Football supporters sometimes romanticise about the English game in the 80s, but it was also something of an ominous time – with Leeds United and Elland Road being a case in point.
It’s not hard to see why the decade still provokes plenty of affection. It was perhaps the last time the game could truly be considered a working class sport, before the riches of the Premier League, monstrous TV deals and foreign ownership took over.
On the pitch, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Ipswich, Tottenham and Everton won European finals. Six different clubs, including Coventry and Wimbledon, won the FA Cup. Seven different clubs, including Wolves, Norwich, Oxford and Luton, won the League Cup.
Off the pitch, supporters were defining casual culture and style, while footage of oceans of fans toing and froing on the terraces in hysteria remains exhilarating to this day.
But football, as has always been the case, suffered the same sinister problems which faced society as a whole. Thatcherism had fractured the country, particularly the industrial towns and cities of the north, the home to some of the best and biggest clubs.
Hooliganism remained rife, overt racism was common, and the nadir was reached with the tragedies of Heysel, the Valley Parade fire, and Hillsborough.
Another northern club, Leeds United, certainly experienced the bad side of football in the 80s.
The team was largely awful, relegated from the First Division in 1982, and Elland Road was not a nice place to visit.
The club’s hooligan firm, the Leeds Service Crew, had earned a reputation as one of the fiercest around, but possibly the most bleak aspect of the decaying club were the public displays of racism from a section of its support.
Earlier this year, Leroy Rosenior recalled in his autobiography how he and Paul Parker were greeted with Nazi salutes while visiting Elland Road with Fulham in 1984.
As noted by The Guardian journalist Nick Varley in his book Park Life: “The most shocking aspect was really just the fact of it, the unashamed, unpunished, almost unremarkable mass public display. And the revelling in it.”
The atmosphere inside Elland Road was reflected in the city and outside the ground, where on matchdays the National Front would sell Bulldog, their magazine which included the ‘Racist League’, a feature in which a club would move up the table not through winning or drawing matches, but thanks to racist chants and taunts by their supporters.
Those in charge at the club still had to be convinced that action needed to be taken, and fans eventually set up anti-racist initiatives themselves, no longer willing to stand among the vitriolic bile of a section of the support which may have been a minority, but was sickening nonetheless.
This October marks 30 years since the group Leeds Fans United Against Racism and Facism started leafleting at Elland Road, which eventually developed into the publication of the fanzine Marching Altogether.
“There were a few of us who were doing broader anti-racist stuff in Leeds, but those of us who were football fans were going, ‘If you want to do something about racism in Leeds, then the football is the most obvious manifestation of it,’” says Paul Thomas, one of the founding members of the group.
“There used to be quite a lot of violence. These people were quite threatening, if you ever came across them they tried to attack anti-racists. So the first time we went down there we took about 100 people.
“It was virtually word of mouth, any people that were involved in similar stuff, some students came from Leeds Uni, anyone that would come and stand and give out leaflets.
“It was almost meant to be like a show of force. We stood up all along the east stand and it had that impact. People would be walking past going, ‘Have you seen how many there are?’
“That was done just as much for self protection. We weren’t looking to start any trouble and we didn’t want to start confrontation but we weren’t going to be intimidated by them.”
Similar groups were also starting around the country at clubs like Chelsea and Leicester City. Even if they weren’t specific anti-racist campaigns, the burgeoning fanzines all had an overt anti-racist line.
But Leeds United were initially wary of the group, expecting their presence at Elland Road to cause further violence.
“The club and the police were very negative,” Thomas says in his thick West Country accent, earned while supporting Leeds from Gloucestershire in his youth. “I’m sure they weren’t happy with the situation that existed, but they didn’t know what to do about it.
“They thought us coming along was just going to create trouble, and they both went out of their way at first to say we were troublemakers.”
After local politicians facilitated a meeting between the club and the group, Thomas and co were asked to produce evidence that racism was indeed taking place at Elland Road.
“That was the biggest mistake they ever made,” Thomas laughs. “We put this dossier together of stuff we had pulled from newspapers. It wasn’t rocket science at all. It was in different enquiries and we got national press attention. The Daily Mirror ran a really big story on it.
“Leslie Silver took over as chairman and that’s when they asserted themselves at that point. Leslie Silver was a really good bloke. We met him in later years and he was very supportive.
“I think the club just thought, ‘We need to get our act together on that.’ But we did have to force them.”
Rather than preach at fans, Marching Altogether consisted of satirical, humorous content designed to “get people to laugh at racists”, and the atmosphere at Elland Road began to change as a result.
Fans were suddenly emboldened to shout down anyone making racist taunts, while the police began to take a harder stance after members of the Far Right made the mistake of trying to publicly threaten those behind the fanzine.
As rapidly as things were changing, Howard Wilkinson’s appointment as manager in 1988 also helped change attitudes at the club, with the former school teacher often vocal in his demands that the behaviour on the terraces changed while he built the momentum which propelled the club from the doldrums of the Second Division to the top of the First.
Ces Podd was hired as community officer with the remit of showing members of the city’s black and Asian communities they were welcome – and safe – at Elland Road, becoming as influential at Leeds as he was at Bradford, for whom he made a record 565 appearances as a full-back.
On the pitch, Gordon Strachan and Vinnie Jones, two talismans of the side which eventually dragged Leeds into the top flight, reinforced the message. Jones himself would visit the clubs and pubs of multicultural areas such as Chapeltown, becoming a hugely popular figure among those communities.
Perhaps most importantly, black players of the calibre and class of Chris Fairclough were signed, quickly becoming loved by the fans who recognised they had a team and club to be proud of once again.
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“We were bottom of the Second Division when we started our campaign. Wilkinson took over and four years later we’re champions of England with a multi-racial team and a really positive, rocking atmosphere. It’s a nice story which we’re a minor part of,” Thomas says.
“We wouldn’t try to claim all the credit. Society was changing as well. Attitudes towards racism in society were changing and there were also more black players coming through. Even rave culture started taking some of the aggression out of youth culture.
“But we’re pretty proud of what we did. When you get to us getting promoted and we’re winning the league with Chris Fairclough, Rod Wallace and Chris Whyte, and the fans are behind them, you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, this feels a very different place from four years ago.’”
By Rob Conlon