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An all-white kit. The old West Stand entrance. Sock tags and team tracksuits. The smiley badge. Lee Chapman and Leslie Ash.
Leeds United rarely gets the credit for it, but when it comes to style, our grumpy club from LS11 has always been the envy of other clubs.
“The best thing anyone said about Leeds Leeds Leeds magazine,” says its founder and editor, James Brown, “Was when the editor of United We Stand said he wished Manchester United had a magazine like LLL. He put that in their fanzine. You can imagine how that went down.”
You probably can’t imagine, unless you were there, how Leeds Leeds Leeds went down when it was unveiled in September 1998. Like club websites or TV channels now, official club magazines were as dry and uncontroversial as official club programmes. They generally weren’t run by anyone splitting his time between Leeds United and Condé Nast, as editor of GQ, who had previously founded Loaded, the controversial magazine that altered the entire outlook of the publishing industry. And there was nothing in them to bring condemnation on national radio from David Mellor.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”Why don’t we do stickers of George Graham’s face that you can put in the toilet?”[/x_pullquote]
“We had an idea, that came from a guy called Mark Waites, who founded an ad agency called Mother,” says James. “We had an editorial meeting with about ten of us there, all Leeds fans, and Mark said, ‘Why don’t we do stickers of George Graham’s face that you can put in the toilet, and say, George Graham only shit on us once, you can shit on him five times a week.’ And we put it in, because that’s exactly what I would have done at Loaded. Then we had some mums complaining, and people ringing up David Mellor on 606, but Peter Ridsdale came up to me and said, ‘Listen, I can’t be publicly seen to approve of this: but it’s great, and we all loved it.’
“The magazine was full of effing and blinding, and I just didn’t think anything of it. That’s just what I did, and nobody was checking what we put in. I didn’t really know any different, because I’d had so much freedom at Loaded to do exactly what I wanted, because it was making so much money and winning every award and changing publishing throughout the world, so they just let me get on with it. It was like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, like a fanzine that was being produced officially by the club.”
The contrast with the club’s previous official magazine, that fizzled out around March the previous season — Martin Hiden was its final cover star, a new signing photographed in a shirt and tie at his unveiling — couldn’t have been greater. The cover of issue one featured Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, half his face in shadow, topless, a gold chain resting across his chest hair, staring sullen into the camera. Inside was a full fashion-style photoshoot of Jimmy by photographer and Leeds fan Justin Slee, plus slightly lower quality photographs taken on away trips by Lee Sharpe with a disposable Kodak. Early issues featured contributions from Vic Reeves and Mad Frankie Fraser, and Irvine Welsh, world famous author of Trainspotting, eulogising Billy Bremner.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”What are we going to do after we’ve done Jimmy and Harry Kewell?”[/x_pullquote]
Because they were working together at Doncaster, John Sheridan, Tommy Wright and the Snodin brothers were photographed together in black and white. Interviews with fan favourites like Harry Kewell were placed between photo features on ‘Hard Men’ that included forgotten names like Byron Stevenson and Noel Blake, and profiles of up and coming youth players like Tommy Knarvik. Top it all off with a cross section cartoon of Lee Bowyer’s brain (“I mean, his nickname was ‘Cabbage’,” says James, “But he wasn’t pleased”) and you had a glossy, funny, well designed and properly distributed publication that was soon shifting 24,000 copies a month.
“It was going on while I was still editing GQ,” says James. “I’d stopped drinking, and when that happened I had a lot of time on my hands, a real lot. I finished working at 6pm and I’d been going to bed at 2am, so I had eight hours a day. Leeds had a magazine that wasn’t very well funded and was produced in Manchester, and I just thought, that’s not right. I knew a lot of journalists who were Leeds fans, and a lot of fans who could write, and I thought I could just do it in my spare time, which initially I did.
“I was in quite a strong position professionally, at the time. I had the European Cup of publishing awards, which is Editor’s Editor of the Year. The people running Leeds could see this might be an asset that could bring something of value to the club. When my friend Hayden Evans and I put it to the club that we could do a magazine, they understood. They thought it was a great idea.
“My intention was to create a magazine that had a load of value, that was interesting to read, that covered different generations. In every issue we always had the sixties and the Revie era, we always had the late-seventies, we always had the mid-eighties in Division Two, and we were doing it in the nineties, so we made sure it was contemporary whether you were fifty years old or fifteen. There would be information in there that caught your experience of Leeds.
“What was interesting at the start was that when we took over we could only see two or three cover stars. When you’re doing a monthly magazine, I think you always have to know that you can do at least eight covers ahead. On issue one I remember sitting there saying, what are we going to do after we’ve done Jimmy and Harry Kewell? But then David O’Leary took over, and in one of his first games he put Stephen McPhail and Jonathan Woodgate in the side, and they were great. Suddenly the team had them, Ian Harte, Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer came back from injury, Lucas Radebe emerged — we suddenly had all these guys to write about. Then he started spending as well: Michael Bridges, Danny Mills, Darren Huckerby, who everyone was excited about. So from an editorial point of view, as well as from a footballing point of view, it was an absolute godsend.
“And they gave us absolutely brilliant access to the team. We had Dave Simpson doing interviews, the music journalist who writes for The Guardian now, and because he was used to asking bands questions with nobody telling him what he can’t ask, he got much better interviews than the local press who had to be careful not to upset people. Justin Slee was a fan and an emerging photographer and he’d go up to Thorp Arch and shoot people, and he began creating so much content that the club could start doing calendars and merchandise.
“It was a great combination of this emergence of new stars and signings, my skills and contacts that allowed me to succeed in the mainstream, and all the editorial freedom that I’d had at Loaded. I used to love doing it, it was really good fun. I used to write this column with a guy called Les Rowley, another Leeds fan who had been on Loaded and is a comedy writer. It was called ‘True or False’, and we would just sit and make up lies. Like, the goalposts had cheese in them. There was a well under the centre circle. Ian Harte can’t read. Tony Yeboah’s arse was used as the blueprint for a dam in Ghana. And it was the funniest thing, listening to David Mellor reading these out on 606, in disgust.”
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”Ridsdale just booted it into his own massive ego”[/x_pullquote]
Flicking through those early issues of LLL now is a reminder of the hoary old adage about the journey often being better than the destination. Valencia in the Champions League semi-final was the high watermark of the last twenty-five years, but given the fallout, it’s somehow less thrilling to look back on that game, than at a fashion photoshoot from 1999 featuring youth team stars Matthew Jones, Harpal Singh and Gareth Evans posing moodily in Firetrap gear in a cafe in town, or a cover shot of Alan Smith frowning, like the grumpy teenager he was, in a Stone Island coat. That issue, from March 1999, still looks contemporary now, so you can imagine how it felt to have it representing our club at the time: before it all went wrong.
“It was an unusual time, definitely,” says James. “The guys that had taken over the club were real businessmen, people like Chris Akers and Jeremy Fenn. They wanted to make money out of the club. I remember the first time I realised that. I had a season ticket in the Kop, but we’d been given tickets in the Director’s Box that we could use for advertisers, writers, or ourselves. Which was just surreal, because I just carried on as if I was in the stand. I remember sitting next to Jeremy Fenn for an FA Cup game against Birmingham, and Jimmy grabbed his marker by the bollocks, he fell to the floor, and Jimmy nodded in a winner in the last minute. Everyone was really excited, then Jeremy turned to me said, ‘Damn, we could have really done with the replay money.’
“But he was honest about it. They weren’t rubbing their hands together, they were trying to make it a successful business. They weren’t Leeds fans, they were guys who had floated companies and knew how companies should be run, and they weren’t getting carried away because they didn’t support the team. But they were doing the right things, it was being run properly, and it was going pretty well. But because they weren’t traditional Leeds fans, they had Peter Ridsdale in there. And then those guys left.”
Leeds United were on an upward trajectory when first Chris Akers and then Jeremy Fenn left the club, allowing Peter Ridsdale to take control, and we’ll never know whether that path would have taken Leeds United to the same European heights we reached, or maybe even further. What James does know is that, Champions League glory or not, Peter Ridsdale was the catalyst for the twenty-year long disaster from which the club is still recovering.
“That was the moment,” he says. “Even if it was a very exciting moment. I remember being on the beach at Maritimo after George Graham had left, sunbathing. Peter came up to me, asking where Hayden Evans was, because he needed him to contact Gordon Strachan this instant. And I thought, why would you do that? I wasn’t an employee of the club, I was a fan and a supplier of services, I was editing GQ. Why would you go up to someone like me and announce who you want as manager, unless it’s to say, ‘Ooh, look at me’? There were loads of stories like that, of him in Yeadon Airport mouthing off very loudly.
“I once went to interview him at Chelsea Hotel, and I took an NME photographer along. I told the photographer, listen to the reply to this first question, and you’ll learn everything you need to know about him. I said to Peter, you’re the sort of flamboyant, visible chairman a lot of fans would like, because you’re a fan. What do you think about it? And instead of going, oh no, or playing it down, he was straight into, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I think lots of clubs would love to have a chairman like me.’ I teed the ball up for him to be modest, and he just booted it into his own massive ego.”
As James warms up about Ridsdale, his voice rises, his fist comes down on the table.
“The root of everything that has happened since, whether you’ve been for or against the people that came after, was that point. It wasn’t like we were a club that had to overstretch because we needed to. We didn’t need to overstretch ourselves. We — had — enough. They shouldn’t have had to sack David O’Leary — they should have managed him properly so we didn’t get into financial trouble. It was like giving a four year old sweets, they’re not going to say no. We didn’t need Seth Johnson — we had a really strong midfield. We didn’t need six strikers — three would have done. We had Viduka, Kewell, Smith, Keane, Bridges, Fowler. We had six top-class centre-forwards — three of them would have been fine, and then think of all that money saved?
“It’s the crux of everything that has happened. I remember David O’Leary saying there was no room at the club anymore for players like Stephen McPhail, because we’d signed Seth Johnson. To me, McPhail was like a cross between Batty and McAllister, he could move around a bit and could play beautifully. But nobody questioned it.
“It was about greed, about not believing there was enough you could do on the pitch with what you had. And the amount of money everybody was earning allowed Peter Ridsdale to make himself higher paid than Martin Edwards, who was actually winning things, because the manager and the senior coaches and the directors were all on massive money, so nobody was going to complain.
“People say you can’t keep blaming Ridsdale, but you can. You can keep blaming him. Because football is in many ways about legacies, like Liverpool and the boot room, or the Revie players that came through and stayed forever. There are still players who stay at clubs, and those players that emerged from our own youth system, from Eddie Gray and Paul Hart, they should all have been at Leeds for five years or ten years. Not a year-and-a-half or three years.”
Which perhaps sounds over romantic, but that was the tragedy of the Ridsdale era: that it was the triumph of greed and ego over romanticism, the prioritising of expensive baubles like Johnson and Fowler over our own hard-mined diamonds like McPhail and Smith. And isn’t romance the whole bloody point?
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”The best thing about writing a book is people saying, I love this”[/x_pullquote]
It’s the big point of the success of James’ latest venture, as author of Above Head Height: A Five-a-Side Life, a book ostensibly about playing five-a-side, that he’s keen to stress is available in hardback and makes a great Christmas present; alternatively, you can get an early paperback copy from WHSmiths in airport duty free, ahead of a full paperback release next year.
“It’s changed my opinion about buying books,” says James. “I’m buying more books now because I’ve written one, and I know how it feels when someone tells you they’ve bought it. The best thing about writing a book is people just getting in touch and saying, I love this. Then the worst thing is, I now know how it feels when you see a mate and they go, ‘How’s the book doing?’ And I ask them if they enjoyed it. And they say they haven’t bought it. That makes you feel rubbish. Why are you asking me how it’s selling if you haven’t bothered buying it? So, knowing the enjoyment when somebody reads it and likes it has made me buy a lot of other books.”
Buying Above Head Height is money well spent. Although it’s supposed to be about five-a-side, it’s really about the feeling of kicking a ball, the great leveller that unites us all, from five year olds to fifty year olds, with the heroes we watch kicking balls for a living every week.
“That’s why it’s been so popular,” says James. “Because it’s a story, a story most of us can identify with. I scored a goal last week, and straight away the best player in our group came up and said, that’s goal of the season. I shouldn’t even have been playing, I’d done my hamstring but I’d forgotten, so I ended up in goal for most of it. But I came out for the last ten minutes, and this ball bobbled up and I clipped it like I was hitting a golf ball, and it just flew. It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
“But we all do that every week. Whether you’re twelve, or 52 like me, you either see something or do something playing football every week that is genuinely world class standard. How does that happen? It’s bizarre, and it’s so weird you can do that. You don’t get your average amateur painter suddenly banging something out that Picasso might have done. But somebody playing football right now in Leeds has just scored an amazing goal. And it’s that enthusiasm that drove me all the way through the book.
“There’s masses of Leeds in it too,” adds James, and he’s right: my favourite is the list of great attacking partnerships that includes, ‘Rush and Dalglish, Snodgrass and Becchio’. “I did wonder whether non-Leeds fans would find that irksome, but it’s my book, so I wrote what I wanted. Originally the cover had me on it in a red shirt, but I told them they could get that changed.
“A lot of it is set while growing up around here, about kicking the ball against end terraces, playing on the bit of grass near the rugby and cricket grounds, about never getting a trial for Leeds City Boys but knowing kids who did, or playing school matches for Bedford Fields against Blenheim. It was an opportunity to go back to my childhood, like sitting in the pub with your mates and reminiscing, and a lot of people have got in touch to say, that’s what it was like for me where I grew up, or that’s still what it’s like, playing football now.”
Around here, while we were talking, was Headingley, where James grew up, and where he was about to go for a chip buttie before heading to the Students Union to watch The Undertones, before Leeds away at Barnsley the next day.
At one point, James told me about one of his saddest times as a Leeds fan: watching Ben Parker celebrating an incredible solo goal at Northampton Town one night, then going to the Emirates Stadium see Arsenal in the Champions League the next, and realising how far away Leeds had fallen.
But it doesn’t always matter. If you’ve got the feeling of memories, and chip butties, and can score a great goal at five-a-side, and go to watch bands, and then go to watch Leeds, then you don’t need the Champions League, not really. You don’t need Robbie Fowler when you’ve got Alan Smith. There’s a lot to be said for just having enough. ◉
(artwork by James Clapham)
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