LEEDS. “The Dirties” as my children think they are officially nicknamed. Not the power to be feared they once were. Nor even the hostile atmosphere of old for visiting fans. And not/probably not/as close we get to “a derby” – but still a game with a potential to really sting if we lose. Throw in the buzz around Aitor Karanka’s dug-out debut and a decent 2,500 turnout and we have all the ingredients of a culturally charged short-haul showdown.
Leeds. Every time we go there these days they seem to be in the throes of the latest destabilising takeover bid or boardroom battle. Usually by a mysterious offshore outfit with anonymous (but bearded) Byzantine corporate structures that are part geography lesson and part tax efficient financial flowchart. This time at least they know who is trying to buy a stake … Lucas Radebe, superb stand in keeper (but not good enough to keep out Graham Kavanagh’s penalty) and Kaiser Chiefs legend.
Anyway, enough of the waffle. Here’s one I did earlier on the curious historical nature of the Leeds retro-derby…
SO, IS Leeds a derby? That the question even needs to be posed is telling and speaks volumes about Teesside’s cultural confusion and identity crisis. Distance, geography and logic suggest it is not… but Boro are taking 2,500 fans to Elland Road for Aitor Karanka’s dug-out debut with even the new boss admitting it is a game that will have an edge.
It is a powder keg clash that will bring generations of historical emnity bubbling back to the surface on a day when there is far more than just the usual three points at stake. It sure feels like a derby….
Those from Stockton may insistemphatically that it is not a derby game. But then again, they are from Stockton, a “town full of mackems”. They will naturally look to the North and to more recent rivalries when it comes to bragging rights.
They will have grown up with regular Riverside clashes against our Tyne-Tees screen-time rivals Newcastle and Sunderland. And for years now fallen giants Leeds have been in their schadenfraude inducing post-Ridsdale nightmare of administration, relegation and lower league exile, the price they paid for the Goldfish Years of dream-chasing excess. There was a time when they were a dominant force – and with a Boro born boss in the dug-out – but that was 40 years ago. They are nothing to be feared or hated now.
For an older generation though, and especially those on the “Yorkshire” side of the river who grew up before Middlebrough was culturally and politically moved 30 miles north in the municiple shake-ups of the late 60s and early 70s, and for those who live in the hinterlands or have have friends and family and business links that point them south to Thirsk, Whitby, Northallerton and beyond, Leeds have a different historical footprint.
For many thwack of leather on willow merchants on the south of the river too the very fact that Yorkshire played cricket at Acklam Park was a binding cultural tie. But that was loosened gradually and cut completely in the early 90s.
But cricket is a sideshow. it is football alone that has shaped this relationship. For a decade or more Leeds were the most successful team in the country. They were a dominant evil empire lurking aggressively to the south and a serious threat to Boro in the battle for hearts and minds in the playgrounds of the town – and more so in the disputed badlands of North Yorkshire. For fans of a certain age, probably 40 plus, Leeds are the old enemy. Grrrrrrrr.
Leeds was always a derby in the 1970s. There was no question. When you watched Yorkshire TV the Revie machine was an ever present headline hogging juggernaut. That is who you were measured against, not Newcastle and Sunderland which were still then dark and distant alien towns practically on the Scottish border.
Leeds were the Manchester United of their day, the glory hunter’s choice and all the sheep in Boro schools had the stupid sock tags with the numbers on and smiley Leeds badges painted on their haversacks. Duncan McKenzie could jump over a mini you know.
When Boro were still in the second division and Leeds were winning trophies and carving through Europe the pecking order was quite clear. They were the big boys who offered reflected glory and glamour and to eschew that to follow Boro was to elect for a life of self-inflicted masochism and mediocrity.
And it wasn’t just kids who fell into dirty Leed’s cynical embrace. Every fortnight there would be coach-loads of Teessiders travelling to Elland Road, adults reafffirming their Yorkshire identity and rowdy young ruffians enticed by the boot boy mystique.
The problem was made concrete when Jack Charlton took Boro up and we went head-to- head with them. More so when we started to beat them. What had been a patronising pat on the head for the little neighbours or even a smarmy second team affection because of their hero Charlton became a more marked snarling antagonism and soon the game became a serious point of friction and a real battle for status. In the seventies beating Leeds was far more important than beating the pair to the north.
Leeds was one game when Middlesbrough had to metaphorically lock up its daughters. Shops put shutters up and all police leave was cancelled. There was always trouble: in and around the station, in the pubs and in and around the ground as the meatheads on both sides fought it out. There were running battles in Boot Boy Alley and the Old Mans Park as swarms of kids in flares and parkas ducked for cover and the police horses charged up and down Linthorpe Road.
At away games too. It was a trip where the Beggs Buses convoy often came back without windows and on the approach by foot you got asked the time a lot. Elland Road was a horrible and hostile place to go.
Since then thankfully the antagonism has eased. The immediate cultural conflict with our former sparring partners has faded as Middlesbrough has settled into its marriage with Stockton and started to get on better with the in-laws. We watch Tyne-Tees and are part of One North East, or South Newcastle or whatever the quangocrats’ sub-region is called these days. The once live grenade of the Leeds game has been defused.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a residual hostility. There is, and mainly because of the institutional boorish Tetley bittermen mentality of the Leeds travelling crowd, the only group that surpass Newcastle and Sunderland in their conscious nastiness. These are fans after all who sang in praise of the Yorkshire Ripper to taunt police. And Munich to taunt manchester United. And they started the paedophile taunts here too. Nice.
They always travel in numbers and bring with them an edge. That’s a good thing. It adds to the atmosphere. A lot cross the line. Probably the majority. And, to be fair, it is reciprocated. A section of Boro fans last year chanted to Leeds fans that Jimmy Saville was “one of your own.” But generally Leeds is now not a dangerous place to go. You can can wear shirts safely. Which is also a good thing. In fact, on the last few trips most of the home fans anger has been aimed at their own board.
So the animosity remains. Of course, it doesn’t help that their fans laughed as Juninho sobbed on the pitch when we got relegated at Elland Road in 1997 too but while that still stings a bit that is a minor charge on the historic crime sheet.
So it may only be a derelict shell of a derby and not even recognised in some parts of Teesside as being relevent – the poll on the gazettelive.co.uk Boro page edged just towards the ‘no’ camp so there is no emphatic feeling – but for many this will still be our biggest game of the season. And not just because of the massive pressure on the boss.