‘Lost currency’ – New film recalls forgotten Leeds United chant as fans explain anti-police feeling

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The city of Leeds took a major step in 2022 to ensure David Oluwale would never be forgotten and now an award-winning documentary, inspired by a scarcely-remembered Leeds United chant, is helping to do the same.

Oluwale's story is a tragic one. A Nigerian immigrant, he was chased to his death in the River Aire by Leeds Police in 1969, after a campaign of harassment that targeted him for his homelessness, mental health issues and race. It prompted the first successful prosecution of British police involved in the death of a black person.

In April 2022 the city honoured Oluwale with the unveiling of a blue plaque on Leeds Bridge and late last year Leeds-born filmmaker Jeremiah Quinn unveiled the first documentary exploring the story, partly compelled by a childhood memory of a song, to the tune of 'Michael, Row the Boat Ashore'. It went like this: 'The River Aire is chilly and deep, Ol-u-wa-le. Never trust the Leeds police. Ol-u-wa-a-le.'

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"I first heard the Oluwale song when I was walking along in Burley, a boy was singing it and it always lasted with me," Quinn told the YEP. "I didn't know it was a Leeds United song when I first heard it, that knowledge came later when I picked up a book called 'The Hounding of David Oluwale' and I thought that looks like the word from that song, and sure enough it was the answer to this mystery."

Kester Aspden's book detailed how the song, and others of a similar theme, would ring out at Elland Road, from those standing on The Kop as they pointed fingers at the police officers in attendance. A Nigerian immigrant becoming the subject of a terrace chant, without racist undertones, is in itself remarkable given the prevalence of discriminatory abuse in the 1970s. Finding Leeds fans who recall the song, or the context around it, is no easy task, given the length of time that has passed since Oluwale's death and the subsequent 1971 manslaughter trial of former-Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching, at which they were found guilty only of assault. Many simply have no memory of hearing it sung, but there's no doubt it was.

Ken Beckett, 67, first attended a Leeds game in the 1964/65 season and used his pocket money - a 10 bob note - to sneak off to the city from his Pontefract home on the South Yorkshire bus, buying a programme, some spice and entrance to Elland Road. He remembers the 1967 FA Cup clash with Sunderland when barriers collapsed and fans spilled onto the pitch. He was at the 1971 West Bromwich Albion game with its offside controversy. And he recalls the Oluwale chant and why it was sung.

"Yes I do remember the chant, it was something about the River Aire and not trusting the police," he told the YEP. "It was aimed at the police. It’s not to say race wasn’t a factor for some, but I don’t recall that angle. From my memory it was an ‘us against them’ issue against the police."

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Carl Myers, another Elland Road attendee from the 60s onwards, has similar memories. "It was sung to wind up the police," he said. "I was only a kid, perhaps nine or 10, but I remember reading about the Oluwale case in the Yorkshire Evening Post at the time. I was taught to respect the police, which I still do, but it was really confusing to me at the time. The police being the bad guys? I was taken to Elland Road from four years old, from 1962-ish, and was taken to most home games from then onward.My Dad and I had season tickets from 1971 until the mid 80's. The Leeds fans also used to sing a song about the Yorkshire Ripper in the late 70's very early 80's mocking the police because they couldn't catch him. Again the sole purpose was to wind up the police."

IMPORTANT STORY - Jeremiah Quinn's film 'Oluwale' tells the story of David Oluwale and a song that Leeds United fans chanted at Elland Road. Pic: Steve RidingIMPORTANT STORY - Jeremiah Quinn's film 'Oluwale' tells the story of David Oluwale and a song that Leeds United fans chanted at Elland Road. Pic: Steve Riding
IMPORTANT STORY - Jeremiah Quinn's film 'Oluwale' tells the story of David Oluwale and a song that Leeds United fans chanted at Elland Road. Pic: Steve Riding

Warwick Smith also began supporting Leeds in the 60s. "Vague memory of it being sung as police used to march out and line up in front of the Kop when trouble threatened," he said. "Very early 70s. It was sung as an accusatory remark against the police for suspicions of chucking someone in the river."

Quinn supposed that the motivation behind the chant was anti-police, and though Vic Brown - who first went to a game in 1969 with his dad aged 11 and joined the Kop 'choir' as a young teenager around 1973 - has no recollection of Oluwale's name being sung, he was painfully aware of the relationship between fans and the authorities. "It's hard to imagine the levels of violence that occurred in that era, particularly whenever Man Utd visited," he said.

"I remember my father trying to shelter me from the things being thrown; golf balls, sharpened old pennies, bottles. I have vivid memories of a lot of people badly cut or hurt from them. Mass battles between rival fans, inside and outside the ground. The police were just trying to keep a lid on it but were often heavy-handed, particularly with mounted police charges, swinging truncheons etcetera. At 14, I ended up in the back of police van, shoved around, and sworn at. My crime, possession of a felt-tipped pen, whose purpose was for autographs not as I was accused, for graffiti."

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Regardless of the sentiment behind the song, Quinn wanted to include it in his film 'Oluwale' which he wrote in 2019, before the pandemic, and he hopes it stirs memories in his fellow Leeds United fans.

FILM MAKER - Leeds United fan Jeremiah Quinn has made a documentary about the David Oluwale tragedy and a chant that Leeds fans aimed at the police in the 1970s. Pic: Ludwig HaskinsFILM MAKER - Leeds United fan Jeremiah Quinn has made a documentary about the David Oluwale tragedy and a chant that Leeds fans aimed at the police in the 1970s. Pic: Ludwig Haskins
FILM MAKER - Leeds United fan Jeremiah Quinn has made a documentary about the David Oluwale tragedy and a chant that Leeds fans aimed at the police in the 1970s. Pic: Ludwig Haskins

"Before the plaque and the bridge and the poster campaign, it was a very obscure story," he said. "I don't think Leeds fans are really aware of [the documentary] yet. It's not quite a Leeds United film, it's got lots of that in it, it opens with the song, but it's a while before it gets to the bits about Leeds, Lucas Radebe, Albert Johanneson. It's not specifically about Leeds United but I'm very interested in people's memories about it. I'm very curious because 1980 was my first match and I'm sure the song was gone by then, it was unknown by then. I was living in the streets Oluwale lived in, by then, and no one talked about him. I think it lost currency, but I'd love to hear from Leeds fans if they remember the chants, if people sang and how it played in the crowd."

Quinn's film has gone on to win a number of awards since it was screened at the Everyman in Leeds back in October, as the opener of the BAFTA-qualifying British Urban Film Festival. Beyond recognition, he hopes it brings an important story to more ears, particularly in his city.

"I think it's very important to deal with this story," he said. "There's a lot of pride in this story, as well, because what [police cadet whistleblower] Gary Galvin did is very, very heroic. There was a conviction, which is a really rare event. I think of the city as inclusive, I take pride in that. The reaction of the police has been huge, West Yorkshire Police are including it in their diversity training - Carl Galvin [Gary's son] put it forward so that every police officer can see it. I think it's an important story to tell."

You can watch Quinn’s documentary ‘Oluwale’ on YouTube by clicking HERE