From Woking to Wolverhampton and Southampton to Sunderland, every club lauds its fans as the best in the land. Leeds United are no exception. Leeds are the exception when it comes to what the club and its fans have been through in the last decade and a half, and yet our fans continue to support the club through thick and thin with a fanatical fervor.
Leeds United's fall from grace is well-documented and the fans quite literally have been through it all together. From the heart-breaking events of Istanbul, Champions League Semi-final exit at the hands of Valencia in 2001, to relegation from the top tier in 2004, the fire sale of major assets such as the training ground, stadium and big-name stars, and the financial catastrophe that so nearly lead to extinction, subsequent entering of administration and relegation to league one would surely be enough to break the spirit of the most hardy fans. If all that wasn't difficult enough, the imposing of a deduction of points meant United started the 2007 season at the foot of league one (the lowest position in their history) with an unjust minus 15 points.
Since that low ebb which served only to galvanize the fanatics once more, United supporters have been betrayed by a series of greedy owners reneging on promises to not sell the best talent and who have failed to invest in the squad. That is in addition to being taken advantage of by corporate fat cats such as Sky TV, capitalizing on the fact that Leeds United still has pulling power, adding fixture changes to increase the difficulty of attending overpriced matches. Then rival clubs allegedly hiking prices up when Leeds visit to make as much money as possible from the traveling support. Yet still they come, and still they sing.
Divide and conquer
The carpet is constantly being pulled from under Leeds supporters as well. Just as the team is rising again, the owners cash in and undermine fans by selling the stars that are kindling hopes of a re-birth: Delph, Gradel, Snodgrass, Howson, Becchio, Schmeichel, McCormack and Byram. Add to that the releasing of Beckford, sacking of fan's favourites McAlister, Grayson, McDermott and Redfearn (and Evans?), Pie taxes, Court cases, Police investigations, the banning of the Leeds owner by the FA for not being a fit and proper person (twice) yet unfit and un-proper people in GFH and Ken Bates are still around and still leaching off the club and its fans.
These unpopular types of owners employ divide and conquer tactics to quell dissent and split the fan base. This was quite literally evident last season with the segregation of the home fans in the South stand. And whilst its true the fans may not be as United as in the recent past of the League One days (Some favour Cellino, others feel its time for him to go) they are united in the chorus "We all love Leeds." There are no glory hunters here. Leeds fans are true fans who for all their support deserve better.
Not having the warmest of welcomes on his first visit to Elland Road, current owner Massimo Cellino's taxi was chased out of the carpark, yet shortly afterwards he gave this quote on the fans.
"Fans are not for sale, they have feeling and you don't buy feeling. You can buy a b***h for one night, but you don't buy the love my friend."
He went on to further praise the fans, saying that they turn up in numbers to passionately support a s**t football team, imagine what they'd be like with a good team to support?
On the pitch, Leeds limped to the end of another season of mediocrity with only one certainty, at a time when stability and planning are required: the Head Coach will be sacked. The only stability Leeds have had in this turmoil is that they have finished the last 2 seasons stuck at 15th place and ending this season not much higher in lucky 13th. Yet In 2014/15 Leeds retained the title of best supported away team in the Football League and have taken the title again for 2015/2016 with the highest away attendance of 6297 and the highest average of 2807. According to worldfootball.net they ended the season with highest attend away game with an average of 19280.
With nothing really to play for, Leeds United took 5600 to their last game of the season away to Preston. It was English football's largest away following that day.
Talk Sports Adrian Durham placed Leeds in the top 5 away support in the country:
"Look at the numbers traveling compared to the achievements of Leeds in recent times. Amazing."
Steve Evans, before becoming head coach of Leeds, was quoted as saying Leeds were supported by blinkered seals but after just 6 months in his post at Elland Road he now knows the fans better.
"If we played 5 a side in a car park they'd turn up in their thousands to watch."
On an emotional and possible farewell post Preston interview Evans was quoted as saying:
"How good are those supporters? I was in tears in front of them. You don't realise how good they are until you're here."
A mainstream tabloid newspaper produced an alternative top ten premier league table based on merchandise sales in the 2014/15 season. It claimed the results were surprising because teams from lower leagues faired better than their elite league rivals. Leeds fans didn't bat an eye lid. Despite the big name money teams of the Premier League and their global merchandising machines, Leeds featured a respectable 7th and above the likes of Manchester City.
TV ratings - Leeds feature 3 times in the top ten most watched championship games of 2015/06.
Perhaps it's the fans historical and volatile reputation that has led the media away (Adrian Durham the exception) from championing the way Leeds United supporters have rode the ups and downs together, but it's not lost on me.
Through their troubles Leeds fans have never asked for sympathy and received none. Fans of other teams do not like to be reminded of the former successes of Leeds and do not like Leeds retaining a big club tag. This is born out of envy. In November 2015, the Daily Mirror ran an article claiming that Leeds are the most sung about football club by fans of opposing teams, through out all divisions. There were a total of 117 anti Leeds chants which was a massive 67 chants more than 2nd placed Liverpool FC.
Leeds have a large and widespread fan base that spans from the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Asia, Scotland, Ireland, and nationally in areas like Shropshire and Cornwall who all simply refuse to give up on their club.
In the time that Leeds has been exiled from the top flight, Premier League teams have quite literally been showered with riches and their fans have bathed in the lime light. Arsenal have featured consecutively in the Champions League, moved to a new £390 million stadium, have won the FA Cup (twice) and can name world cup winning stars in their squad yet their fans protested recently because they hadn't won the title in 12 years. I'd like to remind those fair-weather fans that in those 12 years, Leeds fans have been on an entirely different and darker odyssey.
An addiction or for love?
Why then do Leeds fans vow to support their club until the world stops going round? Perhaps its like the gambler seated at an LA Casino slot machine: he's put so much money in, he can't quit now, it's sure to pay back soon, the lucky 7's will line up, the lights will flash, the golden coins will shower out and Leeds will be back.
But only Leeds fans know what it means to be Leeds: its unquantifiable. And one thing Cellino and I are in agreement on is that Leeds fans are not for sale; you can't buy their love. With Leeds, its not the winning but contrary to the old cliché its not just about taking part, its how we take part, how we compete, wearing your heart on your sleeve, side before self and "keep fighting".
To see the future you sometimes have to look into the past. Leeds were in decline for a number of years before being relegated from the old first division in 1982. They spent 8 seasons in the second tier. Almost mirroring where Leeds United are today, the club nearly went out of business, Hooliganism was rife, attendances were falling and the club was hounded by officialdom. I experienced those dark days (christened the wilderness years in a new film by LUFC Films) and can say that although never giving up there were times you had to wonder when would it end, that 1987 play-off defeat to Charlton being one of them. But end it did: just 3 seasons later, Leeds were crowned champions of Division Two. Those barren years that Leeds fans endured made the taste of success that much sweeter.
All fans believe that someday soon this "part two" of the Wilderness years will end and I am of that same mind set. Perhaps this is why Leeds fans continue to believe, because we've been through it all together before.
I couldn't say when they will end but I sense something may be about to set off a catalyst. Cellino has offered up to 50% refund to season ticket purchases should Leeds not reach the play off next season. To my knowledge, this has not been done before in the Championship and could simply be a marketing ploy. However he must firmly believe Leeds will make the play offs and is planning summer investment to warrant that, or he's planning not to be around to pick up the bill.
Leeds fans for the way you have continued to support your team through the season we have had... I salute you.
You are greatest in the land.
Don't forget to leave a comment. What does being a Leeds United fan mean to you?