Kicking Up a Little Hornet's Nest of Hope

Alex Livesey

A lesson of hope from darker days, Watford 8th October 1988...

There will be lots of you, of that I am sure, will be visiting Elland Road today downcast at the club's current position and form. It is for you that I have written this piece and with reference to the nickname of todays' visitors, hopefully kick up a little Hornets nest of hope for the rest of the season via a lesson from the past.

A little over 24 years ago, In the Autumn of 1988 I had just began my first year at a new school. In those early nervous weeks of that term, new friendships were made (some that even endure today) and similar interests were shared. One of those interests was of course football and of Leeds United in particular.

My time at Middle School (for those of you fortunate enough to not be ancient like me, a middle school was an intermediate school between primary and high school but now a defunct relic of the education system) I seemed to be surrounded by lads who hailed their allegiance to our friends from Merseyside, namely Liverpool.

Being a Leeds fan back then in the mid-80's could be a strange, lonely and humiliating cross to bear at times. Liverpool won everything most years whilst Leeds languished in the second tier, living on wistful memories of greater days. By the time High School came around however, I found an influx of fellow United sufferers like myself. At the start of the season I, like many others, had for a small fee had purchased a yellow membership card that enabled you access to the old Lowfields stand for a reasonable price of £2.00 thus enabling us to attend most home matches without accumulating too much damage to the weekly pocket money.

On the 8th October the usual group met up for the visit of today's visitors Watford, my cheap admission to that rickety old stand perched on a hill (a million miles away from the comfortable, posh East Stand that some of you will watch the game from today) gave me spare money to buy a programme for 80p from an old man with one remaining yellow tooth.

The programme that day echoed the desperate situation the club was in; we had no manager and in the absence of the usual programme notes from a manager, it instead contained a message from the chairman, Leslie Silver. In these notes Silver thanked the outgoing manager Billy Bremner for his dedication and loyalty in his three year reign. It was an unnecessary appraisal; something that most fans knew was already summed up aptly in the lyric of a song praising the former glory years captain with the line "for the sake of Leeds United, he would cut himself in two".

I remembered watching Bremner after he had been called to Elland road to hear of his dismissal. The look on his face as he unlocked his car door was a reflection of the hurt of, like the song lyric, being emotionally cut in two.

Silver skimmed over the bare facts of Billy's reign, of both missing out on promotion and an appearance in the FA Cup final by only a matter of minutes in both occasions. He outlined the need to find the right man to take the club back to its rightful place in the ‘elite'.

Peter Gunby, another loyal servant of the club had been put in temporary charge of team affairs. Although Gunby was of course a man of vast experience, it was apparent that United could do without a visit from the current league leaders Watford who were bidding to make an instant return to the ‘elite' of which Leeds and Silver craved so much. Manager-less Leeds meanwhile languished fourth from bottom with relegation a more frightening and realistic possibility than the dream of promotion.

Leeds were a true ‘sleeping giant' as Silver had described them, a club that had the best average gate in the division (over 22,000). An attendance figure that eclipsed other current giants such as Manchester City (less than 20,000) and Chelsea, at the time run by none other than a Mr Kenneth Bates, had a paltry average crowd of only 7,793.

In a terse affair that perhaps lacked the poisonous atmosphere of the Bremner's last home game in charge against Bates' Chelsea, Leeds lost a tense match 1-0, amidst protests and vitriol aimed at the chairman and board of directors. Afterwards and within days of this match Howard Wilkinson, like today's incumbent at Elland Road hailing from Sheffield had taken the helm and watched from the stands as his new team progressed in the league cup at the expense of lowly Peterborough United.

The next four years of course, would turn out to be a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions. From 20th in Division Two (now the championship) to League Champions, a progress unparalleled in the club's history. A hopeless, ridiculous dream in October 1988 that turned into reality in the early years of a new decade. As for that day's and today's opponents Watford, proved unable to maintain their grip on the top spot and eventually finished 4th, failing to achieve automatic promotion by a measly four points, largely due to an indifferent away record that heralded 8 wins, the same number as they had defeats away from Vicarage Road, eventually losing in the play-offs. It was a bitter failure as it instigated a decline in the club's fortunes until former manager Graham Taylor returned an guided them to the Premier League in 1997 with back-to-back promotions, a feat he had remarkably bettered in his first spell at the club when he took the club from 92nd place in the whole football league (bottom place in League 2) to runners up in the league to European Champions Liverpool. Add to that an FA Cup final appearance and qualification to compete in the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) within only 7 years.

Leeds and Watford are prime examples of clubs that dared to dream from the depths of despair and eventually realised those dreams, I hope both sets of supporters keep that thought today.

As a footnote, the Watford match programme of 1988 offered a report on the progress of a shining light of the club's future, the now late, great Gary Speed who had scored a stunning winner for Leeds youth against Doncaster in September of that year.

It is nearly a year since Gary's passing and still remains a raw and painful tragedy for many people. I'm sure Gary and the loyal service he gave to the club will never be forgotten by anyone connected with the club who were fortunate to witness that service, God bless him.

Sadly on September 11th 2012 I suffered my own personal tragedy when my dear Mum passed away very suddenly at home. This is the first piece I have written since that terrible day.

I hope that somewhere, she's happy that I've finally found the strength to do something I have always loved to do, to write for both my own enjoyment and for others who kindly take the time to read what I have to say.

Take Care, M.O.T.

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