The Square Ball Week: Blank Canvas

In 2018-19 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Admittedly Marcelo Bielsa introduced a serious tone to Leeds United this week by linking the future of football to the fate of the planet and the future of our children. “Our children,” translated Salim Lamrani, unable to stop it sounding like a threat, “will pay the consequences of our acts.”

“With football it will be the same because we are destroying football and in the future we’ll see the negative effects,” Bielsa went on. “Those who have power are responsible for it. The head coaches have power, owners of clubs have power, the media have power and the fans have power. But they don’t use it.”

In the wake of Der Spiegel’s recent reporting on Manchester City and Paris St. Germain’s use of Middle Eastern funds to make a mockery of Financial Fair Play rules, it was interesting to hear Bielsa decrying commercialisation for turning the beautiful game into a win at all costs charade, while praising Pep Guardiola as a sort of perfect modern manager, “who unites both things, beauty and results. He plays well and wins, and increases the value of the club where he works and the players he has.” Like a lot of things, football is complicated in 2018, and Guardiola might well be the perfect manager for our times; while suggesting that, Bielsa is also allowing that our times might just suck.

But never mind all that, because Leeds United have brought a new kit out, and if you’re looking for beauty and results, step right this way. Yellow shirts, blue shorts and navy and white stripes on the socks and cuffs; this might be our third kit, but when I saw it, I needed first aid to revive me from my faint.

It might seem irrelevant given Bielsa’s concerns for the health of the game, but team shirts are a thermometer under the game’s armpit anyway. (Remember those shirts Diadora gave us after relegation from the Premier League, with eleven blobs that were supposed to turn darker the harder the players ran? Or the more they sweated standing still, in Sean Gregan’s case.) What’s on the front will tell you a lot about the club being represented — is the betting company’s name in English, or Mandarin? What Gulf state does the airline hail from? — and the manufacturer will tell you about their worldwide status. Nike? Go straight to the European Super League. Elev8? Take that Tesco bag back to Hillsborough where it belongs.

It goes on. How long since the last new kit? Is this one only for use in European games? If it’s an away kit, is it in traditional colours, or designed to look good with jeans, or if you’re PSG, designed to look good in a couture collection? If it’s a home kit the same question could apply, depending how desperate your club is for attention. Most importantly, as a fan, do you feel like it properly represents your club? Or does it have a massive blue stripe down the front as a tribute to an old Chelsea away?

Kits are important, and while he muses on whether the fire in Gaetano Berardi’s heart is melting the polar ice caps, Bielsa will recognise this too. A while ago his fullest answer on the all-important bucket question was, typically, elegant; he described it as part of the “folklore of football”, understanding that there is an entire culture attached to football that has everything and nothing to do with whether Ezgjan Alioski can stay onside. Shirt colours are part of that folklore. When Newell’s Old Boys won the Argentinian title in 1991, Bielsa demanded a shirt as he was held aloft by the fans, then brandished the red and black symbol of the Lepers like a flag, famously yelling, “Newell’s, carajo!” — “Newell’s, fuck!” It would have been impactful if he’d just been shaking his fist, but because he was shaking a Newell’s shirt, it was beautiful.

The new Leeds kit is beautiful. It might also be the most historically rich kit Leeds United have ever had. Leeds United’s story is in some ways about the absence of traditional colours. Leeds City settled early on white shorts, deep blue shirts, gold collar and the city crest; the crest was replaced after a few years by a gold chevron. All that was thrown out when City were thrown out of the game, and Leeds United’s new benefactor, former Huddersfield Town director Hilton Crowther, brought blue and white striped jerseys with him. Crowther had no particular passion for the colours, believing that shirts should be standardised throughout football so that all home teams played in blue and white stripes, and all away teams in red and white, but there was little appetite for that; instead Leeds United switched to blue and gold halves in 1934, bringing the city coat of arms back too, in a bid to increase civic pride in the team — and increase attendances.

All that civic colour was swept away by Don Revie, but not before Major Frank Buckley had his go in 1948. He’d introduced tangerine shirts at Blackpool in the 1920s, tying the team to the electrifying modernity of the town’s illuminations, and he ditched halved shirts at Leeds, insisting on all-yellow shirts with blue sleeves, and after a couple of seasons, black shorts. Raich Carter oversaw a return to white shorts, then a total switch; Leeds were promoted to Division One wearing all blue shirts with gold collars, and returned to Division Two wearing the same.

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It was easy for Revie to start again by giving the team a blank canvas to wear, because that’s how the club’s kit had always been treated. Revie’s intention was to emulate Real Madrid, but the reality was total minimalism; there wasn’t any badge at all on the new kits, let alone a coat of arms, and it was four years before an owl appeared. It was another twelve years before Admiral added blue and yellow trim to the pure white that, through the glory years, was everything, while looking like nothing. In the absence of consistent, traditional colours, Leeds United self-selected the absence of colour to represent them and installed clear blank white as, if not a tradition, then a rule, that fans expect to be respected. Shunning red and orange away strips at the end of the 1960s, Leeds settled into a simple to follow formula, of white unadorned home kits, and away kits of yellow with civic blue flourishes.

And yet no Leeds kit now is thought complete without dashes or flashes of yellow and blue, meaning we resist respecting our own rules every season anyway. Macron came close in 2010; Kappa have come closer, but neither can resist using their own symbols to add colour to home kits that ought to have none. Well, we say ‘ought to’, as if there’s a set of regulations guarding Leeds United kits, rather than a loose consensus that we stick with Revie’s chosen colours because that’s what we wore when we were best, and we want to honour him and that team forever, even though a sizeable minority of fans look back at those blue and yellow pre-Revie jerseys and think, but, well, they’re nice. Or what if the West Stand hadn’t burned down in 1955, John Charles hadn’t been sold, and Leeds had beaten all before them in the European Cup wearing the all-blue shirts we’d been wearing for a grand total of one season? What would the last sixty years have been like if we’d been nicknamed The Blues, instead of just feeling ’em?

With the centenary approaching next year, these questions about Leeds United’s identity are gaining a keen edge. We rightly revere the Revie years, but a celebration of all one hundred years of our history is an opportunity to look beyond, share some of the celebrations around, and ask questions. Our top ten of league appearances includes Ernie Hart (who left the club in 1936), Grenville Hair (1964) and Jimmy Dunn (1959); our top ten league goalscorers include Tom Jennings (1931), Charlie Keetley (1934) and Russell Wainscoat (1931); Arthur Hydes (1938) only got bumped by Luciano Becchio. The debate about our greatest ever player circles through the many deserving names in the Revie team, but is there a case that from 1949 to 1957 John Charles was the best Elland Road ever had?

What the new kit does deftly is reintroduce elements of that non-Revie history, most obviously by reimagining the unloved blue and white stripes of the club’s first fourteen years as a motif, but also by using that motif on the sleeves — contrasting sleeves being key to our shirts from 1934 to 1955 — and by using blue shorts with yellow shirts, something that only formally happened before in the mid-1980s, but that ensures a deep civic look. Best of all, it does all this without looking like a mish-mash clash (let’s leave the current away kit out of this for now), and it does it on a third kit, where the risks are low.

Consider an alternative method, of designing some sort of crass new logo completely off the shelf and intending to bang it on shirts for the next one hundred years without proper consideration of what, if anything, it draws from a club’s history. Imagine the commercial anxiety, the desperation to join in with the selling out now apparently necessary to get results in football, behind something like that; and the crushed emotions when it was realised that, to a lot of fans, beauty is still more important than results. Then picture the optimism that comes with the knowledge that the folklore of football, far from being a straightjacket, represents a commercial and emotional opportunity; you can shift replica shirts while giving the fans something beautiful to wear.

I’m not saying Marcelo Bielsa designed our new third kit. But he was brought to Leeds United because he could change the culture. Perhaps his influence can help us rediscover the culture we already have. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)