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the square ball week: dealing with history

the square ball week: dealing with history

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This season’s motto at Leeds is ‘The Past is The Past,’ but leaving the past behind is a hard thing for a football club. Putting something like Ken Bates behind us is fine and healthy, but as Assem Allam at Hull City will hopefully soon realise, you can’t just hang a football club’s history at the back of a cupboard and leave it to the moths.

Which puts Leeds United in an odd position with regard to its past. The idea of drawing a line under the recent bad times is a sound one, but you can’t control people’s memories any more than you can control anniversaries, which is why our forward looking, future orientated club marches into a new era while Franny Lee looks down from the big screen at Norman Hunter, cutting slices from a 70th birthday cake. 

It’s not the first time Leeds United has had to balance futures and pasts, and I wonder if, during the early seasons of his management at Elland Road, Howard Wilkinson would have allowed a former player to have a birthday celebration on the pitch. Wilko famously and controversially banished the glory years from the club, exorcising ghosts from the Elland Road corridors as if auditioning for a part in Ghostbusters – probably Egon Spengler, although he had the sardonic, dry wit required for Peter Venkman, too. 

Norman Hunter was among those personally ushered out through the side door, his coaching career ended by Wilkinson’s crusade, and in retrospect, it’s odd to look back to 1988 and see Howard Wilkinson as the future of Leeds and Norman Hunter as its ghostly past. Sergeant Wilko also turned 70 this week; we recorded a Square Ball podcast last night, and at one point Michael said that it had never occurred to him that Howard and Norman were the same age. They were both 44 when Wilko arrived at Elland Road; Howard nowhere near as old as the fatherly figure he presented, Norman nowhere near as old as his associations with the Revie era suggested. 

Perhaps it seemed different at the time. That’s the problem with getting older: it’s harder to contextualise the past. We talk about the Middle Ages as if there weren’t 1,000 years between the 5th and 15th centuries, and we talk about Wilko chasing away ghosts from the club’s past, forgetting that Peter Lorimer had still been a player only three years earlier. This was a manager in his mid-forties taking on his peers so he could take the club into the future; but the battle seems unequal because what Wilkinson was taking on was not the people, but the photographs of their younger selves that adorned the corridors outside his office.

Football is one of the few places where you can find that kind of multi-layered story in one simple anecdote; Howard only took some old photos down, but the plot isn’t a million miles away from The Picture of Dorian Gray, but in reverse – a man is haunted by the ageless portraits on the walls, as the real people in the portraits reflect his own age back at him. To look at a photo of a young Norman Hunter on the wall, and to look through a window and see the real Norman Hunter on the training pitch, the same age as you, would disorientate anybody. One generation of Bites Yer Legs was more than enough for Franny Lee. Imagine having to cope with two?

That situation, though, is the lot of every football fan as we grow older. I had to pause for a moment earlier this week when I thought about just how long Danny Pugh has been associated with Leeds United. The Champions League era and Alan Smith seem like ancient history now, but Pugh first came to Elland Road as part of the deal that took Smith away, nine years ago. We can look back at footage of the fresh faced young Smithy scoring at Anfield and it feels like another world; then look at the pitch and see Pugh, still very much part of ours. 

Or you can look at Gary Neville – but not for too long, or your eyes may never recover. As well as punditing on Sky, Neville is part of a new film called The Class of 92, which celebrates the generation of players over the Pennines that included both Nevilles, Beckham, Scholes, Butt, Giggs and the rest. Essentially it’s the team that, as every Leeds fan knows, lost to our youth team in 1993. I’m not about to watch this thing to find out how big a part that Cup Final plays, partly because I couldn’t stomach it, but partly because I have things that are better: a burned-in memory of Jamie Forrester’s overhead kick in front of the South Stand, and, should that memory ever fail me, a VHS cassette with a recording of the second leg at Elland Road.

It’s a Scotch tape, that I gave to a mate from school who had Sky so he could tape it off the TV for me. Down the side is the label I handwrote with the kind of formality only a twelve year old can provide: ‘FA Youth Cup Final 2nd Leg: Leeds United 2 − 1 Man Utd. Forrester, Smithard (Agg 4-1).’ On the front is a picture of the players celebrating that I cut from Match magazine and glued on. On the back are more cuttings – the paths the clubs took to the final, and a little report about the match. 

The glue has kept all that stuff in place; my handwriting hasn’t changed all that much; and I can still put this thing in a tape player and watch it as if it were yesterday. But if someone who hasn’t carried this thing with them from house to house for the last twenty years were to spot it on my shelf, they would see an antique, and there’s no getting away from the fact that that’s what a twenty year old VHS tape is nowadays. And haven’t they just made a historical documentary about it?

It’s the sort of thing Howard Wilkinson would urge me to chuck in the bin. Noel Whelan is a match summariser on Radio Leeds now; what good is this old recording of him and his mates winning a Youth Cup? If anything, it’s just a reminder that I’m getting old, but while I can squint at the mirror and ignore the odd grey hair, part of the football fan contract is that the game will always remind you of your age at every turn. You can’t get out of it. 

The Past is The Past, but you can’t forget that Norman Hunter and Howard Wilkinson are both 70 now; there are retrospective documentaries featuring the players you grew up watching; your prized possessions are antiques. In football, you keep the past with you wherever you go, and as the years go by the reminders will pile up. Gordon Strachan can’t be Scotland manager, without also being the title winning captain of Leeds. 

But that’s the deal. As Gordon watches McCormack in training, while Big Norm cuts his cake, as Whelan gives his views on the radio, you’re reminded that you’re getting old. But when in your mind you see Strachan with the Championship trophy, Hunter helping Mick Jones up the Wembley steps, Whelan flicking the ball on to Forrester, you’re reminded that you were once young. And as deals go, that’s not a bad one. 

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