Spectator sport

Leeds United is the soap opera which keeps on giving

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Say what you like about Elland Road — and in my experience it is not a place to linger — but Leeds United is the soap opera that just keeps on giving. The sainted Marcelo Bielsa, their coach, has won himself massive plaudits and double page spreads in the press for the near-miraculous feat of making The Damned United vaguely likeable, even momentarily.

Bielsa gifted Aston Villa a goal after Leeds had scored a controversial opener. Villa thought that play had stopped for an injury; Leeds didn’t kick the ball out, and scored. Cue general handbags, after which Bielsa ordered his players to let Villa score.

In the general moral carnival that ensued, it was good to see that centre back Pontus Jansson wasn’t having any of this nicey-nicey stuff and, channelling the spirit of Norman Hunter, did try — unsuccessfully — to stop the goal.

We should be careful about too much of this as players go down increasingly regularly with seemingly terminal injuries, often accompanied by that routine of beating the ground with their hand to indicate that yes, that really did hurt. Should the ball always be kicked out at that point? I don’t think so.

Also generally lost in the piety was Leeds striker Patrick Bamford’s fabulously deceitful face clasp and agonised drop to the floor when mildly caught by a flailing arm. Ah football, don’t you love it!

Readers of a certain vintage will recall that ‘dirty Leeds’ have form in this area. Back in April 1971, Leeds were desperate for points in an agonisingly tight race for the First Division title with Bertie Mee’s Arsenal. Playing West Brom, and already 1-0 down, a loose ball from Hunter cannons into the Leeds half.

Albion’s Colin Suggett is 15 yards offside and the linesman flags. However, referee Ray Tinkler, as was his wont, is playing advantage and the whistle stays silent; the flag though is kept up, and Leeds stop playing. West Brom press on, Jeff Astle scores an apologetic tap-in and the goal stands. Elland Road explodes in fury.

The TV commentator Barry Davies, seemingly promoting a riot, shouts: ‘Leeds will go mad, and they have every justification for going mad.’ Leeds lost the game and missed out on the title by one point. But they like a grievance, these Yorkshire types. Say the words ‘That bastard Tinkler’ to any Leeds fan of a certain age and you will get instant recognition (and probably a pint).

Tinkler himself, as he told the Guardian, can live with that. ‘There are people who still bear a grudge. I was a farmer in the (area)… there was one man who’d come to me and say “I’ll have some of that bastard referee’s potatoes”. I used to charge him a fiver a ton extra for calling me a bastard. It never bothered me, I’ve always said yesterday’s dead, tomorrow’s yet to come.’ Good thinking Ray, but I am not sure the worthies of Elland Road agree.

In the ever-expanding Leeds United book of grievances, pride of place should also go to the 1975 European Cup Final against Bayern Munich in Paris.

The Parc des Princes looked more like a battlefield with several Bayern players suffering serious injuries in the wake of ferocious tackles; Leeds had several penalty appeals turned down and a Peter Lorimer goal disallowed for offside.

Naturally enough Leeds fans rioted throughout the game and afterwards the club was banned from European competition for two years. But true to form they feel they were cheated by the referee and still chant ‘Champions of Europe’. Who needs Coronation Street when you’ve got Elland Road?

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