THERE’S nothing like going to a football ground on a non-matchday to realise the awesome power with which supporters infuse the game. Without the life we bring in congregation, all grounds sit quieter, greyer and colder, as if deprived of their soul. The last time I visited Elland Road for reasons other than attending a match was in July 2007. Back then, a storm brewed over Beeston. Billy Bremner’s statue was draped in scarves and stood defiantly upon a funereal bed of white, blue and yellow flowers.
It was a scene that’s hard to forget: a time of introspection seldom observed in football. People – confused, angry, both – paused to read handwritten messages from others similarly fearing for their football club’s existence. “There’ll either be a Leeds United or there won’t,” chairman Ken Bates had said, and it would be two more long weeks before we’d learn whether there would be or not.
I recently made my first non-matchday trip to LS11 in almost four years. Off the bus, down the hill, across Elland Road, where a solitary wreath lay at the base of Billy Bremner’s plinth. Nobody hung around except me; the trickle of visitors passed through the club store back to their cars clutching shopping bags. Serenity of sorts, save for light traffic and the adjacent lump-hammers beating at the East Stand’s core. Thud. Thud. Thud. On high, more steward orange-clad builders scurried along stacks of new floors slotted like shelves into its exterior framework. I stood there, before the very reason why Bates had fought so tenaciously four summers ago. It had begun. Like the painstaking export of London Bridge to Arizona, Chelsea Village was being installed brick-by-brick in Beeston.
I realise that Elland Road’s in dire need of development. It always has been. From the 1950s West Stand to the concrete 1970s brutalism of the Kop, ever since I first went there in the mid-1980s it’s been a dungeon. The construction of the East Stand – said to be “magnificent” in its day but surely only in stature, not design – did nothing to alter my attachment to this unique, beautifully beastly site.
This gaping aperture in the earth is capable of emitting awe-inspiring energy from which Bates’ developments only subtract. His oeuvre presently clings to Elland Road’s decaying cavities like fillings plugged in by a backstreet dentist. Howard’s Restaurant: a beige embarrassment of phoney marble. Billy’s Bar: open, deserted, like a badly-tuned television left on in an empty room, soon to be joined by hundreds more empty rooms like those at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea’s current chairman, Bruce Buck, admits that the Bates business model is flawed, that returns on his £150m gamble in West London are slim, and acknowledges that far from sharing Bates’ Chelsea dream, “all the football fan wants, really, is football.”
I too have a dream. Since I don’t believe that a football club’s future rests on it becoming a hub to consumers who care little for it, I dream about Leeds United being centred around those that do. I dream that ticket prices reflect a desire for inclusivity, to recognise the value of fans’ emotional stake in the club. I dream that the single thing which ought to be the source of great collective strength for these individuals – the Members Club – is expanded democratically, leading to supporters being represented in the boardroom so that our concerns may be raised without being dismissed as dissension. In the absence of a need for secrecy, I dream of rebuilding partnerships with local independent media and returning FM match commentaries to the citizens of Leeds.
For a club so proud of its in-house media, getting information on the East Stand development, on its 22 new luxury executive boxes with private dining and padded match seating, is like attempting to complete a jigsaw with half the bits missing, the ones which Leeds United seem to be sitting on. The long-lost centrepiece of this puzzle is the cost of this summer’s construction which, at £7m, is sure to eclipse Simon Grayson’s spend on his squad. Publicly-available accounts state that the club’s holding company’s holding company has invested only £500,000 in Leeds United since 2007 yet fans pumped in £17.25m during 2009/10 alone, so must we really endure council websites and planning meetings just to glean the basics of a £7m development our cash is subsidising?
Elsewhere, clubs involve their fans and build futures together but not at Leeds United, where it’s as if certain facts are on a need to know basis and that supporters don’t need to know. It’s less “live it, love it” and more “like it, lump it” but that’s what Batesonomics is all about. As fans, bricks in the wall, all we ever have to go on are the utterings of the man who pathologically “saved” Chelsea so often that in the end they had to be saved from him.