the square ball week: patterns of playBack
When the 17th October 2019 comes around, it will be one hundred years to the day since scandal-hit Leeds City’s players were auctioned off at the Metropole Hotel, and City’s fans met at Salem Church Hall to organise a new football club: Leeds United.
That the two events took place on the same day isn’t always given the significance it should. Representatives from thirty league clubs descended on Leeds that day to snap up its footballers, after the FA had found City guilty of making illegal payments to players as competitive football had limped gamely on through wartime; Leeds were far from being the only club that was guilty, but they were the only club that was caught, closed, its officials banned for life. Twenty-two players were packed off to South Shields, Grimsby, Northampton and beyond, for prices between £100 and £1,250. The Yorkshire Post called it “a melancholy spectacle.”
Hours later over 1,000 supporters turned up at the Salem Hall to decide on a course of action. It was a Tuesday and the auction had taken place during working hours, so the fate of the club will have been communicated in the evening editions, perhaps with Jim White’s transfer deadline day hyperbole, but without the speed.
There they agreed that a new football club should be formed, along with a supporters’ club, and elected a committee comprising former players, a solicitor, and the son of the Lord Mayor. Dick Ray was named manager and advertisements for players placed in the press. By 31st October, Leeds United were a member of the Midland League, taking the place of Leeds City Reserves. On 15th November, United played their first match, a friendly at Elland Road against Yorkshire Amateurs, who had rented the stadium following City’s demise and were the home side. United won 5-2, and a week later drew 0-0 with Barnsley in their first Midland League match.
On 31st May, 1920, United were elected to the Football League, and on 28th August played their first competitive Football League match: losing 2-0 at Port Vale, the team that had taken Leeds City’s place. Two weeks later Port Vale came to Leeds and were beaten 3-1, and an early pattern was set for the new United: injustice, grievance and retribution. If I add that United lost their next game 3-0 at South Shields all this might explain a lot about the course of their fortunes since.
We’re ninety-seven years on, but Leeds football fans still look wistfully at Salem Hall. It’s a data centre now, run by AQL, and as the South Bank develops, it’s likely to become a key part of the city centre landscape; a listed chapel overlooking a park and the entrance to a contemporary art gallery, rather than tucked away behind a petrol station. Although the ground floor of the hall now hums and clicks as the internet churns, the balcony has been preserved for meetings, and can accommodate 360 people; not quite the thousand that formed Leeds United, but would a thousand people get together to save Leeds football these days, anyway?
There has never been more hype around the people’s game, but the game has never felt less like the peoples’. Salem Hall isn’t only an emblem for United fans of where it all began, but a reminder that it is always possible to start again. Thrown out of the league, the owners and officials banned, the players sold off by force, a replacement team renting the stadium; yet football in Leeds in 1919 still had its supporters, its people, who started again.
Football fans are history experts, and keepers of culture. The last institution we’ll let go, in a city, is the football team, and we remember the places and the people who built it better than we remember the mayors and the council leaders. The last person to whom Leeds dedicated a statue was Don Revie, and it was paid for by Leeds United fans.
It’s a slight shame that the route marched by protestors against Massimo Cellino’s ownership of Leeds United last season didn’t pass by Salem Chapel, but it was a good opportunity to imagine how that October day in 1919 might have looked; a thousand football fans gathered in their hours of leisure to protect a significant city institution, a thousand people moving through Leeds streets together, a thousand people with a common purpose and intention. 1919, to start a new club. 2016, to protect the club they started.
Football is ruled by cynicism and apathy, its fans a key part of how the soccer experience is branded and marketing, but only as long as they behave in commercially compatible ways; and that attitude has, in recent years, trickled down to the fans themselves, who are self-policing to the point of sterility. Would a thousand people get together to save Leeds football these days, or would they just flick over to the Champions League on the telly, take in Manchester City versus Paris Saint-Germain, because after all everybody has City shirts at the local school?
The answer is, somehow, yes. Leeds United Football Club offers some bleak sights, even without Michael Brown in the side anymore, but never an entirely bleak future, for as long as there are a thousand people willing to gather and move and be counted. The protest march route was a long one, two-and-a-half miles, an hour’s walk from City Square, around industrial Holbeck and through residential Holbeck to the bottom of Beeston Hill. In spirit, it never moved far from Salem Chapel.
Artwork by Joe Gamble • Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 35