There’s going to a match, and then there’s bonding with a club. I feel like I bonded with Leeds United a bit on New Year’s Day.
I had been to Leeds before — a none-too-thrilling 1-0 victory over Preston North End a few years back. And I was impressed — by the ground, the city, and the fans if not the action on the pitch.
But the first day of 2018 was different. With all the blogging I’ve done on this site, and all the social media which I really kind of hate but do anyway because it’s what one does, I have managed to make connections with quite a few people on “both sides of the pond.”
And on this day I was meeting my Leeds mate James, whom I had in fact never met. Because of our connection online, this visit to Elland Road would involve not just a game but also a deeper understanding of what I was involved in, a much more enjoyable atmosphere, and even a trip into a parallel universe.
All of which is to say, this whole thing really is about connections with other people. Also, get yourself to Leeds United for a game.
Touring Elland Road
As of the 2017-18 season, Leeds are offering tours of the stadium on game days. Most clubs don’t do that, but I recommend it as a way to not only see the stadium but also set the mood for the day. And if you happen to be an American in Yorkshire, you will also get a big dose of the local culture.
The tour itself is really the usual: players’ entrance, hospitality area, dressing rooms, pitch-side, chairmen’s seats. In this case we got the added benefit of visiting the television gantry and also getting to spend the whole tour listening to Sticks.
I’m not sure that’s how you spell his name, but he is the player liaison for the club, and he’s been involved one way or another for decades. He’s been coming to games since 1960, I think he said. And it says something of the local, family type of club Leeds is that when I told my friend later that Sticks was my guide, he knew exactly who I was talking about.
Speaking of which, it took me a minute to figure out what Sticks was talking about, exactly. He sat us down in the seating area and started his tour intro, and for one thing, his PA system was a headset with a little speaker around his waist. So it wasn’t exactly high-fidelity.
And then there was his Yorkshire accent, which I think might be my favorite in all of England, and which … well, I’ll leave it to my fellow Yanks to see how much you can catch:
To say that Sticks spun yarns would be like saying Christopher Columbus went on some sailing trips. First — and it took me a second to figure out this was even what he was saying — he talked about his New Year’s Eve, and how he stayed up too late, and the kids these days with their phones, and look at these boys mowing the pitch they just work all the time don’t they, and then I might have to take a call or two because these footballers can’t hardly do nothing for themselves …
I was thrilled. And if anybody in the group thought this performance tedious or even annoying, they betrayed not a whit of such feelings. And I believe this may be because they, too, were “Yorkshire folk,” and Yorkshire folk are apparently known for being friendly (as I found out on a trip to Barnsley). In fact, the very phrase “Yorkshire folk” makes me feel kind of warm. I may just move there and marry a “Yorkshire lass.”
Right, so the tour. Sticks eventually moved ‘round to the football, telling us tales from the old days when there was (he actually said “were”) a boys’ pen in that corner where they’d keep the little ones safe from the rest of the crowd, but of course as soon as it kicked off we’d be zip under the barrier and then all ‘round the ground causing every sort of havoc, throwing pies up at the chairmen and whatnot. Ah, but them was the old days.
Also, whenever he pointed to a stand, he would say “There ‘tis, in all its glory.”
There was the story about his mate stealing the hat off a policeman in about 1963 during a pitch invasion (I think), and how “me mate” now lives overseas but even when he comes back he won’t give up the hat for the museum or something, ‘cause he’s afraid he’ll get arrested. There were others I enjoyed too much to make note of. And all of this was in his intro! If you ever take the tour at Leeds, tell ‘em you want Sticks.
Here is a video of coming through the tunnel and onto pitch-side:
Match Day at Leeds United
Eventually this all came to an end, and it was time for the game — or at least, the pub. I had heard from James through my Facebook page, and he sorted me a ticket (I love how English people say they “sort” things like tickets). We met at a pub downtown, had breakfast, and then we went down ground. Now, you might think that was a typo, or I just said we fell down. In fact in Yorkshire they often dispense with words like “to” and “the.” And if you think about, why wouldn’t you? “We’re going down ground” tells you all you need to know, as does “After we’re done here, we’ll g’up gantry.”
Funny thing about James, though — terrific bloke, fine host … and a New York Mets fan. And, again, why not? Modern age, small world, and all that. Dude even plays baseball, has been to every Major League Baseball
ground stadium, and I just can’t tell you how pleasantly odd it is to sit in an English pub and discuss, with an English person, the World Series and the subtleties of baseball tactics.
We got to the ground and had more “Yawk-sha” helpfulness, when a man told us we could simply double-park in front of his car, so long as we were coming back right after the game. I must have been to 735 sporting events in my life, and this never occurred to me. James even looked at me and said, “Helpful Yorkshire folk.” I tell you, I’m moving here.
For me, Elland Road is one of the great grounds around. I love the fact that it’s right in town, is still the old place where Leeds have always been and used to boss the whole country, has the right combination of old and new, and is generally pretty full. More than 32,000 were on hand this January 1 to see them play Nottingham Forest. On this day they had invited everyone to bring their scarves for a scarf spectacular; I would share the great video I took of this, the one with the teams coming out and the fans singing their terrific old-fashioned song, except my brand new camera thought — for they really do think — that it would just stay of focus the whole time. F–k.
Funny story about the ground being in town: It’s about 2 miles from the station, and James told me that in the old hooligan days, they used to sing, “You’ll never make the station.”
And speaking of such things, I do want to apologize to my new Millwall fans, who discovered this project after my visit to The Den. I know you hate Leeds, and they you, but I am a true neutral, lover of the game, and football chameleon. I adopt the colors around me as long as I’m among them. Forgive me for enjoying myself in Leeds.
For enjoy myself I did. We first went across the road to a pub who apparently took years to think of this crazy idea that maybe they should have a beer garden on match days. Unfortunately, they also went in for this strange notion that what football fans also want is a rock band so damn loud you can’t hear each other talk. Credit to the bloke who, during a 70s-London-ska-sound song got up on the table and danced in the appropriate manner.
Over in the ground, we met James’s friend Bernard, another pleasant fellow who had been to the States and enjoyed baseball, and it all felt so natural that it took me a moment to realize the guy was wearing a Seattle Mariners jacket and cap! What bizarre world have I entered? Here I am from Portland, wearing a Leeds scarf, and talking to a Leeds man in a Mariners kit. (James and John have even done some online baseball coverage for the BBC).
The game wasn’t much, a 0-0 between two teams probably going neither up nor down in the Championship. Leeds had been on a good run of form and were in the playoff places, but in typical English fashion few people I spoke to really expected them to go up.
Forest had just sacked their manager and looked as rudderless as they were, and meanwhile Leeds pretty well bossed it but missed some decent chances. They hit the crossbar one time in a moment that reminded me (A) how much people care about this and (B) how settled in I had become. I don’t recall the details, but from nowhere a Leeds man was in on goal, had to score, wound up to hit it … and suddenly James had thrown his arm around me and we were both ready to explode, except the fucker hit the bar, the crowd groaned and cursed and waved their arms, then settled into a long session of mumbling with the occasional shout, and that more or less defined the day on the pitch.
But that throwing your arm around your neighbor thing? We don’t do that in the States, but it’s happened to me more than once over here, including the time I became a “temporary Baggie” at West Brom. I love it. I always say, when comparing US games to British ones, that the overall levels of game knowledge and giving a crap are truly beyond comparison. I enjoy MLS and love my Portland Timbers, but it’s simply another level over here.
One complaint, though: For the love of all that is good, could English football please stop serving heinous shite for food at the grounds? My God. A perfect example: All over the country, people know about Yorkshire pork pies. So how fucking hard would it be, at one of the biggest football clubs in Yorkshire, to go and buy some proper goddamn pies? Really, I have to settle for mushy Pukka Pies? It was the same at Barnsley, as well. And at a place like Liverpool, who apparently have £75 million to spend on a defender, they can’t do any better? Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U — hello? Major credit to the States on this score. We kick ass at stadium food.
James also filled in some layers I would have missed had I been on my own. Leeds fans like to sing that they are the true champions of Europe, since a paid-off referee gave the title to Bayern Munich. Forest fans at one point chanted “Scabs” in a reference to coal strikes back in the day (shit dies hard here). The service dog that always barks at the final whistle. The police shed blocking our view of a touch line. These things go on everywhere all the time, so it was nice to know about them.
After the final whistle, we clapped the lads off the pitch, even though they were kind of shite on the day, and ambled with the other thousands off into the night. Weren’t too much to be happy or sad about. They’re doing well, they’re in the playoff positions, they created enough chances to win it, and anyway, We’re a bit too hungover to be bothered too much.
As for me, it was back to London. Another game beckoned the following night, as it so often does, but days like the one I spent in Leeds are what this whole thing is about for me. Sure, I saw more, um, passion at Millwall. And I would see more drama in Liverpool. And more glamour in Manchester. But for this yankee groundhopper, it’s all about the community and the old grounds and the accents and the stories and just a proper day out in English football.