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the square ball week: real white memories

the square ball week: real white memories

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I had thought a few months ago that I might like to write something about David White.

Because he’s been a slightly forgotten figure at Leeds United, despite existing at the intersection of several points of great importance to fans; the sensitive matter of the number four shirt (something Rosler never understood with Wootton), controversial sales of popular players (how in quick succession, after the title win, we lost first Cantona then Batty), and the old question of how Batty was replaced (or not, depending on your view of Carlton Palmer).

The sale of David Batty was, in retrospect, a clue to just how skint it was possible for a club to be while still recent champions of England. A new, magnificent East Stand was built; a new, magnificent Lee Chapman was bought for £2.7m, in the shape of Brian Deane, and photographed in swish new Asics kits with David Batty; paying for the new, magnificent East Stand became a bit of an issue; the not so new but still magnificent David Batty was sold to Blackburn for £2.75m; the midfield became a bit of an issue; Carlton Palmer was signed for £2.6m and took the number four shirt; the midfield remained a bit of an issue.

Present throughout the rigmarole was a player who had made the first £2m dent in the club’s post-title finances, David Rocastle. To this day, Rocky’s time at Leeds persists as a regretful weirdness; he was one of the best midfielders in the country, so why didn’t Howard Wilkinson make more use of him?

Steve Hodge couldn’t really complain — although he bloody did — as he was a little past his prime when he arrived and found the legendary four — Strachan, Batty, McAllister and Speed — hitting their league winning stride, and besides, he was well used and an important player to the Championship win. Rocastle? There were times in his first season when Wilko picked Ray Wallace, and put Rocky on the bench. Howard praised his patience: “David Rocastle is a magnificent human being,” he famously said, “If I had a daughter free…”; but he persistently refused to answer for his absence from the side.

Batty’s departure, you’d have thought, opened the door for Rocastle at last. Closer to McAllister in style, Rocky could nonetheless do some of the dismantling work Batts used to do to opposition teams; and he was in his prime at twenty-six years old. It was Batty he normally deputised for on his rare forays into the first eleven, exchanging Batty’s trademark long-sleeved number four shirt for a short-sleeved version, temporarily satisfying the fans who really, really, really wanted Rocastle to do well.

Rocastle was actually in the side when Batty was sold, due to his rival’s injury; Batts’ last appearance was as a sub against his soon-to-be teammates, when he came on and scrapped with Mike Newell and whoever else was available. Rocky stayed in, scoring a long-awaited (and exceptionally good) goal at Elland Road in a 4-1 demolition of Chelsea that suggested Leeds might just be okay with their new look side.

It wasn’t to be. Two games later Rocastle was out of the side again, and while Strachan played in the Premier League, Rocastle was back in the reserves, scoring at Derby and mystified by his treatment. “As soon I was put in the side, I was straight out again,” he said, “And I don’t think I’ll ever know why, because the manager never even gave me a hint of a reason.”

Rocastle said that as a Manchester City player, standing with new manager Brian Horton in front of a Christmas tree at Maine Road, a sky blue scarf around his neck, a bunch of prop presents in his hands. Horton had been struggling with David White at City, who seemed to have tired of the club, meaning the fans had tired of him; so Horton phoned up Wilko and suggested a swap. “It can’t be a bad deal if two disappointed players and two reasonably disappointed managers become four happy people,” said Wilkinson.

Leeds fans weren’t necessarily happy; many had been as frustrated as Rocastle by his misuse, and regretted the departure of what should have been a perfect player for United.

David White, though, promised something different. Although he took the number four shirt that Batty had vacated, White was a right-sided forward synonymous with City’s number seven shirt; Strachan without the wit but with added power, pace, aggression and goals.

White had made his name in City’s 10-1 demolition of Huddersfield Town in 1987, when he was the third of three players to score a hat-trick that day: Tony Adcock and Paul Stewart got there first. Stewart soon earned big money moves to Tottenham and then Liverpool, while White stayed at Maine Road, taking them into the First Division where in one game he scored four emphatic goals and set up another in a famous, televised, 5-1 win at Aston Villa; ex-Crewe star David Platt scored the consolation penalty.

White lost his way and lost his form after that, and arrived at Leeds as a twenty-six year old looking to restart a career that had earned him an England cap; and a barrage of press criticism when he missed a sitter against Spain. The example of Rocastle, going the other way, might have warned him that Leeds United wasn’t the place for a resurrection.

Like a number of players in the post-title years, Wilkinson bought White but then seemed to have no fixed idea of how to use him. He was straight into the side for his debut at home to QPR, staying in for a trip to his old club’s rivals ground, Old Trafford, a drab 0-0 draw.

Kevin Sharp, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

Kevin Sharp, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

But Leeds were well and truly in transition. Gordon Strachan just kept going, years after Rocastle had been expected to replace him; Deane struggled to find his feet, Beeney and Lukic swapped goalkeeping duties around, John Pemberton was doing Batty’s job for a cut-price, and players like Jon Newsome, David Wetherall, Noel Whelan, Mark Tinkler, Kevin Sharp and Jamie Forrester were being given their chances to prove once and for all whether they were players who could, long-term, keep Leeds near the top of the table.

White made ten more starts that season, and six appearance as substitute; six goals, five of them in the last two months of the league season and three in the last three games, some of them very good, inspired optimism, as did a close season switch to a much more suitable number fourteen shirt.

Optimism wasn’t enough. White started the first five games of 1994/95 season, scoring one at Crystal Palace, as Wilkinson continued with a tactic of playing White and Wallace either side of Deane and ahead of a midfield of Strachan, McAllister and Speed; until injuries intervened, and Deane and Wallace became Masinga and Whelan, and in his fifth game White was injured, meaning more almighty shuffles of formation and personnel. Leeds still finished fifth and qualified for Europe, thanks largely to the mid-season signing of Tony Yeboah, but White’s part in it was bitty; twenty-six staccato appearances, four goals, brief flashes of the player he’d been. He stayed long enough to add one more goal in 1995/96, coming off the bench against Aston Villa to get his head on the end of a looping cross from left wing and Brian Deane; then was off to Sheffield United, first on loan, then for good, for £500,000.

Things hadn’t worked out for Rocastle and Manchester City either, and he soon moved on to Chelsea, playing one solid forty game season before injuries struck again and loans to Norwich and Hull failed to revive his career. David White retired due to persistent ankle injuries in 1997, and David Rocastle’s injuries finally beat him while playing in Malaysia in 1999, and at Leeds we were left with memories of two first class midfielders, signed in the prime of their careers, who rather than find a new, positive path at Elland Road had wandered, frustratingly, further away.

That would have been the article, then, but with a coda. David Rocastle, of course, was lost to cancer less than two years after his retirement, aged thirty-three; a shock that united Leeds and Arsenal in remembering a player that Arsenal know as a legend and Leeds as an enigma.

David White, meanwhile, continued down the enigmatic path. He ran a recycling company with his brother but, rather than gain money, he gained weight; looking at photos of him posing with the FA Cup as part of a publicity stunt in 2013, it was hard to spot the lithe forward who had padded up and down the wings of Maine Road and Elland Road with such athleticism. His recycling firm crashed and White was declared bankrupt in October 2015, and one was tempted to wonder at the cruelty of post-football life for players of his generation.

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In recent weeks, though, we’ve been forced to wonder at the cruelty of pre-football life for players of David White’s generation.

When former Crewe player Andy Woodward alleged he’d been sexually abused as a child by former youth coach Barry Bennell in the 1980s, it was a tellingly confessional moment. Woodward never did anything wrong; and yet it was he who, after decades of living with a secret, had to unburden it to the newspapers. Woodward had been silent so long, you assume, in part because of the threats of Bennell, in part because of the ‘guilt’.

The allegations centred on Bennell’s time at Crewe, synonymous in Woodward’s time with excellent young players from the Dario Gradi academy like Woodward himself, David Platt, Rob Jones, Geoff Thomas and more. Woodward’s bravery in coming forward inspired others and spread the net across the north-west to Manchester City, where Bennell had also worked, and to other coaches and feeder clubs; Paul Stewart was the next high profile player to come forward. And he was followed by David White.

Leeds United, thankfully from our point of view, remain on the fringes of the public allegations. Barry Bennell is reported to have worked as a “talent spotter” for Leeds, along with several other clubs. But the closed world of football means that even fringe contact comes close. Daniel Taylor of The Guardian, who has done much of the reporting that is revealing the abuse, found a column by Bennell in a Crewe programme from 1989, where he takes credit for the players he’d discovered; John Sheridan is among those Bennell says he found for Manchester City, where Shez played briefly before moving to Leeds.

The most chilling link of all, to Gary Speed’s nascent years in the north-west, has mercifully little evidence, and Speed’s father specifically denies his son was abused; unmerciful, however, and cruel, is the way the link keeps being made, forcing its acknowledgement in articles like this one.

While Leeds are on the fringes, our former player White was absolutely in the centre. He was, he says, sexually abused as a child by Bennell in the late seventies and early eighties, while playing for Whitehill FC juniors in Manchester.

In his own words, White says: “For a number of reasons, and for nearly two decades, I kept my ordeal secret from my family and friends.

“While I believe throughout my football career I have come to terms with what had happened, I now realise the effects of Bennell’s actions were much more far-reaching than I knew then.

“Last year I made the decision to gather my thoughts, reflect on my experience, and tell my life story in my own words. I did not set out to write a story about the abuse, but knew I would have to include it.

“In doing so I have come to terms with the fact that Bennell’s actions influenced almost every event and relationship in my life.”

Even so, White goes on to say that he was removed from Bennell’s influence at an early stage, and escaped what Andy Woodward, Steve Walters, and Paul Stewart later endured; and yet, although he escaped the worst, even his experiences had enormous negative impact on his life.

It’s in that context that we hear of other Leeds players who were close to the abuse happening in the eighties, Kevin Sharp and Jamie Forrester. Neither player says they were abused, but both played for Nova, a team coached by Frank Roper, who had strong links to Blackpool.

Sharp’s father, Frank, has spoken of how some parents were wary of Roper, who was funding tours for boys to New Zealand and Thailand: “I … felt uncomfortable. We sat in that meeting wondering why he was paying £26,000 [for the New Zealand trip]? My worry was more about drugs. I told Kevin not to bring anything through customs. We knew something was up but had no evidence.

“Kevin came home one day and said, ‘The man wants to take us to Thailand’. This was not a football trip. I told Kevin he wasn’t to go and made sure his school backed that up.

“Following the trip, Nova pretty much disbanded. Parents were only told something happened on the trip. The man [Roper] fled and wasn’t seen again.”

Jamie Forrester revealed what happened on that trip.

“One night during the trip we went out to watch Thai boxing,” he said recently. “Roper had a young Thai boy, about 11 or 12, the same age as us, sitting on his knee. I can remember thinking at the time, ‘What’s going on?’ but I was only 11, I didn’t feel like I could say anything.

“The Thai boy came back with us to our hotel and because we were all staying in the same room he came in to the room and we all got into bed. The lights went out and the next thing Roper started molesting the Thai boy and then began having sex with him in the bed next to us.

“Even though I was only a kid and I had clearly never had sex before I knew exactly what was going on. I could hear loud heavy breathing and I could see all the movements. I was in the bed next to him and it happening two yards away. He was clearly having sex. It was terrifying and I felt like it was all completely out of my control. I was very scared.

“Me and the other boys all lay in ­absolute silence. There was no way any of us could have done or said anything. I felt like I had to pretend I wasn’t there and it was like we were frozen ­statues. In the morning he was still laid there in bed with Roper.

“Only that boy knows how he was ­feeling, but despite my age I knew it wasn’t right and it shouldn’t have been happening. When the boy left it was like nothing had happened.

“There were other times where we were forced to leave the bedroom and were left outside for hours at a time. I don’t know what Roper was up to at those times, I can only guess.”

One of the joys of football is that insulates you from real life, whether there’s a game on or not. Idling through boring lessons at school, I’d draw Leeds United badges and write favourite players’ names on my pencil case, until it became almost a religious relic to favourites like Kevin Sharp and Jamie Forrester. We’ll have our own talismen from our own youths, but for me the FA Youth Cup Final winning team was the first side I was willing to become successful after I had learned the concepts of youth football and homegrown players. David Batty, twenty-four when he left, was like an old man to me; Sharp and Forrester were players I could relate to. Forrester wore Cica Blade football boots; so did I. It was that sort of thing.

Jamie Forrester, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

Jamie Forrester, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

If football insulates its fans from real life, so it insulates its players, taking them at a young age out of school and out of normality and throwing them into a world where they’re expected to be men, or at least to act like men, before they really know what that’s supposed to mean. And that insular world is what allowed abusers like Bennell and Roper to have their victims; “I assumed he was instrumental in me becoming a footballer,” Forrester said about Roper. “I realise now it was like brainwashing. All I ever wanted was to be a professional footballer. He sold us the opportunity and that gave him a lot of control over us. It’s revolting for me looking back now but at 11 I just presumed what he was doing was normal. He had his favourites and I know other boys who suffered much worse.”

Insulation is another word for protection, but there was no protection for these young boys here. And there’s no protection now for our memories of football at that time, which is a minor thought compared to what those who directly suffered or witnessed abuse have been through, but is very much the fans’ position; and this is a fans’ magazine. As fans we’re integral to football, but we’re sidelined from the experience — we can’t play — and so we experience these recent revelations as fans.

It shifts how we perceive our own memories. Narrating David White’s career above, I deliberately made sure to include names. Names of heroes, but names that now carry a darker tinge. That famous day of hat-tricks at Maine Road in 1987; Paul Stewart and David White, both victims of Bennell. When White scored four at Villa Park, and it was famous Crewe youth David Platt with the other goal; was Platt part of it? Or did he know? Or did David White know that Platt didn’t know? And should we speculate like this? No, we definitely shouldn’t; but can any of us prevent our minds from wondering? When Jamie Forrester and Kevin Sharp were battling to stay in Leeds’ first team, what else were they battling? When David White arrived, did they recognise the links?

In how many games, played up and down the country, played between how many teams, did players look across the pitch at each other and think, he knows; he knows there’s something I’m trying not to remember; and because he knows, I’m remembering it. How many players, remembering what they were trying not to, were hurting, while we were in the stands, watching?

For me, Sharp and Forrester are obviously the names that stand out, because at Leeds they were indelibly associated with the glories of youth football. They’d played junior football together, been at The FA Centre of Excellence together, taken the exotic step of spending a year at the exemplary Auxerre academy together, come to Leeds together, won the FA Youth Cup together, won the Under-18s European Youth Championship for England together, broken into the Leeds first team together. It was an absolute dream of youth football achievement, the development of talent for the Premier League that Leeds would refine five years after they signed professional when players like Kewell, Woodgate and Smith broke through.

And it was impossibly, horribly, unspeakably fucked up for them both. Jamie Forrester wanted to be a footballer; to be a footballer, aged eleven he had to watch a boy his own age being raped by his coach. When you see the puffy faces and red eyes of Andy Woodward and Paul Stewart describing their abuse, and read in them the irreparable damage done to their lives, you want to put an arm round them and say, ‘Fucking hell, lads, you were good players and we enjoyed watching you, but… but fucking hell, lads.’

Because there aren’t really the words to adequately sympathise with what they went through, there aren’t the words to describe the vandalism done to their lives and to fans’ memories, and there aren’t really the words for their abusers.

Instead, there can only be actions. Painful as it is, football has to bring to the surface not the names of the players abused, unless they choose it, but the names of the abusers; and those still living have to be punished. And then not only do safeguards have to be put in place to ensure nothing like this can happen again, those safeguards have to be properly implemented; tales of clubs employing staff without proper background checks, despite policies supposedly being in place, are too recent for comfort.

Football is supposed to insulate us from the real world, provide escapism and entertainment; its players should be able to be enigmatic, heroic in some cases, mysterious in others. When deciding to write about David White, as I did a few months ago, it should be the story of glorious successes at Manchester City not repeated at Leeds United, with no real conclusion other than, well, that’s football sometimes; a football story, in other words. Football shouldn’t be real. It should be either a glorious memory or a hopeful dream. And, for future generations of young players and fans, it should certainly never be this real again.

••

Originally published in The Square Ball 2016/17, issue 5

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