The Square Ball Week: History Squared

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Naming your three favourite Leeds United players ought to be easy, but one of the problems of history is its always increasing weight.

Then there are the constraints. You can only choose the three from a preselected list of forty. The decision has implications: this isn’t a pub chat, but a vote for players to be saluted in stone around Billy Bremner’s statue as part of ‘Bremner’s XI’. And it’s not just about your favourite; it’s about picking the best, or the most deserving. Subjectivity clashes with objectivity, while a stonemason watches you, chisel in hand. Who are you going to pick?

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There are considerations, even responsibilities. Dominic Matteo might have been your favourite player when you were a kid watching the Champions League on telly, but should his name be carved at Elland Road ahead of, say, Paul Madeley? There are personal, emotional and generational biases. Gary Speed will probably come high in the voting, despite his stale play in the last couple of seasons before his necessary transfer to Everton; people want to express their sadness at his early loss, and anyway, no member of those two title winning squads from the early nineties, apart perhaps from one fleeting Frenchman, should ever be forgotten. I would personally like to see Chris Fairclough honoured; he came to Leeds at the same time as Gordon Strachan and stayed just as long, winning two titles along the way, transforming our defence and scoring one of the key goals that won the First Division, against Coventry City in April 1992. But can he make the team ahead of Jack Charlton, whose 773 appearances were made across three decades, who rose like the club under Don Revie to become one of the best defenders of his generation?

And if it’s Bremner’s XI, shouldn’t the team only include players Billy played with, and would approve of — with perhaps a space for Gordon Strachan, ahead of, um, who? Then there’s the nebulous question of Billy Bremner’s approval. I once wrote, and stand by, an article that argued Billy would have been proud if he’d seen the way Andy Hughes put Leeds United before himself. Should Hughesy be considered? As manager, Billy Bremner indulged the genius of John Sheridan, who brightened up the dark years of the eighties, but Shez hasn’t made the shortlist.

The shortlist itself has gaps. On Twitter, Mike Thornton has already shared an open letter he has sent to the club, asking them to find space at Bremner Square for Albert Johanneson, outside of the Bremner XI vote. It’s well argued, and there’s a strong case that the club owes Albert’s memory something, given attempts to help him during the difficulties of his later years couldn’t save him. But there’s also a very simple case for Johanneson being on the shortlist of forty for the Bremner XI anyway: he was United’s joint leading scorer in the season Don Revie took us up from the Second Division, and was the first black player in an FA Cup final. That should be enough at least to get him on the ballot paper.

But as the club’s history lengthens — 98 years and counting — so does the list of players who have ‘done enough at least’ to be thought of when honours like this are discussed. Eyebrows have certainly been raised over Luciano Becchio’s inclusion, as the hoary old arguments are trotted out: he had no first touch, he played in the third division, he was a ‘limited’ player. But this limited player turned up on trial and found Leeds United were where they were, and scored enough goals to get his name into our top ten of all-time league goalscorers, the only new name on the list since the Revie era. That’s enough to make him memorable.

Becchio benefits, though, from being a recent memory. The only pre-Revie name on the list is John Charles, who came back and played an autumn under the Don anyway. But if Becchio’s goals earn his place on the shortlist, what about Tom Jennings? Scan the early seasons of Leeds United, and Jennings, bought from Raith Rovers, tops the scoring list season after season: 1925/26, 25 goals, 1926/27, 35 goals, 1927/28, 21 goals; then 9 and 14 as Charlie Keetley and Russell Wainscoat shared the load. In 1926 Jennings scored hat-tricks in three consecutive games, and in an era when Leeds had little cup success he scored 112 league goals — two more than Allan Clarke. But nobody thinks about 1926 when they think about Leeds United now.

It ought to be fun, remembering all this, bringing back old names, reaching back for happy memories. But I’ve already seen Bremner Square being described as a ‘mistake’ — a nice idea, but bound to cause argument and division, as history is whittled down to forty then whittled down to ten, via individual votes for three. With so much to include, there’s a lot that will be left out, and a lot of potential for upset.

As Thomas Christiansen’s trip to Old Trafford last weekend showed, people take the definition of Leeds United Football Club very seriously, although in that case it was about defining Leeds United by what we’re against: Manchester and red things. Quite apart from his old acquaintance with Pep Guardiola, Christiansen’s trip to that game was easy to understand when you remember that he took his son, and if my dad was a football manager who, after coaching in Cyprus, got a job in northern England, but didn’t come up with tickets for a derby match down the road between the first and second teams in the Premier League, I would tell him he’s not my dad anymore and sulk in my room for weeks. Apart from attending the game, it seems Thomas Christiansen smiled too much in some mobile phone photos, but really, when you’ve reached the point that you’re angry about smiling, it’s something you might want to address with a therapist.

The implication of the incident was that Christiansen had crossed some sort of line by watching football in Salford, that it was a transgression against the DNA that makes our club Leeds United. But back in LS11, those genetic strings are being unravelled and torn anyway, because nobody can agree on ten players to commemorate, let alone what defines Leeds United as Leeds United. Not red shirts, that’s for sure, except for when we wore them; it’s white shirts, definitely, except that Jack Charlton, John Charles and Billy Bremner all began in blue and gold, while Tom Jennings scored his goals in blue and white stripes that resembled Huddersfield Town. Make a case for one thing to unite us, and an argument immediately arises against it: Gordon Strachan revitalised a club on the pitch as the playing ambassador of its manager, Howard Wilkinson; but that’s what Bobby Collins did for Don Revie, so who do we conclude is more ‘Leeds’, or more deserving of honour?

One of the problems we’re facing up to with Bremner Square is that our history has been neglected for so long. Since Billy Bremner’s statue was put in place in 1999, the only significant nod to our greats is the statue of Don Revie added in 2012, plus the two Trust-supported murals this year. But Revie’s statue was entirely fan-led and fan-funded, which was beautiful in its way, but highlighted how little Ken Bates, GFH or Massimo Cellino cared about the history of the club they’d bought. And no, Howard’s Restaurant doesn’t count. I happened to be present for the filming of Leeds United’s season ticket advert in 2015, watching as David Batty, Eddie Gray and Norman Hunter stood chatting together next to Billy’s statue, and Edoardo Cellino, wearing green plastic shades and followed by an entourage of idiots, marched straight past them without a glance. But then, when his dad took over and Dominic Matteo, Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray’s ambassadorial roles at the club were ended, Edoardo tweeted that “they get paid for doing nothing”, so respect for history was never high on his agenda. Besides, he had an eye on the ‘paid for doing nothing’ gig for himself.

Neglecting our past for so long means there is a lot of catching up to do, and that conversations about the merits of one player or another quickly veer into disbelief that Bobby Collins or Jack Charlton or numerous others aren’t publicly acknowledged somewhere at Elland Road already. There’s almost a queue: we can’t talk about Strachan until we’ve done something for Collins. The length of time since anyone was last properly honoured at Elland Road causes the pressure on the club and the fans to vote carefully and get Bremner’s XI right, because not only are we trying to right the wrongs of the past, but we’re trying to get something right for the future.

There have been suggestions that it would be an insult to one player or another if they don’t make it to the Square. That’s an understandable way of looking at it, but awful. There are only ten spaces available, but everybody knows that many more than ten players deserve a place. Our history already encompasses much more than the names honoured at the stadium so far — the Bremner and Revie statues, the John Charles Stand — and our history survives. Johnny Giles, Allan Clarke or David Batty aren’t forgotten because they don’t have monuments now, nor will any important or popular player be forgotten or disrespected if they’re not included in Bremner’s XI. History is not a zero sum, and folklore doesn’t rely on stones or statues. They help, but memories live in stories, not stones.

But I also hope that, given so many former players have such strong claims for this honour, and given the difficulty and unavoidable unfairness of choosing, Bremner’s XI will not be the first, last and only addition to Bremner Square. I’m hoping that the club are seeing this first eleven as a start, and that we’ll be given the opportunity again to choose more players to take their place alongside Billy in an area devoted to our greats.

With ten stones in place after this poll, I’m hoping the club will repeat this as an annual exercise to add, say, three new stones a year, so that the honour is never closed, and we can all relax a little bit if Robert Snodgrass doesn’t make it this time — or if he does. If you like goalkeepers, it’s easier to vote for David Harvey or Gary Sprake this time around, knowing you’ll get chances to vote for John Lukic or Nigel Martyn in the future, and that eventually all four — Martyn probably the best, the other three all medal winners — can be accommodated as appropriate.

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You can’t take history and draw lines in the sand or close arbitrary doors, although as the club’s centenary approaches, there’ll be much more of these attempts to define and quantify our past (and I fully intend adding to that, in my way). History doesn’t end, though, with the closing of a poll or the placing of a stone. Stories and memories will continue with or without Bremner Square, new stories as well as old ones, and done right, the Square can be flexible enough to grow with them.

After all, even as we look with so much longing at the past, we look with just as much longing at the future, and the statues we might want to commission then, and the hope that we’ll need the bronze — not much of it, granted — to capture a European Cup winning goal scored by Samu Saiz. Leave a few plinths open, Leeds — we’re not done yet. ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)