26th April 1986; a warm, late spring afternoon, and there I was sat in the North West Corner, buzzing with excitement, watching Leeds United bring their home campaign to an end in front of a hardy 13,868 souls with a 2-0 win over Carlisle United. The fact that victory spelt relegation for our visitors barely registered in my mind, I was at Elland Road and Andy Ritchie had fired Leeds to a win.
The true depths to which the club had fallen by this stage were lost on me. While regulars were doubtless debating whether the club’s stock could plunge any lower, I stood at the bus stop in Leeds city centre, studying the results and table in the late night final newspaper, surmising that a 3 point return at Norwich may yet earn the Whites a top 10 finish. The next weekend, the Champions battered us 4-0…
Wise Heads 1 Youthful Naivety 0
I make no excuses, I was still basking in the glory of victory, and besides, it was one of only a handful I’d seen during my cherished visits to LS11. At the time I had to rely on my dad, a man who’d grown accustomed to the success and scintillating football of the Revie era, but through a combination of sharp decline on the pitch and the rising spectre of hooliganism of it, had long lost the desire to take his place on the Lowfields Road terrace. But, next season was going to be different; I was going to the ‘big school’, I had just got a paper round;I was both mature and financially independent enough to go it alone…
My first Elland Road encounter dated back to 1982, a trip to witness the Whites’ final game in the top flight, a 2-1 success over Brighton. The seasons that followed it were lived mostly from my bedroom through the medium of Radio Leeds; Saturday afternoons and weekday evenings, listening desperately for score updates and hoping against hope that the Whites would assume precedence over Bradford, Huddersfield and Halifax for the coveted second half commentary slot. The soundtrack of those years was a mixture of underwhelming performances, humiliating defeats – 5-1 at Shrewsbury and 6-2 at Stoke – and periodic instances of atrocious acts of hooliganism.
On the final day of the 1984-85 season, rioting at St. Andrews tragically cut short the life of a child, crushed as a wall collapsed – United’s darkest hour off the pitch. The humbling at Carrow Road ensured the club finished the following season in 14th, the lowest ebb on the pitch. It was a bleak period, but for a child schooled in mediocrity and hypnotised by the glare of those fabulous diamond shaped floodlights – the tallest in Europe and visible from the top of my street, several miles away – that was immaterial, I just HAD to be there.
Besides, this new season brought new hope and promise. Billy Bremner had brought in a cluster of new signings, including one Keith Edwards! Brought in from Sheffield United for a hefty £125,000, Edwards was a close to a sure thing as could be found amongst Division Two strikers – 119 goals in 191 games stood testament to that. In truth, the other signings were not quite as exciting, and I did take an instant dislike to Jack Ashurst: he bore a striking similarity to my 40 year old uncle and held the moniker of a man a couple of generations older, I was immediately sceptical – I was right, he was shit! Still, signings were signings and Ronnie Sinclair, Russell Doig and John Buckley were optimistically revered as potential future stars, rather than hopeful cheap punts…again, I was young and naive.
So we had new players, an exciting new kit and after years of deals with local companies, who even many Leodensians had never heard of, we suddenly had Burton sponsoring our shirts. For a boy whose pocket money was paid in denominations of silver and had been battling a mum’s predisposition to shop for my wardrobe in Leeds market ever since I’d outgrown the Mothercare clothing range (she had staff discount), Burton’s represented an aspirational fashion ideal…and now they were sponsoring Leeds United – once again, we were ‘big time’! The season now couldn’t come soon enough, but I still wouldn’t be there to see it arrive.
My season, my week-in, week-out Elland Road pilgrimage commenced in early October. The catalyst, the club’s cheap schoolboy tickets initiative. All of a sudden, a casual announcement by my PE teacher changed everything – a “limited number” of passes would be available for collection, straight after school on Friday afternoon on a first come, first served basis. The lucky holders of an official pass and a square of card with the school stamp on it could exchange both at the ticket office on match days and gain access to the boys’ pen, all for the princely sum of 50p.
Needless to say, the announcement was the prelude to months and then years of hysteria. I, like many of the hardcore new breed, were cursed with physics on Friday afternoons; the subject itself, not so bad, the location of the hut, a remote outpost, as far away from the changing rooms as possible, far more troublesome – we were immediately at a disadvantage in the stampede-cum-free for all. Our teacher, Mrs Latham – who appeared to be on a one woman crusade to revive kitsch 70s fashion, years before Jarvis Cocker emerged into the public eye – at first resisted our attempts at lining up at the door, jockeying for position ahead of the 3.30 flat race from Hough Side, long before she’d concluded the lesson; quickly, she resigned herself to the inevitability of it all.
Every time it was the same, a handful of us awaiting the immortal words “You may go!” On occasion she’d toy with us, revelling in the tortured impatience written across our faces, before giving the signal. A chaotic rush always ensued, someone invariably hit the tarmac en route, but somehow, we always made it to the front of that queue; first in line as Mr Wade distributed those prized slips of card from his damp, sweaty office/hovel in the depths of the boys’ changing rooms.
I went to the games alone and looking back it surprises me a little that I was able to get away with it; although society in the mid-80s was deemed a lot safer place for children in most respects, football was an exception to the rule – especially Leeds United. Only weeks before my first trip, Leeds fans had rioted again, overturning a chip van at Odsal…the notoriety of the support at an all-time high. I used to spin a tale to my parents that I met a mate and his dad at the ground, an ingenious lie; it was both plausible and also very necessary. Truth be told, that option was actually open, but the trips to Elland Road represented for me my first expression of independence.
It all began with the visit of Crystal Palace; a perfect start – a 3-0 win with my hero John Sheridan scoring from the spot and new Messiah, Keith Edwards scoring a late goal in front of the Kop; it was only Keith’s second goal after a slow start to his Leeds career, but would surely prove to be the spark he needed to recapture his Blades form…it was another of those football lessons that I would quickly learn over the coming months. Next up were league leaders Portsmouth who were soundly beaten 2-0, in front of over 21,000 fans, the highest gate in over a year. I’d arrived, Leeds had arrived and I was basking in the magic of it all.
Match days would never be long enough; I’d be at the ground for 1pm, pick up a programme then head to the turnstiles, impatiently awaiting their opening at around 1.30pm. Once in, and armed with a Wagon Wheel (or meat and potato pie if I was flush) I’d head up to my vantage point, behind the wall overlooking the right hand side exit at the back of the Kop – boys’ pen? Pah! With my spot secured I could relax and drink in the surroundings and flick through the programme to discover fresh nuggets of info, like David Rennie’s favourite meal and TV show; then a little after 2’clock, the players started to emerge, the programme was put away and I watched, transfixed by the spectacle. I looked on in awe as John Sheridan curled the ball in from all angles, Keith Edwards made 10 yard darts from standing starts and Bobby McDonald went through series of stretches and twists that seemed to coalesce in perfect unison with Madonna’s ‘True Blue’ as it played over the tannoy.
Portsmouth as it happens, wasn’t a false dawn, rather a pre-cursor of what was to follow in a season that had it all, and provided a grounding in three key tenets that have underpinned my Leeds United existence ever since: play-off final heartache, cup semi-final defeats and key player sales. The player in question was Ian Snodin, sold to Everton for £840,000 during the winter, yet despite the void he left behind, Leeds were still to sail perilously close to glory on two fronts.
The FA Cup run remains one of the most magical episodes in my time following the club; it also brought into sharp perspective the degree of hatred that existed on a national scale. The decision of the police to switch the third round tie with Telford to The Hawthorns on safety grounds had pundits clamouring for a giant killing “for the good of the game”, a certain Emlyn Hughes especially vocal on Football Focus. Thanks to Ian Baird, the team delivered a fine two-fingered riposte to all and sundry.
A routine 2-1 win at Swindon set up a 5th round encounter at Elland Road with QPR; the biggest game I’d been to and it remains one of my most cherished. The demand for tickets on the day was incredible; despite the turnstiles being locked at 2.30pm, the Kop was dangerously overcrowded and by kick-off, thousands of fans had been left locked out and disappointed. Those lucky enough to be in the ground, or at least catching part the action from the rooftops behind the South Stand were party to one of the finest atmospheres ever created at the stadium, arguably, second only to that Leicester game, during our spell in Division Two. When Brendan Ormsby stormed in at the back post to bury John Pearson’s flick-on with only minutes remaining, leaving a young David Seaman rooted to spot, my ecstasy was mixed with a degree of panic from barely being able to breathe in the crush that ensued for several minutes.
A week later, the ultimate delicious irony: a visit from Emlyn Hughes. He arrived at the ground in toe with Andy Gray as part of a promotion for the newly launched Tracker bar. Thousands upon thousands were given away by pretty promotional girls to supporters (I ended up taking about 6 home after liking the taste of the first), who chose rather than to consume them, to use them as unconventional weapons of choice. Pre-game, it was a case of being on your toes as Trackers rained in from all directions in an unrelenting, torrential shower; I caught one on the side of the face – it hurt! However, it was during half-time that they began to be more effectively deployed.
Hughes came on to the pitch with Gray, hands held aloft in acclaim – after all, who couldn’t love this genial giggling, Liverpool legend and Question of Sport stalwart? Well Leeds fans! Quick to vent their dislike, chants of “Wem-ber-lee, Wem-ber-lee!…” resounded from the terraces, along with rather more personal taunts of “Emlyn Hughes is a wanker! Is a wanker!” and “There’s only one Bill Beaumont!” The chants were accompanied by an intense hail of Tracker bars – Hughes, wisely restricted his walkabout to the centre of the pitch before making a hasty exit, stage left. Pity the poor Bradford City keeper who couldn’t do the same in the second half, subjected to a fresh cascade of tasty oat and chocolate snacks from the Kop with every goal kick.
The Wigan quarter final came and went; experienced on a big screen in the manic surroundings of a bouncing, sweaty, beer drenched Queens Hall – suddenly this was getting serious! The wait that followed ahead of the semi-final draw was almost intolerable; no televised post-match draw featuring charismatic members of the football royalty, providing immediate gratification back in 1987, no, the draw was always held on a Monday lunchtime at 12.30pm, Radio 2 providing a live feed from Lancaster Gate as Bert Millichip groped the balls from a velvet sack while fans said their prayers…
I raced home from school during the lunch hour to hear the words I being praying for…
“That’s Coventry City”
Yes!!! We could beat Coventry, we really could!! Then came my first heartache as a Leeds supporter – I couldn’t get a ticket. Only season ticket holders, member and Junior Whites were guaranteed one of the 22,500 Hillsborough tickets. School passes? “Don’t count for anything sonny.” It was left to my mum to try and secure one of the remaining 6,000 tickets come the general sale; on arriving at Elland Road at 8am she found 18,000 already ahead of her in the pecking order – dream over.
To add insult to injury, the match wasn’t even shown live. I had to settle for Radio 2 commentary, ITV only deemed the game important enough to show in full on a one hour delay (and only in the Yorkshire region); even then, ITV was f**king shit!! However, even pre-equipped with the knowledge that it was coming, it was still no easier to watch Brendan Ormsby let our hopes slip through his legs, rather than launch Coventry’s into the stand. I’ve never fully forgiven him.
With the cup dream dead, the play-offs (a new innovation) ensured everything remained to play for in the league. Uncharacteristically, Leeds responded fantastically in the run-in, winning their remaining 7 home games to secure fourth spot. There were thumping victories on the way, including 4-0 batterings of Plymouth and Birmingham. The latter was especially memorable as I had to bus it straight to the game from a wedding and found myself having to stand on the Kop in a suit – mortifying for a young boy. Not quite as horrendous as what followed as one bloke took it upon himself during the game to get his knob out and have a piss; he sprayed indiscriminately, in all directions and took no prisoners, his legacy partly evident on my immaculate new trousers. While it was established etiquette for many to urinate in the sinks to avoid the queues at half-time, this guy was a real maverick.
So to the play-offs, where Keith Edwards, after a season of doing little, fleetingly became the God we’d anticipated, his 88th minute goal gave Leeds a narrow advantage to take to Boundary Park. I followed the second leg from a minibus on an extended family trip to Skegness, jumping from my seat as an even later Edwards goal forced extra time. I remained in the minibus while the others explored the park as Leeds saw out a nervous 30 minutes to clinch an away goals victory.
Charlton followed and the sides traded 1-0 home victories to set up a one-off replay at St Andrews. Brendan Ormsby scored the winner at Elland Road, though in my mind it was Bob Taylor’s; the young striker had beaten the keeper and all Ormsby did in smashing the ball over the line was deprive Taylor of a cherished moment, a selfish act committed in the cause of clearing his name after the semi-final debacle – shameful conduct in the eyes of an already embittered young Leeds fan…it’d take far more than that to achieve some form of redemption!
So one final huge game and more disappointment; my father wouldn’t allow me to travel to the Birmingham alone, and in the aftermath of the rioting two years previously, didn’t feel suitably enticed by the prospect of being part of Leeds United’s first return to the ground since. As it was only 18,000 attended the game – unthinkable today – but a reflection of the times; the old Division One wasn’t the all-singing, all-dancing, vacuous cash cow it now sadly resembles under the Premier League banner.
Leeds fans occupied three-quarters of the ground while Charlton’s pitiful 1,500 ‘strong’ following congregated in a remote corner. It was the Londoners of course who travelled home delighted, Leeds somehow conspiring to lose a game they led with 8 minutes of extra time remaining, all at the hands of Peter f**king Shirtliff – 2 goals in 4 minutes from a man who had 4 career goals to his name in over 200 appearances beforehand – it could only happen against us! Again, the ordeal had to be lived through radio commentary, ITV – yeah… we know – deeming the game only worthy of late night highlights.
I may have witnessed more glorious seasons and far better Leeds sides, but the 1986/87 remains one of my most beloved. We haven’t reached an FA Cup semi-final since, I’ve not experienced a more thrilling domestic cup tie at Elland Road…hell, the team even turned up for a play-off final! Then there was Shez; still my all-time Elland Road hero – like McAllister, only somehow better, a million times cooler and universally immortalised. Then at the height of his powers, I dare say he could’ve healed the sick with one touch of his hand, maybe even ended poverty with a deft flick of his right boot – at times rose-tinted nostalgia makes players seem better than they were, having re-lived the John Sheridan tribute video on YouTube, if anything, my memory’s undersold his brilliance.
The ‘Season to Savour’ review remains my most watched LUFC related video, endlessly re-watched over that summer and for years beyond. I can still repeat large snippets of Tom Neeshaw’s amateurish commentary, verbatim. Even now at times, while on the Kop, I find myself reminiscing about QPR:
“Back-header by… Ormsby, Yes!! Pearson, a header to Ormsby; Brendan Ormsby gets the second goal for Leeds”
You know, Brendan… it’s been 25 years now, and since then the likes of Cantona, Kewell and Bates have all left darker, indelibly unpleasant stains on our history. I think it’s finally time to forgive and forget.
8 minutes of Shez magic – enjoy! (Do NOT miss the Derby County goal – 3 mins, 44 seconds…or the one straight after it, oh and…)