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the square ball week: a sport and a pastime

the square ball week: a sport and a pastime

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Photo by oliverjb69 via Instagram

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be distracted by the football. Being distracted from the football, meanwhile, is getting easier and easier.

It’s not only the takeover speculation, which has been a near-constant presence over our shoulders for nearly two years now; if you tuned in for David Haigh’s interview on Radio Leeds last night expecting an announcement about our ownership you may well feel that you’ve been through one game this week already, although not a football one. That doesn’t come until Saturday, although even then, should the hanging sword of a takeover announcement happen before the match, then it’ll be already be hard to concentrate on walking along and singing a song in Rudy Austin’s wonderland.

Leeds United play Barnsley at Elland Road tomorrow, the last game before the Christmas celebrations and a match every fan must be looking forward to. At some point on Saturday afternoon, the game will be played, but there are a few other matters to deal with first: a tribute to fire, police, ambulance, NHS and military workers, 1,000 of whom have been invited to the game; no doubt the usual gaggle of junior teams will parade around the pitch before kick off; appearances and messages from Robbie Rogers and David Haigh in support of the Beyond It anti-discrimination campaign; a pre-match quiz and a prize draw for season ticket holders; cheap beer and mince pies before the game, and encouragement to attend in fancy dress; and after the match, you can give your used ticket to a homeless person so they can trade it for a hot meal. And, as I said, at some point Leeds are going to play Barnsley at football.

Each element of that list is fine by me. The cheap beer and prize draw – which you’ll be entered in to if you’re a season ticket holder and pass through a turnstile early enough – are clearly aimed at getting punters into the ground and spending on the concourses rather than in local pubs. Meals for the homeless are a great idea at Christmas. Robbie Rogers is welcome back any time, and his aim of ending discrimination and abuse is worthy of support, unless you’re a fan of discrimination and abuse; in fact, Leeds United’s association with Stonewall, as the first football club to sign up to its Diversity Champions programme, is a source of pride. The services personnel do good, difficult jobs and deserve to have their efforts appreciated, and if junior football teams enjoy coming to Elland Road and having a lap of honour, all the better: the children, after all, are our future. 

Taken together, though, as a cross section of society’s troubles that is a fairly comprehensive list; and that’s only for this game. The schedule off the field at Elland Road seems to get busier with every match, and it chips away at one of the fundamental reasons people have always had for going to football at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon: as an escape from the pressures of daily life.

In times of recession, and in winter, that escapism – ever more expensive in a tough economic climate – becomes ever more valuable; ninety minutes when we’re allowed to forget, and watch a pig’s bladder get kicked around. But it seems that the distraction is becoming overwhelmed by the reminders: you can’t forget how tough it is out there because all that toughness is in here now, too. Perhaps it’s an argument for blissful ignorance, but to watch Ross McCormack in his current form is a way for many people to escape the stresses of Monday to Friday; and I’m beginning to fear the day that David Haigh announces a pre-match tribute to all our landlords, exes, bank managers, everyone we owe a tenner to and Robbie Savage. Everything, in other words, that we come to football to forget.

Andy P has an interesting article in the new issue of The Square Ball (another distraction, but one I’d encourage you to buy before the game tomorrow anyway) about the relationship of football club to city, in which he points out that during the last decade, while Leeds United have been in the doldrums, the city of Leeds has done just fine; the city doesn’t actually need the football club’s help to function and prosper. Fine as civic pride and civic responsibility are, he says, a football club doesn’t really represent anything but itself.

I don’t follow Andy all the way in his arguments; despite the pre-Christmas grinching tone of some of this, I do think strong civic ties are a good thing for the club, and several of the club’s initiatives – breaking down discriminatory barriers, welcoming local workers – go a long way towards helping those ends. What’s required, though, is a balance, and for a football club to only shoulder as much of the city’s – and society’s – burden as it is equipped to bear. On Saturday the club will be raising multiple issues, all of which I would like to see solved – but Leeds fans can’t solve them all at once. 

Meanwhile, society has some responsibility to hear the football fan in return. This week The Square Ball attended the Football Supporters’ Federation Awards in London, where we were nominated for Fanzine of the Year for the third year running (but didn’t win for the second year running, the award deservedly won this time by Stand AMF). That organisation fights hard to ensure fair treatment for football fans, against difficult odds. From larger issues like safe standing, escalating ticket prices and unaccountable club ownership, to micro issues like advising law-abiding fans on how to stay out of jail, the barrier the FSF comes up against is always the same: you’re only football fans. You’re not important.

Well, we’re either important or we’re not. Cricket clubs might draw their spectators from demographics with more societal power, but it’s not to cricket clubs that society turns when it wants to end homophobia. People come to football fans for help because we are numerous and powerful; but when football fans ask for help, we’re a marginal part of a big society again; we’re powerless, and kept that way.

The point is that there is more to supporter engagement than giving us cheap booze at Christmas and asking for our support. Engagement should be a two way street, a discussion; we’ve heard an awful lot this week from David Haigh about how we can help answer society’s problems, but not had many answers about the immediate problem of his takeover of the club in return. This doesn’t mean a trade-off – I don’t mean to imply that we should fold our arms and refuse to help the homeless until we get safe standing – but there should be a recognition of our collective power, and a discussion of how that power can be used not just for the betterment of society, but for the betterment of football. 

If football is powerful enough to help society end homophobia, then football – with society’s help – should be powerful enough to keep Hull City as Hull City, to free Cardiff from the clutches of Vincent Tan, and to keep Ken Bates off the radio. Football is a tremendous engine for change, and that’s why initiatives so often start with us, and why I’m proud that Leeds United are supporting Beyond It, Stonewall, services employees, and the children (who are our future). But too often change comes, for football, when we need it, last; and sometimes it gets forgotten that we’re here, first of all, to watch the football.

This season’s fifth issue of The Square Ball goes on sale outside Elland Road before the Barnsley game tomorrow, 56 pages of quality independent Leeds United writing and artwork; consistently award-nominated even if we don’t win anymore. Inside are articles on Matt Smith and Ross McCormack’s partnership; a new interview with Kevin Blackwell, by Kevin Blackwell; a lament about looking like Brian McDermott; the hidden part of football, as partly revealed by Grayson and Snodin; and much more. And it’s only £1.50! Get it from the sellers outside the ground, or online here, where the digital version will only cost you £1.


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