When it comes to that experience we all remember, that thing that shapes us for the rest of our lives, it’s fair to describe my friend Nick as a late-bloomer.
For Nick, it happened when he was sixteen. It was a Sunday afternoon in Cardiff, and his father was present. It was May 21st, 2006. Watford scored three goals and Leeds were consigned to another year in the Championship. Young Nick had endured his first big Leeds United disappointment, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I met Nick at university in north-east England. We initially bonded over music but found another mutual interest in all things LUFC, having both grown up in Yorkshire. When we met, in late 2010, newly promoted Leeds were back in the Championship, mid-way through the campaign that would end with just missing out on the play-offs in 7th.
Whereas my love of Leeds United was forged in the mid-1990s and cemented during frosty weeknight trips to Elland Road to see Viduka and the rest put six past Beşiktaş, Nick’s relationship with the Whites truly got off the ground at an odd point in our history.
It was 2004, when things had pretty much all gone to pot. He’d been to a few games in our late-1990s/early-2000s heyday, but he only properly started going regularly after our exit from the Premier League, when he fell for far less glamorous names like Rob Hulse, David Healy and Danny Pugh.
The first name Nick got on a shirt was bloody Julian Joachim
Whereas I had bonafide Leeds legends on the back of my shirts from our most recent glory days, the first name Nick got on the back of his was bloody Julian Joachim, a player who scored two goals for us before going out to Walsall on loan.
Nevertheless, the play-off final defeat in 2006 planted a seed that took root in 2013, when Nick, by then living in London, decided to buy a season ticket for the first time. Six years later, after an estimated £5,700 spent on train fares to and from Yorkshire, Nick has endured some true horror shows.
We met up in a north-east London boozer the day after our lord and saviour Bielsa had given the city of Leeds a collective heart attack by summoning an unscheduled press conference. What followed was his now legendary Powerpoint destruction of Frank Lampard’s Derby County, which made national headlines and made Leeds fans around the world appreciate the enigmatic Argentinean that extra bit more.
“It’s weird, getting the bug at such a dreadful time in the club’s history,” says Nick, remembering with a shudder home defeats like the one against Preston in 2010, when Simon Grayson’s Leeds threw away a 4-1 lead and lost 6-4.
Of course, Nick is not the only Leeds fan who makes the return trip up north on the East Coast Main Line every other weekend. Leaving their front doors at around 8am to make the 9am train, scarf on and usually a little worse for wear from the preceding Friday night, these LUFC season ticket holders are a hardy bunch. For Nick, the pre-game train journey is always full of optimism, even when you’ve got Michael Brown in midfield, en route to meet his Yorkshire-based Dad at Leeds train station.
“You’ve really got time to mull over the performance”
But for the majority of the past five seasons, Nick’s journeys back down south, usually on the 7.15pm from Leeds, have been dire trips. As the previous ninety minutes of football hang heavy, a four-pack of tinnies are a necessity, while the book read on the way up now goes untouched.
For any Leeds fan, there’ll always be reflection on the game just gone, but plans for the evening ahead can often be used as a distraction. But for those travelling down the spine of the UK, past Wakefield Westgate, Doncaster and Peterborough, there are no diversions.
“You’ve really got time to mull over the performance,” says Nick, who usually gets back to north-east London around 10pm. On those journeys, YouTube videos of Beckford scoring against the Scum or a look at Becchio’s latest pining for LUFC on social media have helped ease the pain.
“There are so many horrendous experiences tattooed into my eyes, of deflating losses against clubs like Rotherham and Barnsley,” says Nick. “You have to go back to the good times, and there’s not been many in the past fifteen years.”
But that was then. You don’t need me to tell you this, but this season has been different.
Rather than replaying another hoofed ball from ‘Browneh’ up field, Nick’s journeys down south have been lit up by images of Jack Clarke terrorising defenders, inch-perfect passes from Pablo and crunching midfield interceptions by Phillips. All orchestrated by that man Bielsa.
“It feels like we’ve finally got someone who we don’t deserve as a manager, rather than the other way around. For so much of our recent history we’ve had these managers who have been lucky to be in the job,” says Nick.
The atmosphere around the club in recent months, encapsulated by those late, great Christmas comebacks against Aston Villa and Blackburn, has been transformed by Bielsa and his staff. Coupled with the hysteria around ‘Spygate,’ it feels like Leeds United are back to being viewed how they should be by all those around them: complete disdain, believes Nick.
“We’re at our best when we’ve got that bit of arrogance and swagger as a team, a fan base and a club in general, while still being pretty gritty at the same time,” says Nick of the past few months.
The belief that this would happen one day has kept Nick renewing his season ticket each year, with the inevitable new manager, be it Hockaday, Rösler, Monk, Christiansen or Bielsa at the helm. It’s all about being there for that promotion clinching season, to make all the misery that preceded it worthwhile.
“I’ve got to be there for that,” says Nick, who has made a promise get a tattoo of the word ‘Bielsa’ on his arm should we go up, as a permanent reminder of a (hopefully) miraculous season: “After fifteen years in the doldrums, it’d be fitting to inflict one more bit of pain on myself.” ◉
(artwork by Joe Gamble)