THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN FOR THE SQUARE BALL ISSUE 10 BUT, FOR REASONS OF SPACE, WAS NOT INCLUDED IN THE FINAL PRINT
or those of you who don’t have the pleasure of knowing it, the A1(M) is one of the most monotonous roads in the United Kingdom. On the face of it, this is quite some feat: the road itself is punctuated by some of the more unusual roadside attractions that you’ll see in Britain: the odd Harrier jump jet announcing the presence of a nearby RAF base, a brief flirtation with Sherwood Forest, and how could we fail to mention the sex shops that escort (as it were) the thoroughfare as it winds its way down the spinal column of the country. Yet in the vast distances that open out between the curios that make up its landmarks, the road itself is interminable. At times, driving down it, you experience a strange treadmill effect in which it feels like you are moving and the rest of the world is standing still. And it is this tedium that makes the A1(M) the worst road to drive down after watching a loss at Elland Road.
I live in Cambridge. This means that whenever I come to watch Leeds play, I am consigned to make the journey up the A1(M). Making the pilgrimage to the recent Wolves game, the return leg of the trip was only going to be purgatorial. The game itself was like a dry run of the journey home. Vast swathes of nothingness interspersed with a few oddities along the way. Hands on the wheel in the ten-to-two position, staring into the glory of a spring evening in Lincolnshire, I consigned myself to the A1(M). As my passengers dropped off one by one (or slumped into quiet contemplation), I was left alone with my thoughts.
A few hours later I was thoroughly and completely disgruntled. My train of thought had descended into some dark places the longer the drive went on. “If we can’t even deal with the pressure of Wolves at home, then how the hell will we ever expect to produce in three play off games? Fucking Chris Wood. What in the fuck was Jansson doing driving into the box? Fucking Chris Wood. Don’t even get me pissing started on Doukara. Fucking Chris Fucking Wood…” Arriving home, I crashed onto my bed and idly scrolled Twitter to see whether Leeds United Twitter had made a record shift from negativity to positivity in the space of time that it had taken me to get home.
Almost the first thing I saw was a video. Kalvin Phillips and Pontus Jansson after the game talking to a young fan with disabilities, holding his hand, tousling his hair and all this after losing a game that could have scotched their plans of a play off place. I’ll be honest–I burst into tears. If the players could show a sense of perspective in the wake of a game they’d been working their whole season towards, how could I not even make it through a drive down the ruddy A1(M) without losing all sense of proportion?
Being a Leeds fan is a funny thing. Of course, we all want to see the team succeed on the pitch. It’s been too long since we had the chance to pit ourselves against the finest teams in the country. But being a supporter is about more than just on-field achievement. It must be. Or the majority of us wouldn’t still be here. We stayed. Even after the relegation to League One. Even after the play off finals.
The problem is, there is often a zero-sum game between these two facets of following a team: the more the club succeeds on the pitch, the easier it is to forget what it is that actually unites us in those long stretches of time when success is nowhere to be seen. Far be it from me to suggest that there is a ‘proper way’ to support a team. I position myself squarely in the ‘horses for courses’ side of the debate: if you want to be a ‘glory supporter’ then so be it. I’m happy that the club has your support in the good times. It still helps. But sporting success is not the only constituent of what makes a football fan. There is a residue that accretes whenever the downward spiral kicks in. A collective hope for the future. A shared experience. A coming together that extends beyond all divisions that society might try to erect.
If we are to go up this season, what it means to be a Leeds United fan will become complexified immeasurably. We will be joined by a huge amount of people keen to enjoy the spectacle that is the Premier League. This is a Good Thing. The Premier League is a spectacle and what better that people can come and enjoy it in our city. But in the excitement of our return from our diaspora into the lower leagues, it will be all too easy for us to forget what it means when we sing All Leeds Aren’t We. Because Leeds is bigger than just the Premier League. It is bigger than the FA Cup and the League Cup. It is bigger, I tremble to write it, than the Champions League. When all these were out of our reach, we were still all Leeds.
We live in an increasingly daunting world. As our government continues to divest itself of any social responsibility by repeating the mantras of free market liberalism to itself ad nauseum, a huge amount of the legwork is being taken up by charity organisations. Despite the perceived normalisation of a self-motivated individualism, people are giving as much to charity as they ever were. The difference is, that this money is now going to secure the sorts of essentials that previously governments would provide.
As such, it is imperative that we remind ourselves of what it means to be all Leeds. Being a fan is about being part of a support network of people who will go out of their way for one another–be it by taking the time to take a young fan seriously, by opening their homes to people in the wake of a tragedy, as happened in Dortmund recently, or even in the little acts of kindness that often go unnoticed by the people who do them. When we sing All Leeds Aren’t We, we’re not just talking about the game itself. There’s an ethical injunction there. Whatever our background, social status, ethnicity, sexual orientation: we are all Leeds.
I often dream of making that trip up the A1(M) to the promised land of an Elland Road Premier League fixture. But if that promised land comes at the cost of us being ‘all Leeds’, then I will take the summer of misery with gritted teeth. I’ll even try to remain positive about another season in the Championship. But I won’t promise I don’t have to keep watching that video on Twitter to get me through.