Tuesday, May 01, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Richard Williams on Leeds

Guardian, 1.5.07

In a weekend of dramatic and bizarre finishes, none was more resonant than the fractious climax to a match that seems certain to have condemned Leeds United to spend next season in the third tier of English football. There was something gruesomely inevitable about the pitch invasion that postponed the end of the game, followed by the players' bathetic return for a final 40 seconds which changed nothing.

Few outside Yorkshire are likely to lament their fall. Some, indeed, will be rejoicing, since the Elland Road club are the object of the kind of widespread dislike that survives generations, being born anew in the breasts of those who can have little idea of the origins of their hatred. From the opposite perspective the young fans who swarmed on to the playing surface on Saturday are surely unaware they were re-enacting a tribal rite familiar from the 1970s.

There might even have been a gleeful reaction to the suggestion that Leeds will be going into administration within the next few days, a fate that would condemn them to face their next campaign with the handicap of a statutory 10-point deduction. Columnists should beware of using long German words where short English ones will do but, on this occasion, the Wagnerian overtones of Schadenfreude really do seem appropriate to the barely concealed delight in Leeds' operatic misfortune.

Among the first voices to be heard after Saturday's match was that of Peter Ridsdale, the former chairman whose venture into financial "securitisation" - one of those Newspeak terms that mean exactly the opposite of what they appear to mean - created the financial instability that started the club's decline. As ever, Ridsdale was quick to disclaim responsibility.

"It's only 12 months since Leeds were in the play-off final and yet people talk today of decisions that were made four or five years ago that are causing their plight," he said, as if the very idea were unworthy of consideration. But longterm fans of any club unlucky enough to have suffered a similar decline know the roots often lie very deep indeed and that previous administrations are seldom willing to share the blame.
Even in the short term, however, it always seemed astonishing that such a star-crossed club could have put an attempt to regain their former eminence in the hands not just of Ken Bates but of Dennis Wise. The chairman/captain combo might have taken the FA Cup to Stamford Bridge but a shared taste for controversy and confrontation made them few friends in the process. When they arrived at Leeds, it was as if some unseen presiding spirit were intent on recreating the rancorous defiance that began to characterise the club when Don Revie first entered the manager's office in 1961.

The Damned Utd was what David Peace called a remarkable novel devoted to an imaginative reconstruction of Brian Clough's 44 days at Elland Road in the immediate aftermath of the Revie era. Some of Revie's old players, most prominently John Giles, reacted to the book's publication last year by railing against its supposed inaccuracies. Many readers, however, sensed a deeper strain of what is usually called emotional truth beneath the portrayal of an institution corrupted by Revie's paranoia.

That Leeds team could play wonderful football - they were probably the first players in the English league to hear the cry of "Olé!" as they humiliated opponents by keeping possession of the ball - but, too often, only when they had kicked and cheated their way into a winning position. That strain of cold malice seemed an affront to the all-white strip that Revie borrowed from Real Madrid and was not disguised when a marketing man came up with an absurd attempt to soften the club's image by having the players present flowers to the crowd before home matches. English football has produced no finer example of cognitive dissonance than the sight of Giles and Billy Bremner handing out roses.

Football clubs are like garden spades. When the blade wears out, you replace it. Then the handle breaks and you replace that, too. But, somehow, it is still the same spade.

Which is perhaps why the men currently in charge of Leeds United seem so familiar. When it comes to paranoia, Bates could have given Revie lessons. And what was Wise, in his playing days, if not the short-passing, shirt-tugging reincarnation of Bremner?

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