IT crescendoed from nothing. What was a whisper when I left the country on Friday had become feverish takeover talk by the time I returned on Sunday. By Tuesday, Leeds United were in lockdown.
How fitting it was to be in Salzburg as such revelations, and potentially a regime, were unravelling. When Austria Salzburg’s then-chairman Rudi Quehenberger sold the club to local energy drinks magnate Dieter Mateschitz in 2005, he congratulated himself and the city on a job well done. With Red Bull’s millions, and a shiny new stadium built for Euro 2008, the side who’d just finished one place from the drop were installed as title favourites and alles war gut by the River Salzach.
However, when Mateschitz flaunted his investment ahead of the new season, fans found that the violet & white football club they and their families had followed since 1933 had vanished. Austria Salzburg’s colours, name, even its foundation date were no more. “The red bull can’t be violet, or else we couldn’t call it Red Bull,” Mateschitz said. “This is a new club with no history.”
When I read those words in When Saturday Comes’ September 2005 issue, I too was coming to terms with a new regime at my own club. If Mateschitz’s shift at Red Bull Salzburg was seismic, Ken Bates’ at Leeds United was more a case of creep. Though at his first potty-mouthed press conference he spoke of how Beeston’s wastelands meant he could build “Elland City instead of Chelsea Village,” I didn’t hear the sirens until a typically self-congratulatory interview, with administration just over a year away, saw him speak of his “local nationalist” Leeds United in the way that nutter Sam Hammam used to talk about Cardiff City equalling Wales.
Neither Bates nor Mateschitz care a hoot for fans, and both men’s policies have decimated their club’s crowds and with it, the atmosphere. Bates stretched our wallets to the limit and smashed our independence with his beefed-up Members Club and sycophantic media which enabled him to write off sceptics as “sickpots“, “morons”, and “dissidents”. Mateschitz’s idea of dealing with sustained terrace opposition to his aggressive rebranding of Austria Salzburg was to dismiss it as the work of “hooligans” who should “get another club”.
Under a thick fog of violet smoke at a home match against Austria Vienna in September 2005, that’s exactly what they did. Leaving Red Bull’s stadium on the poignant 33 minute mark were a thousand or so vocal reformers with no option but to go it alone. I’d stood with them twice before: in 2006, at a 3-0 win against Liefering in the 7th division, then again later that season as they beat Nussdorf 6-0 and celebrated the title with maximum gusto. Three further, consecutive promotions made the road back to the Bundesliga look like something of a cakewalk, but their ascent has arrested somewhat in the Austrian third tier.
Though they were destined for a mid-table finish, and since my last trip have moved from downtown Nonntal to a suburban site in Maxglan, the club I encountered in the Friday evening sunshine was immediately familiar. As big Chrie cheerfully manned the merchandise stall, Gebhard and Corinna got the beers in while Harry and I raised the Absolut banner. I’d worked on it with them a couple of years ago, in thanks to the 30-strong group of Violetten who’ve always welcomed me to Salzburg as one of their own. Formed in 1994, Absolut are one of the many independent supporters groups who formed the Initiative Violett-Weiss to protect their club’s proud history.
Much like at our back to front, inside out, upside down United, consensus between Salzburg’s democratically-aligned groups isn’t a formality. Two seasons without promotion have lead to some discontent in the ranks, but nonetheless the place feels overwhelmingly familial. I lost count of the number of youth teams proudly parading before kick off, and was pleased to recognise some of their coaches as ex-Austria Salzburg players. As the retiring tormann Alex Trappl applauded from the front cover of the free match programme and ex-stürmer Mario Schleindl eagerly milked the crowd chanting his name, the present-day Austria Salzburg and their opponents TSV Neumarkt took to the field.
It goes without saying that this Austria Salzburg, five years on and three leagues higher, is leaner, fitter, and better than the sides I’d seen before, and in 23-goal Marko Vujic they possess a forward of genuine quality. His cool finish just before half time levelled a speculative lob, and his 73rd minute penalty gave his side a 3-1 lead right up until Neumarkt’s Christoph Hübl – due to make the switch to violet & white this summer – rudely dashed the hopes of his future employers with an 87th minute equaliser.
Players for the club often speak of the adrenaline rush of playing lower league football in a Bundesliga atmosphere, and though the game lulled, as end-of-season fixtures so often do, the enthusiasm of the Ultras was relentless. Just in case anyone was thinking of leaving all the racket-making to them, the legendary Schützei popped up in the second half, standing on top of the players’ tunnel to whip the two halves of the main stand into a frenzy in the folkloric style of the Gelderd End’s very own “Collar”.
Refreshingly, the bar stayed open for a couple of hours after the game, providing me with plenty of time to mingle. Munich being just over the border, there was genuine delight at Bayern bombing at home in the Champions League, but the Premier League, would you believe, far from being The Best League in the World™ is somewhat unloved and spoken of as being bloated and boring.
Can you imagine the difficulty in explaining to an Austrian that I haven’t set foot inside Elland Road since sacrificing a life-size copper bust of Ken Bates? It wasn’t just to them either. European football’s best-kept secret is clearly getting out, because Marc had come from Dortmund and Darren was an Englishman who, like me, was on his third trip to Salzburg. Being a Wednesdayite, just imagine his delight at travelling all that way only to be introduced to a West Yorkshireman. But he was a cheerful sort, and with good reason – his club dodging the Bates bullet put mine right in the firing line.
As we bade farewell and poured into taxis bound for the city, it occurred to me how lucky I was to be there. The Maxglan ground only houses 1,566 for a club that recently took over 7,000 on a short, supercharged away trip to their former home to play Red Bull Salzburg’s reserves. There’s no doubt about Austria Salzburg’s potential but the need to build a new ground – “Eine Heimat für die Austria” – is obvious. Funding is an obstacle, but there’s certainly no shortage of will, and since the match sponsors were the local Labour party the political wind in the city seems favourable.
Many find football players inspiring, but for me, it’s the fans. Salzburg teaches us that co-operatives are the future; that individuals can wring all the cash they want from the game today, but fans, clubs, local councils and media working together will build the great clubs of tomorrow. Different minds can still sing in tune, and real fan power lies not in club-branded drinks, hotels or radio stations, but instead in standing in unison, in numbers, in independence.
Sooner or later, one way or another, Leeds United will learn to listen to its fans and the tracks we’re making will ensure that we will be ready. Whoever the club’s next owners are, let’s support fan-led initiatives now, join the Supporters Trust and be Leeds because we are Leeds. Our big questions for any owner shouldn’t be about how much they’ve got to spend, but about where we fit into their plans. For 7 long years, we’ve been nowhere. Whatever life after Bates brings and whenever that may be, I want fans to be independently represented on the board. We may not agree on everything, but we are the club’s beating heart.