The Square Ball Week: Disgrace

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

Jack Harrison. What a fine English name. Jack, an affectionate diminutive — despite being the same length — of John, and it’s not true but it could be that when registering the birth of a child in England you have to answer a question on a form, explaining why you’re not calling him or her John or Jane. Then Harrison, son of Harris, and you can picture the original John Harris now, diligently shoeing dray horses in the castle stables, stopping now and then to kick a cannonball against a wall.

Visual evidence suggests that Jack Harrison’s Harris forebears shared very few of their genes with the ancestors of Neil Harris, manager of Millwall, who traces his family tree back to Tarka the Otter. But you might hope he would have better appreciated the fine strike by his near namesake that secured Leeds United’s point at The Den last Saturday, hitting the target as firmly as the arrow in King Harold’s eye in 1066. And perhaps he might have, had Jack then shaken hands with each Millwall player in turn before running briskly back to the halfway line to get on with the game. Instead, what Harris got was a loud crowd of foreigners and quite possibly communists celebrating incomprehensibly right in front of his boat-race; he called it “a disgrace in English football,” longing for the days when a crowd of foreign-looking gentlemen like these couldn’t so much as walk down an English village street without the Famous Five setting Timmy the Dog on them.

That’s nothing new for Leeds United. Jack Charlton was as English as they come, hewn from the same Northumberland coal seams he resolutely refused to hew himself — “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, but it won’t be that,” he said, aged fifteen, after his first morning down a pit. Perhaps that was the first sign of the trouble to come; a decidedly unEnglish, although quite Northumbrian, refusal to kowtow to authority. Doing his national service in the Queen’s Household Cavalry, he learned about drinking, smoking and women. Playing football for Leeds United, he learned about sly tackling, punches off the ball, haranguing referees and turning grudges into justice, or as it was known at the time, ‘continental football’. Charlton was a World Cup winner with Alf Ramsey in 1966, when England revelled in its confirmation as world football’s patriarch, but his association with Leeds was held against him. Yorkshire was a foreign enough place, without its leading football team dressing up as Real Madrid and playing like them, too. There was no corinthian spirit at Elland Road. What was there instead seemed, to most people, like “a disgrace in English football.”

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‘Dressing up’ was an appropriate way to put it, because apart from Albert Johanneson — again, Leeds United just had to be different — the players were drawn from Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland: Billy, Mick, Gareth, Norman, a couple of Pauls. Allan Clarke was perhaps pushing things with his extra L, and of course Eddie Gray parading around as Edwin was typical Scotch eccentricity, but overall you knew where you were with a squad of names like that: The English First Division. Don Revie, Les Cocker, Syd Owen and Maurice Lindley were importing ideas, but it was the style they wanted from the continent, not the players.

The names have changed now, but the style has not been forgotten. The scrum of backroom staff that so appalled Neil Harris included such names as Marcelo, Benoit, Ruben, Jorge — not George, Jorge — Pablo, Carlos, and not one but two Diegos. In some quarters this bunch are inspiring fascination and curiosity about their ideas, their methods, the challenges of language and adaptation. In other quarters — specifically the 25 square yards of turf in front of Millwall’s bench — they’ve inspired revulsion. But even without Harris’ disgust, their foreignness is often at issue, as with the billing of the game against Middlesbrough, and possibly this season’s title race, as an anthropological culture clash between Bielsa and Tony Pulis.

As when Don Revie declared his corner of LS11 to be an annexed territory ruled by Madrid — while not-so secretly plotting to steal Real’s crown — the situation at Leeds now is much more complicated than Argentinian ideas taking on English traditions. In the last few weeks, Middlesbrough, Millwall and Preston North End all presented variations on ideal themes of English Second Division football. Middlesbrough by building their game around giants and set-pieces, Millwall by being shit, Preston trying to man mark the heartbeart (Kalvin Phillips) and the flair (Samu Saiz) out of Leeds’ game (those two could have shared the player of the match award). But Leeds United’s response was not exactly alien to the league. Leeds navigated those games unbeaten because they ran further, faster and for longer than their opponents; because they fought to be first to every ball; by scoring through an opportunist strike, a scruffy set-piece, a long pass into a channel, and a firm centre-forward’s header in the six-yard box. Preston’s manager Alex Neil instructed his striker, Louis Moult, to battle from the front; he must have watched with a mixture of admiration and despair as Tyler Roberts followed his manager’s instructions by chasing Preston players eighty yards to the edge of his own penalty area. Tempo, effort, commitment? That’s English football’s best ideal of itself, and that’s Leeds United this season.

The reasons for that could run deep, but finding out requires more research and more space than this column allows right now. But Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting The Pyramid traces football’s introduction to Argentina by British traders, where because Argentina was not part of the Empire, the locals felt no imposed inferiority and had no reticence about developing their own style of the imported game, while embedding a respect for its traditions in the language of the sport. Bielsa’s first love, Newell’s Old Boys, is named for schoolteacher and football pioneer Isaac Newell, from Kent; the club began as a team for ex-students and teachers — ‘Old Boys’ — from the ‘Colegio Comercial Anglicano Argentino’ that Newell founded, and used the school badge for its colours and emblem. Since leaving Newell’s Old Boys, Bielsa’s best seasons at club level were at Athletic Bilbao, another club with an anglicised name, formed from the keen local interest in football of migrant English shipworkers and Basque students who had been educated in England. Before Athletic’s ‘cantera policy’ of only signing Basque players took hold, their teams featured many English names, and they have always looked to England for managers, from Fred Pentland in 1922 to Howard Kendall in 1987.

It might be impossible to trace or determine what influence an English schoolteacher who died in 1907 might have on Marcelo Bielsa’s preferred football style, but values do endure, especially when their founder’s name is written into the very name of the club — Isaac Newell’s Old Boys — or when the manager who best expressed that club’s values is commemorated in the name of the stadium: Estadio Marcelo A. Bielsa. Even before our own stadium was redecorated with self-identifying statements like ‘Side Before Self, Every Time’ or statues placed to honour Billy Bremner and Don Revie, the influence of that era on contemporary Leeds United has never lessened, and fans still yearn now for players as hard as Norman Hunter or as clever as Johnny Giles, even if we never saw them play. The anxiety of influence is a huge part of football, giving clubs meaning beyond collections of elevens, setting standards that, no matter how far they drift into the past, still dictate expectations. Our past is what made Dave Hockaday such an outrageous choice as head coach, and helps Marcelo Bielsa, so far, look like a great one.

Especially because, to judge by his career and comments so far, Bielsa is particularly receptive to local cultures and influences, and feels inspired when they resemble his own. “In Argentina I live in the countryside, and there are many similarities in Yorkshire to the region I’m from,” he has said. Through slightly awkward translation, he added the “popular expression” of Leeds — the way the people are — “is similar to the feelings that stimulate me.” He feels Yorkshire, in other words, in the same way that, while at Bilbao, he could identify with the Basque people.

“In Bilbao, which is a place that has left a huge mark on my life … the phrase you hear most when you’re walking around the streets is ‘I’m an Athletic season ticket holder’. It’s like an ID document, it’s a statement of what you are. A way of identifying yourself. There are lots of people of British descent living in the Bilbao area. I’m really excited to see that’s it’s going to be the same here. I’m really hopeful that the fans identify with and have that desire to support the home town in the same way which they support Bilbao.”

Again, Basque separatism is not a subject I can easily deal with here, but it’s fair to say that in Yorkshire, where we sing about having a Republican Army, where political parties talk seriously about devolution, where a ‘national’ football team has recently been founded, feelings of pride and resentment are mixed with a fierce sense that our self-identity is not matched by freedom to self-determine. Never mind competing with Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur; in the 1960s we wanted Leeds United to be as good as Real Madrid, and would have proved we were, if the Football Association — based in London, at Lancaster Gate — had not held us back. Why did they hold us back? Because we come from a strange city — Leeds — in a foreign land — Yorkshire — and dress ourselves up as Real Madrid, expecting that by playing like Juventus we’ll win everything in football, first in England, then as England’s representatives in Europe and the world. And England can’t have that.

Or it couldn’t have that, in the 1960s and 1970s, when establishment bias did few favours for the anti-authoritarian Don Revie and his troublesome Leeds United players. Revie, like most Yorkshire folk or adopted Yorkshire folk, believed you had to earn respect; a frightening prospect for those at the FA and the Football League who felt their position demanded respect, but knew deep down they had done nothing to deserve it. Even as they polished the Jules Rimet trophy, Don Revie and Leeds United were threatening to expose the weakness of English football’s self-regard. That’s why they had to be stopped.

And that’s why when Jack Harrison scored a fine goal at the end of an away performance that very much belonged in English football, and the Leeds players and bench celebrated with the exuberance that unites understanding across world football — everybody knows the feeling of a last minute goal — and Neil Harris attacked it as “a disgrace in English football”, he was not necessarily, although he might not realise it, attacking the Argentinians and Spaniards in front of him. He was inheriting English football’s decades of disgust, and attacking the foreignness of the club that stands behind and with those Argentinians and Spaniards, not to mention the Macedonian, the Pole, the Swede, the lad from Wortley. The true “disgrace in English football” is Leeds United; always has been, always will be. Marcelo Bielsa and the lads just happen to have found their perfect club. ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)