The Cult of Paul Okon

In 2018-19, Free, Issue 05 2018-19, Leeds United, Subscribers by David Guile

It’s November 30th 2008 in Hakoah, a Jewish community centre a boomerang’s throw from Bondi Beach, and the hour is late. Sunday night is about to become Monday morning, and the club is near silent. Muffled strains of football chants emanate from a small screen in the corner, where two twenty-something lads have taken up residence and are nursing the strongest drinks available: cans of Coca-Cola. They’re the only patrons who showed any interest in Histon vs Leeds, and demanded in the strongest terms to be allowed to watch it.

As midnight approaches and the barman begins to wonder if his customers would notice him knocking off early, a whispery roar goes up from the TV and one of the lads lets out an expletive that echoes from one end of the club to the other. The second lad is me, and I can’t even bring myself to process the fact that my team is trailing to a goal scored by a postal worker. It’s not even half-time and I’ve got to be up for work in six hours, where I’ll be expected to sit and write something of value, while the editorial staff (keen fans of Manchester City and Partick Thistle, respectively) delight in the utter ineptitude of my football team.

The one thing I couldn’t get away from was Leeds United

I had escaped from a lot in the previous year: a hated job, a failed relationship, the persistent Yorkshire drizzle. Turns out the one thing I couldn’t get away from was Leeds United. I was thirteen thousand miles and eleven timezones away from the Cambridgeshire hellhole on the TV screen, and it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. We watched the match to its forlorn conclusion, then trudged home through silent, muggy streets, waiting for the wrath of Monday morning to descend upon us.

Fast forward ten years, and Leeds are preparing to head Down Under once more, first to Perth and then to Sydney, my home for six glorious months, and a city that still holds Leeds United dear. The first time I saw the shield crest in the unfamiliar setting of Bondi Beach, tattooed onto a bronzed surfer-type, it surprised me. It turned out to be the first of many encounters. I saw it in bars in Coogee, I saw it carved onto the underside of bunks in cockroach-riddled hostels. I even saw it in the Jewish club, on a framed (though clearly fake) 2003/04 shirt hanging next to the screen upon which the Histon nightmare unfolded. You’re never alone as a Leeds fan in Australia, and that will be shown by the size of the crowd that greets Bielsa’s men in Perth.

That said, the time difference was a challenge. This was an era when our games used to regularly kick off at 3pm on a Saturday (I know, imagine), meaning the early hours of every Sunday morning would be disturbed by a text from my dad delivering the result, something that drove the inhabitants of my hostel dormitory close to madness. I have fond memories of being awoken by a bleep from the blackness informing me that we had just won a friendly against Barnet, and less fond memories of the fetid, rolled up pair of socks that rocketed out of the gloom and smacked me in the mouth.

I heard Viduka described as a ‘boofhead’

I learned some things that I never expected to learn about the many Aussies that have graced Elland Road over the years. Given the reverence with which Mark Viduka is discussed even to this day in Leeds, I assumed that he would enjoy similar godlike status in his country of origin. Not so. A strike rate of roughly one goal every four games against teams including the Solomon Islands compares poorly with his Premier League record of almost a goal every other game for Leeds. I heard him described as a ‘boofhead’ (whatever the hell one of those is), a ‘bludger’ (lazy sod) and, most damningly of all, a Croatian. I didn’t bother asking the local perspective on Harry Kewell, who moved to Galatasaray on the same day I left Leeds.

But it wasn’t the perception of Viduka that surprised me most. Oh no. I ended up having a Victoria Bitter-fueled conversation with a local, in which we discussed Paul Okon at some length. Imagine getting into a conversation with someone who thinks the Earth is flat, and when you start laughing they counter with a series of cogent, convincing points that you weren’t expecting, and eventually your own argument is reduced to repeating, ‘but you can’t seriously believe that,’ over and over again. You know what? The cult of Paul Okon gained a new follower that night. Had we signed him five years previously, before his kneecaps fell off, he would occupy a very different place in our history. There’s a video on YouTube from his time in Belgium where he picks up the ball behind halfway, flicks it beyond an opponent and then begins a storming assault on the opposition goal that makes you question everything you thought you knew about him. It’s like finding out that Liam Cooper writes plays for Radio 4, or that Steve Evans has gone vegan.

It will be with some sadness that I watch Leeds United run out in Sydney, eleven years too late for me to be there in person. I’ll happily provide our travelling fans with advice on how to conduct themselves in Australia, though; having gone there while young and stupid and kept the company of other young, stupid people I’ve learned first hand what not to do. First, don’t assume it’s going to be scorching hot and walk around in a vest top — it’s winter. Second, don’t ask for Fosters. Third, if your mate thinks it’s funny to ask someone bigger than him to show him the way to Loogaberooga, drag him away before the other bloke starts swinging.

I want to end on a more serious note. Our meeting with Manchester United is an appropriate time to remember Liam Miller, who represented both clubs before his later career took him to Perth Glory (where he partnered one Jacob Burns in midfield), and to the very stadium in which we will play. Miller passed away from pancreatic cancer this February, aged just 36. The opportunity to use the occasion to honour his memory is too perfect to miss. To see that goal against Southampton as part of a big screen video tribute would be poignant indeed. I hope that Andrea Radrizzani can make this happen. ◉

(artwork by Josh Parkin)