By Jason McKeown
Many things change when you get older, but other things stay the same. Back in my adolescent years, I hated Leeds United like I’ve never hated anything before or since. I loathed everything about the Elland Road club, often in a manner that – looking back – seems unhealthy. An obsession, perhaps, and one that now seems trivial. There were far more important things in life that I should have been worrying about.
It was the late 90s, creeping up to the new millennium. Leeds United had become one of the top teams in the country once more. A member of the Big Four. David O’Leary the monotonous, dreary manager. Peter Risdale the pompous, look-at-me-I’m-a-real-fan chairman. Alan Smith, David Batty, Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate. Leeds United were media darlings – especially in Yorkshire – and I fretted too much over my longing to see them fail.
Why I hated Leeds United was both complex and depressingly simple. There was my Leeds-supporting brother, and the pair of us couldn’t help but wind each other up on an ongoing basis – football arguments remained very heated long after both of us were old enough to know much better. There was the fact that, at school, most football fans were Leeds supporters – yet many of the most obnoxious ones had never once set foot inside Elland Road. There was the general arrogance of the club led by O’Leary, Risdale and co. There was the abundantly nasty side of many of their supporters, too.
But above all of these reasons was one over-riding desire: to fit in as a Bradford City supporter. It is ingrained within the culture of this football club that we, as a community, are supposed to hate Leeds. When I first started watching the Bantams, there would be endless anti-Leeds chants in every game. Any opposition player with a Leeds connection – no matter how tedious – was booed. In every City supporter I spoke to, and everything supporter-related I read, such as the City Gent, a hatred for Leeds was evident. It was a powerful hatred. A historic dislike that went back decades.
In the 70s, a generation of Bradfordians choose to support the at-the-time all-conquering Whites ahead of the team from their own city. Back then, the Telegraph & Argus used to devote considerably more coverage to Leeds United than it did for City. Leeds were successful, but their ways of doing things was disliked up and down the country – Dirty Leeds and all that – so I guess it is understandable that their next door neighbours would particularly take note of and be offended by all of this.
Then there was the fallout over Leeds issuing City with a winding up petition in 1983 over an unpaid transfer fee, which almost saw the Bantams go out of existence. And then in 1986 – with City playing at Odsal whilst Valley Parade was rebuilt following the disaster a year earlier – a 2-0 Bantams derby victory was overshadowed by hooligan Leeds fans setting fire to a chip van inside the stadium. An appallingly insensitive thing to do. I have spoken to City fans present that day who told me how genuinely scared they were.
These stories and others have formed part of the fabric of Bradford City supporter culture. Our over-bearing, arrogant local rivals. Leeds became L**ds, or L666ds, or Leeds Scum. We all hate Leeds. Tie the bastards to the track. And go get your father’s gun. If you love Bradford City, you hate Leeds United. It was that simple.
Over a two-and-a-half-year period at the turn of the century, City and Leeds met each other five times and the rivalry grew in its relevance. These games were huge occasions on this side of Pudsey at least, and saw some of the most passionate atmospheres I had been part of. The first derby, a League Cup match at Elland Road in October 1998, saw over 5,000 City fans make an almighty racket and our team dominate for half an hour. But then a Harry Kewell shot took a deflection off Gareth Whalley’s backside and flew into the top corner, and Leeds had a one-goal advantage that they saw out with ease. It set the pattern for the next few meetings – City always battled hard, whilst Leeds benefited from outrageous fortune.
Game two – in the Premier League, 13 months on – saw disappointingly negative tactics from Paul Jewell, who set us up to play for a draw at Elland Road. Another deflected goal and a disputed penalty gave Leeds a 2-1 victory. In the reverse fixture the following March, City came in with the confidence boost of a five-month unbeaten home record. Yet the night before the game, keeper Matt Clarke fell down the stairs and City have no option but to field 41-year-old goalkeeping coach Neville Southall between the sticks. Once again, we lost 2-1.
The season after almost saw an overdue victory. The Stan Collymore goal, and his controversial celebration in front of the Leeds fans. We held on until the 80th minute, before Mark Viduka equalised. At least it wasn’t another defeat, but it should have been more. And then, at the end of that 2000/01 season, luck was not needed on the part of the Whites. Leeds United 6 Bradford City 1. Utter nightmare. That evening, my phone did not stop as seemingly every Leeds fan I knew – and many other football fans who knew just what this meant to me – revelled in the pain. I can’t blame them at all. Back then, I’d have done the same.
At the point of the 6-1 humiliation, City had already been relegated from the Premier League whilst Leeds United were in the semi finals of the Champions League. We were poles apart, and the gap was widening further and further. We were going back to the Football League, Leeds were on the road to European glory. My hatred had probably reached its peak.
Yet it all changed. And if, on that May 2001 evening, where I grew so fed up of the abusive text messages that I turned my mobile off, someone from the future had travelled back to tell me just what was going to happen next, I would have thought they were mixing up reality with my darkest fantasies.
That O’Leary would be harshly sacked. That Risdale would be exposed as running up unpayable debts. That he would leave under a cloud and the infamous “We lived the dream” press conference. That all the best players would be sold off one-by-one. That they would be relegated from the Premier League under the management of club legend Eddie Gray. That Alan Smith would be carried off the pitch a hero in his final appearance, only to quickly join their arch-rivals Manchester United. That after much financial upheaval, they would be lumbered with Ken Bates as chairman. That Dennis Wise would take over as manager and get them relegated to League One. That they’d be docked 15 points. That even when they eventually got promoted, they have done little but sit in Championship mid-table year-on-year since. That they’d get lousy owner after lousy owner. That they’d become Norwich City’s feeder club.
If someone had promised me all that back then, I’d have rubbed my hands in glee although in the back of mind would have felt that this was too much, even for me. And here’s the kicker: having watched, from a distance, Leeds endure all of these horrible developments and more, that hatred I once felt had all but seeped away from me. The truth is that, right now, I don’t care for, but most of all don’t care about, Leeds. That’s as far as I go.
I no longer follow their results anymore than I do of other Championship teams. I no longer cheer loudly if I have heard they lost. I no longer hate whoever is their manager. I no longer know anything about their players. I no longer wish bad things would happen to them. When I meet my Leeds-supporting friends I enjoy chatting about football with them, just as I enjoy chatting with Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and Newcastle United and York City and Burnley and Blackburn Rovers supporters. Perhaps it’s a growing older thing.
The simple fact is that the current Leeds United is not the evil, nasty outfit that I hated 15 or so years ago – and they probably never will be. They remain a huge club for sure, and will no doubt climb back into the Premier League eventually. But even when they do, they will not be amongst the top teams in the country. They won’t have ambitions beyond surviving as a Premier League outfit. Even if they finally get a sensible owner, the kind of investment needed to get back to where they were makes its highly improbable they will ever do a Chelsea or Man City. They are a shadow of what they used to be, and as time has gone on have become a different football club.
One that has too many similarities with ourselves. Laughing at the demise of Leeds United Football Club can only be undertaken by avoiding a mirror. All those miserable developments that have upset Leeds’ followers have more or less happened to Bradford City too, only we have sunk lower. For however bad things have been at Elland Road, we were always worse off. Their two relegation seasons occurred in the sames seasons that we dropped a division too. In April 2007, both clubs were even relegated on the same day. So yeah, let’s all laugh at Leeds United. But only for a brief second. To laugh anymore would be to lose all self-awareness.
The uncomfortable truth is that the two clubs have too much in common. No one knows better how the other feels, because we’ve both endured such similar things.
And the hatred has clearly faded around Valley Parade. Not completely of course, there remains a dislike for Leeds United amongst City supporters for sure; but up until this cup draw was made it had become a rarity to hear an anti-Leeds chant during a match, especially at home. The person in charge of the scoreboard rarely puts the Leeds result up for us to laugh about. Last season, we sung about how we don’t care about Huddersfield and Leeds. It might be stretching the truth a little, but it really is a sign of progress. Hate Leeds? Maybe a little. But the obsession with hating Leeds had gone. When I was a young teenager first discovering Bradford City, the overwhelming sense of needing to hate Leeds consumed me and every City supporter of my age. I seriously doubt that teenage supporters today will have had sufficient cause to take on board such anti-Leeds feelings to the same level. If anything, they will hate Huddersfield Town and Rotherham United more.
But then we stop and pause.
Valley Parade this Wednesday night, at around 7.40pm. The place is packed out, and two sets of fans are singing loudly back and forth prior to the first Valley Parade hosting of this derby since Collymore’s headline-grabbing Bradford City debut, 14 years ago. It will be an intoxicating experience, and hatred will undoubtedly return for one evening. Rationality and objectivity will go out of the window. How can it not?
Many things change when you get older, but other things stay the same. When I was 15-years-old, a life ambition was to see Bradford City defeat Leeds United. 17 years on, that ambition remains unfulfilled and though it doesn’t consume me, it would still be fantastic to finally tick it off the list. I don’t hate Leeds United – I’m now in my 30s, I’ve a wife and kid, I’ve a career, I don’t have time for such immaturity – but boy do I want City to beat them on Wednesday evening. I really do.
That Odsal victory – 28 years ago – was the last time that Bradford City defeated Leeds United. In fact, it has only ever happened on one other occasion – 28 March 1932. We can therefore assume that only a very small percentage of Wednesday’s home crowd have ever seen the Bantams triumph over the Whites. The majority of the rest will be like me in having a long-held ambition of witnessing a City victory, and be equally hoping to see it finally fulfilled.
This tie has captured the imagination of the Bradford City public, just at the point where Leeds-hating is the lowest I have seen it. And long-term, it remains to be seen how it will effect the culture and the fabric of supporting Bradford City. Perhaps this game will rekindle that passionate hatred in younger supporters at least, or perhaps it will cause it to fade away from the rest of us some more. If we were to finally win, we will lovingly treasure the evening for many years to come. But what else? Perhaps, for supporters like me who grew up hating Leeds a little too passionately, and who can no longer muster such negative enthusiasm, a long overdue victory would provide some closure. Perhaps, yet another Leeds victory would hurt much less than all the previous ones.
Ultimately, this is going to be a brilliant occasion and to see a full Valley Parade making an almighty racket is what we live for. That there is an edge to the game and bragging rights at stake guarantees a lively evening. It is exciting to play Leeds, that much is undeniable. And when I go through those turnstiles and take my seat in the Kop, I know that much of my adult sensibilities will wait patiently outside and allow the 15-year-old inside me to run riot for a couple of hours.
We all hate Leeds for one, unifying evening at least. Many things change when you get older, but other things stay the same.