2018-19 articles, Blog, Blog 2018-19, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week

The Square Ball Week: Cleaning Up


The tag ‘Dirty Leeds’ was invented by newspapers but, importantly, confirmed by the Football Association in the summer of 1964, as Leeds United prepared to play their first season in the First Division since Don Revie became manager.

The FA’s official journal published an article about increasing ill discipline besmirching the beautiful game, saying foul play was threatening soccer’s future. It wasn’t enough to make a general point; the article included a table of disciplinary points with Leeds at the top, leaving readers in no doubt about how the FA already viewed Revie’s Leeds: as an affront to their game.

Of course the table didn’t tell the full story, and Revie put the FA straight. It included points incurred by the club’s junior and schoolboy teams, accounting for the vast majority of United’s offences; we can only imagine now what the level of aggro was in the Leeds schools’ leagues in 1963, compared with, say, Buckinghamshire. The first team had been one of the few in the Second Division not to have a player sent off, and only one Leeds player had been booked often enough to be suspended; Billy Bremner, obviously.

“We would point out that we have only had two players sent off at Leeds in the last 44 years,” said Revie. “We maintain that the ‘dirty team’ tag which was blown up by the press could prejudice not only the general public but the officials controlling the game, and, to put it mildly, could have an effect on the subconscious approach of both referee and linesmen, to say nothing of the minds of spectators, especially some types who are watching football today. It could lead to some very unsavoury incidents.”

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Revie was right. As a Second Division team there had been no television coverage and scant newspaper attention to Leeds United’s play, other than the London press’ increasing condemnation of their physical approach. Nobody had seen them play, but the reports in the papers and in the FA’s own journal meant the First Division expected war. Few teams at that time regarded themselves as shrinking violets, so when Leeds took to the pitch, they faced sides that were determined to get their retaliation in first, so that before Albert Johanneson could dazzle on one wing, Johnny Giles work craftily on the other, or Billy Bremner control the game with intelligence and skill, Bremner, Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton had to stamp their authority on opponents determined to quell Leeds’ reputed violence before it started. ‘Dirty Leeds’ had been an unearned tag bestowed by the media and the authorities, and it became, as Don Revie predicted, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How long that endured, and how much it influenced what followed for Leeds, remains a source of debate, that is still relevant now. Leeds, meeting Italian teams first in friendlies and then in the Fairs Cup, had felt they had no choice but to take the game to the limits of the rulebook if it was to compete with them; and with the entire First Division out to get them, they adopted the role of villains, so easily that perhaps even they forgot they were acting. The unfairness of that initial report, blaming Hunter and co for the actions of some twelve year olds in the school age teams, became the start of a plague of injustice against Leeds, from Peter Lorimer’s disallowed goal in the 1967 FA Cup semi-final, to the European Cup final in 1975, to the linesman who declared Wes Brown’s own goal offside in 2001, denying a win over Manchester United that would have taken Leeds back into the Champions League. But Leeds never helped themselves.

All the way to 2019, and a £200,000 fine without a rule broken, a goal given to the opposition despite adhering to the referee, a player rightly banned for diving beneath an imaginary punch, an opposing player not banned for not punching our player to the ground, another not banned for butting the back of our player’s head, rather than the front. Leeds have won and lost in other moments, too; in this season’s games against Nottingham Forest, they gained when Kemar Roofe’s goal was allowed to stand despite the ball hitting his hand, but lost when Jack Robinson was only booked for a professional foul at the City Ground, and Kalvin Phillips sent off for a late one. But those were in-game decisions that turned on the match officials’ ability to make their minds up immediately under pressure. It’s when the Football Association has had a chance to really sit down and think about things, with a cup of tea, video tape and all the supporting evidence, that things have gone against Leeds, still.

In his first press conference as Leeds United’s head coach, at the end of last June, Marcelo Bielsa said, “I know everything that a foreigner could possibly know and could have absorbed about Leeds United and what Leeds United means to supporters in this country.” By now, after all the injuries, the missed chances, the missed promotion, the cancelled transfers, the media attention and the injustice, I think Bielsa knows as much about Leeds United as if he had been born in Beeston in 1955. It’s hard to tell which has left him feeling more helpless: his strikers’ failure to convert the best and most numerous chances a Championship team can make for a player, or the consistent bending of the rules against Leeds United. After the Aston Villa game, he said, “English football is known around the world for the noble features of how we play the competition,” and he’s made that claim so often this season it has started sounding as much like a plea as, ‘Patrick, please just put the ball in the net.’

While Bielsa says he leaves the work of his strikers up to destiny and the fates, he has been determined to take back control of the ‘dirty Leeds’ narrative in a way that I don’t think the domestic media expected, or understand. While Sky Sports News stand flippantly in front of their oh-so-hilarious mock-up of Bielsa with binoculars, and guileless journalists fail to read the room and try to get a giggle out of Bielsa over spygate, he has calmly exposed the game’s double standards, by taking them all seriously. And, although football is supposed to be more important than life and death, you’re not supposed to take its serious aspects seriously. If you swear on television after a game, you’ll be banned amid much regret at the declining standards of decorum among our football players. But analyse the reasoning contained within an FA report and critique the implications of its conclusions? Well, that’s just not on. What happened to the banter?

To much of the media, spygate was like unwrapping a banter-generating machine, but few realised that Bielsa’s seventy-minute extraordinary press conference on the subject was pulling the plug from under them until long after they’d carried on missing the point. After making his explanation, Bielsa never brought it up again, until the fine was announced and he said merely that he was glad the affair was over; and last week, when he clarified that he had taken responsibility for the situation and paid the £200,000 fine himself.

Last week was when Bielsa’s tipping point was reached, as he drew out the hypocrisy in the FA’s banning Pat Bamford for simulation, then not banning Conor Hourihane because Mateusz Klich didn’t simulate pain when he was jabbed in the stomach by Villa’s midfielder. Bielsa has never looked or sounded more like a Leeds fan than when he was using Salim Lamrani’s arm to demonstrate the strength of different punches, trying to establish what level of violence the FA finds acceptable against a Leeds player. Bruised skin? Bruised kidneys? A broken nose? What if Hourihane had a knife? The FA might draw the line there, but then again, it would depend what sort of knife. After his exasperated explanation of the implications of the FA’s ruling, I half expected Bielsa to pull up a videotape of Leeds against Bayern Munich in 1975 and get stuck into UEFA too, and I fully suspected that Bielsa is now too far gone with Leeds United for this to be his only season at Elland Road.

This week’s press conference was his proper retort. Respectful as ever, he let the journalists ask all their questions first, before begging to delay them with one more thing, like Columbo in Kappa. He had spoken with all his players and they’d decided that, from now on, they would “adapt 100 per cent to the rules.” If a player goes down injured, from either team, Leeds will keep playing until and unless the referee stops them.

“We just want to find a solution to this doubt,” he said. “We will say before the game to the referee, and the head coach and captain of Derby County, that we will behave like that.”

No doubt, no ambiguity, and no drama; no raising of the commentator’s voice as a Derby County player goes down to the floor and Richard Keogh’s eyeballs come out on stalks as he tries to get the ball put out of play; no repeat of the controversy, and about half the day’s script thrown in the bin. One of the big questions that would have been at the heart of the coverage of the play-off semi-finals — how would the players react if that situation arose again? — was killed stone dead by Bielsa, who has taken the responsibility for answering that situation away from his players, the way he took the responsibility of paying the spygate fine, the way he’s taken responsibility for everything they’ve done and everything that has happened at Leeds this season, because he’s the head coach, and he sees that as his job.

“You that belong to English football,” he asked the assembled journalists, after telling them about his decision, “Do you believe there is something wrong in my analysis? I don’t want to take the risk that my logic goes against a deeply rooted habit here.”

Well, in that it prevents a way for the football authorities and media to chastise Leeds for their alleged poor sporting behaviour, the way they have since 1964, it does go against a deeply rooted habit here, yes. But nobody in the room was about to contradict him, and I suspect that Bielsa knew they wouldn’t, and knew the answer anyway.

“Thank you,” he said. Ah no, Marcelo. Thank you, for learning so quickly that as head coach of Leeds United your job goes beyond training a team, to managing an unwieldy, unfair and bitter legacy, and for taking the responsibility. If you think this attention has been bad, you should see what it’s like when Leeds are in the top division. Maybe, next season, you will. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)

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