[Book Review] Anthony Clavane — Promised Land: A Northern Love Story

Leeds United regularly top all polls when it comes to being the most hated football club in Britain. This has always been slightly peculiar when you consider that until the early 1960’s, Leeds United had never been a significant force in English football. In this remarkable book, Anthony Clavane focuses on the city (Leeds), the football club (Leeds United), and the Jewish community within Leeds where he was raised.

Leeds United has often struggled with its image. Many people look back at the Leeds United glory years under Don Revie and stereotype them as “Dirty Leeds”. The perception of “Dirty Leeds” was magnified in the 1980’s when racism raised its ugly head at Elland Road and when Leeds United began to become known for a significant hooligan element within their ranks. Those two eras at Leeds United have helped to create a tarnished image — The Devil incarnate of English football, the sinister and cynical, the dirty and disgraced. The English media hasn’t exactly helped to redress the balance and write about Leeds objectively over the years. Here are just a few examples of what the media have said about Leeds United in recent years:

A Boil on the face of Football

The club’s demise had its roots in Revie’s diabolical ethos

Too big for their own boots

and Danny Kelly in the Times after Leeds had slipped into the third tier of English football wrote:

Football’s very own Icarus, flying close to the sun, before being brought hilariously low by their own boundless hubris

Clavane argues — with skill, insight and great justification — that Leeds United deserve greater recognition and that the history books have been blind to their moments of positivity and triumph Clavane concedes that the first five years of Revie had elements of gamesmanship, brutality, physicality and cynicalism. Many people felt that Leeds United were destroying the innocence of the game but “Dirty Leeds” did became “Super Leeds” in the final five years of Revie’s reign. Clavane states that in those final five years, Leeds United were Ajax, Barcelona and Real Madrid all rolled into one. Before people raise an eyebrow and accuse him of being just a “fan with a laptop”, he does make absolute sense. Leeds shredded itself of all inhibitions to play a wonderful buccaneering style of total football as seen in the clip below:

Clavane describes watching that Leeds side as akin to “Footballing heaven”, playing some of the greatest passing football seen in post war Europe. Leeds destroyed Southampton 7–0 with that glorious 32+ passing move where the Super Whites taunted and teased the opposition like a predator going in for the kill, Manchester United were shrugged aside 5–1 and Nottingham Forest destroyed 6–1 — three incredible results in succession played out to ole chants from ecstatic Leeds fans.

Back in the 1970’s the city of Leeds was seen as being quite a forward thinking and modern Northern City — the ring road, the Olympic pool, the Yorkshire Post building all hailed. It was tagged — favourably at the time — as being the”motorway city of the seventies”. Then something went wrong, not just in Leeds but in major cities across Britain and the realisation dawned that we were actually living in some kind of concrete nightmare. When Clavane left Leeds in the mid seventies, he believed that the football team and the city would never return to its former glories.

Much worse was to come in the 1980’s. The National Front were regularly active at Elland Road at that time and The Bulldog magazine was being sold outside the ground. Some Leeds fans were seen wearing Nazi swastika armbands and chanting “Sieg Heil”.Clavane likened the atmosphere at Leeds United games of that era to being part of a Nuremberg rally. Those were deeply depressing days and the author doesn’t shy away from the subject of racism. But the issue of racism was never simply a Leeds issue; it was an issue that affected the entire country at the time. Margaret Thatcher played on fears of immigration to help win the 1979 election with quotes like “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”

And yet another story, an untold story was being written and remained largely unknown. Leeds Fans United Against Racism and Fascism was formed in 1987. Many say that the atmosphere at Elland Road was intolerable by ’87 and something radical was needed to reclaim the terraces from the bigots. An anti-racism fanzine ‘Marching Altogether’ appeared, which was published several times a season until the mid nineties when things had massively improved.

The image of Leeds is of a white, working class, homogeneous community but in the experience of Clavane, it had always been a melting pot. He argues that rather than sticking to the Stereotypical view of the Yorkshireman as being rather bigoted and racist, that there was a secret untold history of Leeds United. Albert Johanneson was the first black player to play in an FA Cup final (Leeds United v Chelsea, 1965)..Johanneson was adored by the Leeds fans, and Johnny Giles when later recalling the impact the young Albert Johanneson had made at the club spoke warmly about the player “When he joined Leeds the rest of the team stood open-mouthed, drooling over his trickery. He was a bloody excellent player and had so much pace and strength, he was a great athlete”. Leeds were also the first big club to have Jewish directors. Indeed if Jewish Leeds United directors had not given Leeds United interest free loans of £10,000 each then Leeds United would have gone bust.

The nineties was a much happier place for the city of Leeds and for Leeds United Football Club. Regeneration came to the North. Harvey Nichols came to Leeds and the economy in the city changed. Leeds stopped making things, manufacturing ended, but it started to become a service economy. It was reflected in the way that the City changed and how football changed too. Anyone still using phrases today like “It’s grim up North” probably have no idea that Leeds is now seen as the “Knightsbridge of the North” or seen the incredible urban regeneration happening in Newcastle. Clavane does warn though that behind the glitz and glamour of the City centre are bleak housing estates full of Impoverishment, crime and a loss of hope.

But when Leeds does make a positive transformation — as a city and as a football club — the rest of the country seem reluctant to embrace the changes. The author makes an excellent comparison with Arsenal. Pre-Wenger, Arsenal were known throughout the country as “Boring Boring Arsenal” and the fans still sing this song ironically. Post-Wenger and Arsenal’s change from boring to brilliant was complete and largely accepted throughout the country. Leeds never enjoyed the same kind of public metamorphosis and even with the flair players of the Wilkinson team (Dorigo, McAllister, Speed and Strachan) or the exciting “babies” from the David O’Leary era (Smith, Kewell, Woodgate, Robinson), the public still judge Leeds completely on the early Revie years. The 1992 side hardly get discussed — just like the Villa side of the early eighties — it seems that the country loves Leeds United when it’s an underdog but not when it is ruffling too many footballing feathers.

“Doing a Leeds” used to be a metaphor for barging into the ranks of the elite, coming from nowhere, terrifying the respectable and gatecrashing the comfy lives of the elite. It now means chasing the dream and living the nightmare. The Leeds of the noughties looked so close to dining at the top four table for many years. But instead they became the symbol for greed, of living beyond your means and brutal excess. There was also the Bowyer and Woodgate court case. Clavane argues that there is something within the DNA of Leeds United that stops the club from reaching the heights of success that it so often threatens. Something happens and Leeds choke from the expectation and pressure. Revie’s side — as brilliant as they were — reached 11 finals, but only won 4 of them. Clavane states that Leeds have never been good at looking inwardly at their own mistakes or analysing where mistakes have been made. Unlike Manchester or Liverpool, Leeds feels unable to blow its own trumpet or shout from the rooftops about how great they are.

Clavane concludes that Leeds United are at their very best when fighting back gallantly..when the world hates them and they don’t care..when they can put up a fight of heroic defiance..and that it is an acceptance of their fate that has ultimately caused their demises.

For anyone who has ever watched the Leeds United v Bayern Munich European Cup Final of 1975 — either at the time or later on YouTube — it’s hard not to really feel the sense of grief and injustice of the night. Morally, Leeds United are the Champions of Europe..and it’s why over 40 years later, Leeds fans still sing “We are the champions..champions of Europe” up and down the country. Leeds were denied two clear cut penalties in the first half and Peter Lorimer had a perfectly good goal disallowed by referee Michel Kitabdjian. Kitabdjian never officiated again and Leeds had to contend with 40 years of “what if”..

There’s a warmth and intimacy to Clavane’s writing that makes this book such a pleasure to read. You don’t have to be a Leeds United (or even a football supporter) to enjoy it. He manages to debunk the regurgitated myths fed to a new generation of fans by The Damned United. Every football club deserves this kind of intimate portrait that documents the soul of a club.

Clavane’s follow up book “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe” looks at the hidden history of Jewish involvement in English football and is well worth a read too.

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