“Elland Road is central to everything” — Jon Howe
There are few places in Leeds that are as unlovely as Elland Road.
The police station has not improved its loveliness, but at least that improved the city centre by pulling the props out from under Millgarth. That’s progress; an alien concept at Elland Road, where the new West Yorkshire Police Headquarters has an alien presence.
You’ll find the new building in Jon Howe’s history of Elland Road, The Only Place For Us, precisely where it belongs: under G for Greyhound Stadium.
“It has always been a really important part of Leeds,” says Jon, of the area that, if you look under I, you’ll find used to be known as Islington; but is now most famous as the home of Leeds United Football Club. “It was a sporting metropolis, with the football ground, cricket ground, speedway and greyhound stadiums.”
The site of the last on the list is now the site of the cop shop; in the harsh winter of 1963, with competitive football cancelled for most of January and February, the grass at the centre of its ‘electro-hare race track’ was the site of a friendly game between an early version of Don Revie’s Leeds United and Bradford Park Avenue. The game ended 2-2, and yes, it matters, because while there are few places in Leeds as unlovely as the plain brick and plastic walls and corrugated steel roofs of Elland Road stadium, the ground and its surroundings are among the places the city loves most.
“The ground is central to everything,” says Jon. “Every Leeds fan might have their favourite game or their favourite player, but the ground is all-encompassing. It’s part of everything, and it hasn’t had as much attention as it should.”
Jon was handed the demonstration of the sense of his last five years’ work writing The Only Place For Us when, on the day the freshly published book arrived by the box- full at his home, Leeds United announced that once-upon-a-time midfielder David Norris was being released from his playing contract – not before time.
“David Norris exists as a footballer who played for Leeds United,” says Jon, as if resigned to the fact. “He will be in the record books forever more. And yet things like the old scoreboard, and the souvenir shop, and the floodlights, they’re not officially recognised. And they should be.
“There’s no definitive record. There are so many bits of Elland Road that you can’t put a date to, like the funny shelf that used to be in the middle of the Lowfields Road Stand. I spent ages studying old YouTube clips trying to work out when that was put in and why. It’s not significant; it didn’t win us any trophies. But I’d still like to know the reason it appeared.”
We all have our definitions of significant, and the average football fan’s capacity for finding significance in the least apparently significant thing exceeds that of most other folk. That’s all part of the game’s wicked appeal; it doesn’t just dominate your time, but your thoughts; it influences your emotions and your memories. It does it to you and to thousands like you, and Elland Road is where it happens.
“All my favourite memories of growing up are about going to see Leeds games,” says Jon. “There are other things that stick in the mind, like certain holidays or whatever, but the things that really endure are about going to games.
“My dad let me and my brother go and stand on the Kop when we were 13 or 14, and I’ve never forgotten that element of danger, of having to grow up very quickly and be streetwise. It was amazing; but the times I stood in the Lowfields pens in the eighties were even more stunning. You just didn’t know what was going to happen.
“It’s hard to explain it to younger fans now, when you can get punished just for standing up, but it was a very intense experience.”
As a writer for The Square Ball fanzine, Jon has been communicating that experience since the early nineties. Football fandom has always been about mass expression of a shared experience, the communal singing, the cheers and hugs of strangers when a goal is scored; but in the days before Twitter, blogs and internet forums – and even today, now that those things exist – fanzine culture offered a way for those with quieter voices to add their perspectives to the collective memory of the club.
“I’ve always found my best form of communicating was through writing,” says Jon. “I find it difficult to express myself fully in any other way.” Jon had bought anti-Fascist fanzine Marching Altogether as its sellers took Lowfields Road back from an insidious National Front element, and handed over £1 for the first issue of The Square Ball when it went on sale outside Elland Road in 1989.
“It was A4 size and had a colour photo on the front, and that was quite a major departure at the time.
“The Square Ball never felt like it was a closed shop. I used to read it and take note of the writers; some were regulars, then you’d see a name that was new. It was just something that I wanted to do, and felt like I could. I sent my first article in December 1993, when I was 22. I remember the game; I bought a copy but didn’t read it until afterwards when I met my brother in The Central on Wellington Street.
“It was a double issue for Christmas and I didn’t see my article on the first flick through. Then the second time, I spotted it – and I have never had the same feeling from seeing something of mine in print. It was the first time I’d ever been published, and there had been no interaction, no reply saying, ‘This is great Jon, we’ll use it’ – it just appeared. It was about my ten favourite wins, and someone wrote a letter in to the next issue saying I should have done my ten favourite defeats.”
That sort of cynical black humour has been a key part of TSB’s 25 years in print, usually as an inevitable reflection of the state of the club.
“For three quarters of the time I’ve been supporting Leeds we’ve been absolute garbage,” says Jon. “We’ve been diabolical. You can’t hide from that and you can’t change it. But it means the kind of writing I do becomes quite poetic, because it’s about looking beneath the surface, trying to draw on your experiences – when most of them have been pretty crap.
“Writing for The Square Ball is a challenge. It pushes you to look for new angles and new ways to express what you feel and about what is happening. Someone like Andy P, who I read in TSB long before I knew him, always stood apart because I’d read his stuff and think, that’s a bit different, with different references and different adjectives – and he has always been quite forthright. It pushes you to push the limits.”
What The Square Ball has built up, ad hoc, over the last 25 years, Jon has captured in The Only Place For Us, in 288 large format hard-backed pages that spread across more than a century; it’s an essential purchase for anyone who wants to understand why Leeds United Football Club is more than just the spangled product TV companies have abstracted to sell, but something that has resonance at every level of the city. Just from reading the entry for the Greyhound Stadium I discovered the existence in the 1930s of Leeds Oaks, who played baseball there for two seasons; and an old Leeds dictum that you should ‘Nivver back t’3 dog,’ because the track had no trap 3; just 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6. That’s not Leeds United’s history; that’s Leeds’ history, part of the lives of the thousands of people who ever bought a drink in the stadium’s seventh trap, Bar 7, between 1927 and 1982.
A lot of the book is about the social and cultural importance of the football ground to the area, as well as the city,” says Jon. “It was a really important part of Leeds. From all over the city you couldn’t ignore the floodlights at Elland Road; they were the tallest floodlights in Europe, and they were on the Leeds skyline for twenty years.”
Those floodlights, and the old souvenir shop, and the steps to the Fullerton Park training pitches, and the decrepit Fullerton changing rooms, are part of the mythology of Leeds United and Leeds people; it can feel like a secret system of signs if you haven’t grown up with it, but for twenty quid, Jon’s book will crack the code. Although some things are maybe left how we remember them.
“Talking to so many people who were involved in the club almost brings too much of the human element to it,” says Jon. “You want to keep your club on a pedestal and be romantic about it, and not know the nitty-gritty; not know how badly things could have gone if certain games hadn’t gone our way.
“When Bill Fotherby tells you that if he hadn’t done deals with sponsors Leeds might not have been able to afford to buy Gary McAllister, you think, christ. If we hadn’t bought McAllister, what would we have been? It’s impossible to comprehend. It’s nice to know these things; but there is a danger in knowing too much.
“Would we still have won the league in 1992? What would have happened since? What would my life be like without that memory?”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 22