Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Letting go of Leeds - seven years in the League Cup hinterland

Lincoln City returned to the Football League last Saturday, and tonight (Tuesday) they return to the League Cup. It's almost seven years to the day since their last appearance in this competition, a night I remember well because I flew in specially from Germany to watch it. We were away to cuddly Leeds United, a team supported by several members of my extended family. We'd decided to all go and watch the match together. A night of Family Fun.

Finally time for the Leeds v
 Lincoln Family Championship
Leeds are the sort of club you're supposed to hate, but hate's an over-used and extremely unhelpful word when it comes to football. I once wrote a contribution to a regular When Saturday Comes feature called Viva Hate about my feelings towards Walsall FC, because one of their players had attacked me outside a night club in Birmingham. But it was a disingenuous piece of writing. The incident had been funny and farcical, not traumatic, and it didn't really make me hate Walsall. How can you hate Walsall? It's like trying to hate a cardboard box.

If life's too short to hate Walsall, then it's also too short to hate Leeds. Especially when it's you and your dad (Lincoln) outnumbered by nine other sisters, aunts, cousins and nephews (Leeds). And especially when you're the only Lincoln fans in the home stand. You're not going to stand up and start shouting, "You've been dirty bastards since the
70s and you're dirty bastards now!" no matter what you're thinking.

The 70s are a case in point. That was supposedly the era of Peak Hate in English football, yet back then people generally wanted English club sides in Europe to do well. My Mum, Dad and I watched Leeds being cheated out of the 1975 European Cup against Bayern Munich by some highly dubious refereeing, and we all were genuinely upset at the injustice. I don't really think Don Revie's team was much dirtier than any other side back then, they were just formidable and very tough to beat. Unless you'd managed to bribe the ref.

Hell is Elland Road in the League Cup
Sitting in my very cramped Elland Road seat surrounded by people who wanted my team to lose, though, filled me with doubts about the wisdom of having asked for a flight to Manchester from Dresden - where I was visiting my in-laws - as a birthday present. The ticket was a budget buy and included a five-hour layover in Düsseldorf, both ways. And then the game started and Lincoln were 2-0 down after seven minutes.

You might think Leeds fans wouldn't get over-excited about going 2-0 up against a club the size of Lincoln, but you'd be wrong. Maybe it just seemed loud because I was sitting there quietly, trying to make myself very small. The most raucous fans in the stand seemed to be my nine family members, who were cheering - at least so it seemed to me - with even more volume and verve than the rest of the home crowd. I didn't even get a patronising pat of consolation on the back, because they were too busy standing up to hail the heroics of the mighty United. Bastards. Not to mention, what lousy hosts.

Yet this was exactly what I'd deserved. Lincoln had not played Leeds during my lifetime, and when the draw was made I absolutely wanted to be there in case we pulled off an upset. And then I wanted to stick it to my relatives. To crow and gloat. Not just tonight, but in the long term too, because we likely wouldn't be playing Leeds again in the foreseeable future. So Lincoln would be perpetual champions of my imaginary, two-team Lincoln-Leeds League. I wouldn't stop going on about it for years, because I'm like that.

And now, we were 2-0 down after seven minutes. The worst thing was how easy it had been. When a lower league team plays a storied opponent who were once a bribe away from winning the European Cup, you want to see them put up a fight at the very least, but there was no Bremner-like resistance in Chris Sutton's team, no one tackling with the amoral conviction of a Norman Hunter. A third goal followed about half way through the first half (it was also heartily cheered - for Christ's sake, people, calm down, you're 3-0 up against 11 traffic cones), and that was it. Leeds treated the rest of the game as a pre-season walkover. Final score: 4-0. Let's go for a curry.

Young Dylan - wise
 beyond his years
Lincoln brought their own mascot, 8-year-old Dylan Williams. In the match programme he cannily predicted a 3-0 win for Leeds. If only I'd been as realistic as this young lad, I could have stayed in Dresden and saved myself a lot of money, misery, and half a life-time of waiting around at Düsseldorf airport.

In the curry house, though, no one mentioned the game. Either they were being nice to me and my Dad because we'd suffered enough for one night, or to them the game was done and forgotten already. Lincoln had been so bad that it wasn't even worthwhile gloating. No love or hate, just indifference - the most humiliating emotion of all.

It took my family less than half an hour to move on from that game, but it's taken me seven years. The Rotherham tie tonight can't come soon enough. Finally, that drubbing at Leeds will no longer be the last game we played in the League Cup.

The Quiet Fan was published by Unbound in autumn 2018 and is available here.

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