Someone I admire – a wordsmith with a real mastery of expression – recently expanded her running blog to include “the things I’m on the run from”, and in that short phrase nailed something which I have procrastinated over for many months1.
I started this blog to set out my running thoughts, so would it be wrong to go off-topic? Despite many drafts in my head, I never did get round to actually writing about my pride of the UK during the summer of 2012; or my Olympic experience; or the joys and headbanging frustration of being a school governor; or my epic trip to Wasdale Head, and reaquaintance with my nemesis Kirk Fell. Or any of the other themes which crowd my head from time to time and really need to be let out for a run around.
I wouldn’t say exactly that these are things I run away from, rather, they are the things I carry with me when running. People often have a romantic notion that on my long runs I “Think Things Through”: it’s not like that, not in a linear or structured way. Actually it’s more like a tumble-dryer… and by the time I get home things seem to have been folded, and sorted into neat piles.
But let’s try a non-running excursion. I should warn you now that this post has been brewing for a long time, and having finally written it down, it’s turned out quite long… so you may want to make a cup of tea.
You may be one of those people who dislike football, or just don’t get it, but please don’t look away now: you may get an insight into what makes it so important for those of us who do. If you are a true Leeds United fan, try to control your rage and get through to the second-half without trolling me. Ditto if you hate “Dirty Leeds”, this is wider than that.
I’m prompted to write now because of a string of football stories in recent weeks: racism, cheating, corruption, finance, homophobia… yes it’s all there, but underneath it still is a beautiful game. I recently took my daughter to her first live matches – FA Cup games – at Elland Road, which rather brought things to the front of my mind. “Don’t be so bloody sentimental” someone once wrote2: I had a lump in my throat as I tore off her ticket and handed it to her at the turnstile. I have been writing this in the build-up to another big FA Cup match, so what follows is my context for that.
I am a Leeds United supporter, a paid-up card-carrying club member (though sadly not a season-ticket holder – one day, maybe). But I haven’t always been.
There is a lot of history with football
I first went to matches with my Dad, and in those days it was all terraces: we used to take a little wooden stool for me to stand on – which wouldn’t be allowed these days – because I was only little. (Actually, I still am, and puzzled why some seats are advertised as “Restricted View”: to me they all are!) Dad and my older-brother had season-tickets at Leicester City, the old Filbert Street. When we moved to Nottingham, under some quirk of
an 11-year-old’s reasoning it made no sense to continue following Leicester, but somehow Forest weren’t right. So I did the natural thing, and to annoy my brother started supporting Manchester City, who had just beaten Leicester in the FA Cup Final (I remember them coming back that day, with a forlorn little plastic trophy with blue ribbons on it).
I went to an occasional game but my Dad died not long after, so I never got to go to matches as a grown-up with him. Or have him come with his grandchildren. Just a few fading memories to treasure; and years of absence. But the spirit of football had been planted into my veins.
My best friend at school (not so close, more thrown together by circumstance in a new housing estate) supported Leeds United, simply because at the time they were winning: he used to brag a lot, and it put me off. So in those days I was firmly in the “Dirty Leeds” camp and they were a pet-hate. Especially Billy Bremner and Don Revie, niggly nasty mean men. Like most of the nation I celebrated the victory of underdogs Sunderland in the 1973 Cup Final over Leeds, in their pomp at the time and the previous year’s winners. That game is part of my enduring love of the FA Cup. And for good measure, being from Nottingham, I have always carried a long affection (despite all his faults) for Brian Clough.
[Erm… I might have to go in a minute: there seem to be locals gathering outside with pitchforks and flaming torches…..]
Later I found myself at University in York, and only went to Leeds twice: once to see a mate and once for a Police concert at the Uni (still didn’t like the place). After that I started work in London, and simply couldn’t feel anything for any of the clubs there: in any case during those spells my weekends were too busy with a social-life, buying a flat, regular rock-climbing and mountaineering weekends, and eventually getting married. Football at that time was a background interest, but always still there, and punctuated by (of course) the FA Cup and major tournaments: I remember vividly the eerie absence of traffic and shouts coming through all the open windows of a Harringay summer evening as England lost their semi-final at Italia90.
A work move meant we relocated to Leeds in the autumn of 1991. It was the season Leeds United won the last of the old (proper) Division 1 championships, and a measure of my indifference that it rather passed me by.
That was a very hard time. Trying to master and hold down a new and demanding job, renting while house-hunting in a city we didn’t know, and expecting our first child at the very time we were being summoned to drop everything and dash to London as my wife’s mother slowly succumbed to cancer. A hard time, but those spells forged Leeds into our home: both the children were born here, and we built a life around new friends, schools, and further job-changes. It all became woven into our own family history.
Then one day a friend asked if I wanted to go to Elland Road to try a game, and once I realised I didn’t need jabs, I agreed to give it a try. It was a League Cup match against Bratford City, and we sat towards the Elland Road end of the west stand. The kop taunted the away fans with a chant of “You’re just a town full of taxis!” which still makes me chuckle to this day, though I can’t explain it.
And that was it. I loved it, I really loved it. Back at a football match; and ok, maybe it was Dirty Leeds, but we live here now don’t we.
So I carried on going, even though it turned out my friend wasn’t really that bothered. I went through the George Graham spell, and Lived The Dream with David O’Leary’s Babes. I had some of the best nights ever in the UEFA Cup and Champions League (“Three-Nil, to the Weakest Team”). I knew I had become Leeds when I made a special effort to be there to rejoice in the return of David Batty, exactly the sort of Dirty Leeds player the opposition love to hate, but they’d take him in their team any day. I kept on going, all through the collapse, the fire-sale, right down through the dross of Division 3, and then via a lost Playoff Final – my one and only Wembley day – promotion and one step back up. So far.
If you see me at a match, I’m the only one who still wears the Red Kite shirt. I don’t actually give two-hoots that it has red on it; I love the Kites that swoop over me as I’m running round Eccup reservoir; and it’s a badge of survival. Plus I can’t afford the new one.
Call yourself a proper supporter?
I have confessed to being a relative Johnny-come-lately. I’m not a life-long supporter. I don’t have a season ticket. I don’t travel the length and breadth of the country to away games. I don’t have a tattoo of the badge, or date of the Championship.
But I do get annoyed at the moans about “Plastics” or part-timers when a game against Premier League opposition swells the crowd from its normal 20,000 to 30,000 or more. I would love a season ticket and to be able to go to away matches: but money and work and family circumstances just don’t allow it. So I pick a selected number of games each season and go when I can: I have done that for years, and I continued to do it all through the dismal days of “League One”. I will continue to do it, come what may, whatever the team and the procession of owners and managers do to me.
[Hmm… the villagers seem to be drifting away.]
Going to games less frequently does not make it mean any less. In any case, some of those extra supporters may come a second and third time, may tell someone else how they enjoyed it.
So Whats it all About (Haaland)?
Ah, where to start?
It really can be a Beautiful Game, when you see (no, really, they do sometimes) a flowing passing spell, players intuitively finding their team-mates in open space with passes which arc and cut through the defence, naturally controlling the ball and making it do exactly what they want… exactly what you visualised just a moment before. It’s like being able to see music; like ballet, but more natural.
For all the tactics and complexity, there is nothing more breathtakingly simple than getting the ball in their net, keeping it out of ours. In fact there is nothing more simple than kicking a ball: not many men can pass a can in the street, or a rolled-up sock on the floor, without kicking it towards an imaginary a goal. That simplicity is uniquely natural and if you have a ball to hand, of any size, anyone can play football quite happily even if you are on your own (more so than, say, rugby or cricket).
I can’t claim to fully understand the technical side of football: I watch it, rather than analysing or deconstructing it. I do try sometimes, but usually I can’t see whether its 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1: and if for a moment I think that I can see it, they all bloody run around and confuse me. I can’t spot that their wingers are pushing our midfield too far back so that we don’t have an outlet; and for me a substitution is a chance for a fresh-pair-of-legs more than a tactical adjustment to close up the space on the left channel. But I can see how territory is won and lost; when our players don’t chase and fight for possession; when they hold off a tackle; when someone in space is missed; or when they persist in the longball approach, with a less than 50/50 chance of possession at the end, so it just comes right back again. But that’s ok: I watch and feel when we are on top, and feel when we are under threat. I know whether it is we or they, who look more like scoring.
And there is nothing like the explosion of relief, joy and noise when the ball goes into the net. Or the sickening sensation in your guts when they score – numb silence apart from the pocket of jubilant glee from the away fans.
Lost in the crowd
I prefer to get a ticket buried somewhere behind the goal in the Kop. There you can stand (restricted view or not, it’s the only way to watch football), and the ends are the best place to immerse yourself in the tribalism of the game: and why not, we are all subject to those simple primitive emotions, underneath. Behind the goal, you fully feel the perfect binary nature of the opposite sides, and the dramatic simplicity of scoring or defending.
There is escapism too. For a short while, the noise and colour and intensity drives everything else out of your head. There is no work, no mortgage, no parents or teenagers’ troubles, no complications: just score, but don’t let them. I remember vividly one evening being late from work, changing out of my suit in the car and hurrying to the ground just as the teams came out. I dashed up the concrete steps into the rectangle of floodlit colour and deafening noise, and turned back up the steps to take my place. Not me, for the next 90 minutes, but part of the crowd. It is an organic living thing and fed by the events on the field. The emotions of the crowd ebb and flow in huge waves, chants grow and swell and pass from one corner to another, and there is nothing quite like being part of a choir of 20- or 30,000 or more roaring out a song.
And there is humour, happy slapstick knockabout fun, and lots of it. Improvised and self-deprecating (“We’re not famous any more”) and often delivered in a kind of shorthand football supporters don’t need translating. Taunting the opposition is usually tongue-in-cheek, like ribbing a best friend, teasing, and sometimes even with a hint of affection.
A lot of the humour is of the gallows variety, as in the ironic “Ole!”s when the team finally string together a pass or two, or sarcastic celebration when the officials give a decision our way. In truth most football fans are happiest when recounting the failures and injustices and all that they have suffered in the cause of their team. There will be a Nobel prize one day, for the fan who manages to work “Schadenfreude” into a terrace song.
To be a football supporter involves having an element to your spirit which means you know you are going to have disappointments and knocks; but to know also that you will always pick yourself back up and that the next match, next season, will be better.
I’m not naïve or blind: I accept there are many idiots who attach themselves to football. Yes there are racists, nutters, thugs, homophobes, and those for whom the wit and banter crosses the line into vitriol and threat. Sadly, the passion and tribalism of football can become a vehicle and a weapon for the worst traits of the worst in people. However, I honestly do not believe that football fans are worse than anyone else: take a random group of 30,000 from any town and you will doubtless find the same nutters in the same proportions. I don’t deny that there are problems in football and things which can often make you feel ashamed; but the positive spirit will always be greater, and I don’t let it define football. Not my football.
The best of human spirit
It is true that football can bring out the very best in the human spirit, and a special type of community belonging. Not just the heroic endeavour and triumph on the field, but the spirit of the fans. This was evident in the reaction to the near-death on the field of Fabrice Muamba, or the love of the “football family” in response to a tragedy. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything more moving and powerful than the spirit which binds everyone as a crowd of 30,000, normally raucous, stand in complete utter impeccable silence to remember those lost or show support for others in a time of difficulty.
In 2005 I was privileged to take my son and some friends to Lucas Radebe’s testimonial match. Lucas is the loveliest man you could ever hope to meet, ever-present radiant smile and a complete model for his spirit and conduct on the pitch. Some years later, I queued to get his signature on his biography, and he thanked me for coming (how bizarre!). I asked if
he would mind also signing my teamsheet from that day and he was genuinely surprised that I had bothered to keep it. That game was more celebration or carnival than a “match” as such, characterised by hard-man Vinnie Jones leading a charge to be first to kiss Leeds Ladies’ Lucy Ward after she scored3. My son has tired of football since, but he and the friends still remember that as a very special day, and I remind him of it whenever he sneers at “football hooligans”. If you could have harnessed all the goodwill in the stadium that day you could have healed many of mankind’s ills. Years on, you will still hear a chant of “Radebe, Radebe, Radebe – LUCAS!!” at least once each half.
The deepest of emotions
With hindsight, I took my son to football too early, my own enthusiasm and impatience getting the better of good sense; although in truth it was never going to be his thing. But he did give me one of my most special football and FA Cup memories though (albeit he was completely unaware at the time, bloody kids). In the spring on 1998 Leeds had an FA Cup 5th round match against Birmingham City, and we sat in the Family area of the East Stand. Half-time, it was sunny and warm, and I bought him his promised LUFC slime-burger. Leeds were 2-0 up. Robbie Williams’ “Angels” was playing. I stood and looked at him, in his little bobble-hat with the pinned-on FA Cup I had cut off the front of Four Four Two magazine. The man in the row behind was watching me, and as I looked up to blink away tears he smiled and said “Doesn’t get much better than this, does it?” I just nodded but he didn’t mind, I think he knew I couldn’t speak. [Think I’ve got something in my eye, blink-blink.] He knew exactly what I was feeling.
So I did at least get to football with my son, and he saw what it was like, though he did eventually exercise his option on “You don’t have to go, just say, any time you want to stop”. (Strangest thing, accepting defeat in the face of a phantom earache – only after he’d had his burger, mind – and leaving a match in full-flow just after half-time, and stepping out of the cauldron inside the stadium to the complete contrast outside, absolute quiet and just a few stewards having a fag and the police on their break.) But my Dad never met his grandson, never saw him play piano, was never disarmed by his razor wit and way with words.
Dad never met his granddaughter either: my, how he would have loved the way she brings sunshine into every room, her glass-half-full sloshing all over the place, just in case anyone else needs a top-up (and the perfect antidote to my occasional tendency towards melancholy). I bided my time with her until it was her idea to go to a match, our first game the special day that is the FA Cup 3rd round and by coincidence Birmingham again. It was as small a crowd as I can remember, lunar atmosphere, and very dull game. But she loved it and wanted to go again: so after the replay we went to see the win against Spurs. And now she definitely wants to go again. After agonising and taking advice, I have taken her in the West Stand Upper for a decent view (luckily she is still under 16 *coughs* so not quite so expensive). I imagine, rationally, that the novelty will wear off one day and she won’t want to bother any more: but maybe, it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t matter though: we have been together, and she was happy, and she “gets” it. Dad would smile (maybe is?), that we are going to games together.
Going back further, for our wedding, we had “Abide with Me” as a hymn. Yes I know it is a death-bed poem, and may seem a strange choice for a wedding, but it is about being together and comfort and support in difficult times. It was one of my Dad’s favourites, I think because it is the traditional FA Cup hymn. I will have it for my funeral: but I will leave instructions to sing it like a football crowd.
It’s just 22 men chasing a bag of wind around a field
I seem to have written quite a lot, if that’s the case?
The eleven-v-eleven, and the drama of attacking and defending, the ecstasy and agony of goals scored or conceded, and the grace and beauty of the game when played well (even the fury and indignation when it isn’t) make for fantastic entertainment and escapism.
But football is so much more than simple entertainment. It is history and identity and the memories and most intense of emotions which define you as a person; and the passion and spirit which invigorate and bind us and make us human. Yes I support Leeds United AFC, but it’s also my city now, my home, my story, my toil and failures and family and successes and survival. So when I sing “We are Leeds!” or “We’re Leeds, and we’re proud of it!”, or even “… and we’ve had our ups and downs, Ups and Downs!” it actually goes beyond and much deeper than just the team on the field.
That’s why football means so much to people.
That much is true, I know, for other fans , whether in their home town or by some longer journey or quirk of history – like my work-colleague, Blackpool-born-and-bred and West Ham Utd supporter. It is also true, but with an additional layer, when supporting England, but I’ll save that for the next World Cup.
Turns out I’ve been writing this so long that we lost that FA Cup match, by the narrowest of unlucky 0-4 margins. But it’s ok, it will be different next year.
Anyway, before that, my daughter is coming with me again to Wednesday night’s game. Under the floodlights. I don’t think I mentioned that – did I tell you about the time when…….
You read this far? Goodness, you display all the endurance and masochistic tendencies required to run a marathon!
Which seamlessly brings me back to running. (See how I did that?)
I’ll be back on-theme next time.
1- http://dunsontherun.com/. But don’t read it or follow her tweets @duns_is_running cos she makes me look dull.
2- Andy Kirkpatrick, “Psychovertical”. Twitter @psychovertical
3- twitter @lucywardleeds – check out the profile pic: Vinnie in motion, Lucy unaware of her peril, Lucas in the background.