Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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the square ball week

the square ball week

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It seems fitting that the best thing about Leeds United so far this season is the most frightening. After seven years of Ken Bates rattling his chains around the Elland Road corridors late at night (but never for more than ninety days a year, of course), terror at Leeds has a new name, and its name is: The Beast. And if Rodolph Austin is The Beast, you can call me Beauty, because swooooon.

We mentioned last week that Austin’s addition to the roster of LUFC internationals would be worthy of note, and he didn’t let us down. Let’s face it, a man named Rodolph will never ever let you down. After Jamaica went a goal down to Men’s Soccer Team USA in Kingston last week, Austin gripped the game (and several American players) firmly by the throat and earned his team a long awaited 2-1 win over the Yanks. The Americans didn’t know how to deal with Austin’s surging runs and struggled even to foul him when he had the ball; twice when they did give him free kicks, Jamaica scored, first thanks to The Beast himself and then through Luton Shelton. The Scratching Shed have some video highlights, and Amitai Winehouse of Spoughts is writing about the game (and the 1-0 defeat Jamaica went on to suffer in Colorado) for the next issue of The Square Ball, which will be available at the Forest game. But for now it’s enough to know that Rodolph has got himself on an earlier flight home so he has more time to prepare for our game at Cardiff this weekend. What a man.

Our other internationals faired good-to-middling; we should maybe gloss over Scotland as a whole and emphasise that McCormack wasn’t on the pitch against Macedonia. Tom Lees had a happier time – although he didn’t show it – making a fifteen minute debut as a sub for England U21s, Stuart Pearce sticking him in midfield because… um, no, I’m stumped. Suggestions on a postcard, or in the comments. Aidy White’s position for Ireland U21s was much easier to work out: proud, as he captained the team to a 4-2 win in Italy.

Back in Yorkshire, it has been hair-pulling time for Neil Warnock, as David Norris followed fellow new signing Paul Green to the treatment table, and left us utterly bereft in midfield. Attempts to get players in on loan don’t appear to have gone smoothly, as neither Jermaine Jenas or Shaun Derry have come in; on the upside, neither has Mamady Sidibe. Right In The Gary Kellys are still smiling through it all, but Colin’s frustration has apparently taken him close to the exit door – and not for the first time this summer. Although as I pointed out here, that report, written by an old associate of Ken Bates from the Chelsea days, has more than a few Kenisms tucked away in there. “Bates is understood to be unimpressed by Warnock’s … attempts to press Leeds’ chairman into signing players.” Hmm. Could Ken Bates be mounting a media campaign to undermine a manager who wants new players? Say it ain’t so!

The player Warnock did get, in the end, was Michael Tonge. You remember, Michael Tonge. To be fair, Tongey (as I’m sure he’s known) was a good player under Warnock at Sheffield United, but his career has stalled since he joined Stoke and got on board the loaned-out roundabout. Expect effort from the lad; when Warnock signs a player you can expect effort from the lad. You can also expect sniggers if we ever play a three-man midfield of Pughy, Brown, Tonge.

We mentioned Ken Bates above, and so it’s time for our weekly checkup: have we been taken over yet? No. But Leeds United Supporters’ Trust have posted a positive sounding update on their Facebook page, suggesting that the indemnity problem might have been overcome. Meanwhile LUST have been active in getting information to the fans about the current financial shape of the club, first with this infographic and cash flow analysis, and then with this detailed report, which includes contributions from football finance expert Rob Wilson, whose independent perspective on Leeds finances has in the past been welcomed by Bates. Reports like this can make for dry reading and seem pointless to those who just want to get on with the football, but looking back to 2001 when I used to confidently pronounce that “our finances sound like they’re fine, and Peter Ridsdale knows what he’s doing,” how I wish someone then had been doing this kind of work.

One piece of news this week knocks all of the above into perspective, of course, and that’s the release of the independent report into the Hillsborough disaster. It’d be easy to dismiss the report into an incident that happened twenty-three years ago to Liverpool fans in a match against Nottingham Forest played at a ground in Sheffield as nothing to do with Leeds United, but the story of Hillsborough – its build up and its aftermath – affect every football fan, and Leeds fans in particular.

For one thing, Hillsborough ’89 was very nearly followed by Ayresome Park ’89, as police herded more and more Leeds fans into an already packed away end at Middlesbrough’s old ground just months after the Hillsborough disaster. Anthony Vickers, at Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette, has republished his report from the time, recording how among the Boro support “There was genuine icy fear that someone would get killed in the away pen.” There is a news video on that page too, showing young Leeds fans lying unconscious by the side of the pitch in scenes that are unimaginable today; our editor at The Square Ball, Dan Moylan, was there as an eleven year old boy and remembers the lad in front of him being taken away with a ruptured spleen. But at the time, as Vickers notes, “the incident barely made a paragraph in the match report in the Sports Gazette.”

But that was being a football fan in the late-eighties. If you download a copy of the report, press ctrl-F on your keyboard and do a search for ‘Leeds’, or ‘1987’, you’ll see just how close our fans were to being the victims of Hillsborough themselves – or how close any club’s fans were, just because they were lucky enough to reach the FA Cup Semi-Final and unlucky enough to be crammed into the Leppings Lane end.

Our 1987 semi-final against Coventry was the first time Hillsborough had been used for such a big game since a crushing incident at the Leppings Lane end when Spurs and Wolves played there in 1981, and was in many ways a test of whether the ground was suitable for prestige matches. The accounts in the comments to this blog post of what happened to Leeds fans that day sound disturblingly familiar: “We could look down and see how the middle Leppings Lane pen was packed extremely tightly yet there was plenty of space in the pens to the side”, “The central sections of Leppings Lane were packed tightly and fans were being pulled up to escape the crush”, “The centre pen or cage was so overcrowded that people were climbing over the fence in to the next pen and people were also being lifted up to the stand above and it was obvious there was no control.”

The consensus among Leeds fans who were there was clear – attending the game had been unusually dangerous, in an era when danger was not unusual for the travelling football fan. The concensus from South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield Council as revealed in the report was also clear: “The 1987 debrief did not mention overcrowding or crushing … the fact that the kick off was delayed and the reasons leading to the delay were not recorded in the post match summary report … the FA had been reassured by SWFC and by SYP that the previous semi-finals had been successful, had passed without problems.”

There were problems again in 1988 when Forest and Liverpool played their first semi-final at Hillsborough, and again the problems were ignored – officially, there had been no problems. In 1989, the problems could no longer be hidden. And for the twenty-three years that followed, football fans got the blame.

That has changed with the publication of this week’s report, and if this week has brought a lot of unpleasantness back to the forefront for the families of the fans who were killed, injured and blamed, it has also brought it to the door of the people in positions of power who deliberately covered up their own culpability and pointed the finger at the innocent. If you’re making your way into Cardiff’s clean, modern, well-managed stadium this weekend, give a moment’s thanks on your way in that you can enjoy the game knowing you’ll come home safely, and spare a thought for the 96 people like you who never did.


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