The impression you have of Leeds United’s supporters depends on where you sit and how often they cross your path.
In six and a half years, this job has taken me to almost 400 games involving the club – first-team fixtures, reserve-team matches, pre-season friendlies and FA Youth Cup ties. By rights, the timeline of carnage and incessant violence should allow for the publication of football’s answer to Stalingrad; a scathing exposure of the worst of the worst.
Count the banning orders, do the maths. It all adds up apparently. In a recent court case over policing costs, a lawyer representing West Yorkshire Police claimed that matches at Elland Road have one of the worst records for violence in the whole of the UK. That is presumed to be true of United’s away fixtures too: Hillsborough last Friday, a case in point.
I cannot vouch for the land outside each ground they visit but within the stadiums themselves, the evidence of 300-plus fixtures home and away barely tallies with the club’s riotous reputation. It has not been a stadium tour of all-out chaos or anything close. Some will say an apologist writes. I prefer to think of myself as someone who has seen.
There are bad days of course – those days when the Leeds United stereotype shows itself to be true – but too few to justify allegations of a violent pandemic. It is no basis on which to call for an outright ban of United’s supporters from away grounds, and nor was last week’s derby in Sheffield, as much as the night justified disciplinary action on a number of different levels.
What should we conclude about the trouble at Hillsborough? Primarily, that there is a distinction to be made between the attack on Chris Kirkland and the poisonous atmosphere surrounding it. In my years with the YEP, no Leeds supporter before Friday night had ever assaulted – or attempted to assault – a player on the pitch. That is hardly a feather in the club’s cap but it does show how extraordinary the incident was. It does football a disservice to argue that one mindless act of thuggery is indicative of a trend or a bigger picture.
The same cannot be said of the evening at Hillsborough in general. In that respect, there is a bigger picture which most of us can see – an issue over the conduct of supporters en masse which the legal system cannot be asked to deal with in the way it dealt with Aaron Cawley.
Unsavoury chanting – sick, vile, whatever you call it – is football’s business and a problem for football’s image. It is also a problem which, racist taunts aside, has been left to fester for years. That, in my view, was the motivation for Dave Jones’ scathing comments about United’s support and his demand for them to be banned indefinitely from away grounds in the aftermath of the derby at Hillsborough.
It was wrong on his part, and a sweeping insult, to describe 5,000 people as “vile animals”. But whatever your opinion of Jones, it should also be accepted that abuse of him over historic criminal charges, charges of which he was categorically cleared, is grossly unfair and impossible for him to tolerate. It cannot be dismissed as the rough and tumble of professional sport.
I don’t doubt that the matter is personal. I was at Ninian Park in 2007 when Jones made similar comments immediately after a Championship game between Leeds and Cardiff City, albeit aiming his criticism at “a minority” who taunted him on that February afternoon.
Five years on, he might well ask what football has done for him in that time, just as Leeds can ask what work has been done to eradicate chants about the death of two of their fans in Istanbul 12 years ago. As they were at Hillsborough, Turkish references and stabbing gestures can be made inside English grounds with virtual impunity and precious little comeback beyond the crowd disturbances they often provoke.
In the days since last Friday, countless emails have reached me asking if punishment handed out by the Football Association was likely to include a charge against Wednesday for songs relating to Istanbul. Sadly, the governing body would show hopeless inconsistency if it did. The precedent for taunts of that nature suggests Wednesday have no case to answer.
United’s most recent visits to Millwall have thrown up comparable incidents more serious and prolific; in particular, the game in April 2011 when the traditional but isolated appearance of Turkish flags morphed into scores of them across one section of the New Den, provoking an exchange of missiles. Not a single disciplinary charge was issued from Soho Square. How, in light of that, can Wednesday be called to account?
Likewise, not once in the past six-and-a-half seasons have Leeds been taken to task over chants about the Munich air disaster. In no way are those songs rife among their fanbase – if anything, United’s supporters police that matter themselves and do so fairly effectively – but I’ve heard them and heard them more than once. You’d be tempted to be appalled if the game itself wasn’t so indifferent and inclined to look away.
Over time you come to realise that there are actual victims here: Jones for one but other people too. Last season, one of the mothers of the two Leeds fans who were stabbed in Turkey personally phoned Millwall to complain about the tasteless references to her son’s death. That takes some comprehending. Rarely can football have fallen so far beneath contempt in making her phone call necessary.
Millwall, in their defence, do what they can, and the start of a campaign by Leeds this week aimed at ending “sick and vile” chanting was a positive, proactive move at a time when the FA is considering its response to Hillsborough. Self-policing fans are the best solution but, as Neil Warnock said this week, the theory is more simple than the reality. How realistic is it to expect fans to co-ordinate themselves and stick to the programme on nights as fraction and emotive as last Friday?
England’s governing body needs to lead on this. Association football is the FA’s baby, played by its rules. It falls within its remit to decide whether unsavoury chanting is a problem worthy of stricter attention or a matter which falls down the pecking order.
There are fundamental requirements for a campaign against it: that unacceptable chants are properly defined; that the FA’s policy is clear, consistent and punitive; and that scrutiny is regularly applied to every stadium in the country, not simply games that are televised by Sky or clubs who are seen as serial offenders. Zero tolerance, to coin the traditional phrase.
One way or the other, it would make a point about where tasteless chanting sits in the grand scheme of political issues. There can be no middle ground; either it matters or it doesn’t. And at present, there’s precious little evidence to suggest that it does.