Phil Hay: How Leeds United's attempt to '˜manufacture' spirit of togetherness somehow worked
EVEN plastic flags, that emblem of sanitised football, are not immune to the Leeds United treatment. Any thoughts of the club heading down the road to bland, generic existence were forgotten on Sunday when benign freebies doubled up as missiles thrown at one of Keith Stroud's assistants.
Leeds, inevitably, received a letter from the Football Association asking for their “observations” of the incident - a euphemism warning of a fine in the offing - and there is no end of irony in the fact that the club’s atmospheric initiative might die a death because of the use of flags which some in the crowd were diametrically opposed to touching beforehand. The pelting of linesman cannot become a habit, no matter their incompetence.
It was not a risk Leeds considered as they planned for a large East Stand mosaic and the distribution of flags in the North and South Stands before Sunday’s win over Middlesbrough. They weighed up the cultural clash with a support who don’t do plastic but also considered the logistical implications of their plan. Twenty thousand flags were laid out at both ends of Elland Road, roughly one for every two seats in the house. Beat Middlesbrough and a good portion of those would be taken home. Lose and the clear-up would require England’s biggest wheelie bin. In his previous role, Angus Kinnear, Leeds’ managing director, experienced the second scenario at West Ham United. What point is there in a souvenir of defeat?
There are many in Leeds who would rather not have flags full stop, or not the mass-produced versions which override the well-travelled banners which appear at every away game. Football is evolving and commercialism is driving the evolution but Leeds have a rough-and-ready soul; a club where television broadcasters dim their microphones to silence obscenities. It might be contrary to the wishes of marketing executives but it is worth remembering that being Leeds is what binds so much of the support together. The crowds have not survived the lean years on the basis of friendly gimmicks. And they have not survived the lean years on the strength of the football either. Habit, tradition; it acts as the glue.
Flags in themselves are not the peak of soft-touch perceptions but the concern, no doubt, is the creep to a day when clappers and goal-music sneak in through the back door, and the fans appear as an honorary substitute on the teamsheet. Nobody wants to be that club, even if it has done a job elsewhere. Leicester City were big on clappers in their title-winning season and Huddersfield Town used them on the way to the Premier League. But as Thomas Christiansen said when asked about the possibility of emulating Huddersfield’s promotion at the start of this season: “We are Leeds and we are different.”
Christiansen, though, was the forgotten issue in the argument about the use of mass-produced flags before Sunday. United’s head coach needed help last week and help which went beyond the calm, reasoned backing of him by Kinnear in the local media. Clubs are compelled to speak when a manager is in trouble but positive rhetoric only carries as much weight as a run of seven defeats in nine games.
On Sunday the club put their money where their mouth was, hyping Middlesbrough’s visit to a point where the game felt out of the ordinary and pushing everything behind Christiansen. Garry Monk’s presence helped, raising the levels of hostility, but the ground was engaged and the players clicked. The bear hug given to Christiansen by Andrea Radrizzani at full-time was the reaction of an owner who wants his head coach to keep himself alive.
Who knows if the mosaic or the flags made any difference? Who knows if Christiansen’s squad were in the mood anyway, or if his plan to pressurise either side of Boro’s defence was the difference in itself? Whichever way, the club elevated themselves from a malaise which was setting in badly and drew a convincing line in the sand.
Plastic flags are not for all weathers at Elland Road, or even most weathers, and given the way they rained down on Stroud’s linesman in the second half, it is hard to imagine that Leeds will hurry into handing them out again soon. There is generally no call to manufacture atmosphere at a stadium which pulls in the biggest average crowd in the Championship and exceeds more than half of those in the Premier League. But on Sunday it worked.