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the square ball week: the unbearable nowness of selling out

the square ball week: the unbearable nowness of selling out


Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. There’s one truism we can — and that often is — co-opt for football reasons.

Those who yearn for the past are doomed to repeat it too, but their doom is almost always married to disappointment, because the past repeated can never live up to the past yearned for.

Elland Road has sold out for the visit of Newcastle United, which has set off all kinds of reverie, some of it for the tide of good feeling washing all those ticket buyers up on the shores of Beeston, eager to watch Leeds United play football, but much more of it reserved for the past, becoming the present: the good old days returning, or comfortable nostalgia being disrupted, or some variation.

Talk of a return to the good old days is confusing when what has brought a sellout crowd to Elland Road is, first, the good now days. The first rule of football economics is that people will come to watch their local team if it’s winning games and has good players. It definitely is possible to overstate the impact of Pontus Jansson on the city, but it’s certainly undeniable that people in this city will be leaving their homes and travelling to LS11 just to watch him play. Still more will come because there’s a decent chance at the moment that it will be a good game and Leeds United will win, which means goals, songs, cheers and a good time all round. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

The second reason fans are coming back for this game, though, is not because of the bright future Garry Monk has taken Leeds to the edge of, but because of the echoes from the past Monk has allowed us to hear. Monk has found United’s recent form the way he might have found a record player in your grandma’s attic, so she can take all those 78rpm records down from the shelf and play them again.

It’s not a coincidence that the sellout has been achieved for a game against Newcastle United. Back in the O’Leary era Leeds and Newcastle were peers, running Manchester United and Arsenal close for the title and competing to sign the best young talent. The two clubs fought over Kieron Dyer; for a while Newcastle’s midfield reunited David Batty and Gary Speed. We got Batty back from them, and eventually they acquired Lee Bowyer, who scrapped on the pitch with Dyer. Ah, the circle of football.

And ah, the sight of a full East Stand, on an afternoon when Newcastle came to town! Admittedly they would bring Alan Shearer with them, who would score, and, too often, they would win. But the point for people looking back now is not the result, but the occasion; the stadium full, a Chanpions League match to dissect or anticipate, an Olivier Dacourt and an Alan Smith to watch play.

We’ve longed for those days as Leeds United have plunged out of the Premier League and lower than ever before in history, and longed to play Newcastle United and Aston Villa again. And now that we are, the games are selling out. But the trick and the fault is that those days are not back, just as Leeds United are not back, because we are not playing Newcastle United back at our old level. Without us looking anywhere near returning to the Premier League at any time in the last five years, Newcastle have instead come down to us.

That makes this game appealing as a fixture — especially on current form — but misconstrued as an occasion to celebrate returning glories. For example, there’s a social media campaign to convince the club to play Strings For Yasmin before kickoff, just like in the Champions League days; and now that the club is all over Snapchat, who knows that someone at Elland Road won’t listen and make that reality?

But that would be a mistake. Strings For Yasmin is unforgettably associated with a team and a time; unforgettably, unless we try to force an association between it and a different time, more than fifteen years later, and a different place: Division Two. It’s no more likely to make the modern Leeds United relive its past than a ouija board, and like communicating with a ouija board, we’ll only find the nuance and complexity of our former life’s sound horribly transmogrified into a disappointing series of thuds and bumps.

Then we’ll turn the lights on, and be exactly where we were.

Which is not to say that we can’t all be excited about a good team and a full stadium, although some folk are less than delighted about the second part of that. Football is curious for its constant demands that you prove yourself, and a weird sadomasochism. We suffer through the cold Tuesday nights watching Steve Evans’ team playing utterly horrible football to no discernible end; and we want others to feel that pain too, otherwise we question their right to the pleasure of a home fixture against Newcastle United.

There are a couple of things about that. First of all, there is no guarantee that the upcoming home fixture against Newcastle United will be a pleasure. We’re talking about Leeds United Football Club, and as such there is a strong likelihood they’ll lose and all the people giddily joining in the Pontusarry Monkjansson bandwagon will be bitterly disappointed. It might not be the same kind of painful as watching us under Steve Evans (even when we won), but it ought to satisfy the sadomasochistic tendencies of those who only want to share a stadium with those who, like them, have suffered.

Secondly, the question should not be, Where were you when we were shit? But rather, Why was I here when we were shit? Really, resentment of gloryhunting fans is jealousy of those who have spent weekend afternoons at the cinema or shopping, and Tuesday nights watching the Champions League, with Twitter and maybe a radio at low volume for updates from Elland Road.

A couple of seasons ago I was about ten minutes late into Elland Road for a Tuesday night match against, I think, Charlton, because I’d been rooted to the spot in the warmth of The Peacock, feeling the cosiness of some televised Champions League fixture involving a near-peak Barcelona side, and questioning just what I would be doing with my life if I turned my back on all that pleasure and went to watch Leeds United instead. I never did and never have answered that question, although of course I went to watch Leeds United, because it was the only decision I could make, and it’s the only decision I can’t explain. And of course it was the wrong decision because the game was terrible, but even knowing that I’d still make the same decision again.

That’s what we have to accept as the fans continue to flock back (and they’re definitely officially flocking) to Elland Road: they were right all along. It might make us feel better to convince ourselves that ours was some moral or conscientious victory as we turned up weekly to watch Leeds lose, but it’s the ones who skipped all that who win in the end, leaving the rest of us in a seethe of pure envy. Where were they when we were shit? Having a lovely time somewhere else, the bastards.

Also, we need those bastards. If Strings For Yasmin won’t bring the Champions League back, and barring stadium entry to all but the miserable is impractical, we’ll have to accept that a full Elland Road against Newcastle in a couple of weeks will be something entirely new and unpredictable at Leeds United. Nothing from our past will be ‘back’, not now smartphones are ubiquitous, LUFC are on Snapchat, piecam and the half-time shootout exist.

Leeds United have sold out this match in a completely different era to when they last sold out a match, to a different generation, who understand football and Leeds in a different way. Older heads should ensure youngsters know their history, of course, but that won’t summon David Batty from the beck under the pitch like some great Easter Island monument to the glory days.

We have to separate history from nostalgia when Newcastle come. We must treasure the first and save the latter for pub and scrapbook reverie, and live in the present as much as possible. Because the present will never be the same as the past, but it will be something else. And we won’t want to miss it, which is why so many have bought tickets: not for the past, but for now.


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