the square ball week: sloth & taxesBack
There has been a lot to take in this last couple of weeks. Losing to Rotherham. Losing to QPR. Fluctuating ticket prices. Contract disputes with young players. Players being touted for sale. Talk about protests, throwing things on the pitch, walk outs.
But as a dedicated Leeds United fan, born and living and ready to die, it just makes me determined to support them all the more.
When I arrived at the ticket office on Saturday morning, it was with a heavy wallet and a sturdy heart. I swear that on match days I can feel the skin around the LUFC tattoo on my leg swell as my heart pumps the blood faster through every vein in my body. I had deliberately waited until the day of the game so that I could pay the additional £5 walk-up fee on top of the £27 ticket price. £32 well spent to support the club I love. And after reading the controversy this week about the so-called pie tax, I was happy to add another £5 on top.
£37 to watch Leeds United, and I get a pie and a drink? It’s an absolute bargain, and it’s an honour to pay it to help support the club I love. If the profit on those meal deal vouchers helps the club sign a new centre-half then I’m willing to get behind the club. Not that we need a new centre-half; Bellusci, Bamba and Cooper — the famous BBC — have my full support. But if Steve Evans wants back-up, I’m happy to put an extra fiver in the pot to help him sign that player.
All these people saying it’s a ripoff and Massimo Cellino should sell up — what planet do they live on? Do they know how much it costs to run a club in the Championship? Billionaires don’t grow on trees and it’s not like some wealth fund from China is going to suddenly appear from nowhere and invest in the club — football just doesn’t work like that. It would take hundreds of millions to get Leeds United back into the Premier League, and that’s why I’m happy to pay my extra fiver. After all, it’s Massimo Cellino’s club, and he can charge what he likes.
Although when I got to the ticket window, it turned out that the compulsory meal deal wasn’t my only opportunity to help support the club I love.
“This is a voucher for a t-shirt from the club shop,” said the nice girl behind the counter. “You buy it alongside the ticket.”
Great, I said. How much is that?
“It’s a thousand pounds,” she said. “But don’t worry, it’s not compulsory.”
That was a relief! My wallet was full but not that full. I told her I’d just take the meal-deal voucher, maybe two if that was possible.
“No sir, I mean exchanging the voucher for the t-shirt isn’t compulsory,” she said. “In fact they didn’t print many to save on the costs, so there probably aren’t any left. But you have to buy the voucher. Otherwise you can’t see the game.”
I felt the skin around my tattoo grow hot, and the skin next to where my wallet was stashed in my jeans pocket grow cold. £1,037 to watch Leeds United. Well, if that’s what it takes to support the team.
“Plus booking fee,” said the young lady, as I handed her my credit card. Okay. £1,037 plus booking fee to see the mighty whites thrash Hull City. Possibly. And I’d get a pie. And a t-shirt. Maybe.
Inside the ground, I bought a programme, took my seat and scanned the big screen for team news. The biggest surprise was that Lewis Cook wasn’t warming up with the other players, and the news soon spread from other fans checking Twitter: sold. To Bournemouth, for £2m. There was a quote from him about looking forward to developing as a player under the management of Eddie Howe, an unforgivable indictment of Cook’s ‘me me me’ attitude that shows exactly what he thinks of our great club and its great manager.
Anyway, Cook might have been an okay prospect but I don’t pay £1,037 plus booking fee to watch underdeveloped boys trying to learn how to play football. I want to see men who know what they’re doing. With Lewis Cook gone to rot in Bournemouth reserves, hopefully now I could watch a proper player who knows what he’s doing: Casper Sloth.
Sloth didn’t play, in the end, and although Liam Bridcutt and Jimmy Bullard — who had enjoyed the craic so much when he filmed that Soccer AM training feature that he took no convincing to come out of retirement and fulfil his ambition of pulling on a Leeds shirt — couldn’t cope with England internationals Livermore and Huddlestone in Hull’s midfield; and although Leeds lost 5–0; and although there were no pies left by the time I got to the front of the catering counter queue midway through the second half; I did at least get one of the special t-shirts, because there seemed to be a lot of them left on the floor at full-time. They’re good t-shirts, and I’ll be proud to wear mine and show my support for the club. I’ve still got the voucher, too, which I shall frame.
As I was sorting through the t-shirts on the floor trying to find one that fit, a club official came over. I thought he might be about to throw me out.
“The game finished ages ago,” he said sternly. “Don’t you have a home to go to?”
I told him that I did, and that my wife would be getting tea ready for me and the kids about now.
“Great,” he said. “Tell her to lay an extra place for Casper here.”
It was then that I noticed the shy looking blond lad standing awkwardly behind him. “I’m sorry about this,” he said.
“You’re a Leeds fan, aren’t you?” said the official. “Well it’s time to show your true loyalty. Now Jimmy Bullard’s here, the club can’t afford to keep Casper anymore. We’ve taken his flat and he’s going to come and live with you.”
“I sent my girlfriend to the airport,” whispered Casper frantically, “But they wouldn’t let me in to get my dog.”
All the way home I thought about how I was going to explain this to my wife; at least having a footballer in the spare room would be something for the kids to tell their friends about. But before I could say anything Natasha rushed from the kitchen, tears streaming down her face.
“There’s a strange man in the spare room!” she yelled. "He barely spoke, he just walked in here with his suitcases, dropped those envelopes on the sideboard, and went straight upstairs.
“He was middle-aged; a dark suit; strange, piercing eyes. I couldn’t understand what he said, it was barely a whisper. And he had a strange accent.”
Me and Casper had the same thought at the same time. “Darko!”
With the blood coursing uncomfortably beneath my tattoo, aware of a strange noise from upstairs like the grinding of distant wooden teeth, I grabbed the envelopes Milanic had left. The first had been addressed to Elland Road, but that had been crossed out and ‘Signor M. White, Laads’ scrawled in its place. The envelope looked like it had been opened and resealed, and the postmark indicated it had come from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs.
“It’s a tax bill,” I told Natasha. “Leeds United’s tax bill, it’s for hundreds of thousands of pounds. But somebody has crossed out ‘Leeds United’ and written my name in.”
“Open the other one!” she pleaded.
“It’s a mortgage,” I said, hastily reading the complicated contract. “I think I’ve bought Elland Road.” At the end there was a space for my signature. Next to it in biro was written ‘Sappart blaady clab!’
“Dad, what’s happening?” asked the children when, expecting their teas, they instead found my wife and I in tears. “Why is Tommy Knarvik here?” Casper raised an eyebrow at that, but you can’t fault their knowledge of the Champions League era youth squad. They won’t go with me to games anymore, but they still love watching those old VHS tapes.
“It’s okay,” I told them, doing some swift mental calculations. “Remember what I told you about supporting Leeds United? Through thick and thin, ups and downs; it’s all about sacrifices to support the club.” The tattoo on my leg itched and burned but through gritted teeth I carried on. "Daddy’s just going to have to get a second job, that’s all.
“Now, what’s for tea?” I asked, trying to take everybody’s mind off things.
“I made a pie,” sobbed Natasha, her bravery giving way to a wail of despair. “But a man named Terry came and took it away!”