If the internet has only served one purpose over the last decade, its as an enabler for the prurient interests of teenage boys. The tight grip that your mate’s older brother used to hold over access to videos of naked girls and photos of dead bodies has given way to the generous, take-it-all free-for-all of Google. The collapse of the music industry has been well documented, but just as significant has been the collapse of the playground economy, where a week of charging 50p a look would generate profit enough for a weekend bottle of MD20/20. Nowadays if you hear about it, and you like the sound of it, and you want to see it, you Google it, and you get it. Porn, dead people, and Norwich City games.
In a way those older brothers were a friendly censor: they could size you up, think it over, and decide that no, you’re not quite ready to see a woman that looks a bit like Madonna shag something that looks a bit like a domestic pet. “Keep your 50p,” they’d say over your squeaky protests. “Maybe next year.” Google, although it gestures vaguely at ‘safe search’ and ‘parental controls’, never really shows the same concern. It doesn’t know you. It can’t see the mix of anticipation and fear in your eyes. It can’t decide that the sight of Luciano Becchio in a canary yellow shirt is something you’re just not ready for.
The access is so unrestricted now that, in fact, much of this stuff is shown on mainstream TV anyway. It seemed incredible, as we crowded round the VHS player in our mate’s bedroom, that Pulp Fiction should ever be shown uncut on the BBC; but now, in this permissive age, there it is, with just a brief warning about the content. They don’t even bother with the warning before BBC One’s Saturday night video nasties: no sooner has Gary Lineker said, “At Carrow Road for us today was John Motson,” then there it is in all its pornographic horror: Robert Snodgrass passing to Jonny Howson, as it was normal, as it was permissible on terrestrial television.
It is permissible, really, and it always was, really. Leeds players leave Leeds and play for other teams, and they show it on television in 2013. I suppose what has changed is the access. Because when I was growing up, if I wanted to see an ex-Leeds player on the gogglebox, I had to work hard for it, without anybody’s elder sibling to guide me. And the reward was a whole other Leeds team, one that perhaps I alone supported.
The experience of following football has changed a lot since the early nineties. The Stand Against Modern Football lot will point to the disappearance of terraces, the erosion of atmosphere, the sterilisation and Skytation of the Premier League. They’re right, but as a young lad exiled in pre-Sky Cheshire, those were rarely my experiences anyway.
Moved to the wrong side of the Pennines, with a family that had no real interest in football, I was an armchair supporter before the facilities to be one even existed; and I had to work hard to develop my own supporting strategies. I remember stumbling upon the BBC’s second-half commentaries of big Division One games, with their coy hints that other games were available on local radio channels. Local to me meant, of course, Manchester and Liverpool both red and blue, or even Tranmere or Stockport. But I knew the Radio Leeds frequencies – 92.4 or 95.3 FM, they were printed in the LUFC handbook – and knew that Leeds was roughly north-east of our house.
The tuning adjustments didn’t just have to be right, they had to be perfect. Only one radio would work – an old Sony ‘ghetto blaster’ that my sister had once accidentally set fire to. An hour before kick off I would set up, placing the radio on a high shelf, extending the antenna to its fullest, and pointing it towards Leeds. It was like cracking a safe: tweaking the tuning knob, then the aerial, then the tuning knob, then the aerial, until the right combination was struck and the Pennines were conquered; Dave Callaghan, Peter Drury and Norman Hunter’s voices sliced through the static to deliver their weekly lecture in all things Leeds United.
Assuming my sister didn’t slam a door and knock the aerial out of alignment, or a cloud didn’t form somewhere between me and the transmitter, I’d be set for the afternoon. It was hard work, but those crackling, static-interrupted broadcasts from the city I called home were how I followed, from my armchair, Leeds’ march from promotion to the title in 1992.
On or about July 1992, to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf, football’s character changed. Simple Minds’ braindead soundtrack heralded BSkyB and a new era: top flight football was changed forever, and the public had greater access than ever before. Occasional Sunday matches on ITV were replaced by guaranteed Super Sundays and Monday Nights and every other night of the week, soon enough; if, that is, you had a satellite dish. I, the armchair original, was stuck with my trusty transistor and the lads from BBC Leeds.
Something else happened that summer, which if it didn’t change the face of football, certainly had a profound effect on me. Andrew Mourant’s ‘Player by Player’ guide to Leeds United was published, and a copy presented to me for my birthday. This book became everything to me. With photos and descriptions of every player to have worn the white shirt since the Revie era, this wasn’t just a football book, it was a dictionary of LS11 mythology. I was obsessed already by the radio commentaries and newspaper reports, and occasional glimpses on TV and video, of Strachan, Chapman, Batty, Fairclough; now I had the knowledge of all that had come before. The stern photo of Norman Hunter, whose voice guided me round Elland Road each Saturday like a modern day Virgil. The poise in the picture of Allan Clarke, “an executioner or an assassin,” it said; or the waltzing legs of Eddie Gray, a smiley badge on his chest, photographed mid trick. Then there were the more recent, less glorious but no less alluring names I had just missed: John Sheridan, Ian Baird, the strange case of Aidan Butterworth, who gave it all up to be a P.E. teacher.
Then there were echoes of players still playing, and it was these that drew me in the most. I had seen John Sheridan win the League Cup for Sheffield Wednesday, and read with amazement of Brian Clough’s mistreatment of a player Mourant described as “delicious,” “exhilarating,” and “wily.” There was the curious photo of John Lukic, our current keeper, in a shirt from ten years ago but looking exactly the same; see also Scott Sellars, of whom Mourant had written that, “The best of him has yet to be seen,” just before Howard Wilkinson brought him home from Blackburn. Then there were the callow young faces of a whole team that had slipped away and found success elsewhere: Denis Irwin, Andy Linighan, Terry Phelan, Andy Ritchie; the one absentee, as he never got a game, was David Seaman. I had discovered a whole new aspect to Leeds United: Leeds players, who were in the book, but who didn’t play for Leeds.
I wasn’t actually living on the fringes of civilisation, but compared to today when I can find a stream online of almost any game I desire, that house in Cheshire looks like a cabin in the woods. Without a dish, live football on a Sunday meant a choice between Football Italia on Channel 4, or searching through the white snow for a signal from Central TV, for yet another Midlands derby. The Second Division – or the new First Division, as it had just become – was a hotbed of football for the Central ITV region, and every Sunday afternoon Tony Francis would introduce live coverage of any of Birmingham, Derby, Leicester, Notts County, Nottingham Forest, Oxford, Peterborough, Port Vale, Stoke, West Brom or Wolves. To me, it was a no-brainer. Football Italia offered the experience of Baggio, Batistuta, and Brolin; but Central TV had Aspin and Agana.
The way kids today can punch a few keys and bring up coverage of the Mexican second division on their laptops, I was a dab hand with a portable TV and an indoor aerial at finding Leeds-related broadcasts from far-flung transmitters. When the snow cleared enough from the picture to see who was playing, and with ‘Player by Player’ as my guide, I developed a phantom interest in a second division that seemed to be packed with Leeds players in odd coloured shirts. Tony Agana had only been a loan during the Championship season and his photo in the book showed him in a Sheffield United shirt, but his goal for Notts County against against Oxford in 1993 was one for Leeds. A month earlier Carl Shutt had scored the only goal between Birmingham and Millwall, the hero of the Nou Camp and what Mourant called his “striker’s nostrils” giving me another reason to be proud of United. Steve Hodge showed up on loan for Derby while still a Leeds player, grabbing a televised goal against Stoke; Stoke’s city rivals Port Vale had the the skull-tastic Neil Aspin in defence. At the Hawthorns, Bob Taylor, who had “lost form, become unsettled” at Leeds, was becoming a West Brom hero before my very eyes, scoring goal after goal for the Baggies, while I listened to radio reports of the toils of Frank Strandli and wondered what might have been.
The greatest concentration of ex-whites was at Filbert Street, where under Brian Little Leicester City were pushing hard for promotion. With Bobby Davison, Mike Whitlow, and Simon Grayson, I was right behind them. Only Whitlow played in the legendary 1993 play-off final against Swindon, setting up the goal that made the score 3-3 just twenty-two minutes after Swindon had gone 2-0 ahead. A late Swindon penalty settled it and left Whitlow, and me, gutted. A year later Leicester were at Wembley again, and Whits was joined in the side by Grayson, captain and player of the season; this time they saw off Derby 2-0 and made it to the Premier League. A Leeds player had led them out, lifted the trophy, and took them up to a league where, perversely, I couldn’t watch them anymore. Still, their away kit had been all-white. Leeds, Leeds, Leeds.
It was a strange – or downright weird – way to support a football team, but I took what I could get and was well satisfied. Not only did I have the lads of Elland Road to savour, but I had an entire region, with a dedicated TV channel, devoted to players who were, to me and my copy of ‘Player by Player,’ unquestionably Leeds.
I don’t know if it’s possible for a kid nowadays to look at, let’s say for the sake of argument, Norwich City, and feel the same way I did about Leicester. If Norwich got to Wembley and won, could a young lad feel any pride as Johnson, Howson, Snodgrass and Becchio walked up the famous steps to lift a cup?
There are two big differences. First is the saturation of modern day coverage. I was faced with a choice between two matches per week, and the attachment to a player like Bobby Davison, whose poster had been on my wall, was enough to draw me away from whoever played for Ancona or Bari. Nowadays, with all of European football just a mouse click or two away, who would choose to watch Norwich over Barcelona? The second difference is circumstances. Leeds were champions of England in 1992; these guys in the second division had not gone on to better things, and could therefore be safely patronised. I liked Leicester and Whitlow and Grayson just fine, but it was in part for their plucky underdogs, their dogged comeback. With Leeds now in the second tier, it is hard to feel the same towards players who have moved up to the Biggest League in the Galaxy.
That second-player, second-team feeling is still possible, though. For better examples than the Norwich City Chaos Crew, take a longer view, and take Aaron Lennon and James Milner. If they had analogues in ‘Player by Player’, it would be Sellars and Sheridan, or perhaps Ian Snodin; players who brightened dark days at Leeds but, as the team was dismantled, headed for pastures new. Lennon and Milner’s post-Leeds careers have been a credit. Lennon went to the bright lights of London for a fee so small it would be funny if it wasn’t true; but rather than burn out in the Premier League crucible, he was quietly excelled at White Hart Lane, now the second longest serving current player at Spurs as neither Martin Jol, Juande Ramos, Harry Redknapp or Andre Villas Boas say any reason to move him on. Milner has moved around more, for phenomenal amounts of money, and now has a Premier League winner’s medal and a reputation for professionalism that contrasts favourably with certain of his team mates. He also reiterated in interviews that he loves Leeds and hates Man Utd, which does him no harm in my eyes; and when he crosses for Dzeko to score, I feel no contradiction in offering a quick salute and whispering, “another goal, there, made in Leeds.”
If I were looking for Leeds heroes, anyway, I’d take Lennon and Milner over Varney and Brown, whatever shirt they’re wearing. A football club is more than the eleven players on the pitch. It’s every fan who has ever been through the turnstiles, and many more who, stranded far from Leeds, have not; and it’s every player who those fans accepted, and worshipped, and admired even after they’d gone. Billy Bremner, never forgotten by any; John Sheridan, always remembered by many. Or, sometimes, a football club is just what some dorky kid watching second division Midlands teams wants it to be. It needn’t take much: a ragged collection of ex-reserves can be enough to forge an attachment, as long as they’re in the book. That’s all it takes: an attachment, and an imagination. They were Leeds, they are Leeds, they’ll always be Leeds. Simon Grayson did, after all, come back.
From The Square Ball magazine 2012/13 issue seven.