Approaching Leeds by train from the west, it is hard to overlook Elland Road, as the massive, cantilevered East Stand from 1992-94 rises above everything else in sight. At the time of construction, it was the biggest cantilevered stand in the UK, a swift response to the Taylor report’s call for modern all-seater stadiums. Perhaps a marker put out to the rest of the football world to underline that Leeds United had returned to the top of English football, winning the last pre-Premier League title.
Success, however, was rather shortlived. After a couple of mediocre seasons, Leeds seemed to have returned to the top by the end of the 90’s, but rather recklessly, Leeds then calculated on Champions League football in their budgets. As the team failed to deliver that, the club was weighed down by it’s debt, before collapsing financially and going under administration in 2007.
Relegation to the third tier of English football followed, but in 2010, Leeds managed to win promotion the Championship, generating optimism and belief in a return to the Premier League. And probably because of this new belief, the club started planning a museum, employing a curator for it, Helen. And a very inspiring presentation of her visions for the museum at a symposium at the National Football Museum, convinced me that a trip to Leeds would be worthwile. And that was the reason why I got off the train in Leeds on a cold, frosty day in January 2013.
The taxi from the station drops me off by a pub opposite the ground on Elland Road, The Old Peacock. The sloping hill on this side of Elland Road is full of small alleys with terraced housing; whereas industrial plants and the ringroad make the other sides of the ground rather un-welcoming. But on this cold day, even the alleys seem deserted.
I head straight for the reception in the East Stand, and within a couple of minutes Helen comes and takes me for lunch at the stadium pub in the South Stand, facing Elland Road. “Billy’s Bar” it is called, named after Leeds legend Billy Bremner, of course. There are quite a few people there, but compared to the Anfields, Emirates, Stamford Bridges and Old Traffords of this world, it seems very local. Not that Leeds don’t have lots of followers abroard. They certainly have quite a few in Scandinavia. And it is not that Leeds as a city is not worth visiting – with a nice city centre, museums and some amazing 19th century industrial complexes. But the lack of exposure in televised top matches has prevented mass football tourism from developing around the club.
Maybe the club owners had this in mind, when they employed Helen to get the museum going. That a museum combined with stadium tours would attract people to the ground throughout the year and not only on matchdays. But Helen seems to be more engaged in the thought of making the club museum a focus for development of local identity. To raise local pride in the club and its achievements, and to use the interest in the club to generate community engaging projects.
After lunch, Helen takes me on a tour of the John Charles Stand, the oldest stand in the ground, built in 1957 after a fire had destroyed its predecessor the previous year. To finance the building, the club had to sell their biggest star, John Charles, so it was somehow ironic that the stand was named after him, when he died in 2004. The stand houses a lot of suites for meetings and match day hospitality, as well as the board room. And these suites are currently the display area for the clubs collection of memorabilia. Helen has so far registered over 5.000 objects, and she estimates that there are another 10.000 still to register.
The rooms are rather small, the corridors narrow, the showcases crammed into them are stuffed with objects. Lots of trophies. Presents from teams abroad. Autographed shirts and international caps. Old photos and newspaper cuttings, matchday pennants as well as souvenir pennants and rosettes from the 70’s, the classic stocking numbers worn by Leeds in the 70’s, matchday programes, old boots and footballs. You keep coming across stuff related to Don Revie, Billy Bremner, Paul Reaney, Jack Charlton etc. It is, in a sense, quite fitting that the suites and lounges have the same 70’ish atmosphere, rather than being open spaces in a modern stand with a lot of steel and glass around.
The tour takes us through the players’ tunnel to pitch-side. We walk around the pitch to the East Stand, where all the objects not on display in the lounges are stored, before ending up in a meeting room called “Away team”. Helen shows me some of the drafts for an exhibition, and we discuss them. It is a stimulating challenge. On the one hand, the sixties and seventies stand out as the golden age of the club, shaping the identity, with lots of great moments and memories. On the other hand, football clubs are so much about present success, and highlighting the golden days make the current plight of the club seem rather sad.
Less than a month before my visit, Leeds United was taken over by new owners with the ominous sounding name GFH Capital. Helen is a bit uncertain what implications this take-over will have for the museum plans. And rightly so. The following summer the plans are scrapped, and Helen moves on to another museum, before an attempt to buy out GFH Capital collapses. The club ends up being bought by the president of Italian club Cagliari, Massimo Cellino’s family consortium.
It is a great pity. It would have been interesting to see a club museum that did not compete with the big four clubs in staking claims as to being the “greatest” or “most succesfull” or “best supported” football club in the world, but rather focused on local identity. A bit like the Wolverhampton Wanderers museum, which, alas, is not very inviting to the local fans with a very high admission fee and few opportunities for active participation from the visitors.
Three days later, I return to Elland Road for a match. Leeds United are playing bottom-of-the-table Bristol City, and my museum colleague from Leeds, Layla, has promised to purchase tickets for us. At first, she says that she will get tickets for the Kop. Despite not being a Leeds United supporter, and knowing that Elland Road in general and the Kop in particular can be very hostile, I am quite excited at the prospect. But in the end Layla’s husband persuades her to buy tickets for the John Charles stand instead, as everybody on the Kop is standing throughout the match and will make it difficult for her to see very much.
The weather has turned even colder than three days before, in fact, there are doubts whether the match will go ahead because of the wintry conditions. Many people choose not to brave the weather to go to the match, and the cold probably puts a dampener on those who do turn up.
I decide to go to the ground early to have a look around. There are a few stalls along Elland Road, but not the usual build-up of anticipation around the ground, although “Billy’s Bar” and the “Old Peacock” seem packed for the match. I decide to buy my pre-match fish ‘n chips from “Gravely’s award winning Yorkshire fish ‘n chips”. It is not the greatest, but it is ok, although it is difficult to find a comfortable place to eat it. I have difficulties keeping my warmth despite wearing my Scandinavian winter gear. And I look in amazement on the local Leeds fans who turn up for the match in T-shirts!
Having had my meal, I take a walk around the ground. The stand-out place is the corner of the South and East Stands which not only feature the clubs souvenir shop but a coloured statue of Billy Bremner with clenched fists, looking towards the terraced housing on the slope across Elland Road. Somebody has wrapped a Leeds scarf around his arm, and there are wreaths on front of the statue.
Walking along the East Stand (which contains a nursery), I come to a less prominent statue of Don Revie, surrounded by memorial plates for deceased fans. Covered in snow, it looks rather gloomy, but memorials such as this certainly give stadiums soul and identity.
Although there are very few Bristol City fans, who have braved the weather, the police is still present in numbers, as they always are. They seem to have their headquarters by the East Stand.
The souvenir shop used to be positioned further down Elland Road, but the old building is now standing empty, looking condemned. The new one, on the hand, has a distinct air of “temporary facility”. Still, it is a lot warmer than outside, so I spend some time wandering around looking at books, scarves, shirts etc. Perhaps because fans do not feel tempted to turn up early in the cold, the shop is not particularly busy. Although I spot a few fellow Scandinavians, it also seems pretty local.
Walking further around the ground, the East Stand looks rather dull and depressing, but outside the John Charles Stand (with an attached hospitality building and ticket office), there is much more life. The coach with Bristol players arrive, and the last few Leeds United players arrive for the match in their cars, stop and sign autographs for the fans. Of course, there are not that many fans waiting for autographs, but nice to see that the players reward those who have braved the weather; that doesn’t happen everywhere.
I get a text from Layla that she is on her way, and we meet by the Billy Bremner Statue before making our way back to the John Charles Stand. We head straight for our seats, front row near the half way line. The Leeds players do their warm-up routine right in front of us. There is a strangely subdued atmosphere. A lot of people have stayed away because of the weather, most of the people who have turned up stay inside the stand for a drink even longer than usual; and those who have entered the stands are concentrating on keeping warm.
The Kop – or rather what used to be a giant, sloping Kop-stand on a crescent, until a modern allseater stand was build in 1994 with what is said to be the most advanced ground control box in the Europe, recording and monitoring everybody inside the ground – is arguably the most densely populated part of the ground. But even this part of the ground seem rather subdued. There is a playback of the 1972 FACup final tune “marching on together – Leeds, Leeds, Leeds” before the match, and people join in around the ground. In contrast to most club anthems that go to the tunes of popular songs, this is a song written for Leeds United. There is a lot of 70’ish nostalgia about it – but it is also fair to assume that it would have been forgotten decades ago, if it had to be judged purely on its musical quality. As it is, it is another reminder of the great days of the club in the 70’ies.
The match is like the weather. Something to endure. Everybody has turned up expecting Leeds to thrash the bottom-of-the-table side, but Leeds huff and puff to put together a decent move, and, in fact, Bristol City look sharper and more crisp on the break. Frustration grips the home growd, with groans over every misplaced path; and sitting next to the touchline, we can almost sense how the groans affect the players. At half-time we hurry down to the very narrow and jammed concourse under the stand to get a coffee and some warmth. It is not like the open space that I saw under the East Stand, during my visit three days earlier. Had the first half been good, it would probably have been brimming with excitement, as the local fans are jammed together. But on this day, I sense the frustration hanging even more thickly in the air.
Leeds do get a breakthrough late in the second half, and record a 1-0 win. But it is too late to win over the crowd. After the final whistle, we hurry to the car park outside the ground. With the crowd a mere 15.000, we do manage to hit the road fairly quickly and head for the warmth of a pub.
I leave Leeds with a strange feeling. You can look at it positively and say that the heritage of the club is still alive; or you can take a more negative look and say that the club lives in the shadow of the 60’s and 70’s. On this day – maybe because of the weather or the disappointing match – the past certainly felt like a heavy burden. And somehow the gigantic West Stand looks like a symbol of great expectations that have failed to materialize, contrasting sharply to the surroundings. But I guess it will look a lot different on a warm, sunny spring day with a big crowd and a great game. I will have to go back and check it out.