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the square ball week: leeds lads & the price of memories

the square ball week: leeds lads & the price of memories

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The announcement of season ticket prices always brings with it a question: why exactly do we bother?

We might not be the ones asking that question of ourselves. Spouses and bank managers might be the ones raising an eyebrow as another £500 disappears from the household budget: just the downpayment on another season of ever increasing travel expenses, beer expenses, lost time, foul moods and hangovers. To them it’s a valid question: why do you bother?

As a fan the answer ought to be self-evident. Why wouldn’t we bother? It’s Leeds. It’s a season ticket. That’s all you need to know. Stop changing the PIN on the shared credit card and let me buy this thing.

That’s certainly how it used to work, but these days the cost of football in general is an increasing one; even if the season ticket prices themselves are being frozen, the associated costs are rarely so cold, and add up to make going to the football regularly a significant investment. That’s a problem for football and the nation, not just Leeds United.

What is a problem for Leeds United is that the quality of the product over the last ten years has rarely had much in common with its price. There were times during what I’ll call the Michael Brown era when I felt, quite frankly, ripped off. As the wind whistled around Elland Road, toppling Varneys and Pughs in the long grass and leaving only Amdy Faye unbowed and immobile, it felt like all a season ticket granted anymore was access to some of Leeds’ least appealing bars.

When I had my first season ticket, around the turn of the millennium, ownership of this magic booklet of wondrous tear-off vouchers felt essential just to guarantee a place in the ground to watch some of the best footballers in the country competing for Leeds United against some of the best teams. If you could afford it, you didn’t think twice, because without it, you might not be able to get a ticket, and if you couldn’t get a ticket, you might miss something.

Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt & Charlie Taylor, Leeds United, photographed on Beggar's Hill by Shang-Ting Peng

Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt & Charlie Taylor, Leeds United, photographed on Beggar’s Hill by Shang-Ting Peng

That’s changed. A season ticket’s main worth now is as a discount, and a passport to buying away tickets. If you don’t have one and you fancy seeing a home game, there’s no problem getting hold of a match ticket. But if you do have one and you don’t feel like watching Leeds hunt for their once-hourly shot on goal against a similarly lifeless team like, say, Cardiff, then it has become an obligation: if you don’t attend every single time, the discount disappears, and when the discount goes, that little plastic card becomes just a fistful of ashes.

The Cardiff really brought home the futility of what, around this time every season, feels like a grim duty. Not only was the football from both sides awful, but almost everything else that goes into making football worthwhile was stripped away. West Yorkshire Police and the two club’s joint conspiracy of incompetence meant that there was no away fans there, and even if I still begrudge them 2002 and have no love for their supporters, Cardiff’s absence was severe.

Hearing the eerie silence that greeted their goals was worse than any audible celebrations would have been. It robbed one of those moments that make football, conceding a goal – and the bad moments make football just as much as the good ones, probably more so – of its power, as without that gut-wrenching mass bleat from the West Stand the goal became inconsequential, only a problem for Silvestri and his team mates and not for us in the stands. Worse, I fear someone high up in, for example, a corporate compound just outside Salzburg, hearing that silence and coming with all sorts of musical options to fill it, if only away fans – an irrelevant relic – could be done away permanently, and the home fans tamed.

But enough of that. No away fans, no atmosphere, and with both teams stuck in mid-table, no reason for the game to be played; competitive pride, sure, but Leeds lost 2–1 with a performance that was to pride what sighing and rolling over is to getting out of bed. You can sort of understand how they feel; if attendance at this stage is a way of justifying the cost of your season ticket to yourself and other – “I get at least two games free! Even if they are meaningless fixtures played half-heartedly in a half-empty stadium as we drift to defeat, it’s free!” – for some players this stage is a way of collecting wages and ticking over an appearance bonus. Obviously the inequalities of football mean that even when we share meaningless with a footballer it costs us while they profit, but that’s the game, not the player.

Tuesday night was slightly different. Norwich are aiming for the league title, but could end up in the play-offs; the kind of desperate and precarious drama that second division football was made to provide. Norwich have forward momentum, anxiety and talent, a thrilling combination to watch should you be a season ticket holder at Carrow Road. As a season ticket holder at Elland Road, I had to make do with watching what Jonny Howson had to teach our players about football.

It wasn’t that he set the game on absolute ???; he’s twenty-six now, and has blossomed into a competent midfielder with an eye for goal in either of the top two divisions, but he’s not Gary McAllister. But his goal was enough, and his reaction was enough, to crack through the pointlessness of all this and give it some meaning again.

You can debate the use and sincerity of former players and their non-celebrations, but if Jonny is the good chap everyone says he is, we can safely assume that he followed his calm finish in front of the South Stand with a calm celebration because he knew how we felt. Howson gave us two of the most memorable goals of the last decade, against Carlisle and Bristol Rovers, moments when football and Leeds United were a single glorious everything; at Elland Road on Tuesday, where football is fractured and broken, Howson knew what he was going, and knew how it would make us feel.

Maybe you have to leave a club to appreciate that; and that’s the lesson I would like young Leeds players like Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor to take from Howson’s performance on Tuesday night. When you see what it means to a former Academy player to score against Leeds, does it make you understand better what it means when a former Academy player scores for Leeds? That those moments, more than when any other player scores, give football some meaning and its fans some reason to carry on?

I can take the poor quality football of a meaningless game like Leeds v Cardiff, and I’ve been taking it for years. But with that level set for the three games left, against Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham, and with strong rumours circling (as always) about the club’s future direction, I already fear that we’ve seen the best we’ve seen from Cook, Byram, Mowatt, Taylor and the rest.

The club’s season ticket advert struck a nostalgic tone, lining up those four young lads alongside great players of the past, and while the intended effect will not have been to inspire early nostalgia for our current players as if they’ve already left, combined with the visit of Howson, that’s the result. Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor have great futures in the game, but they already feel like part of our past.

If some or all of them are sold this summer, I hope we’re left with better memories than of Byram and Taylor struggling on the wrong wings and Cook hobbling around Elland Road in a therapeutic boot. Mowatt has been stepping up; we’ll take Wolves as a last hurrah. But if my season ticket won’t give me anything else this season but a breakfast date with Rotherham, I hope it somehow still gives me something worthwhile; something to remember.

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