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It's Only Taken Fifty Years!

Author: L. Phillip Naughton

Sixteen years of pain washed away. How many times have I heard that recently!

For me, it all began after the 1970 World Cup. The star player from the league team I supported missed an open goal. Not any old "defenders on the line" open goal but a gaping, cavernous, couldn’t miss open goal. Worse, the national team lost 1-0. I was thirteen, the age when embarrassment intensifies, and living in the Midlands where several prominent teams constantly strove for bragging rights. Humiliation was too meek a description.

In 1971, two wonderful things happened. I changed schools, leaving behind the trauma of my previous one at the entrance. The second, was a new school-friend with the nickname "Lad". Solid Yorkshire stock with the manner, and surname, to match. I was converted to his team. It was a rebirth and I have stayed loyal ever since.

I never contemplated going down the road of becoming a footballer myself, though I was immersed in it. Having glasses from the age of five and asthma saw to that. My games were the jumpers on the road for goalposts version. A sense of elation if I wasn’t the last one picked, or received the even crueller jibe of “you can have him, we don’t want him". A world unknown to most now, where owners didn’t seem to mind the ball bouncing off their cars, or patiently stopping until everyone had scurried to the pavement. Hero's, villains, grazed knees and the “oh no, not again” from parents presented with the latest set of twisted, missing lens, Joe 90 NHS spectacles.

Any aficionado, or those of my generation, will instantly know my team. Its ranks teeming with Scottish talent in the 1970’s. I won’t have to go too much past Bremmer, Lorimer, Jordan and McQueen. A supporter in those days was a different affair and, in some ways, gladly consigned to history books, yellowing newspapers and the odd newsreel. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would have been the fitting anthem long before the beautiful game and theatre of dreams became trendy and overused. Black Crombie jeans, Doc Martens and three scarves were the order of the day, even for the majority who, like me, didn’t partake in the violence. But there is also a certain nostalgia. It was tribe. Not a seat in sight, standing, unflinching, in lashing rain. To show weakness an act of disloyalty. The cheers, boos and chants synchronised better than many orchestra’s. To miss a single second, in victory or defeat, was sacrilege. It was intense, it was an extended family of strangers. The half-time miracle was to get that treasured plastic cup of lukewarm, gloopy Bovril and a grease-laden burger in soggy bread. It was akin to winning an Olympic medal to find and return to the same spot, which had to be protected by a mate before the second-half whistle blew. Players went down because they were hurt, got up and went down hurt again minutes later as the next tackle was driven home with absolute intent. The over-acting, writhing and look at me referee, I want an Oscar, I must have had my jaw broken because his shirt brushed my face days, were still to come.

I will say those few words that for too many years caused sarcasm, disdain and a curious sympathy one gets for not being compos mentis: I’m a Leeds United supporter. I have a friend who still greets me with, 'Dirty Leeds,' before he says, 'Hi, how’s it going?' Then there was the frequent, ‘I thought you said you were a football supporter?’ the moment I dared mention my team. I loved a placard I saw a supporter holding, "Please keep hating us, it only makes us stronger". Leeds fans will approve of that. Every supporter, from the local league Sunday game to the most magnificent stadium, has those moments where they feel they have been robbed by a referee’s grievous mistake. It isn’t moments for Leeds fans, it’s set in concrete certainty for every game. We will have ninety plus minutes playing against twelve men, perhaps more depending on the other officials. When things go our way there is a sense of disbelief as we perform our own individual VAR to check it actually happened. We celebrate those moments like winning the jackpot in the gambling machine with our last fifty pence.

Sixteen years of pain washed away. The pundits and commentators mantra. Newspapers vying to repeat those same six words as though each one was personally responsible for inventing the phrase. Pain and celebration are relative. The 1975 European Cup Final was my pain baseline, the barometer that gauges all other events. It hurts still. We’ve had it all, on and off the pitch: two managers who only lasted forty-four days, financial irregularities, administration, a fifteen points deduction at the start of the season and yet still making the play-offs, HRMC investigations, managers trying to build teams with "nowt in bank or pockets", court cases against players, fans being stabbed to death, the stadium sold to the council, owners that verged on the insane, or gambled the future down the drain.

This season, fifty years of relative pain have washed away. It really is time to celebrate and by so how much! A team promoted from the Championship that did more than survive. They often outplayed, out-thought, outran the opposition and fought every single second. They were David’s in Goliath’s arena’s. Us little guys roared and the giants frequently whimpered.

I’m celebrating because my team and fellow supporters are walking tall again. In Yorkshire speak, ‘Eee, tha’s a reet gradly brew tha.' Meaning, thank you from the very bottom of my heart.