The Square Ball Week: Symbol Lies

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

The ‘salute crest’, 2018-2018, unless it rises on the third day, did at least achieve one of its objectives, by catapulting Leeds United back into the big time: back where we belong.

Success at the top level isn’t only measured on the pitch anymore. Meme vs meme it’s what it’s all about these days, one social media account manager mugging off another in the guises of football clubs, with ever more elaborate and intertextually related new signing reveal videos and goal celebration gifs. (Or corner celebrations, if you’re Huddersfield Town.) How long, I wonder, before the first big-name big-money transfer between Premier League Twitter accounts? “We’ve signed a precocious talent,” their new club will announce, “Who can do incredible things in Hootsuite.”

Leeds United, of course, like the great Revie and Wilkinson teams of old, didn’t just step timidly into this top flight fray. They mixed it for a while with the rival clubs, of course, and then the betting brands, while the sports media websites fought frantically for variations on that one Gaviscon joke, and nobody bothered searching Shutterstock to see if that stock image screenshot was legit (it wasn’t). But by 4pm Leeds were letting the also-rans fight it out against each other, moving onwards and upwards to bigger adversaries. Zenit St Petersburg. Zamalek SC of Egypt. The History Channel. A petition large enough to make a totalitarian dictator blink. The Premier League conquered, Leeds were taking on the world. Hello, hello, United are back.

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This is modern football, pushing itself towards ever more banterous precipices, and Leeds, stuck for so long in the long ago, rushed headlong over the cliff like Wile E. Coyote chasing Manchester City’s Road Runner, scrambling their feet uselessly in mid-air before hurrying back to the safety of the Second Division. “Meep meep!” trilled City, which roughly translated means, “You might have seen what we’ve done, but until you understand how we’ve done it and why, you’d better stay on solid ground, Leeds.”

Which was where most of Leeds United’s fans wished they’d stayed in the first place. Or at least, if they were going to go darting out into the future — “The next one hundred years,” said the press release — the people in charge of the club could give them a bit more notice than, well, none.

The club saw it differently. “Six months!” they blared, proudly telling the teacher about all the homework they’d done. “10,000 people!” None of whom had any idea what was coming. There had been a “rigorous” consultation process, according to Leeds United MD Angus Kinnear, but none of the 10,000 who took part had any memory of being asked about a new club crest. Had their minds been wiped as part of some weird Orwellian experiment? No. They just hadn’t been asked about a new club crest. Instead fans had been asked generalities in an online survey, that included hints that the well into Wortley Beck underneath the pitch will soon be gushing forth an elixir for everlasting life: ‘What changes would you like to see in the next 100 years?’ ‘What makes you proud to be a Leeds fan?’ ‘What do you consider to be iconic symbols for Leeds United that have endured in the last 100 years?’

Flicking through Leeds United’s exercise book for ‘Our Big Consultation Project’ is a painful experience; there is obviously a lot of hard work in there, but they haven’t reached any of the right answers. ‘A lot of fans told us they don’t like the current club crest.’ Right. ‘And a lot of fans told us that they like the Leeds salute.’ Okay. ‘So we gave them what they wanted: a new club crest with the Leeds salute on it.’ Wait — what — what are you doing? ‘Do we get an A?’

Compounding it all was the big reveal. The club has a supporters advisory board, which is a good idea, but the SAB can’t be useful if they’re only going to be shown things the night before a launch, when it’s too late to change anything. Eighteen hours before the announcement is not the time to start seeking feedback on a six month project, which makes me think feedback was not what was being sought, but backslaps, thank yous and congratulations. The club thought that giving the fans what they wanted without fans having asked for it was the same thing as engagement. That was, like the whole exercise, a mistake.

The process was one mistake, the execution was another. The entire world didn’t die laughing because of the inadequacies of a consultation process. The reason Egyptian football clubs were putting the boot in, was that the design that came out of the process was rubbish. That doesn’t mean it was universally hated — some brave souls stuck their head above the parapet and said they liked how it looked. That’s fine. People are entitled to like how things look. But those things can still be rubbish, looking like they’ve been cobbled together from cheap Shutterstock chic to give the overall effect of an inoffensive marketing campaign for a fantasy football league.

Which is what the salute crest looks like. The disconnect between what the club thought they were designing, and what they were presenting, was stark. This design was supposed to be unique, breaking from the past yet rooted in the fan culture that makes Leeds United special. Yet by removing every trace of previous crests, they removed any connection between this crest and Leeds United Football Club as we have known it, so that even the words ‘LEEDS UNITED’ at the top of it couldn’t distract from the colourless — as opposed to white — anonymity of the shirt motif below, that looked like an empty template where kids could use felt tips to draw in their own shirt design. At least the smiley badge of the early 1970s, another daring tilt for the future, was bright yellow and blue, easily referring to the city’s colours and the club’s pre-Revie kit. The blue on the salute crest was just shading on the shirt. The yellow looked ashamed to be there.

The smiley badge has been referred to as one possible saving grace for this design; shocking and non-traditional when it was introduced, it would surely, it was said this week, cause the same uproar if it was produced today, or if social media had been around back then. There are two crucial differences though. One, the smiley badge is brilliant. It is shocking and non-traditional, an audacious leap forward, but it’s almost impossible to take the piss out of, because it’s so solid in its greatness. It was absolutely of its time, but it still looks fresh today, in all its variations. Perhaps there was uproar when it came out, but quality roars louder, and the smiley wasn’t just liked, it was and is loved. But the salute crest already looks years out of date, invites mockery, and hardly even fulfils its functions. Was that thing really going to be mounted on the East Stand, and printed atop letterheads communicating transfer bids, or messages of condolence? It even looked misplaced when mocked up onto a football shirt. Yet somehow the smiley worked in all those necessary contexts, and everywhere else it was required. It was fun, but abstract enough to be serious. It was brilliant work.

Secondly, the smiley badge wasn’t being launched this week, and this one was, so the context of social media only had to affect the design of the new one. Yes, it’s not ideal that every new piece of design for absolutely anything instantly becomes a meme (and/or pornography) and derided for bantz. But that’s 2018’s context, and a game Leeds were willing to play, with slick social media-friendly videos and graphics at launch. These days, any new design unveiled like this goes through a baptism of social media fire, and part of the responsibility of the design is for it to come out the other side charred but intact — not burned to ashes. The smiley didn’t have to account for that, and didn’t. The salute crest did have to account for that, and didn’t.

An all new badge isn’t itself impossible. Looking back a few years to when Massimo Cellino ranted to someone on a train about how he was about to change the crest, I wrote then about the subsequent flurry of fan designs that followed, most, in my view, clinging to too much of the past at once. Brilliant as it is, the need to cram a smiley badge inside every proposed new badge drives me crazy. The updated late-seventies smiley with the words ‘Leeds United AFC’ around it worked as a self-contained club badge, but once the smiley starts being shoehorned into other design languages, with a football in a rose and some stripes and the LUFC script as well, all in the misguided service of making it ‘more Leeds’, you end up with ‘LEEDS UNITED’ ‘LU’ and ‘LUFC’ being shouted at you from every part, a cacophony where there should be a message. Stick an owl and a peacock either side, hang a sheep off the bottom and write ‘1919’ somewhere and you’ve got something that references all our history at once and looks an absolute mess.

But designing for Leeds United’s history is difficult, because the club nickname is The Peacocks and the city symbol is an owl, but Don Revie declared bird symbols bad luck, and at Elland Road Don has rightful precedence over owls or peacocks. As a city, Leeds doesn’t have another really recognisable symbol — I’ve seen designs featuring the Town Hall or the university’s Parkinson Building, but neither quite translates properly to football. Leaving us with… I dunno, Don Revie? Even then, somebody would be bound to prefer Billy Bremner, and soon there would be proposals featuring both, and then it’s only a matter of time before a peacock is sneaking back in with a smiley badge in its teeth and an owl on its back.

When I wrote about this in 2014, it was to suggest that Leeds should embrace the opportunity of a new crest with excitement. We would still always have the old logos that we love untainted to use as we want, as we still do after this week’s fiasco — I always wear a white rose (aka half-onion) badge, and probably always will, because I grew up with it. But instead of mashing together old references that will never please everybody, a new crest could be a chance to experience the thrill of a new smiley — imaginative and original. And I guess that the salute crest was meant to live up to what I was so optimistic about. So now I guess I should have added a proviso: that it shouldn’t be shit.

Since I wrote that article, Juventus have shown how a modern rebrand can be done, with a simple, bold and surprising badge that, comprising a stylised J and suggesting stripes and a shield shape, is the nearest heir to the L and U smiley. Manchester City have gone the other way, disproving my idea that to please everybody you need to leave past elements in the past and go all-new, by sensitively combining the best references from their most popular crests into a coherent, well drawn, modern badge. That it also dictates the design language of the City Group clubs in New York and Melbourne ought to be of interest to our pals at Aspire Academy.

Leeds United, coming after these two precedents of good practice, have done neither. And it’s odd that Angus Kinnear should have failed to guide Leeds United through this, after bringing the modern Arsenal crest into being — the fans grew to love it, he told Radio Leeds — and overseeing the radical overhaul of West Ham United’s badge, at the same time as the trauma of upping roots from the Boleyn Ground. On that occasion, the design was unveiled following, ‘detailed consultation with about 10,000 fans. It revealed that 77 per cent were in favour of the badge being updated and 98 per cent believed the crossed Hammers represented the most important part of the crest’. Which sounds very familiar, except that West Ham’s unveiling included several options and an opportunity to vote and give feedback, that was incorporated into the final crest. The design work was done by an agency run by West Ham fans — despite being called WTF Creative, they’re not guilty of the Leeds badge — and by the end of the process most fans were satisfied with the result. Given the similarities of the consultation language it’s hard to understand why Kinnear wasn’t able to repeat this fairly sensible process at Leeds, who instead produced the salute crest from thin air, and told us it was what we wanted.

It’s clear from Kinnear that Leeds have several specific corporate aims for the new club crest, and perhaps protecting those led him and the club away from the West Ham style of consultation; on Radio Leeds, he warned several times of the perils of designing by committee. There’s certainly one clash: most fan designs include the white Yorkshire rose, but the club seem determined to move away from that, wanting to be seen as ‘Leeds’ and not ‘Yorkshire’, and implying there are problems with trademarks and in other clubs using it. Perhaps they think that will cause confusion overseas, and listening to Kinnear, that seems to be another requirement: to be internationally appealing. The inclusion of the words ‘Leeds United’, rather than initials or an abstract logo, are another of the club’s musts, to presumably the same ends.

None of which is completely unreasonable. Full club name, no rose, international appeal. Every design brief has constraints, and these could be overcome, or compromises found, while still coming up with something that won’t leave longstanding Leeds fans in despair. The risks of committee design are real — social media is full now of fans’ designs being answered with, ‘That’s great, but could you put a peacock inside the owl’s eyeball?’ — but the benefits of sharing works in progress with the fans should be obvious. The club can ensure the design meets its requirements, and the fans can stop the designs from hurtling like a runaway train away from our traditions.

The mechanism of the ‘extended’ consultation process will be revealed by the club next week, and now that the club “are committed to working with you to create an identity we can all be proud of”, the question is, what are we going to get? Apart from doubts about the typeface, the part of the salute crest that few seemed to mind were the bold words ‘LEEDS UNITED’ in the top half, and perhaps that’s the starting point. Maybe even the end point: just write the name. If we can’t have the Yorkshire rose, maybe free the ball from inside it and have that somewhere, but then stop. Nobody will fail to recognise that, no clip art will have become involved, nobody will have shoved a smiley badge up a peacock’s arse, and nobody can argue that the words ‘Leeds United’ don’t accurately represent what we want this club to be.

After this week, it’s going to be hard to look at any new crest design with pleasure, and hard to look at anyone doing the Leeds salute without thinking of this week. But the one thing that has stood unbowed since 1919 — “endured in the last 100 years” as the survey put it — uniting the team and fans, respected at home and abroad, is the name. We all hate the new badge, but we all love Leeds United. There’s your starting point, Angus and Andrea, and here’s your second chance. Let us know how you get on; this time, before you think you’ve finished. ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)

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