Personal Stories: Si Roberts
Why Leeds? Why Marching Out Together?
1977. 8th October. Just over 40 years ago, I attended my first Leeds United match at, ironically, given the date of our very recent success there, Ashton Gate Bristol. I was seven years old and since that day, my support has continued with the ups and downs our fans chant every footballing Saturday.
My recollections of that day and match are patchy and despite my efforts to find some, I have never seen any televised record of the game. I remember shaking with nerves as I walked to the ground. I went into the children’s enclosure with my Dad, both of us exiled from North Wales and then settled in the South West of England. I was the only Leeds fan in our bit of the enclosure and was indescribably nervous as 3pm approached. In those days, you had to be in your position a good hour before kick-off to ensure a good view.
The teams came out, first City and then Leeds in that magnificent all yellow strip with the blue and white stripes. Instead of peeling off right towards the open, packed away end, they ran straight to the centre circle and formed a line facing, the dug-outs. They then raised their arms and waved to the crowd completing a full 360 much to the wrath of the home support. I remember discreetly waving back with my hand very low as the team, complete with their smart, numbered garters, headed to the bladeless goalmouth in front of the away fans. I’m sure there was chanting from the Leeds end but I don’t remember it. I do remember quite vividly however the swaying of the fans in what we now know to be dangerous terraces, punctuated with barriers.
The record book indicates we lost the game 2-3. I can recall one City goal going in past David Stewart and one of the brace scored for Leeds by Ray Hankin but not much else. There was a certain palpable feeling of relief that the experience was over and a degree of regret that I didn’t enjoy it more such were the state of my nerves. It would be another year before I’d see them again. One thing was for sure though: Leeds were my team and I had been bitten by the bug.
Today, as a North Walian living with my wife and two boys in Wales’ capital city, I often get asked why it is I support Leeds. The answer I give draws an analogy between why so many children in my city sport Manchester City (can’t bring myself to type the name of the other team…), Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts: Leeds were, even in the late 70s when our dominance of English and to a certain extent European football was on the wane, the team everyone seemed to be talking about and even though football wasn’t televised to the same extent as it is today and football shirts were not as commercially accessible, I guess I was sucked in and the (yellow, blue and white) dye was cast. Most of the other children supported Bristol City or Rovers and a few Liverpool but I was the only Leeds fan and a Welsh one at that!
If you are reading this having been born in 1970 or thereabouts, what you are about to read will be difficult to stomach. Supporting Leeds in those formative years was tough. The team was on the slide and, unsurprisingly, relegation followed out of the old First Division. Clarke, Bremner and Gray all tried and failed to get us back to the First Division. Off the field, a theme I’ll come back to later, our fans were causing the authorities problems. Relegation happened during my first year at secondary school but little did I know that I would spend practically all of my adolescence supporting a second division team. Every August, Saint and Greavsie or Jimmy Hill and Bob Wilson would tip the “sleeping giant” that was Leeds United for promotion and every year, we would fail in our mission, sometimes dangerously flirting with relegation. But, oddly, to support Leeds in the 80s was to belong to almost a cult following.
My annual birthday treat was to watch Leeds whenever they were in the south so Dad would take me and 2 friends to places like Ninian Park and the Vetch Field. In February 1984, we were at the game in Cardiff where George McCluskey scored in the 84th minute to give us only our second away win of that mediocre season. The final whistle was the signal for the home supporters to launch coins and marbles in our direction which I gladly rounded up and pocketed. In the same season, since it fell on a Bank Holiday, we also went to the Vetch Field in Swansea for a dead rubber of a game memorable for the longest WACCOE chant I can recall when 1-2 down. My Dad, who used to play for and still supports Wrexham, still recounts how it just went on and on seemingly refusing to fade until an equaliser was scored. Lorimer duly obliged….
The support in those days was raucous, passionate and loyal but never far from trouble. Looking back as objectively as possible on this era, Leeds did receive a lot of bad press and articles tended to focus on the unruly element of our support rather than the positive. One such example was on my first away day without Dad. I travelled with a friend from school to watch Oxford v Leeds in November 1984 and there were Leeds fans everywhere. We just about got in and had to sit on the wall right at the back of the away end to get a view. Hundreds of Leeds fans were locked out and we were relaying events as they took place on the pitch. Wright and Lorimer raced Leeds into a commanding 2 nil lead and the leaders were wobbling.
The delirium among the fans was incredible and the Match of the Day cameras, rare for a second division game, were capturing what a proper away support was all about. Leeds lost their grip and the concession of a goal just before half time was the stimulus Oxford needed to put in a devastating 4 goal blitz in the second half, beating us 5-2. Now a few fans did rip up the advertising boards and started frisbeeing them across the pitch towards the end of the game, yes. But what was never shown on TV or written about was the incident in which, prevented by the police along with the other 5 000 plus from exiting the ground for well over 30 minutes, a Leeds fan climbed to the back of the scoreboard in our end and managed to turn the score to 5-3, then 5-4 and then, much to the excitement and anticipation of the fans, the equalising 5-5. He then came out to massive applause before going back to ensure we won 6-5. The away end erupted and ‘We are Leeds’ boomed out as the police finally opened the gates.
The away support was huge and always entertaining. However, the last time I attended a Leeds game with Dad was on that fateful last game of the season in Birmingham in 1985. After that experience, as terrifying for him as an adult looking after three 15-year-olds as it was for me and my two schoolmates, he vowed never to come and watch Leeds again. It felt wrong that day and I remember busloads of Leeds fans coming in with the windows smashed, pissed supporters staggering around, the queues so long as to join the Birmingham queues for their end…in short, a disaster waiting to happen. And so it did once Birmingham scored and news reached us that results were not going our way. In the interest of fairness, sections of both sets of fans rioted that day and the violence and wanton vandalism were on a level I’ve never witnessed still till this day and happily, it hasn’t been repeated since on anything like the same scale. As we know, a 15-year-old boy was tragically killed that afternoon and were it not for the inferno at Bradford on the same day, it’s safe to assume that both Birmingham and Leeds would have received harsher punishment from the FA.
Elland Road was a hostile place in the 80s and one of the games which I recall with mixed emotions was in 1988 versus Stoke. We’d taken some severe batterings at the Victoria Ground (2-6 and 2-7!) and revenge was sweet as Baird, Swann and Stiles helped us towards a 4-0 victory (the biggest I’ve seen live). But what remained with me from that day was the racist, nonsensical chanting from the South stand, the place that, even in those days, Leeds fans went to stand on the seats. Black players were not that common then but despite the fact that Leeds fielded two black players in Blake and Hilaire, it didn’t stop the black Stoke players receiving a torrent of monkey noises and NF chanting. Police, stewards and, shamefully, fans, myself included, did nothing to stop it as it was the norm, however unsavoury the lyrics, to tolerate such abusive behaviour.
This summer, while scouring the i-player for a programme to watch, I came across Gareth Thomas’ “Hate in the beautiful game” which immediately drew my attention. Here in Wales, Gareth, or Alfie to the rugby public, is an iconic player who famously came out as a gay man towards the end of his 100-cap Wales rugby career. Around the same time (the exact chronology escapes me), one of our most respected and world renowned rugby referees, Nigel Owens, also came out so rugby had somehow found a framework safe enough to allow gay athletes to talk about their sexuality. Yet in football, hardly anything. We know the sad story about Justin Fashanu so I was intrigued to see what Alfie’s programme had to offer.
It didn’t take long before I had that familiar sinking feeling as, within a couple of minutes of the opening frames, a close-up of homophobic chanting supporters slowly zoomed out to reveal some familiar yellow, empty seats in the background. It was Leeds fans chanting at Brighton fans which Alfie was filming as an undercover journalist, from Elland Road. I was staggered. It took me straight back to the 80s and to say it was the minority is to distort the truth. The programme went around the country, inside stadia, changing rooms and training grounds and the perplexing conclusion was that football has an impossibly low, statistically speaking, number of gay players compared with society as a whole. On a positive note, it revealed the names of LGBT-friendly supporters’ groups and shortly after the programme, Marching Out Together was formed.
As a straight guy in his forties, why should I want to join? I had no hesitation in firstly contacting Andrew and Drew to encourage them on their venture and, secondly, to congratulate them on trying to rid our sport of this last bastion of hate and bigotry. Elland Road used to attract racist elements and now they are unwelcome, having to spout their filth in other forums such as EDL marches. One of the huge but important jobs of Marching Out Together is to rid our stadium of the homophobic element which, hitherto, is allowed to infiltrate our tremendous support.
A very pleasant objective of Marching Out Together and other similarly minded supporters’ groups is the attempt to meet before the game, something as a rugby supporter, I enjoy doing immensely when I attend rugby matches. Back in the 80s, you would never wear colours to and from a game but attitudes are slowly changing. Marching Out Together is actively seeking to meet fans from the opposition which can only serve to improve harmony between supporters and allow the wearing of colours to be encouraged. As a straight guy, it will also allow me a better insight into life as a gay, bi, trans Leeds fans and gain a better understanding of their weekly plight when they attend games. I was at Cardiff for the drubbing we got and, disguising my allegiance in the home end, it always makes me smirk when the (inevitable) chant from the Leeds fans is raised which questions my and my compatriots’ relationship we share with our bovine friends. The way that Wales football fans deal with this predictable taunt is that we chant it back: “We know what we are / sheep s******* b******* / We know what we are.” I know that there can be no comparison between this tired, ancient taunt and the weekly, vicious vitriol dished out in stadia up and down the country towards suspected homosexual players and fans but the Wales fans have ‘owned’ the abuse and throw it back to the abusers. In the fabulous film, Pride, set in Wales during the miners’ strike in which a London-based LGBT group raised money for a mining community in South Wales, the group decided to hold a concert and donate the proceeds to the community. The Communards were the biggest name on the bill and when The Sun newspaper got wind of the arrangement, they ran a headline “Pits and Perverts.” Instead of reacting negatively to this slander, the LGBT group decided to own this slur and used it to promote the concert.
Could we ever conceive of a situation in which, when a homophobic chant begins inside a football ground, fans from both groups belonging to the LGBT communities stand up and throw the chant back? I would love to see this happen and Marching Out Together and groups like it are a first step towards defeating homophobia once and for all.