Leeds United: Hard-won appreciation must not be lost now – Hay

Leeds United fans rally their side.
Leeds United fans rally their side.
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It is not as if Leeds-Newcastle was being flogged on the cheap. The game is Category A and like most of Leeds’ fixture list this side of January, Sky will be there to televise it. Some positive effort was made with concession prices over the summer but football is football so in certain sections of Elland Road an adult and a child are in for the best part of fifty quid.

In a typical season and in many of Leeds’ recent seasons, this fixture would not have sold at the rate it is selling (general admission tickets gone as of yesterday morning). They will call Newcastle the biggest draw in the Championship but when a club have been stuck in this league for what feels like 100 years, there are no big draws in the Championship. Only big draws above it. There are no games which spike the Elland Road crowd by 10,000 of their own accord. The reason why Massimo Cellino and prior owners of Leeds have been so intolerant of televised home matches is that attendances, revenue and corporate sales fall without fail. Two weeks on Sunday all three figures will be up.

The search for an attendance of over 30,000 goes back to the last day of the 2014-15 season and a goalless draw with Rotherham United. Why that game had any appeal is hard to say. Leeds finished 15th and Rotherham had avoided relegation a few days earlier. There were promises of a protest against Cellino but it barely materialised and Cellino gave the game a miss to go ‘scouting’ at Morecambe instead. Many turned up with the intention of giving Neil Redfearn his due as his stint as manager came to an end but it was the essence of a dead rubber. Too many of those over too many seasons chipped away at the fringes around Leeds’ hardcore support.

Sell-outs are rarer again and unseen at Elland Road since 2011. Arsenal in the FA Cup reached capacity but Manchester United’s League Cup visit that same year fell 6,000 short and the League Cup quarter-final against Chelsea in 2012 drew 33,000. However those fixtures were marketed at the time, to look back now is to see them as sideshows in the thick of league campaigns where Leeds were treading water. Here and now it could not be said that Garry Monk is struggling to keep the club afloat. The results are marketable and the football is marketable. And for the visit of Newcastle, the benchmark in the Championship, the football is selling easily.

It is, naturally, football which sells and football which doesn’t but on the administrative side, some changes of policy at Leeds have made a surge of interest easier to tap into. Sales for Newcastle opened promptly and the introduction of concessionary prices across the stadium is an overdue break from a ticketing system which seemed to take the view that concessions were of no value unless they paid full whack. At a peak of £9 for Under-11s, Leeds have seen socio-economic sense and opened the doors to a city of kids. A rolling-back of matchday mark-ups would be a productive next step but the club’s season-ticket promotion was imaginatively conceived. There are lapsed supporters aplenty and it felt for too long that the club’s solution to a gradual exodus was to concede nothing and watch the masses flock back in the aftermath of promotion. See what they do when the Premier League is in town. Except it wasn’t and it isn’t. And all that existed was a failure to re-engage.

It took some effort behind the scenes to convince Cellino that last week’s League Cup tie against Norwich City was a time for cut-price tickets but the attendance justified the savings and so did an increase in revenue earned against Blackburn in the previous round. Cellino, to his credit, seems less single-minded or obdurate than he ever had been as owner of Leeds. He is certainly quieter and more helpful because of it. If one of the criticisms of him was that he was always in-shot, always on the warpath and always quick to ruffle feathers then it has to be said that Cellino has taken a different tack since the season started. You wonder why, as talk of investment by Andrea Radrizzani rumbles on, but the point still stands.

Whether it lasts with Monk or not, his work and the results under him are serving to remind people of why they attend Elland Road or why they used to attend. The climate feels less about loyally following a badge than following the squad who are playing for him. It is not a cliché to say that United’s players feel in touch with the crowd around them. It is not going too far either to say that some previous squads did not – or to accept that the feeling of the crowd was mutual. That tide has turned and Leeds must continue to nurture this groundswell of appreciation. It is hard-earned at Elland Road. And very easily lost.