Leeds United fanzine The Square Ball celebrates its 25th birthday this season. Paul Robinson reports on how its do-it-yourself ethos has survived and flourished over the years.
A LOT has changed at Elland Road over the last 25 years.
Back in the late 1980s, the Kop was still standing-room only, there was no Billy Bremner statue and the endearingly-ramshackle Lowfields terraces had yet to be replaced by the towering East Stand.
The club itself has also had more than its fair share of ups and downs, from title-winning glory under Howard Wilkinson to the dark days of administration and League One.
The supporters have, however, remained steadfastly onside – and nowhere is that more evident than in the continuing success of Leeds’s very-much unofficial Square Ball fanzine.
Founded during the era-defining promotion campaign of 1989-90 and written by the fans, for the fans, it will celebrate its silver anniversary when this season’s first issue goes on sale tomorrow at United’s opening league home game of 2014-15.
And although it may now have a shiny website and popular podcast, The Square Ball is perhaps still best represented by the A5-sized, 56-page magazine that is sold come rain or shine by hardy souls outside Elland Road each matchday.
So how has it stayed the course while other fanzines – not just in Leeds but up and down the land – have fallen by the wayside, particularly as more and more writers have abandoned the sometimes awkward delights of ink and paper for the easier publishing opportunities offered by the internet?
One reason, it seems, has been United’s footballing and financial car crash of the last decade-and-a-half, when the actions of their various owners have on regular occasions demanded scrutiny.
The Square Ball production team includes Paul O’Dowd, who told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “The magazine has lasted because there has always been a need for a fans’ viewpoint.
“The Square Ball has always been a platform for people to write about their thoughts on the club – and how it is being run.
“In recent years, it has become increasingly important to question the club, investigating and challenging when a lot of news has been controlled from within.
“We can get away with much more than say, a newspaper, and definitely more than the official programme, as the language can at times be colourful, but still within some quality writing.”
Another member of the Square Ball team, Daniel Chapman, says: “Internet forums took over that mantle for a while but people do seem to want a little more.
“Even in the age of the blogger, those same points can be put across much better in a well-designed magazine.
“We have some great illustrators that can also make valid and satirical points in one image – the magazine gives us so much scope.”
The look of 2014’s Square Ball offers a sharp contrast to its first issue, launched by Ian Dobson at a time – pre-Italia 90 and before the hype and riches of the Premier League – when football fans were still regarded in many quarters as second-class citizens.
Its cover star was none other than Vinnie Jones, pictured at Elland Road’s Old Peacock pub. Inside was a typically no-nonsense interview with United’s midfield enforcer, in which he declared: “A ******* idiot could come here and know the fans are brilliant.”
The publication may have been a rough-and-ready cut-and-paste affair but that do-it-yourself approach mattered little in a feelgood period which saw stars like Gordon Strachan and David Batty propelling United back to heights not reached since the glory years of Don Revie.
“Ian ran the mag from the word go, when desktop publishing was very much a thing of the future. Putting those editions together was a mammoth task and he did a miraculous job in doing so,” says Paul.
“Some early issues were almost crude by comparison to what we have now but let us appreciate how much technology has moved on in the last 25 years.”
The Square Ball as fans know it today hit the streets in 2009, relaunched after a spell when the writers themselves admit it had lost some of its edge.
Michael Normanton, who masterminded the relaunch with Dan Moylan, says: “When we first got it up and running again there were literally just a few of us, all complete amateurs, trying to piece together articles and figure out how to use Adobe InDesign.
“We took help and advice from as many people as possible, including Wayne Gamble from The Beaten Generation website.
“The first one we made was only 28 pages because that was all we had in terms of content but people were delighted to see it back.”
The lads were clearly quick learners, as the magazine was named the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year in 2011. It reached the final of the same competition in 2012 and 2013. Eamonn Dalton, the man behind the www.howsonisnow.com website, was also recruited to add his eye-catching design skills to the new Square Ball formula.
“We’ve reached a stage where people clearly think we’re a professional outfit as we get requests from journalism students for work placements,” says Dan.
“Given we all have normal day jobs and families, and the whole thing is put together over e-mail, a work placement would basically just involve sitting in a kitchen until 2am, which is probably not the Fleet Street experience they were hoping for!”
As for the future, Michael says: “We have modernised and sell ever increasing amounts of digital subscriptions which allow people to access the magazine on iPads and mobiles, but for me there’s something nice about buying a paper copy when you’re at the game.”
One last point. The Square Ball as a name – who dreamt it up and, more importantly, why?
The answer lies in an interview that founder Ian gave in 1993, when he said: “It came out of a drunken night in the pub when we were all discussing what the fanzine should be called.
“Someone said Leeds were famous for playing lots of square passes, so that’s what we went for.
“If I had the chance again, I’d probably go for a different name, but we can’t change now, can we?”
THE PAST AND PRESENT HAPPY TO GO ON THE RECORD
The Square Ball may have no official links with the club – but that hasn’t stopped it from landing interviews with a string of United players past and present.
Its relaunch issue in 2009 carried a piece with Richard Naylor, who was Leeds club captain at that time. Tony Dorigo and Noel Whelan, both United stars of the 1990s, have also spoken to the magazine.
Asked about the wider relationship with Leeds, the fanzine’s Michael Normanton says: “There have always been a lot of Leeds United employees who are fans of the club and those people have been very good to us, but when it comes to the higher echelons it’s always been fairly fractured.
“Since [new Leeds owner] Massimo Cellino has come in, we’ve heard nothing from the club but who knows what this season will bring?” Fellow Square Baller Daniel Chapman adds: “We maintain an independent viewpoint on the club.
“That doesn’t mean we’re solely negative, merely trying to make them accountable for looking after our club.”