Leeds United fan Jon Howe has penned the definitive history of the Whites’ Elland Road ground and spoke to Phil Hay about his labour of love
It’s a travesty of the past decade, but at the same time strangely fitting, that Elland Road has come to be seen as an albatross around Leeds United’s neck.
The stadium today is a cause of angst – lease agreements, buy-back clauses, the question of who actually owns the damn deeds – and pride in the club’s spiritual home suffers because of it.
But Elland Road has a rich and intricate history; a history which has been largely untold until now.
Next month, supporter and author Jon Howe will publish a book which can best be described as a labour of love.
At 288 pages long, The Only Place For Us: An A to Z History of Elland Road will come to be seen as definitive unless someone succeeds in documenting the ground’s evolution in more forensic detail. Howe’s work is not touched by Teak Commercial Ltd or the British Virgin Islands. Teak is mentioned only twice.
It’s about the place and the culture; “the bones”, as he puts it.
His project was three years in the making and by the end of his extensive research, Howe came to view Elland Road as he views the club. “It’s got a fairly chequered history,” Howe said. “It’s no different to Leeds United. There were periods when the stadium grew and expanded and others, like the ‘70s and ‘80s, when it was badly neglected and left to rot.
“As supporters, I think we like the authenticity. We like the feel of the place. There are strange things about the ground, things you might never notice like the roof of the Kop not lining up with the corner stand. Why couldn’t someone just get that right? But that’s Elland Road. I wanted to paint a picture of it – not just of the stadium itself but of the culture and the things that have gone one there.”
The early history of the stadium is documented, as it has been by others previously. Association football was played for the first time at Elland Road – or the Peacock Ground as it was known – in 1898, a West Yorkshire Cup final between Hunslet and Harrogate. Holbeck Rugby Club used the pitch until 1904 when they ran out of cash and folded. Leeds City, the club who would later become Leeds United, took on the lease in October of that year.
“Details about the very early years are pretty sparse and hard to come by,” Howe said. “I had to make a few calculated assumptions but microfilm of the YEP and the old Leeds Mercury turned up some interesting facts.” Leeds City recorded the capacity at 22,000 but routinely posted crowds in excess of 30,000.
But the value of Howe’s book is the insight and the interviews with fans and past and present employees, rather than the basic facts and dates. He recounts how in the interwar years, the original Kop and the primitive Lowfields stand were built on embankments created by rubble and waste dumped on the site by JP Pullan, a construction firm belonging to club chairman Ernest Pullan.
“JP Pullan were building all the houses behind Elland Road, up Wesley Street and beyond,” Howe said. “For them and for Ernest Pullan, it was a convenience thing – they had tons of waste from the all the construction and the embankments at Elland Road were an easy place to dump it, right on site.
“The terraces weren’t concreted over until the 1940s so you get some idea of how seriously the safety of supporters was taken back then. I’m not sure it crossed anyone’s mind.”
Throughout its existence, Elland Road has been that sort of venue; “a bit ramshackled,” in Howe’s words, and prone to problems. In 1956 the West Stand burned to the ground in a fire (the alarm was raised by the owner of what is now Graveleys chip shop) and Leeds rebuilt it the following year. After the construction of the existing Kop in 1968, the pitch was moved northwards in two stages, once in 1970 and again in 1973. “I’ve seen loads of photos of the Don Revie era with this strange gap in front of the Kop,” Howe said. “Finally I realise why.”
Revie’s own relationship with the stadium is fascinating. His team were nothing short of formidable there but, as Howe recounts, he talked in the 1960s about leaving the ground. “He definitely had his doubts about the place,” Howe said. “He thought it was too far away from the centre of town and too far away from the supporters the club had in east Leeds – Kippax, Garforth, those sort of places.” And famously, Revie suspected the venue was cursed.
The story went that when Leeds City moved into Elland Road, a group of gypsies were kicked off the turf. In return, they cursed the stadium. “Revie was a superstitious man,” Howe said. “I spoke at length to David Cocker (the son of Les Cocker, the first-team coach under Revie) to get a picture of Revie and the curse was obviously something he had on his mind.”
In 1971, Revie was reported to have hired the services of a gypsy to lift the curse. Howe is sceptical about the whole thing. “In all my research, there was nothing to suggest the original story about a curse was true,” he said. “There’s nothing to say that gypsies ever occupied that site. It was probably just paranoia.”
There are other intriguing parts of Howe’s story: an interview with Howard Wilkinson in which United’s title-winning manager explains why he removed images of Revie’s famous squad from the West Stand entrance in the 1980s. “I just felt that when we’ve got a club that reflects all the qualities that those players and that manager reflected, we’ll put them back up,” he says.
Wilkinson also talks about the challenge of promoting Leeds as a big-hitting club while a dilapidated ground stood around him. “The way he described it was like trying to look nice in a cheap suit, without revealing that there wasn’t much underneath it,” Howe said. Wilkinson called Elland Road a “Rolls Royce body with a Mini engine.”
Elsewhere, former Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby speaks at length about dragging Leeds into the modern world of commercialism by investing in corporate facilities and executive boxes. Few understood his motives at the time and, in 1992, few appreciated the appearance of a less-than-attractive Banqueting Suite on the iconic facade of the West Stand. “The idea was to make money for Leeds United,” Fotherby says. It sounds obvious now.
In amongst the text is a wealth of colour: photographs from every era, match tickets across the years, a programme from 1982 – a time when hooliganism was rife – in which Leeds took the unprecedented step of publishing a statement on the front page attacking the “scab element” in their support. The minds boggles at the thought of a comment like that today.
There are diagrams of the stadium’s redevelopment over the decades, timelines of the changes and statistics to drown in; every postponement since the World War Two (only 31, and none since 1995) and a list of competitive rugby fixtures played there. The funny tales are a treat too: David Batty, who writes the foreword, locking long-serving physio Alan Sutton in the referee’s room for hours and sneaking into Elland Road to listen through the wall as his father fought his corner in contract negotiations.
By the final pages, you are left with a sense of how emotionally empty United would be in a generic, plastic, out-of-town bowl. Peter Ridsdale thought about building one in 2002 and canvassed the opinion of season-ticket holders – “Eighty per cent voted in favour of leaving,” Howe said, “which still doesn’t stack up. Nobody I knew voted yes” – but the financial chaos which followed soon after made an irrelevance of the support of his plan. Howe reflects in his introduction on the “wonderment” of Elland Road and it’s there still, in the underpass beneath the M621 and the darkest reaches of the Kop. It’s there in his book. “A lot of us have spent a lot of our lives at Elland Road,” he said. “From a footballing perspective it’s home.” Deep down you hope Leeds never leave.
The Only Place For Us: An A to Z History of Elland Road, Home of Leeds United – is out next month, RRP £19.99.
His fortnight in Miami now complete, Massimo Cellino will be at Bolton Wanderers today for the start of another pivotal week as Leeds United’s owner.
The sport itself is tense enough but on Thursday, in London, Cellino’s legal team will deliver his appeal against the Football League’s edict banning him from running Leeds.
The governing body, which at first ordered Cellino, pictured far right, to resign as a club director by December 29, conceded some ground last month by allowing him to remain on the board at Elland Road until two days after the outcome of his appeal is announced.
Cellino’s case should be heard in a day and a verdict is expected to arrive some time next month.
This is rather unprecedented ground, though he and the League have been here before. Last April, a bid by the League to block Cellino’s buy-out of United was rejected by Tim Kerr, the same QC who will chair the appeal panel second time around.
Much of reasoning given by Kerr for his decision in April is well documented. He rejected the argument that a tax conviction imposed on Cellino by a court in Italy should be classed as dishonest – and therefore in breach of League rules – due to the absence of a full written verdict from the judge who found Cellino guilty.
That judgement emerged later in the year, giving the League the justification it felt it needed to move to disqualify the Italian again.
Kerr, however, also refused to accept a submission from Cellino’s lawyers that his offence is not yet classed as a formal conviction in Italy and should not be seen as a conviction in the UK either.
The interesting aspect of that part of Kerr’s ruling is that Cellino’s appeal next week is likely to follow a similar theme: that he is currently challenging his Italian tax conviction and the crime is not yet officially proven. Though Kerr dismissed that argument in April, on that occasion he was sitting alone.
This time, Leeds wanted the Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) to consist of three members – and the club appear to have got their way.
The Football League was asked to outline the make-up of next week’s PCC but did not respond.
The YEP nonetheless understands that Kerr will be joined on the panel by two Football League board members, non-executive chairman Greg Clarke and independent non-executive director Richard Bowker.
Almost every other member of the League’s board, including former Leeds chief executive Shaun Harvey, pictured inset, were ineligible for the PCC due to past or current associations to Leeds or other clubs, but the involvement of Clarke and Bowker means that on this occasion the outcome of Cellino’s appeal will be rest on three opinions, rather than one.
It remains to be seen if the tactic pays off.