The hidden history of 'Dirty Leeds'

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Award-winning author Kester Aspden reviews the thought-provoking new football book by Anthony Clavane, Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United  (Yellow Jersey, out now). 

Since Fever Pitch gave permission for thoughtful people to write about football, some of the best books have taken as their subject that most unloved of teams, Leeds United. Clavane, a sports reporter and Leeds fan, is ideally qualified to tell the fascinating story of the club’s rise and fall (and rise again?), but thankfully for those of us outside the Leeds family this tale is woven skillfully into a broader social history.

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Promised Land is an engaging and ambitious popular history which is crafted from the author’s own personal story, passions and obsessions (intriguingly he describes his younger self as a lower-middle- class Jewish fantasist). Like Jason Cowley’s recent The Last Game, Promised Land treats football as part of the broader popular and social culture, not as something going on in isolation. Fans are as important as players. It is partly a homage to the novels and films which came out of the West Riding in the late-1950s and early- 1960s, Billy Liar, Room at the Top, This Sporting Life, which expressed the restlessness and optimism of the era and presented a new kind of northern man – ‘upwardly mobile and inwardly anxious’ – keen to escape from the privations of his upbringing. Leeds United   – the ‘reinvented’ Leeds United of Don Revie –  was, Clavane argues, another great achievement of that time and he draws bold comparisons between his northern literary anti-heroes and the architects of the club’s rise to the top. Less idiosyncratic is Clavane’s telling of the hidden history of the city’s once-maligned Jewish community and its pivotal role in delivering the club out of the wilderness and into the elite of English football. By the early-1970s, when the city of Leeds was calling itself ‘The Motorway City of the Seventies’, ‘Dirty Leeds’ had become  ‘Super Leeds’, one of Europe’s most formidable clubs.

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Clavane admits that Leeds’s insular, embattled mentality has given then an image problem in the wider football world. He also admits to the damage caused by ‘Bowyergate’ and acknowledges the poor standing of the club in the local Asian community. Yet Clavane excavates a more positive story. Leeds, plagued through its recent history by allegations of racism, was actually ahead of other teams when it came to signing black players. It harnessed local Jewish business energy long before Spurs and became a measure of that community’s integration into the civic culture. Clavane’s belief that football can bind communities together, borne out of his own Leeds Jewish experience, can be read as an antidote to contemporary division and despair.

Despite the book’s wider ambitions, Clavane is a fan – as partisan as any – telling a football story and celebrating a club. He charts Leeds United’s demise in the 1980s – when he himself pulled away from the club and the city – its resurgence in the 1990s and an astonishing fall from grace when it was on the brink of the ‘promised land’. He wants to rehabilitate the reputation of an unforgiven club. And he wants justice for Don Revie, a manager who in his estimation should stand alongside Bill Shankly, Matt Busby and, yes, Brian Clough, yet whose achievements are shamefully unacknowledged outside Leeds. It is a brave attempt: if Leeds is not loved then at least thanks to Clavane it will be better understood.

I hope that those outside the Leeds tribe will pick up this original book. If I have a reservation it is that the book’s jacket doesn’t do justice to the richness of the story – where is the northernness? The city of Leeds? The Jewish community?  – and has the appearance of  any conventional club history.  In appealing to the core market it doesn’t exactly draw outsiders in. Perhaps the paperback of Promised Land is an opportunity to put that right.

Kester Aspden is the author of The Hounding of David Oluwale (Vintage, 2008), winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction.