In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks ahead to a return to West Ham United for a second time in seven days.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
A famous quote wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein claims that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”. With that in mind, Leeds United travel to West Ham for the second weekend running, and with an even more depleted squad, but expecting a different result. It is often said that, as a football club, Leeds United is at its most barbarous, dangerous and hostile when backed into a corner and facing adversity. But when adversity descends into absurdity? Well, we’re about to find out, because I can’t describe our current injury situation in any other way.
Yes, Leeds United fans are travelling to London once again, with memories of 14 defeats and two draws from 16 consecutive games in the Capital still very fresh in our minds, and not in any way bitter that we were denied access when that run was eventually broken with last March’s 2-1 win at Fulham. A win on penalties at the same ground in the League Cup this season brought some mild respite, before four quick-fire defeats at Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham this season seemingly restored order to our insanity and had us cursing once again as we boarded yet another dry train crawling out of King’s Cross at a godforsaken hour.
Most fans making the trip to the imaginatively-titled London Stadium this weekend will be doing so for the second time in seven days, so you can’t even rely on the passing of time to deliver a veneer of freshness and novelty to proceedings, and that’s if you found last week’s trip to the former Olympic Stadium in any way an engaging experience in the first place. The game itself was strangely low-key, Leeds lost and the excitement of visiting a new stadium wore off as soon as you saw the view from your seat.
West Ham’s move from Upton Park to the London Stadium in 2016 was controversial in many ways, not least within the club’s own fanbase, and it is easy to see why. Leeds fans taunted their rivals last weekend with chants of “you’re not West Ham anymore”, referring to the contrasting experience of tasting the menacing rancour of Upton Park and the manufactured ‘grandeur’ of their 62,000-capacity new stadium. It was a chant that must get under the skin of die-hard West Ham fans, as it picks at the scab of a wound which must still hurt them, and uncovers an undeniable truth they would rather keep hidden away. Because moving a football club from one stadium to another, however necessary it is, immediately rids that club of its entire history and identity, despite its management’s creative attempts to dress things up otherwise.
Even if you never visited Upton Park, you used that TV image to frame West Ham as a club, it was how you pictured West Ham in your mind. It was how you envisaged upcoming fixtures against them, how confident you felt about Leeds United’s chances, and it was the background to how West Ham were presented and existed.
Of course, the Hammers were not the first club to be faced with this identity crisis. It’s now 28 years since Huddersfield Town moved the short distance from Leeds Road to what was then known as the Alfred McAlpine Stadium. Middlesbrough ditched Ayresome Park for the Riverside Stadium in 1995 and Derby County moved from the Baseball Ground to Pride Park in 1997. Plenty of clubs had been forced to move before then for various reasons, but these were among the first ones of the ‘modern’ era, and the first instances in which I was old enough to understand what it meant to fans who had to endure it. There must be an indelible sadness in leaving behind not only the club’s memories, but yours as a fan; your first game, the first time you were sucked in by the occasion and totally ‘got it’, rather than it being just a congregation of angry men who swore a lot, your first matchday routines and your first forays into young adulthood.
Football stadiums are our childhood playgrounds and hugely important structures in the fabric of an often downtrodden community; a magnet for hope, spirit and unity where there otherwise might not be any. When Peter Ridsdale made manoeuvres to take Leeds United out of LS11 in 2001 I didn’t just think about how it would affect me and my fellow Leeds fans, but how it would rip the heart out of the community; how fish and chip shops, cafes and pubs would have no purpose once the circus had left town and just a lifeless, threadbare void remained. Or in some cases, even worse, a Lego housing estate or a supermarket. The thought of it triggers an involuntary shudder and we should thank our lucky stars it never happened to us and hopefully never will.
And it is something that, deep down, we would admit cuts to the heart of football fandom and obsession. We might mock West Ham fans for having to helplessly watch on as their club and matchday experience is gentrified far beyond the point where anything is recognisable, but really we are just thankful it isn’t us. Really we can see beyond the traditional tribalism of football rivalries and sympathise, because most West Ham fans will have hated those first few years at the London Stadium, and some still will. They will have sons and daughters who grow up with no memories of Upton Park, just as there will be Huddersfield, Middlesbrough and Derby fans with no visual or emotional remembrance for a huge part of their club’s history, they are effectively supporting a different club. I would hate that to happen to us, and it very easily could have.
Elland Road has a notoriety much like Upton Park had; infamous characteristics and features that are much-cherished but which you couldn’t design or recreate if you tried, a happy accident that evolved out of tragedy, mismanagement and circumstance and a stadium and experience only a mother could love, or a Leeds fan. But we wouldn’t have it any other way, and warts and all, it is Leeds United in a nutshell, in identity and whatever you might describe as charm; the kind of obstinate charm that we only like, because nobody else does.
Of course we envisage Elland Road will soon be changing, but at least we can live through a piecemeal change and adjust our perceptions accordingly. The matchday experience will change too, but it’s progress that needs to be made, and it’s why we can visit the London Stadium again this weekend and endure the quirks of what is palpably a re-designed athletics stadium with a vaguely disguised no-man’s land at each end in front of the big screens, and probably mock West Ham fans again.
But West Ham are doing just fine, a club on the up and, in the most part, are comfortable with who they are. We’ll be comfortable in our identity too, because everyone knows what Leeds United looks like to them. Okay we have an injury crisis, but it’s always been Leeds United v Everyone, and it’s always been about going again and hoping for a different result; get back on the road, upset the odds and keep fighting. That’s who we are.