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I recently made a discovery in my loft. No, not an imminent requirement to lag some pipes or phone a man in a big hat to remove a wasp nest, but direct evidence of how I spent a large chunk of my childhood — or rather, misspent.
In a ring binder, stuck together by years of damp and cold, were a collection of early Match Weekly magazines, and in the same pile was the unknowingly hoarded output of my youthful obsession with Leeds United.
Match Weekly and Shoot were the undisputed heavyweights of football publications in the late 1970s and ‘80s; like Coe and Ovett or Cheryl and Jay from Bucks Fizz, they couldn’t be separated. Match was the cocky contender that came onto the scene in 1979, and ruffled the feathers of the establishment with cool diagrams depicting the best goals of the time and how they were scored, and loads of free gifts, like plastic 7” flexi-discs with no sleeves sellotaped to the front cover. They contained recordings of famous commentaries, or so I’m told, because they were irrevocably damaged well before I could unleash my Dad’s stylus on them.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]Fuelled by acne, crippling anxiety and a growing interest in The Smiths[/x_pullquote]
Shoot was the fusty old stager that baulked at such enterprise. In a Blur v Oasis-style face-off, each season saw the gauntlet laid down as Shoot issued its famous League Ladders — a pre-cut cardboard sheet with each club’s name and badge able to be removed and slotted into tables so that you could track the league position of all 92 clubs throughout the season, at least those that hadn’t been consumed by Mum’s hoover — while Match responded with a wallchart.
Match being the uber-cool new wave magazine, I ditched the fussy league ladders for the endless fascination of the wallchart, which allowed you to enter in your team’s results after each game, and track league positions, top goalscorers and various other vital details. The wallchart opened up like a map of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and within it was virtually every tiny nugget you were likely to need over the following nine months. However, they only did it for a couple of seasons. So for the 1983/84 season I produced my own.
Aged twelve, I spent several days of my summer holidays carefully sellotaping four sheets of lined A4 paper together to replicate the Match Weekly wallchart, I studiously calculated what space I would need and drew out the boxes with a ruler, and I even used a stencil for key information to make sure it was neat enough. The anticipation of a new football season was exciting enough, but gazing at my fresh new wallchart, just itching to start completing it with details I didn’t yet know, was enough to send expectancy levels higher than a Kevin Hird free-kick over those mind-blowing floodlights.
The aching chasm of time between fixtures was spent staring at the often completely depressing information and being rampantly impatient to colour in another black box when Ian Baird bagged again. You can still see the majestic sweep of my Berol felt tip across three actual blocks at once when Andy Ritchie and Tommy Wright plundered three hat-tricks between them in 1984/85. My 1985/86 wallchart developed a new feature, a grid showing our league position as a time-plotted line graph, a particularly timely innovation as it explicitly illustrated how Leeds failed to enter the top half of the table all season.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]I wish I had recorded memories that feel more human to me now[/x_pullquote]
By 1986/87 I had discovered A3 paper, so the sellotape was discarded and the wallchart became neater and more condensed accordingly. But poignantly this appears to be the last season that I bothered doing one. Perhaps I was stung by the shattering climax; I can almost picture myself lobbing all my pens and rulers on the floor in a wounded rage, as Peter bastard Shirtliff stooped to head home the winner in the Play-off Final replay at St Andrew’s. The psychological scars didn’t heal over the summer and after four seasons of rank mediocrity, my days of chronicling Leeds United’s every move were over.
The final box on each wallchart was my summary of the season in the bottom right hand corner. In 1983/84 I offered a naïve suggestion that better times were coming: “A promising second half of the season, although overall it was a disappointing season. The youngsters are playing well.” By 1986/87 such fluffy enthusiasm had long since dispersed, and my final comment took up less than one line of the seven I had optimistically made available to myself. Fuelled by acne, crippling anxiety and a growing interest in The Smiths, my damning verdict was simple: “Gutted”. Over and out.
I look at these folded up wallcharts now and they represent not just the early awkward fumblings of my Leeds United preoccupation, but also a lost football age where statistics were virtually the only memories we had. The sellotape on my wallcharts has gone brown, and brittle, it may soon shatter into a thousand tiny pieces if I open them up once more. The paper is sepia-tinted and my writing is like primitive hieroglyphics. It’s almost like reading the walls of an ancient Egyptian pyramid, except rather than following the escapades of Osiris and the soul’s journey to the afterlife, my daily pontifications are on whether George McCluskey will ever make it into double figures on my goalscorers chart.
Only ten years after my wallcharts bit the dust, the internet was here, and pretty soon there were countless websites with all this information readily to hand. Today, every Leeds United game is a huge event, almost like a circus that rides into town two days before a game and leaves two days afterwards. In the meantime there are photos as the action is happening, goal videos within seconds, quotes and interviews from various different sources and a dozen different match reports almost as soon as the final whistle goes. Plus enough statistics to take a bath in. If you aren’t one of the 34,000 or so at Elland Road, then social media makes sure it feels like you are. In the 1980s there were invariably around 15,000 there on a good day, and if you weren’t there, only a couple of photos and a YEP match report on Monday morning existed as a record of the event. It was almost like a clandestine experience, and attending football in the 1980s was definitely something that nobody really shouted about. Now you can live in Japan and feel more a part of it than any of us sat in the stands.
Doubtless kids today could set up a spreadsheet or an app to track the team’s progress instead of updating a wallchart, but then they don’t need to. Leeds United is everywhere in our daily lives. I care little for statistics now, I barely look at the league table unless people tell me there’s something interesting about it. My memory is more for occasions, feelings and emotions. I have those four wallcharts and I cherish them, but I wish I had recorded memories that feel more human to me now; aspects of life that make you what you are, and make Leeds United a huge part of my life and much more than just a few numbers and names that most people have forgotten and care little for.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]Following Leeds United, just being there and living it, is the greatest joy in the world[/x_pullquote]
I have my memories, but it’s all an indefinite fusion of potent emotions, a reckless surge of facing the unknown as you head towards the precipice of adulthood. I don’t know what happened when. I wish I had recorded which game it was when I first experienced the full tumult and confusion of a full, uproarious Kop. I wish I had recorded which game it was when my brother Mike had his glasses knocked clean off when we scored, but he managed to dive down in an instant to retrieve them from a space that miraculously opened, a split second before a tidal wave of people would have gobbled them up. I wish I had recorded the game when I first noticed us sarcastically clapping the opposition goalkeeper as he ran towards the Kop for the start of the second half, before hammering him with a wall of V-signs when he fell into our trap. I wish I had recorded the first game I realised that drinking five pints before kick-off made the whole experience far more bearable, and sometimes even enjoyable.
The facts and figures are there forever, they don’t change. They are almost cold and hard, inflexible and unforgiving. Real emotion and real stories come from those individual moments that are exclusive to us. The goal we had a unique vantage point of, the goal we missed because we were queuing for the bogs, the time John Sheridan actually stopped and winked at the crowd when he had the ball on the touchline, when the Lowfields gave John Fashanu an endless torrent of abuse when playing for Wimbledon but applauded him sportingly when he hit the bar with a piledriver from about forty yards; and amazingly he applauded them back. Such things make stories, they touch you when you are growing up and help form your character, you learn about people, you become streetwise, you grow up very quickly because you have to. Attending football in the 1980s involved a real dog eat dog mentality, you had to match fire with fire just to survive. It’s different now of course, but it’s still an introduction to an adult world that you will never forget. And for some the ride starts now.
This isn’t just another gravedodger telling you how great football was way back when and how insipid and sanitised it is now. You can’t help what era you were born into, and so nobody is more worthy or superior or more travel-stamped a fan than anybody else. It’s just a call to maybe occasionally take a step back and worry less about our position in November, and how few games we win after conceding first, and how few draws we seem to muster these days. History is happening and we can’t change it, but don’t get too hung up on facts and figures, where we are and where we end up. Just enjoy how you got there, because getting the bug and following Leeds United, just being there and living it, is the greatest joy in the world; a precious journey you only make once. It’s not something you can record on a wallchart and pull out in your senior years, to remind you how great these times are. ◉
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