Football in the 1980s was blighted by racism and it was no different at Leeds United on and off the field. But Roger Eli tells Leon Wobschall he was determined not to give in.
THE early Eighties were the toughest of times to be an aspiring black professional footballer, especially at a club like Leeds United.
Roger Eli witnessed plenty of unsavoury things in that bleak era and had to cultivate strong survival instincts to cope with abuse on the terraces where racist bile was sadly commonplace.
Survive he did, while developing the thickest of skins to also cope with injury hell and ultimately rejection at the club he idolised as a boy.
Eli, now 46 and a successful businessman based in West Yorkshire, eventually found a home across the Pennines at Burnley where he was afforded cult hero status, with his journeyman experiences with the Clarets and as a lower-division wanderer chronicled in an autobiography entitled Thanks for the Memories.
To his credit, Eli, whose crowning glory came in 1991-92 when he was named Player of the Season after hitting 17 goals to help Burnley lift the old fourth division title, has admirably refused to let the memories of his time at Elland Road be overly soured by negative experiences.
Yet neither has he ignored them, confronting them head on in print and while some of his experiences in football have left him scarred, they have not irrevocably damaged him.
His experiences of racism in football are stark. From being sat in a stand at Grimsby’s Blundell Park as a young Leeds apprentice among away supporters making heinous Nazi-style salutes and monkey chants towards home player Tony Ford to paying the majority of his meagre apprentice wages on taxi fares to get home after matches at Elland Road to avoid the racist mob who made him distinctly uncomfortable.
So-called ‘racist banter’ from team-mates is also mentioned – along with one desperately sad episode when he witnessed team-mate Terry Connor being abused by the late Bernard Manning during a team outing that somehow masqueraded as a ‘bonding session.’
Eli even recounts abuse, incredibly, from wheelchair-bound supporters during a time when football could pretty much hang its head in shame.
Then there were the injuries, with a knee problem sustained in the reserves with Leeds curtailing his time at his boyhood club and ensuring he needed ice packs after every single game for the rest of his career.
Not to mention the gutted feeling he had when being shown the door at Leeds, by one of his boyhood heroes in Billy Bremner in 1986.
Eli told the YEP: “Back in the early eighties, there wasn’t so much education (on racism). I look back at some of the instances of what happened at Leeds United and in the book, it mentions one of the nicknames I had at the club from one of the senior players – others used to cringe when he was calling me this. Had that have been now, he wouldn’t have dreamt of calling it me. It’s an education thing.
“Back then, I think it was what it was... I remember Terry Connor being at Leeds then and he was a couple of years older than me and he knew it wasn’t right.
“I was impressionable and used to go in and hear things people were saying, but you’d just get on with it. But it used to really upset Terry – had I been a little bit older, it would probably have upset me.
“Hopefully things have moved on now, you’d like to think anyway...”
Three chapters are devoted to Eli’s time at Leeds and while injuries badly disrupted his progress and ensured he only played a handful of first-team games, it was the arrival of Bremner and his preference of experience to youth that had the biggest implications for him and a host of hugely talented crop of players who found fame elsewhere, but sadly and somewhat controversially not at Elland Road.
As he did throughout his career, Eli made notes about his time as a young player at Leeds, with that mine of information utilised extensively for his autobiography. And while his time at United was undeniably bitter-sweet, the pride of representing one of football’s great institutions is still obvious today, around two decades on from joining the club.
Eli said: “The time when I was at the club should have been the rebirth of Leeds United.
“Going in there, it was a bit daunting for me as Allan Clarke had signed me, but he then got sacked in the summer they got relegated (1982).
“But Eddie Gray took the job and out of all the great Leeds players, he was the one I aspired to be like.
“He brought through the young players and in my opinion, was going the right way about things. We had some fantastic young players there, but they got broken up pretty quickly.
“Forget me, but there were people like Denis Irwin, Terry Phelan and Andy Linighan who went on to have good careers. But they should have been Leeds United players and the ones to take the club back to the top division.
“Eddie and chief scout Tony Fawthrop were big influences on me. First and foremost, you are a gentleman and Eddie taught me that. I remember his sacking and there’s a bit in his book on it. I know Peter Lorimer has said otherwise in his book about (coach) Keith Mincher getting the job (full-time). But I was convinced – and lots of people won’t like to hear this – in my opinion Billy had already got the job when we had signed Ian Snodin, as they were as close as anything.”
He added: “Looking at my lack of opportunities at Leeds, it was disappointing, but one of those things. Injuries absolutely destroyed me.
“I remember I was playing well, but then got a bad cartilage injury, which put me out for a good six months. The process back then was also a bit slower in terms of players getting back to fitness.
“I seemed to always be playing catch-up and without the injuries, think I would have been given a fair chance. It’s easy to say: if I hadn’t been injured, I’ve had made ‘x’ amount of games; you just don’t know. But I think the management were confident I’d progress, if I wasn’t for the injuries.
“I still achieved my boyhood dream, which just to wear the Leeds United shirt. Yes, it was very short, but I got to do it.
“I’ll always remember going on the first-team coach to a game at Charlton and after playing about a thousand reserve games, to go on the coach with the likes of Peter Lorimer, Eddie Gray and Frankie Gray and seeing things being so professional from start to finish was quite something. The first-teamers would look after me and I was never an outsider.
“I remember the away fans at Charlton chanting my name as I warmed up and wasn’t even on the pitch.”
Aside from his time at United, Eli’s other true crack at the big time also faded and died under one Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, where he spent three years as an associate schoolboy.
And despite not making it under Cloughie – who decided that the youngster was too ‘injury prone’ to be handed an apprenticeship – endearing memories of Ol’ Big Head, a big hate figure as far as Whites fans are concerned, are still fresh in his memory.
Eli said: “I’ll always remember when we went to Italy and Cloughie took the youth team and it was an incredible experience at 15 and one I’ll cherish forever.
“I remember him as being a strict disciplinarian and you could not criticise the referee. He was so anti anything like that.
“He was a respectful figure as well.
“We went to see the audience with the Pope when there were about 10,000 people at St Peter’s Square or something and Cloughie lambasted someone who said to him that he should be sat up there, instead of the Pope.
“It showed the guy he was and while Leeds United fans might not like him, he was fantastic to me.”
Now running a stationery business based in Bingley, Eli’s eye for the selling game was first cultivated at Leeds.
And while his playing career didn’t exactly take off in West Yorkshire, he remains grateful his pathway towards success after football was forged there.
Eli added: “I’ve always had that sales ethic; even when I played I always sold and it was Mervyn Day who got me into sales at Leeds and I saw what he was doing as a player selling sportswear, which I ended up doing at Burnley.
“After being involved in the textile trade, exporting suit materials to places like Savile Row, I eventually went into stationery business which I am still in now.
“Fingers crossed, it’s going okay.”
* Thanks for the Memories – Roger Eli with Dave Thomas, published by Vertical Editions (Skipton). The book, which costs £14.99, can be ordered by emaling firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 0113 2555350.