Russell Crowe should read; "The Art and Theory of Goalkeeping".
When I was at school I hated Maths and French. And as I sat in the classroom and stared out of the window I used to say to myself that I looked forward to the day when I could throw my books into the bin and never have to think about Maths and French ever again. That happy day did finally come and for years I forgot all about Maths and French. Then one day, when I was in my thirties, I suddenly decided that actually I did want to learn French (and maybe Maths too). At first I didn’t do anything about it because I thought that eventually this sudden interest in learning French would just go away and I’d go back to normal. But it didn’t and one day found myself at the university of Montpellier on a three week summer course.
After we had all signed in we were allocated a student room on campus and were told that if we wanted to stay on for a bit after the course was over then we could if we went down to the student accommodation office and paid for the extra number of days we wanted to stay. Since my return ticket on the coach was booked for a couple of days after the course finished I decided to take advantage of this offer and on the last day I made my way down to the offices to arrange it. I was confronted by two large dour and gloomy looking middle-aged women and in my brand new French I explained to them why I was here. To my surprise they actually understood me and told me that I would have to fill in a form and pay ‘X’ amount of Francs for two extra days I needed the room. One of them remained at the counter and watched me fill in the form. When I had filled it in I pushed it over to her so she could check it before I handed over the money. She caste her critical eye over the form and suddenly she gave a little cry and asked; “you live in Leeds?”
“Yes,” I confessed. I was rather surprised by the question. What’s wrong with living in Leeds?
She turned to her colleague who was sitting at her desk busy doing something. “He lives in Leeds!”
Her friend jumped up from her seat and rushed over to the counter and looked at the form.
I was starting to get a bit worried. “Jesus!” I thought, “what’s going on here? What have I done?”
They both looked keenly me, “you live in Leeds!” It sounded like I was being interrogated.
“Er...yes?” I admitted warily, fearing the worst.
“Ah!” they both cried bursting out in broad smiles; “Leeds United!...”
“Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Lorimer, Gray, Clarke, Jones, Madeley...”
My mouth fell open.
“...Reaney, Sprake, Giles, Terry Cooper. McQueen, Jorden!”
They beaming at me more than ever (and my mouth was still hanging open by the way). I was stunned. I knew I ought to say something in response. But what could I say? This was 1994 and here were two middle-aged French women reeling off the names of all the players from a team twenty years ago! What the hell was going on?
I never did find out but I doubt if there is anyone who has a better story than this about what impact Revie’s team had around the world.
Usually people talk about the Revie years when they talk about Leeds United because these were the glory years. But I don’t remember that much glory. Oh sure, Leeds United were widely regarded as the best team in the English football league and one of the best in Europe. But they only won the league championship twice, the FA cup once and two EUFA cups (I know they won the League cup as well but so what, who cares about the League cup?) which isn’t a lot for what were supposed to have been the “glory years”. As a young supporter I remember defeat against Colchester, the defeat at the hands of WBA and Wolves that cost us the league championship two years running and the disaster in the European cup final against Bayern Munich in 1975 far more vividly, and I’m not going to mention the FA Cup Final against Chelsea in 1970. Everyone agreed that Leeds United were the best team on that day but they still lost. And I’m not forgetting the 1973 FA Cup Final against Sunderland either. How the world laughed! The list of disasters is longer than the list of trophies. Glory? What glory?
When I first started supporting Leeds United in 1970 I was at boarding school and nobody supported them; nobody. On the contrary everybody hated them. Their too obvious determination to win was not thought decent in polite society. All the respected figures in the game agreed that their sort were not the kind of team the English league wanted or needed. Leeds United didn’t respect reputations or the rules. They were a dirty team and they were cheats. They were physical and intimidating. They were bullies. They were from up North. They had no history or pedigree. They had no tradition. They were a nothing team from nowhere. How dare they gatecrash the playing fields of the elite? How dare they make a noise and disturb the repose of the aristocracy sitting in their drawing rooms sipping their champagne. They were troublemakers, a disgrace and the sooner they were sent packing the better.
But that is what I liked about them. I liked their pristine white kit that cut through the fog and gloom and they were all you saw. They were: hard, tough, ruthless, brilliant and they never gave up. I remember at boarding school I didn’t tell anyone that I supported Leeds United because I knew exactly what would happen when they did find out; “You support fuckin’ Leeds?...You wanker!” (No one was ever asked to justify why they supported Manchester United or Spurs or Everton). Everybody knew that they played dirty and were cheats so why would anyone in their right mind want to support a team like Leeds United?
I supported them because they needed me as much as I needed them. I supported them because they were everything I was not but wished I could be. Nobody kicked Leeds United around. Everybody hated Leeds United because they were scared to death of them. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done about them but there was no one big enough, strong enough or good enough to take them on. So instead everyone stood around and shook their fists in impotent rage. Brian Clough took the Leeds job in 1974 in order to teach them a lesson; he lasted 44 days. No one is going to teach Leeds United anything. Whether we liked it or not, the way they played and the attitude that came with it was a vision of the future. They were harbingers of things to come.
What I remember as well was that while every football supporter wanted their own team to win they all wanted Leeds United to loose even more. Every Manchester United Fan hated Manchester City. Arsenal fans hated Spurs. Newcastle United fans hated Sunderland but all of them were united in their hatred of Leeds United. So every time Leeds won it gave me real pleasure not only because they had won but because everyone else around me in the common room watching “Final Score” were gnashing their teeth and groaning in dismay; “fuckin’ Leeds!.. Bastards!” To them Leeds United winning was a sign that the gods had deserted them and that the world was going to hell in a handcart. Leeds United winning upset the natural order of things. Every time Leeds United won it meant the four horsemen of the apocalypse were just around the corner. But what gave me more satisfaction was the agony these critics suffered when they finally had to admit that Leeds United really were that good. How often did I hear people splutter through gritted teeth; “Yes, I have to admit that they are outstanding today...but (splutter, splutter) but...!” I used to love watching the panel of experts on TV after a game squirm in agony as they struggled to praise Leeds United without choking to death on the words. I read and re-read match reports in the papers from journalists who I knew must be sobbing with rage as they wrote that despite everything they had to confess that Leeds United were one of the all time great teams.
And that is the remarkable thing. How is it possible for Leeds United to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time when they hadn’t even won the European Cup? Because they have achieved a standing in the game that surpasses that of teams who have. Oh sure, there are teams that have won more trophies than Leeds United (who have won the European Cup as well for God’s Sake more than once) but none of them have left such a deep and lasting mark on this nations collective consciousness as Leeds United. The result of the 1970 FA Cup Final was not that Chelsea won but everyone who watched the game knew that Leeds United were special. The real achievement of “Revie’s team” was that they forced the whole world to eat their words.
And Leslie in my novel “The Art and Theory of Goalkeeping” supports Leeds United for the same reason that I did when I was that age.
He is an ordinary boy with no special skills or obvious talent for anything. He is not an outstanding student, he is not a star on the playing field, he can’t sing or dance or tell jokes. His lowly status in the social hierarchy at school is most clearly demonstrated in a football game because Leslie is always picked last and is always made to play in goal. He is worst player and putting him in goal and out of harm’s way makes perfect sense. But Leslie doesn’t want to play in goal. He wants to be a hero and to be a hero you need to be a forward banging in goals left right and centre. But he has no idea how to make this happen because no one will give him a chance to show what he is made of.
How ironic then that he ended up playing in goal for his school football team. Looking back at it now Leslie realises that being forced to play in goal made him the man he is today and that moment would change everything. This is why the novel begins with a prologue.
We meet Leslie when he is a successful man happily married with kids. And the book tells us how he reached this point. We are also introduced to the two most important people in his life back then; his best friend “Woolly” and the school bully who made his life at school such a misery. And we are told how the story ends; with a dramatic penalty shoot out. By supporting Leeds United Leslie shows us what kind of person he wanted to be. Learning the art and theory of goalkeeping showed him how that could be possible. Which is why the novel ends with a joke.
There is another story about Leeds United that I heard and which has always stuck with me. I can’t remember where I heard it or who told it but it goes back to 1973 when Manchester City had a very good team that was putting in a real challenge for the league title and they were also on a cup run. They were all sitting in the bath after winning a tough game and getting through to the next round and were celebrating by singing lustily; “we’re going to win the cup! We’re going to win the cup...eh, Ai adio we’re going to win the cup!” When all of a sudden a member of the backroom staff put his head round the door and said; “hey lads! Guess what? We’ve got Leeds in the next round!” And all the singing stopped.
I’m still toying with the idea of spending my own money to take maths lessons.