IT’S twenty years since I first heard “Marching On Together”. I reached the top of the Lowfields steps to that tune an hour and a half before Neil Aspin sent me home happy with a goal he was unlikely to repeat, and like all Leeds fans my ears have rung to Les Reed’s arrangement countless times ever since.
I heard it once again on Saturday afternoon, this time emerging from the speakers of a tiny Austrian ground nestled in a landscape of geological highs and lows where the song may not be familiar, but its glorious and turbulent themes also apply.
The city of Salzburg’s ups and downs include the tale of a treacherous siege brought ingeniously to an end by painting their sole remaining bull a series of different colours to fool the insurrection into believing the starving town was abundant in livestock. Its citizens remain known as stierwaschers, or bull washers.
The irony that the crux of this legend lies in redecorating bulls wasn’t lost amongst the thousand or so who trudged along to the latest of a string of victories which have propelled the violet and whites of Austria Salzburg to the top of the table.
Flame and smoke from the ultras set a raucous tone in the main stand; a fantastically perilous welcome of fire, plastic and timber for their visitors from the nearby village of Liefering.
A huge banner draped from the roof declared the hosts the stadtklub – city club – for their neighbours now under Red Bull occupation play in a glass arena yards beyond the city limits.
Besides the drone of the youthful ultras congregated around a chap barking into a megaphone, families and old-timers dotted themselves about the picturesque setting where, despite the din, snoozing toddlers were draped over their mother’s shoulders.
Any guidebook will tell you that Salzburg is very much a beer town. So much so, that a local pub was hit by two armed robbers during our stay in the city: a place where it’s much more profitable to rob a boozer than a bank.
As kick off approached, a tractor chugged its way across the park between limbering players of various shapes and sizes and pulled up beside the pitch to sell pints of the local tipple from a seemingly bottomless fridge squeezed onto the back of a trailer. The barrel-like figure of a linesman did his best to keep his eyes off the ale and patrol his touchline with the will of a saint and the grace of a weeble.
The players, meanwhile, showed slightly more commitment to their afternoon of abstinence and within five minutes Austria Salzburg found themselves in front, thanks to a calamitous intervention from a Liefering defender who looped the ball into the aluminium goal.
The contest was already distorted to such a degree that it was over, and it quickly became obvious that the adjustment involved in following a former Bundesliga club down at this level, however virtuous, was not without its frustrations.
What poise there was came from Aleksandar Jankovic’s attempts to supply a front three which featured a battering ram of a centre-forward: Oliver Trappl, the man they call ‘Obelix’ and younger brother of goalkeeper Alexander who was frankly redundant at the other end.
A spree of missed opportunities irritated the locals and the paltry one goal advantage meant the half time whistle failed to rouse any applause. The supporters’ demand was for a level of commitment equal to their own, and an unerring fifteen minute performance of violet and white standards pointed the way ahead.
The second half got off to a spectacular start; Trappl’s lump hammer free kick inviting a wild embrace from a spectator who, little did I know at the time, would later perform a similar manoeuvre on me whilst singing “Super Leeds!” at the top of his voice.
Whatever his message for Trappl, it seemed to work. The big man promptly notched up another, pushing his tally for the season into what must seem like triple figures and sending the opposition packing just as Leeds United’s ‘Desert Head’ had done to Shrewsbury Town almost two decades ago to the day.
The afternoon was far from over. Ale was on the minds of fans and players alike as the knackered pitch received a further pounding from the violet hoards keen to salute their heroes, who were clearly grateful for the kind of passionate and stylish support most professionals would give their drinking arms to perform in front of.
Long after the final whistle, people remained on the turf; nobody wanted to go home, to bring an end to this true spectacle down in football’s basement. Players posed for photos, and even the ultras performed for the cameras once more as the club collectively celebrated leading the league at the winter break.
Christ knows what it’ll be like if they go on to win it outright.
Chatting with fans over further rounds of beer after the game, pausing only to join in the heckling of the Manchester United and Bayern Munich matches on the telly in the background, I was told tales familiar to a Leeds fan; of richly-celebrated triumphant times and brushes with bankruptcy, as well as a whole glut of unpopular club crests.
It occurred to me that I had so far seen little evidence of Red Bull Salzburg in the city. In fact, Austria Salzburg’s support throughout the game was utterly pro-violet. The temptation to slur the nouveau riche suburbanites, however satisfying, seemed incomparable to proudly bellowing out their tried and tested repertoire.
I was just considering the grace required to maintain such a dignified stance when we arrived at our final destination late in the evening: a bierhalle absolutely teeming with Austria Salzburg fans, players, and officials.
Once we were welcomed into the throng, the anti-Red Bull songs were underway: “ten Red Bull bombers in the air!”, “follow the Red Bull, no never, no more!”; a pub stuffed full of folk reinforcing the fortifications around their city’s birthright.
Through beer-sodden eyes it looked like a scene from some allegorical painting or other; a fantastic swirl of violet and white scarves and ancient replica shirts in a sea of glowing faces.
And that’s what sets the fans of Austria Salzburg apart from those who choose to acquiesce to the new regime: pride. Unsullied by the excesses of modern football, their bond with the club is as formidable as ever.
They’re on a long and winding road, but in the sheer energy stakes neither Red Bull nor its millions could ever hope to catch them.