For a while there, back in 1998, Leeds United’s club magazine was much, much cooler than its team.
There were always match programmes, of course, and the fanzine you’re reading dates back to 1989, the survivor of a clutch of home-made magazines like Marching Altogether, The Hanging Sheep, We Are Leeds, To Ell and Back and more. The club first got itself a glossy A4 magazine at the start of the 1993/94 season, a peculiar hybrid called Kick Off, that shoved a clutch of ‘general interest’ football content in the middle of club-specific pages that meant, in one early issue, far too many mistaken references to Sunderland AFC for a Leeds United magazine. The giant posters were, however, excellent, especially the 1992/93 youth team in the smart new Asics blue and yellow striped shirts, posing with the trophy they’d won against Salford Juniors.
Kick Off made it to April, but its short life showed there was a market and Leeds United magazine took its place for the 1994/95 season. Leeds-based Independent Sports produced it for the club, through a couple of redesigns, until the arrival of Caspian and George Graham in 1996 shook everything up; Manchester’s GMP picked up the contract for January 1997, and firstname.lastname@example.org was the odd-looking official contact email until the end of 1997/98. The last issue looks to have been in March, with new signing Martin Hiden the cover star, shirt and tie just visible and giving away that the photo had been taken at his press conference.
The next issue of the club magazine, at the start of the following season, looked quite different. All that Jimmy Hasselbaink was wearing round his neck on the cover of Leeds Leeds Leeds was a gold chain. All he had on his chest was hair. The look of press-induced apprehension on Hiden’s face was replaced by a dead-eyed stare of disdain from our grumpy Dutch striker. It looked amazing.
“I think it was unusual at the time,” said Justin Slee, who took the photos of Jimmy for issue one, as well as portraits inside of Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Chapman and Chris Kamara. None of the photos was a stereotypical footballer’s headshot. Kamara, a columnist, looked suave in black and white. Chapman sat at a dining table in front of sharp white walls, his hand cupping his face, eyes twinkling off the page. Woodgate, in trouble with Eddie Gray for a daft, cropped and dyed white haircut, was pictured grinning like a kid in trouble for having a daft haircut. In Hasselbaink’s interview, written by Neil Jeffries, he is caught by Justin Slee in various other shirtless poses, with the main quote from Jimmy, “When I see green or smell green, I get a little bit crazy. The grass, you know? I get this green mist…”
“I think Leeds were one of the first clubs to treat it like a lifestyle magazine, not like a fanzine or club programme,” said Justin. That was due to two big changes: the publisher was now Leeds United AFC (Publishing) of Elland Road, and the editor was James Brown.
“With James being involved, being editor of Loaded and GQ, when he said it was going to be a lifestyle magazine for Leeds United I knew it was genuine,” said Justin. The formula was simple, but it was unlike anything else at the time: great writers, with the best archive photos, together with Justin’s portraiture and the occasional photo of a woman with vague LUFC credentials in her underthings. It still had the appeal for young fans – among the features in issue one was Lee Sharpe let loose with a disposable camera – but it had a look and a feel that would appeal to adults, too.
The only thing that perhaps lagged behind in the early days was the team. Hasselbaink was the obvious first cover star, with Harry Kewell close behind, but the team at the start of George Graham’s last season was not a glamorous one. Mark Beeney, Martin Hiden and David Hopkin were, with the best will in the world, not the model type. Lucas Radebe’s big grin graced cover number three, but for issue four, the spotlight shone on Lee Bowyer.
“A player for a magazine is judged by his playing ability,” said Justin. “It definitely helps if they’ve got a bit of a look, and then they’re usually a bit more confident being photographed. In saying that, without being too horrible, we had Lee Bowyer and he wasn’t renowned for his looks. But Lee was alright – he was a bit shy in front of the camera, but I usually got a decent character picture out of him. He made no bones about how he wasn’t going to pose, or look as good as someone like Harry Kewell.”
Not all the players took to being photographed. “I found it quite difficult at first,” said Justin. “For most footballers at that time, dealing with a one-to-one photocall was a tabloid experience, so it was quite quick and quirky, and quite cheesy. They’d be grabbed off the training pitch, given some silly object or a shirt or scarf, do something a bit daft and it’d be over.
“But when you’re trying to make them look a bit better or get a bit of a mood, you need a bit of time with them and that’s~ the difficult bit, trying to convince them. In the early days we got Flannels involved and brought quite expensive clothes up, that the players were interested in wearing. Although I remember David Batty stealing some Armani shirts once – or claiming they’d been donated to him!
“Other players chip in constantly, and that can make the process a bit uncomfortable,” said Justin. “I used to try and avoid that by going to a place where that interaction wouldn’t happen, or if I had some spare time I’d say, ‘Why don’t you get a shower and your dinner?’ so the other players had a chance to get away as well.”
I could see that for myself as Justin photographed Sam Byram in the Made in Leeds x LUFC t-shirt. Frosted glass meant I couldn’t work out which player was thumping on a window overlooking the indoor pitches to put Sam off, but it was Paddy Kenny who who burst through a door at one point with a gaggle of junior players. “Smile, Sam, come on!” he said. “These young lads here want you to smile!” Sam rolled his eyes. “I’m even getting stick from the kids now,” he said. “Don’t worry about that lot, Sam,” said Justin, as Paddy Kenny showed off his new Macron coat. “You got one of these yet, Sam?” asked Paddy. “No? Right warm these are, you should get yourself one.”
“He’s a very nice lad, very polite, and he made it a good shoot,” said Justin afterwards. “You can tell he’s a bit shy, but he was more than accommodating – I wasn’t stressed or pressured trying to get a shot.” Sam was polite almost to a fault; he seemed genuinely surprised when we said he could keep the t-shirt, and that we’d even throw in a grey version too. “He’s probably only ever done pictures with the ball at his feet,” said Justin. “So he’s probably a little bit reserved, but that’ll come out as he gets older.”
Coaxing a good photo out of awkward teenagers became an integral part of the job for Leeds Leeds Leeds once George Graham left and O’Leary’s babies came to prominence. By March it was a monochrome Alan Smith on the cover, moody in a Stone Island coat on the Elland Road pitch. As the team sped towards the Champions League, the players caught up with the magazine for sheer hipness; or so it looked on the surface.
“A lot of them were young lads, and they were like any young lads,” said Justin. “Ian Harte used to have a skin complaint, and so he was this young kid with a haircut that hid it. Then suddenly he’d grown up, he had a long term girlfriend and it all cleared up. His haircut changed, and he was more into being photographed.
“It’s like any person, they’re all different, some absolutely love it. The more modern footballers are a bit more difficult because they’re trained not to give much away. I always enjoyed photographing Lucas Radebe, because he always said he didn’t have any time, but then two hours later it’d be me making an excuse to leave. And he couldn’t resist giving you a great expression, just a big belly laugh or a funny face.
“And I always felt okay photographing David Batty. Even though he had a bit of a standoffish reputation he was actually fairly natural, and although his look was quite mean and moody he pulled it off easily and it was always quite a good picture.”
The access Justin had made a difference, both to his ability to get photos and the way he perceived the players. “People used to moan about Harte, but I saw some of the stuff he did in training, and he was quality. And he was quicker than people thought, too. Batty was like that, he’d just be standing around juggling the ball like it was nothing.
“Being around so much was easy to start with; I went on pre-season to Germany, so they saw me at a lot of training sessions and because they’d seen me around the players knew I was okay. But then it also hindered me, because they could also say no to me because they knew me and they knew I’d be there again in two days time. It worked the other way too, because if I’d been a complete stranger I could have got away with being a bit more demanding.”
There was also the change in mood around the club once the Champions League glory nights had passed, and financial panic and unsuccessful battles against relegation set in. Although it lasted through much of the decline – Justin’s last photocall was with a newly signed Jermaine Beckford – a glossy lifestyle magazine wasn’t such a necessity for a club on the way to administration and League One.
“Other tabloids and publications started doing their own versions too, but on a daily or weekly basis, and at the end we had papers stealing stories out of the magazine and making them look like their own – people would read them before our magazine came out. So the readership became less, and a lot of titles went to the wall, like Match of the Day and Goal, who I also used to work for.”
Justin had a change of career, managing Pigeon Detectives, although the LUFC involvement didn’t completely end. “We played a gig at Newcastle, and because Alan Smith was playing there at the time, he came along to watch from the side of the stage. There was a power cut during the gig, and Pigeons, being massive Leeds fans and having their own sense of humour, just started singing Marching on Together at the top of their voices. And Smith was at the side of the stage singing louder than any of them! It was a good job the lights had gone off, because if the Geordies had seen him…
“I didn’t do much photography for a while, other than photographing Pigeons on the road and in the studio. I’d been a photographer for twenty-odd years, and it was good to have a change of path to refresh myself. Now I’m back into it, changing my website and getting more commercial work, predominantly people orientated because that’s where my strength is. The football side still opens doors, though; if some company director is being awkward about having his picture taken, they can see my website and it’s amazing how they’ll go, ‘Ooh, he’s taken a picture of David Batty’ – or even Alex Ferguson – and suddenly they’ll agree to have a photo done.”
You don’t have to spoil your eyes with a photo of Ferguson to see why Justin Slee’s work convinces, or why his photos of Leeds United became so enmeshed with a generation of fans’ memories of a club on the up. Even now, flicking through the March 2001 issue of LLL, a black and white photograph of Jacob Burns in a baseball cap, leaning against a wire fence at Thorp Arch, gives me an inspiring pause. This guy had run the midfield against Real Madrid, and he wasn’t even in the first team. Now here he was, looking like a top player, his photo taken by a top photographer for a top magazine.
Ever since Don Revie changed the kit to all white Leeds have been a team for whom image and iconography is important. From David Batty in a Nike tracksuit top to Sam Byram in a Made in Leeds tee, Justin Slee has always been able to match image to deed for Leeds.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 03