When the fixtures were released for our glorious Premier League return, there was only one game I was looking for. Not the trips to Anfield or Stamford Bridge, nor the home game against them from over the Pennines. For me, the day we welcomed Newcastle United to Elland Road in the Premier League was the day I longed for the most.
I know this might seem an unusual choice. It’s not as if we hadn’t met recently during Newcastle’s regular trips to the Football League. And I’m not looking forward to seeing Steve Bruce’s particular brand of hoofball being dolloped out onto our hallowed turf. But Leeds vs Newcastle wasn’t about the team playing or the game itself, it’s about a time when football was magic and everything seemed possible. It’s about the first time I went to Elland Road and a love that will last a lifetime.
It was 1997 and change was in the air. New Labour had just swept the Tories out of office after almost two decades of rule. And George Graham, no doubt hoping to do to Wilkinsonism what Tony Blair wanted to do to Thatcherism, was about to begin his first and only, as it transpired, full season at Elland Road.
Wasn’t a hypnotic shirt against the rules?
Not that I took any notice. Because I was about to do something momentous. I was ready to declare, to my Year 4 class, that I was now a Leeds United fan. This was a big deal for me. My only memory of football to date had been Euro 96 and my first hero was Alan Shearer. Mimicking his arm-raised goal celebration in the playground, imagining I was him as I toe-bunged the ball at my gate, I even flirted with supporting the Magpies.
But now it was time to grow up. I was heading towards my eighth birthday and big decisions had to be made. I knew that I had to support the city of my birth. Our signing of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink helped to make my decision easier, even though Match of the Day refused to flash ‘oh Jimmy, Jimmy’ on screen like my football coach said they would. And my uncle, sensing the opportunity to repair the damage that having a dad from Hull must have caused me, quickly announced he would take me to my first game.
As the big day approached, I became even more unbearable than usual. Regurgitating facts that I had read in Match magazine. Pestering my dad for score predictions on an almost hourly basis. Asking my mum if she thought I’d really get to meet Ellie the Elephant.
But there was one fact that captured my imagination in a way that can only happen to young boys. Shay Given’s goalkeeper kit. At Elland Road, he was going to be wearing an orange and black number that was, according to my granddad’s Daily Mirror, scientifically proven to make him seem bigger to opposing strikers. The black circles on the front were guaranteed to hypnotise Jimmy Floyd into screwing his shots off target.
My mind ran amok considering all of the possibilities. Wasn’t a hypnotic shirt against the rules? How would Newcastle make sure their own defenders weren’t confounded by the hypnoshirt’s rays? Was my seat in the Family Stand far enough away to be protected from the effects? Failing to find satisfactory answers from my increasingly exasperated parents, I set off for my big day.
The walk down Gelderd Road was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The noises of fans on their way to the match, the smells from the frying onions, the sheer number of people. We took our seats in line with halfway and settled in for my first match.
For all my worries about how Leeds would deal with the hypnoshirt, a different one was causing consternation. The players were unable to distinguish between Newcastle’s navy away strip and that worn by David Elleray, the day’s referee. Eventually, he was forced to change and the official went sprinting towards the dugouts. When he emerged, to cheers from all sides of the ground, he was sporting a bright blue Leeds United jumper.
And then all hell broke loose. Leeds, playing as if they knew that my affections were still in the balance, cut down Newcastle with the flair of a musketeer. Making hypnoshirt seem like just a regular jersey, they slotted in four goals either side of half time. I was at fever pitch. Even a consolation goal for the away side did nothing to dampen my mood. I had my eternal love.
From watching Lamine Sakho deceive us all with an opening day brace in the season we were relegated to being beckoned to join Billy Paynter on the pitch after he scored in an awful pre-season friendly, Leeds playing Newcastle has always inspired memories of that initial joy.
And now we are back and Bielsa has us playing with such careless abandon that I am transported back to that childhood glee in every match, I can’t wait for the game and what comes next. ◉