THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE SQUARE BALL IN 2016/17 | ISSUE 1
n the 1930s, in spite of the ancient rivalry which had existed between them, it was deemed politic to connect the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire by means of a road. Today the M62, running from Knotty Ash in the West to North Cave on the East, exists as a vestigial reminder of a bygone industrial age linking, as it does, the commercial centres of Liverpool, Hull, Manchester and Leeds. As the child of parents who settled in Bradford in the early 80s before moving to the wrong side of the Pennines before the decade closed out, the road has a different geographic significance. The topography of the road seemed to mirror the strange existential quality of the journey, giving the impression of a transition from one world to another: the slow crawl up Windy Hill dumping you out unceremoniously at the top of the world on Saddleworth Moor and letting you wind your way down through Pole Moor into the heart of West Yorkshire.
In the course of my life, I have made the journey so many times that it now feels commonplace—I can travel across the Pennines almost without registering the landscape through which I am passing. But there is one point at which I am always conscious of my place on the road: having climbed the incline that faces you once the M62 becomes the M621, the verges fall away leaving the city of Leeds lying before you as a backdrop against which the stark brutalism of Elland Road forms a frontspiece. Now as a Yorkshireman, I am not much given over to outbursts of emotion. Yet at that moment, the point at which I see the 1990s housing estate façade of the East Stand, I am overtaken by the unavoidable feeling that I have come home. Every homecoming, however, has to be situated within an absence. And for me, that absence has permeated my ongoing love affair with Leeds United.
The absence was there even from the beginning. The summer of ‘94 was one of those summers which the nine-year old mind remembers without any of the wrinkles. It was endlessly sunny, endlessly school holidays and endlessly football. My parents had moved away from Yorkshire many years before. But we would still go camping with old friends from their university days, some of whom had settled in Bradford. That summer was no different. And yet this time it was completely different because 1994 was a world cup year. Throughout that summer’s camping trip, my friends and I would take turns to be Bebeto, Romario or Dunga. Joel Green, who was a few years older than me and therefore the coolest person I had ever met, was a Leeds fan. So I was a Leeds fan. It was that simple. So it was, deep within the diaspora of a mid-Wales camp site, that the kid exiled from Yorkshire came to be a Leeds United fan.
In those days, it was easy supporting Leeds from a distance. For one thing, we were still enjoying the afterglow of winning what would be the final title in the old First Division. For another thing, we had Tony Yeboah that season. As Wilkinson faded into Graham and Graham melted into O’Leary, I was beginning to suspect that I might be one of those Glory Supporters that we were constantly accusing Manchester United fans of being. In early 1998, I took my first trip to Elland Road: an inauspicious three-all draw to Coventry with Kewell evening things up to cancel out an ignominious Darren Huckerby hat-trick. No matter: I was already smitten. Before long, the Radebes, Kewells and Hasselbainks of the late ‘90s were superceded by the Ferdinands, Smiths and Vidukas of the early 2000s. A Champions League semi-final was reached. Life was good for the Leeds United fan in exile. The old adage had proved correct: absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder.
All that would change, of course, in the space of a couple of seasons. The dream of the Champions League swiftly replaced by the reality of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. ‘Doing a Leeds’ entered the modern parlance and we were the laughing stock of the football leagues. This was only compounded by the fact that it was becoming increasingly difficult to be a fan in exile. In 2004, I found myself studying at a Scottish university supporting a team whose games were no longer given any sort of meaningful coverage in the national media. Football fandom took on a new form for me: I went to as many games as I could afford to and squinted my way through online streams where the ball was reduced to a pixelated square and, inevitably, it froze just before anything interesting happened. It being at the height of my exam period, I watched the Play Off Final in an empty pub in St Andrews. Just me and a Watford fan who seemed to be sat about one foot away from the TV screen. He clapped. The whole time. In an empty pub with a Leeds fan.
Ten years later, these sorts of occurrences have become commonplace. I fit my life around my love for Leeds United as best I can. The online streams are still my constant companion, although the quality has improved so that the ball now assumes the shape of a more complex polyhedron. With the advent of social media, though, a whole new tranche of new options is available to me: I can trawl through Pep Clotet’s Twitter feed for all the latest team news, open Periscope to watch a training session at Thorpe Arch or even, if I am feeling particularly morose, go on Facebook to experience the full force of the disgruntled fanbase on the various pages dedicated to the club. These various technological advances have ameliorated the effects of being a Leeds United fan to some extent. And yet the absence still feels more stark then it did back in the 90s.
In trying to understand why this might be the case, I have come to the following conclusion. There seems to be two different forms of football fandom in the world today. From the beginning, as football achieved burgeoning popularity amongst the working class outposts in the North of England and Scotland, there was a certain level of parochialism to the game. You supported your local club because they grew up in the heart of the community, investing time and money in the region and giving identity to broad swathes of people who had very little luxury in their lives. There is still space within the present day for this kind of football fandom and the FA and football leagues should be commended for encouraging local support by introducing TV licensing rules to prevent live coverage during the main slot on a Saturday.
However, in the wake of the pervasive globalisation that has resulted from the very technologies that allow us to watch any football match we want at the click of a button, a new form of fandom has emerged in recent years. It is now not uncommon for fans to follow a number of teams, many of which may be in different countries or even different continents. If I wanted, I could support Barcelona in La Liga, Paris St Germain in Ligue Un, Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and Inter Milan in Serie A. And I could, if I wanted, watch all their games on cable TV, buy their merchandise on the internet, get all their latest gossip on Sky News 24, and read the experts’ opinions in When Saturday Comes.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want to. I want to support Leeds United. And I can’t really do that anymore as a Leeds fan in exile, because in backing the club from a distance you find yourself between these two modes of football fandom. For the fact of the matter is, Leeds aren’t influential enough for me to follow them as if they were just another major club in the world of football. Nor yet am I local enough to support them in the parochial manner that exists at the other end of the footballing spectrum. I find myself in the liminal space of football fandom in which support consists of little more than gazing on the BBC live feed waiting for the next update to flash up, as though you are doing little more than live through some iteration or other of Championship Manager but in the real world. Which raises the question as to what my support really consists of at all?
It’s at moments like these that I really question what it is that I like so much about the idea of a glorious return to the Premier League. Is it the best interests of the club that I have at heart? Or is it simply my own selfish desire to be able to support the team again in a way that satisfies my own ideas of football fandom? Where I might try to persuade myself otherwise, the fact of the matter is, I would quite like the chance to have extended highlights of the weekend’s fixture on Match of the Day of a Saturday night. But is that it? Is supporting a football team more about my expectations of what football should be than anything else? To a certain extent, every football fan will be left wondering what it is about their club that makes them so enigmatic to themselves. Most likely, I will never be able to answer this question with any satisfaction. But when I emerge over the crest of the hill on the M621 and catch a glimpse of those dreamy terraces of Elland Road, I feel like I am come home. And there must be something to that.