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What is a Football Club Without its Fans?

1 December 2015
What is a Football Club Without its Fans?
Over the last decade, the accounts of Leeds United and specifically their assets have been raked over more frequently and more forensically than any other football club in world football. As each fallen regime moves on, little, in reality, changes. With no stadium and no training ground to add value to the Club since 2004, just the name, players, staff and an unexciting list of miscellanies represent ‘Leeds United’ in an actual sense.

The ‘asset’ that cannot be valued, however, is Leeds United’s fans. The fans are always there, in number, at 3.00pm or 7.45pm or whichever kick-off time is dictated to them. Steve Evans is the latest manager to hail the fans and identify them as the symbol against which the players should judge themselves. This usually comes after a game in which the players have woefully underperformed. For Evans this has come sooner than for most managers; indeed, after Leeds’ 1-0 defeat to Queen’s Park Rangers on Saturday. For Steve Evans also, he has not been the beneficiary of the timespan of patience usually allotted to the new incumbent in the Elland Road hot seat, quite simply because Leeds fans are sick of it.

Crisis point used to come once a season at Leeds United; currently it is coming once a month. Thirty days since Blackburn waltzed away with three points at Elland Road, here we are again. Leeds fans always back the team at Kick-Off and then react to what they see, which is a right that hours of thankless travel and thousands of pounds of investment affords them. Against Blackburn the reaction came after seventeen seconds, but on Saturday at Queen’s Park Rangers, although an unmarked Charlie Austin didn’t score until the 58th minute, it was inevitable from the first whistle that a reaction from the stands would come.

A Leeds fan saying he or she is ‘sick of it’ is nothing new of course; except more and more people are saying it, and with a more chilling sense of conviction and finality. Quite simply, morale within the Leeds United fan base has never been so low, even, you feel, in the dark days of League One. Leeds fans have always revelled in a perceptive sense of self-awareness; gallows humour and an ability to mock their own plight has always been a staple part of their armoury. For now the well has run dry. In the second half on Saturday Leeds fans began to mock the team and the manager, perhaps unaware that Massimo Cellino was sitting in the Loftus Road Directors’ Box, a predictable about-turn on his self-enforced absence from Leeds games.

Saying you are ‘sick of it’ is one thing; acting on it is quite another. Increasingly though, devoid of any hope, Leeds fans are walking away. Last season around this time, when it was clear that Cellino’s summer spending spree on a host of under-performing foreign players was not paying dividends, Leeds fans had the hope that Neil Redfearn’s relationship with and trust in his young academy players could pull it around, and it did. Twelve months on, it is hard to see what Leeds United’s secret weapon will be……because they need one.

In the past, without the hindsight of a decade of appallingly bad ownership, there was always perhaps the hope that a guardian would appear from somewhere, to arrest Leeds United from its eternal struggles, but now that sense of hope has dissipated amidst the tedious cycle of nonsense that surrounds the Club. There is always talk of a protest and a boycott through which to vocalise this dissatisfaction, but in truth fans have been silently voting with their feet for years, not just in turning their own backs on Leeds United, but also by not subjecting the next generation to the same insufferable torment. The trickle is becoming a flood, and even fully paid up season ticket holders are thinking nothing of giving up on any return on the deposits they made into Leeds United’s coffers in pre-season. I know this. It’s happening. Even if some fans haven’t stopped attending altogether, they have stopped truly caring about what is happening; and for any football fan that is the worst crime, even if they are not guilty of the reasons why it has come to this.

The nonsense I talk of is all around us and had been before and after the most promising of summers was allowed to unravel in spectacular fashion as soon as Adam Pearson left the building in September. The most telling example, however, is the treatment of Sam Byram.

Nobody has come forth and denied the long-standing rumour that Byram was offered a wage reduction as part of the contract extension discussed last season. The whys and wherefores of this have been dissected long and hard, but the reality of where we are now offers the most salient point.

In his first game in charge, at Fulham, Steve Evans selected Sam Byram in his preferred position of right back after a spell on the sidelines, and having suffered a loss of form in a right wing position he had never quite mastered. Leeds fans breathed a collective sigh of relief that finally sense had been restored and rumours that Byram was being ostracised due to his contractual stand-off, were proven to be untrue. Even if you still believed that, Evans had lived up to his no-nonsense persona and decided straight away he would select his best players in their best positions. Bravo; and Byram performed excellently at Fulham.

Since then, Byram has faded from the first team picture and a raft of flimsy excuses has been trotted out. Evans has tied himself in knots attempting to maintain a consistent stance on the subject, while also admitting that the contractual position was a factor. Short of claiming Byram won’t be selected because the dog ate his football boots on the morning of the game, there is no further convoluted excuse Evans can offer us.

Evans claims that fresh contract talks are being initiated with Byram and his representatives this week. You have to presume that improved terms are being offered or quite simply what would be the point? Other than to hang the player further out to dry? While we await the outcome of these talks – and they are pivotal to the short term future of the team, the Club and Massimo Cellino’s ‘legacy’ – we can only assess the damage that the Byram situation and his enforced exile from the side has caused.

Is anybody looking beyond the brief ego boost such a small victory might offer one man and considering the negative message that Byram’s treatment sends to other academy players and graduates? Leeds United fans are. Likewise, did anyone look beyond the preening and posturing and public undermining that resulted in Neil Redfearn and Steve Thompson leaving the Club despite their diligent, nurturing and progressive management of the players, and consider how that would damage morale in the first team squad? Leeds United fans did.

Such background blather is an everyday occurrence even still, so much so that we are attuned to it and consider it as normal. Cellino’s contradictions are so frequent and carefree that nothing means anything anymore, and nobody can second guess what will happen from one minute to the next. Imagine a young footballer attempting to progress his career in that environment?

You don’t have to imagine it, for it is all being played out before you. At Queen’s Park Rangers on Saturday, Leeds United put in a ninety minute display bearing all the hallmarks of a team not remotely enjoying their football, and carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. The microcosm of this was Chris Wood’s attempt to score with Leeds’s only real chance of the game. Gifted with an open goal, admittedly from a tight angle, after goalkeeper Rob Green’s error, Wood – shorn of all confidence – dallied on the ball and blazed it over the bar. Increasingly, it looked like only one man was likely to win the game, the genuine goal-scoring talent of Queen’s Park Rangers’ Charlie Austin. He came off the bench and immediately scored the winning goal from a corner. That Leeds’s defence was not sufficiently switched on to this gold-plated inevitability is criminal in itself, and Evans chose to blame an individual but not name him. But the error was symptomatic of a team devoid of direction, belief and focus. The fans turned on Steve Evans when it became certain that there would be no reaction from the Leeds team, but anger directed solely at the head coach is slightly misplaced when the football club is completely lost from top to bottom.

The insipid, uninspiring and ineffective football born from the studious and multi-layered complexity of Uwe Rösler has been replaced by the insipid, uninspiring and ineffective football of the transparent and one-dimensional Steve Evans. Whether we use a fine-toothed comb or a sledgehammer to find the answer, the only conclusion we can come to is that the problem is right at the top of the football club. And that must change. Massimo Cellino admitted a month ago that he had failed at Leeds United, and most observers agreed with him; at last some sobriety, sincerity and humility. The calm self-assessment after the storm had passed, we thought. Nothing that has happened since then can possibly change that view with any credibility. And while Cellino tugs onto what hold he has left of the Club, Leeds fans in increasing numbers will reluctantly let go of their frayed and tattered emotional heartstrings - and while they do it, such a release won’t be pretty, and Leeds United, or whatever is currently representing that name, will realise to their detriment that the last thing they want to do is turn their one asset into a liability.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.
Photography by Mark Wheelwright