The Square Ball Week: Salem Chapel

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

As part of Leeds United’s centenary celebrations on 17th October 2019, I was asked to give a talk at Salem Chapel in Hunslet, Leeds, where Leeds United began on 17th October 1919. I was on stage with Liam Cooper, Norman Hunter and Andrea Radrizzani, hosted by Bryn Law; also present were Tom Riordan and Councillor Judith Blake representing Leeds City Council, representatives from Leeds United Supporters Club, who were founded in the same room at the same time, and around eighty invited season ticket holders who share their birthday with the club.

The video of the full speech is, hopefully, already lost forever, as my inept microphone work and a brief interlude when Andrea Radrizzani was trying to help me by acting as a mic stand were a rough start, until Bryn Law took charge and smoothed things over. The last part, and the contributions from Andrea Radrizzani, Liam Cooper and Norman Hunter, can be seen in this video on LUTV.

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A few people have asked for the full version of my bit, and with that nervous, significant and humbling morning out of the way, I’m happy to write it down for everyone here.

It’s an honour to be here for the first time, inside a building I feel like I’ve known for years, and on such an important day.

But I can’t help thinking that, if things had turned out as they should, we would have had this celebration fifteen years ago. In August 2004, at the Griffin Hotel on Boar Lane, to mark 100 years of soccer at Elland Road, played by Leeds City Football Club.

We don’t have time to go through the dramatic downfall of Leeds City, but if I sum it up by saying it involved unhappy players, angry former shareholders, harsh treatment from the football authorities, and underhand dealing by another club, perhaps Andrea and Angus will think that not much has changed in English football in 100 years.

Friday 17th October 1919 was the day soccer in Leeds was supposed to die. A Football League committee came to the city, to the Metropole Hotel, to auction off the players and finally close the club.

The impact felt in the city comes through in the way it was talked about at the time, it was ‘the Leeds City Scandal’, a ‘tragedy’ for Leeds, the player auction was ‘a melancholy spectacle’, what happened to the club was called ‘an execution’.

It had taken a long time for soccer to start in Leeds, and many people wondered if this might be the end.

Alf Masser was one Leeds fan who wouldn’t let that happen. Masser was a councillor for 40 consecutive years, a sportsman, a solicitor who estimated he defended on average 2,000 court cases a year. He was on the parks committee, the tramways committee, the Lifeboat Fund, the Flying Club, the Automobile Club, he co-founded Headingley (Rugby) Football Club. And he was one of the first — and loudest — shareholders of Leeds City.

Alf would have been a football chairman’s worst nightmare, speaking up in every meeting, arguing every point, stirring up trouble.

But he was also a football chairman’s best friend. He joined the board of Leeds City and worked alongside chairman Norris Hepworth for several years, trying to get more shareholders to invest and ease his burden, before stepping down during the First World War. Masser didn’t believe a football club should belong to one person, like Norris Hepworth, he believed it should belong to the city. That its people should pay for it and have their say.

When the Football League came to bury Leeds City, Alf Masser was at the Metropole. He spoke to them before the auction, and after, using all his courtroom training and practice to make his persuasive case: that Leeds should have a new football club.

After that, he left the plush Metropole, in the banking district north of the river. And he came here, to the River Aire’s south bank, to this chapel hall, hemmed in by mills and warehouses, a soap works, a leather market, Tetley’s brewery.

He’d called a meeting, and 1,000 people came. The Leeds Mercury said that, judging by their unwashed hands, many had come ‘straight from artisan work’.

Alf told the room that the Football League would consider supporting a new club, as long as it had nothing to do with the old one. He said it would be called Leeds United.

And that was the start.

But they had no players — the League had sold them all. They had no ground — Elland Road had just been rented to Yorkshire Amateurs. They had no board — nobody from the last Leeds City board was allowed to carry on with the new club.

But they had 1,000 supporters in this room in Salem Chapel, and they had a point to prove.

Joseph Henry Sr, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, made an important speech here at another meeting a couple of weeks later. He said he’d been ready to have nothing more to do with soccer after Leeds City was closed.

“It was nothing less than a scandal,” he said, “That the feelings of a city should have been so entirely ignored by a body of men who acted as autocrats.”

But now he wanted soccer to prosper in Leeds. He said,

“What has already been done to resurrect the game, since Leeds City was executed as a club, will show the football authorities in London and Sheffield that there is no lack of Association football vitality in Leeds.”

That was the spirit in this room, the spirit in 1,000 supporters, standing where we are now. Leeds was going to show them.

Most football clubs, they started small, forming in the 1880s or 1890s. They grew, they evolved, became whatever they are today.

Leeds United never had that luxury. Leeds United started in this room, in Salem Chapel, in 1919, because the people of Leeds wanted it. And because they wanted to prove something.

Alf Masser asked this room three things on 17th October 1919. Would they back a new team? Would they back a new company, to run it? And would they back a new Supporters’ Club, to give it life?

“Unless I have you behind me,” he said, “I finish.”

1,000 people backed him, unanimously.

And now we have Alf Masser to thank, and the 1,000 people who came here that night to support him to thank.

That night means more than the registration of a new company or filing an application to join a league.

That night changed our lives. Everybody here, and many who couldn’t be with us.

What would have become of John Charles?

What would Don Revie have done when his playing career ended?

Would Albert Johanneson have been allowed to keep playing soccer in South Africa?

Would Norman Hunter have moved to Leeds as a teenager, played 723 games, and watched thousands more at Elland Road since?

Andrea Radrizzani has come from Italy. Marcelo Bielsa has come from Argentina. Liam Cooper has come down the M62.

And we’re all here. Together.

Together in the things we’ve seen, the songs we’ve sung, the lessons we’ve learned, the ways that we have all lived our lives.

It was all changed, before we ever knew it. 100 years ago. Here. ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

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