pride and pleasure, to a symbol of our downfall and folly, to something that we’d really rather not hear about at all anymore. Peter Lorimer is another example; a legend on the football pitch, that legacy was constantly buffeted and dented by his off-field association with Ken Bates. What Leeds United does today affects how we view what Leeds United did yesterday. Normally the effect is subtle, the accretion of years; other times the team today takes a hammer to the club of yesterday, and hits it hard with two swings.
Where you stood on the subject of January 3rd 2010 in the context of our tradition was an open question as early as the first, much celebrated, anniversary. It wasn’t a title, and it wasn’t a cup, and it didn’t itself alter the fact that we were two divisions below our Salfordian rivals for the only time in our history. But you have to really hate fun not to look back at that day and laugh. Yes, by January 3rd 2014 the same old retweeted references had got a little repetitive; but one of the joys of that win was that its unique circumstances made it something that can endure. It really was the gift that kept on giving.
Our slide down the league ladders no doubt brought a lot of pleasure to Old Trafford; but the one time we returned to their home during that whole, sorry era, we beat them. And unless David Moyes sends them down to League One, we get back in the Premier League, and the cup gods bring our balls together from the sack again, they have no chance of ever beating us in the same way. January 3rd was a win that left no possibility of revenge; the only way we could lose the bragging rights from that day was if we somehow took them from ourselves.
Enter January 4th, 2014; exit January 3rd, 2010. When you lose at Spotland, and lose like that, you lose the right to glory in what happened at Old Trafford. It might seem minor, but the next time ‘Remember the Date…’ starts up – if anyone is even brave enough to try it again – it will ring hollow not because of some collective exhaustion with the memory on the part of Leeds fans, but because our current eleven couldn’t stir themselves to get so much as a draw against Rochdale. If we as fans had just got bored with singing it, that would be one thing; but the decision was taken out of our hands, and that’s quite another matter.
That, however, is not the worst of it. We might not sing about January 12th, 1992, but as dates go, it’s even more significant – and its sweet memory longer lasting – than the Old Trafford holiday. That was the Sunday afternoon when, in front of the ITV cameras at Hillsborough, Leeds United – without Gordon Strachan and David Batty – beat potential title rivals Sheffield Wednesday by six great goals to one stolen penalty.
If any game stands out from the Championship campaign, this is the game. The decider at Bramall Lane rivals it, because of what it meant and how bizarre it was; but it wasn’t televised for the nation, meaning the nation associated that day most with the sight of Batty, Cantona and McAllister bunched up together, wishing Lee Chapman had a bigger sofa as they sipped champagne and laughed at Alex Ferguson. The War of The Roses games over Christmas had been on the telly, but had been dour, twitchy affairs. Beating Aston Villa 4–1 in front of ITV’s audience had let people know we were serious about winning the league; but it was the 6–1 at Hillsborough that stood out above all, the game that not only demolished a Yorkshire rival, but demolished the team that finished third in the league.
The memories of that game have remained vivid, twenty-two years on. Lee Chapman was the star, scoring a hat trick; running with the ball from the wing and hitting the crossbar with a long range shot that nobody could believe had come from Chapman; ushering a lingerie-clad pitch invader from the field of play; then posing for photographs in the classic yellow YEP and Umbro away kit, holding three fingers aloft on his left hand, clutching the match ball with his right.
Tony Dorigo played his part, scoring a simply gorgeous free kick; Whitlow, who looked like he couldn’t believe it was happening, and Wallace, who looked like he couldn’t believe it was so easy, chipped in with the other goals.
It was Chappy’s second that remains the classic. Lukic rolled the ball to Dorigo, who ran to the halfway line with typical style – back straight, head up – and released Gary Speed down the left wing. Speed lofted an inch perfect cross above the penalty spot and Chapman had the easiest job imaginable to head it past England goalkeeper Chris Woods – easy for Chappy, anyway. It was a goal that summed up so much of the attacking side of Howard Wilkinson’s team; the elegance of Dorigo; the raw, youthful talent of Speed; the power and experience of Chapman. Three passes and a header. It’s no wonder teams couldn’t resist us when we were in the mood.
The only blot on that day was down to Gordon Watson, the dirty fucking cheating scumbag whose ludicrous dive landed Wednesday a penalty and Wilkinson a large fine. The only saving grace of this disgusting incident was that it was John Sheridan who took the penalty; being Leeds, he gave Lukic every chance to tip on to the post, but couldn’t really avoid prodding in the rebound. The 6–1 should have been 6–0, but on the upside, that meant that not only did Leeds always have the win, but we’ve always had the moral high ground over the Cheat Watson, and the technicality that our player scored their goal anyway.
Until now, that is.
‘Wednesday Wipe Out 22 Years of Hurt’ read the headline in the Yorkshire Post. The second paragraph of their report is arguably worse; Watson’s Cheat is downgraded to “a dubious penalty.” “Twenty two years on,” it continues, “almost to the day, and Wednesday finally gained revenge for that harrowing defeat to their Yorkshire rivals on television.”
It’s all there; that’s all you need to know about what their 6–0 has done to our 6–1. Revenge. Live on television. Just one day from the 22nd anniversary. And thanks to Scum Watson, the aggregate score is 7–6; which, should the subject of one of the finest displays by one of the finest sides Leeds United ever had ever come up again, is what pedantic Wednesday fans will always have over us. ‘Chapman was sublime that day,’ we’ll insist, as we have for twenty two years. ‘Who cares,’ we’ll get back. “What about the way that Mario Zalwhatsit fell over for our six goals?’
It might be unfair to pin this on Zaliukas and co, on top of everything else they’re being blamed for right now. But it is not unimportant. It’s been said countless times over the last decade, but this football club is a shadow of the football club it has been, and the only reliable, steady fact we’ve been able to cling to during that time is the fact of our history. Now, while things are finally being improved off the pitch, is a cruel time for our tradition to take two such hefty blows.
I’ll give them Old Trafford; it was fresh, and was an unexpected bonus at the time anyway – which was part of the joy. But the 6–1 was important, to me, at least. I had a celebratory pull-out from TSB on my wall; I had pictures from all the papers of all the goals in my scrapbook. I risked wearing out the tape of the end of season VHS review, rewinding it over and over to watch Dorigo’s free kick, Chappy’s second goal; to watch the way Speed was looking the wrong way in the six yard box melee in which Chapman completed his hat trick, and only realised we’d scored when everyone around him started celebrating.
Memories like that might only be little things, but many littles make a much, and they make a football club a thing worth loving. And that makes them worth protecting from the kind of wanton damage that was done in just week, by our own players, at our own club. Please, lads. Damage your own careers if you must; make us curse your names when you turn up with your next clubs, if you really have to. But leave our tradition to us.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 06