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the square ball week: nil by badge

the square ball week: nil by badge

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So Massimo’s been drinking again, right, celebrating the win over Blackpool that came about because he told Brian where to play Luke Murphy and also told him what to wear.

It was over a few on the train down to London later that night that our new president got chatting to a Leeds fan who then reported to Facebook: “Chatted to him for about 45 minutes about the future of the club. New badge coming soon.”

Of course anything could have been said in those forty-five minutes; plans to buy the stadium, names of transfer targets, fancy dress outfits for Brian McDermott. But only one part of it seems to have struck enough of a chord to be mentioned specifically, and to have kept people talking all week.

A badge change is all part of the process and rigmarole of a takeover anyway. The merest suggestion of a new start always brings up suggestions of a new badge that would symbolise the new start. At first with GFH, and now with Cellino, this has been in the hope that we really will get something to reflect a new-found sense of optimism, although when Bates took over it was more about the fear that he’d stick a Chelsea lion on the shirt, with its jaw stuffed full of banknotes.

But the calls to replace the club crest can’t only be born of optimism about celebrating coming good times. So many people jump on the bandwagon whenever it’s mentioned that it strongly suggests a general and sustained dissatisfaction with the thing we have now. As graphic designers start whipping up new logos and lustful photos of plain white shirts with smileys and peacocks start doing the rounds on Twitter and forums, you realise how hard it is to find a defender of the shield we have now, and how it wouldn’t be that hard to find them if many people really liked it.

So we can say with some confidence that the current badge isn’t all that popular. Sorry, Howard. Double sorry, because I always thought it was Peter Ridsdale who was responsible for the badge Leeds United wear at the moment – although I wouldn’t be apologising to Peter for removing anything he was responsible for – but Dave Simpson’s book The Last Champions revealed that Howard Wilkinson was the frustrated graphic designer behind our mid-nineties change to a ‘Euro shield, based on Spanish and Italian badges.’

I suppose we should at least be grateful that this was one thing Howard didn’t bring with him from Sheffield Wednesday, and was mostly borrowed instead from Parma – where Bill Fotherby also picked up Tomas Brolin. Hmm. Maybe the Sheffield connection was better after all.

A lot of people have grown up with that badge, and that generation tends to be where its supporters are found; the younger fans who don’t remember the days before the Champions League – or The Championship. But there is always an older head on hand to point out to those youngsters that they don’t know they’re born and that Badge X is the only true Leeds United badge, not this fancy pants and jacquards Eurotrash nonsense.

Just which badge is Badge X is hotly debated. Just as you can normally pinpoint a fan of the shield because they’ll be under 25, there are certain characteristics that go along with fans of certain badges. If you like the white rose / half-onion, for example, you either fondly remember the 89–92 period when Leeds were brilliant and Jones and Strachan were the best; or you’re nostalgic for the eighties when Leeds were rubbish but following Leeds was more fun. It you’re down with the peacock, you’re either nostalgic for the seventies when Leeds were rubbish but following Leeds was more fun, or you’re just contrary.

If you’re a smiley badger, you’ve put your faith in a timeless classic and associate it with the hardcore fans who have never let the smiley go, and the time we beat Bayern Munich and became Champions of Europe. If it’s the LUFC script you like, it’s about Revie; before everything got a little bit gauche, a bit too Duncan McKenzie, a bit too Damned United. Northernness, reserve, understatement, carpet bowls, bingo and winning at all costs. It says LUFC. What else should it say?

If you’re for the owl, you don’t exist. Nobody is really for the owl, because Don got rid of it because birds are bad luck, although peacocks still get a pass; also, Sheffield Wednesday, and to a lesser extent, Oldham; and if you want the city crest, you probably also want blue and yellow halves to be our home kit, and for that wannabe Beatle Norman Hunter to get a proper haircut, like John Charles.

Nobody’s right; nobody’s wrong. And that’s why arguments about what the badge should be will never end – and why all the proposals I’ve seen for a new one are such a mess. You can’t really divide everyone into one camp or another, and you can’t please everyone; most people like elements of most badges and dislike bits of others, or simply can’t decide. I waver between the rose and the smiley, but then I like the heathen smiley with the name of the club written around the outside – and if you really pushed me on it, I’d vote for the LUFC script anyway to bring a touch of class back to our classless club.

Most suggestions in this week’s frenzy of design work have fallen into the trap of trying to please everybody, and that’s not a sin – after all, we’re looking for something we can all get behind and be United. But this leads down a strangely nostalgic and disjointed path, to a world where a peacock stands atop a Yorkshire rose with a smiley badge in it, while an owl flies by wearing a 1972 FA Cup final shirt and somewhere in the background Lucas the Kop Cat is hanging a sheep. Every single proposal uses at least two old designs, rather than suggesting anything brand new; this group of five proved popular on Waccoe this week, with the main choice using three different old badge designs to produce one new one.

These will never look right. Each of those badges was perfect in its own way because it was perfect as it was. The Yorkshire Rose badge was a discrete, single badge, featuring only the elements it needed to make it work as its own badge; as was the smiley or the peacock. Each was designed to work perfectly as a badge on its own, with nothing to be added, and nothing taken away.

Stick a smiley badge in the middle of a Yorkshire rose, though, and you don’t have a single new badge; you’ve got two independent and perfectly balanced badges stuck together, and it’s instantly too much. Have the whole thing coming out of a peacock’s beak and you’ve gone way too far. Each badge was designed to have all that was required to say ‘Leeds United Football Club’ on its own; jam three of them together and they’re saying ‘Leeds Leeds Leeds’ – which now makes it sound like a good idea, but trust me, it isn’t.

What these multi-retro designs also miss is the biggest lesson that our old badges have to teach us. Look at each one, from the city crest to the Yorkshire Rose, and look at the leap that was taken in each new design. When Leeds United changed the badge, Leeds United really changed the badge, so that nothing of the old one would be left. Can you trace a path from the LUFC script to the smiley? No. And yet Leeds ended one season with one, and started the next season with another. Revolution, not evolution, and never looking back.

Where things began to go wrong was with the badge nobody wants to keep. If Sergeant Wilko wanted a fashionable new Euro shield, he should have got one; one that retained nothing of the badges that came before. Instead the old LUFC script came back, the Yorkshire Rose lost its football for a while before it was added back in, and some blue and yellow stripes were added to indicate, well, blue and yellow. It didn’t signal a fresh start at all; it just banged a couple of old badges together and stuck the whole lot in a shield with some stripes. No wonder it’s not really well loved.

Now we’re at the point where the idea of replacing it has got momentum again, and the enthusiasm for getting rid is very real: but everyone wants to make the same mistake again. As well as being nostalgic for our history, we should take the chance to learn from it, and remember that part of being Leeds United is that when it comes to the badge on the shirt, we’re not shy about ditching everything for something brand new. This doesn’t have to be about bringing the peacock back.

I don’t know what the new Leeds United badge should look like – if we are even getting one. But if I was writing the design brief, I would dictate that it should include none of the following: an owl, a peacock, the city coat of arms, LUFC script, the smiley badge, a Yorkshire rose, a football in a Yorkshire rose, or diagonal stripes.

What does that leave us with? Nothing. Nothing but the chance for reinvention, and the chance to start again, and the chance to be excited by something so good we can’t even imagine what it might look like. Imagine the moment when, after years of owls and lettering and coats of arms, the smiley badge was unveiled from out of nowhere. We could have that moment again.

The old badges won’t disappear. This isn’t an anti-smiley or anti-rose screed, although I do think owls are pretty much out with David Haigh at this point. All the old logos will live on, on retro shirts, on flags, drawn on the side of pencil cases (do kids still draw Leeds badges on their pencil cases?). But rather than cram all that history into one circle or shield, why not them let all have their own existences, carry on as separate symbols of the time each one represented, and add to them with something new, something that truly signals a fresh start – something as new as the smiley was in 1973.

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