Having endured 5 interminable months mired in a malaise of takeover speculation, Leeds United supporters have long been craving for the day when the club would finally move to make a bold public statement on the back of a matter that would dominate the national football news. That actually happened last night, and how we wish it hadn’t. Rather than bringing tidings of a potentially exciting future under new owners, the club instead were very quickly moving to condemn the actions of one idiotic thug who just 30 minutes previously had brought shame to Leeds United and the game as a whole.
It is with this low life, with whom we must start, for as much as I loathe to afford him any more attention than absolutely necessary, it is utterly inescapable that it was his despicable, cowardly intervention that pushed the evening from the bounds of a depressing, unpleasant spectacle and into the national spotlight. I can only hope that when he is brought to justice, he receives the harshest permissible punishment; this must include a prison sentence and hopefully (assuming anyone would employ him) the loss of his employment. A football banning order will immediately mentioned as a matter of course, and a lifetime sentence should obviously be the verdict, but ultimately such impositions are futile and almost impossible to make work in practice.
Indeed, it seems the individual is already subject to one such order. This revelation, along with his identity had already been published and had spread like wild fire across twitter by the time I was leaving the stadium. This was very much a pro-active move by Leeds United supporters and the wider footballing public – it is important that the few key positives from the evening are not overlooked.
Just how much coverage will be given to the incident in the press, and what the ultimate responses of the relevant authorities to the matter will be will become clear over the coming days and weeks, and while a part of me can’t help but wonder, that because it’s Leeds United, the issue may be afforded more serious treatment than it might be otherwise, I for once would quite happily tolerate my club becoming the whipping boys again, if we can finally get this issue addressed.
On the pitch assaults are a deeply concerning trend in modern football; as a Leeds fan I’ve twice witnessed Leeds players becoming the victims of such callous acts; Shane Lowry was punched during a pitch invasion that followed the final whistle at a JPT Northern Final tie in Carlisle in 2010 and 9 months previously, Casper Ankergren was confronted by two Millwall fans during the first leg of the play-off semi-final at the New Den. Most recently, former Leeds player, Alan Smith was also set upon by several Huddersfield Town fans at the end of another play-off tie. After initial uproar (to varying degrees), little in the way of serious action followed – hopefully last night will mark the moment where the line is drawn and a very strong message to all is sent out.
Last night was not just about that one incident, there are many parties that should be ashamed and made to account for their actions; sections amongst both sets of supporters are plainly culpable, but arguably even more damaging was the conduct of those placed in the roles of greater responsibility, both at Sheffield Wednesday and in the media.
While nothing will or could ever excuse, or in any way justify the behaviour of the low life at the centre of proceedings, there is little doubt that the chants from a section of the North Stand about the deaths of Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus completely turned the mood in the Leeds end in an instant; a relatively flat, resigned atmosphere giving way to fury and outrage. Although hearing such chants is sadly by no means a rarity, to be confronted by hundreds of people joining in was rather more so, the fact that it was Wednesday fans – who are regarded quite favourably by most Leeds fans in comparison to those from other Yorkshire clubs – only appeared to add to the shock, and at that stage a number of supporters lost their heads and as those in the North Stand responded, bottles and coins rained back and forth. While it’s a sad fact that distasteful chants will almost inevitably continue amongst some less desirable elements in such a tribal sport, lines have to be drawn somewhere and mocking the dead is way beyond any line. Throwing missiles is a similarly unforgivable; I had a friend stood by the corner flag who like most, was at Hillsborough with the sole purpose of enjoying the game, not to be struck in the face with a coin – I dare she is one of far too many victims on both sides.
Following those exchanges, it was plain to all in the Leeds end that any equaliser would inevitably be celebrated with exaggerated gusto, including an inevitable pitch invasion by a small number of idiots. With temperatures boiling over, the stewards that typically travel with the supporters would have been well placed to advise the Hillsborough staff to prepare for such a possibility…they couldn’t as Sheffield Wednesday had advised them their services would not be required. That’s not to say the incident would not have still occurred, but I might question whether a man capable of such a cowardly act might’ve been so bold had he not been afforded a degree of ‘safety in numbers’ by the other dozen or so idiots who ran onto the playing service.
Doubtless, many home supporters will refer to role the distasteful and libellous chants against Dave Jones in the first half played in souring the mood, while Leeds fans would then question why it’s acceptable for the continuous barracking of Neil Warnock and the singing of songs about Paddy Kenny’s wife – the fact is, there are no moral victories to be had by any fan on either side who engaged in any such chants. Just because Neil Warnock is able to laugh off the abuse he receives, doesn’t make it any more acceptable. The plain fact in this regard is that it takes two to tango and blame should be apportioned at both sides for creating the atmosphere that prevailed; the greatest condemnation however, should remain for that one individual and he alone.
Of course, individual interpretations of the amount of blame that should to be apportioned to each group of supporters are as subjective as they are futile, and will doubtless vary according to where people were sat and their individual team loyalties, however my main motivation for committing my thoughts are to do with concerns elsewhere; namely the conduct of Dave Jones and the role of Sky TV.
When asked about Leeds United supporters, Jones said “They’re all vile animals, all of them”; it may have been a statement been made in the midst of emotion, but it was also deliberate and considered, and undisputedly so, as when the Sky interviewer asked him to qualify a previous remark that he was tarring all Leeds fans with the same brush, he confirmed as much. He also made an incredibly poorly judged remark that attempted to frame the abuse from the stands he received as a having parallels with racism.
This latter remark is troubling on a number of levels; firstly to hijack what is currently another huge issue in football in an effort to employ it as some form of point scoring device in what has become a long running personal agenda, born out of a number of such exchanges (ever tried just dismissing it, Dave?) is pretty reprehensible; secondly, to describe the actions of a group of supporters as akin to racists following his other statements almost redefines the essence of hypocrisy – to be clear, my understanding of racism, or indeed any other form of ‘ism’ whether sexism, ageism, fascism or whatever else involves employing negative, hateful and harmful comments and attitudes towards people, designed to label, undermine or persecute them, based purely on their membership to a particular group, regardless of how accurately these views reflect any truth…going back to his sweeping generalisation about Leeds supporters all being vile animals, I’d suggest he has some explaining to do.
Short of issuing an apology and a retraction, having had time to reflect, Jones should be on an FA charge. While the incidents during the game will see to it that the next clash is deemed as high risk, for one of the managers to make comments that will clearly fan the flames and incite even more ill-feeling is grossly irresponsible. Had a player made such remarks, his words would undoubtedly be condemned publicly by his manager (albeit with a caveat that his reaction was “understandable”) and subjected to ‘in house’ discipline, at least. Who will Dave Jones answer to? This is a man in an esteemed job at a highly respected club and as such, should conduct himself in an appropriate manner; a right of reply should never be denied, but a measured, dignified response that reflects his position should be expected, rather than Neanderthal ramblings that place him at the same level as his detractors.
Jones is far from alone in receiving questionable abuse from supporters; he need only look to his counterpart on the right last night for proof of that. While Neil Warnock is a phlegmatic soul and a completely different personality, lessons can be learned from his ability to find perspective in the face of abuse. There are also countless footballers who have suffered similar (and in some cases, worse) than he, and yet almost every single one of them, despite their relative level of immaturity have dealt with it in a far more laudable manner; as much as I dislike many of the senior England players, none of them have reacted to criticism in quite such an incendiary way. I’ve seen many Manchester United players subjected to all conceivable insults at Elland Road, but none have reacted like Jones; on the other side of things, like Jones, Lee Bowyer was cleared in his trial, but still hammered every single week by opposing fans, even he never flinched, merely satisfying himself with a hand to the ear whenever he scored – if even Bowyer can show so much resolve, surely Jones should be capable?
The fact is, such a critique has a purpose; like most Leeds fans, I find Sheffield Wednesday fans to be arguably the most amenable amongst our Yorkshire rivals, but even they have a hardcore of ‘fans’ with a hatred of Leeds that often seems to surpass their love of the Owls come match days; I spent an hour or so in a local pub, and while I emphasise there was never any hint of trouble (us Leeds fans went incognito), every song was anti-Leeds, rather than pro-Wednesday. Jones’ comments can only help increase that demographic, validating everything they believe about the club 30 miles up the road.
The final criticism needs to be levelled at Sky TV; while it was hard to disagree with anything said in the commentary box or studio said in relation to the conduct of supporters last night, the company’s ability to dictate every aspect of the football calendar at a whim really demands to be called into question. While Sheffield Wednesday versus Leeds typically hasn’t attracted the proportion of morons that some other derbies have, the wisdom of re-scheduling the game for a Friday night remains questionable in the extreme. In a month’s time, Leeds visit Huddersfield…again on a Friday evening – every season, Saturday fixtures have been brought forward to lunchtime kick-offs at police advice, which in my experiences has been a very sound move. So why do Sky seemingly even have to power to veto police decisions these days?
In some ways I guess I’m not wholly free of guilt myself; I revel in the universal hatred of my club throughout Yorkshire. Even when at our lowest ebb, the thought of other supporters celebrating our every setback at least reassures you of Leeds United’s continued relevance. As sickening as conceding the opening goal was last night, the pathetic sight of men in their 40s making a beeline from their seats in the South Stand to gloat, was still amusing…and to be honest, I don’t want to lose that. It’s what makes following Leeds United unique and our fanatical devotion to the club so incomprehensible to others. But with that comes a tightrope, a thin line that was crossed last night. Mocking “We all hate Leeds Scum” chants has proved to be by far the most effective way of diffusing the ire of confrontational fans in many stadiums, but ‘Istanbul’ chants will understandably always be something incredibly difficult to show restraint in the face of. Playing the ‘bigger man’ isn’t easy, but it’s every fan’s responsibility (on both sides) to do so. If nothing else, at least after last night football should be one step (or banned supporter) closer to achieving that.
Oh, and by the way, we drew 1-1. Cracking goal too by Tonge…what a shame it was lost in the fall-out!