This afternoon, high up in the dismal eyrie of the back bedroom, I gazed out through the thick, grey blanket of rain and wondered where the garden had gone. I tapped out a melancholy email: ‘Darling, we’ve got to get out of Leeds...’ My wife had escaped back to civilisation for a day or two to visit a famous flower show in South-West London - somewhere near Sloane Square, I believe. How I envied her good fortune.
An hour or two later, I squelched down to Headingley to post yet another hopeless job application. The rain was still going strong, but by the time I got to the Post Office, I was beyond caring. To cheer myself up I called into the Skyrack for a pint. Early on a Friday evening, the place was already packed out with students. Have you noticed that, unlike policemen and Prime Ministers, students seem to be getting ever older?
Next to me, two threadbare couples sucked on their prison-issue roll-ups and moaned about their debts. Ah, I thought nostalgically, I remember those days. Then I noticed on the table in front of them, nuzzling their halves of cider, four mobile phones. I smiled knowingly. The more things stay the same, I thought, the more they change.
After a couple of pints and a scan through the job ads in The Times (as if!), it was time to return home. Walking back along Kirkstall Lane, I found myself in the middle of a throng of royal blue shirts swaggering towards the rugby. “Who have you got tonight then?” I asked someone casually. “Fookin’ Wigan,” came the shouted reply.
Leeds v Wigan, eh? Wow. The rugby league equivalent of Manchester United v Liverpool. I had a bizarre thought, which quickly became an uncontrollable urge. Before I could bring myself to my senses, I’d fished out a sodden tenner from my jeans and was through the turnstiles.
With the rain still spilling down in swirling bucketfuls, I ran like mad for shelter under the corrugated roof of the touchline terrace. Yes, a real terrace! Here were ten thousand bevied-up, standing-up Yorkshire folk yelling their guts out in support of the Rhinos - as we must now call them. To our left, in the open end behind one of the goals were a couple of thousand red and white hooped Wiganites screaming for their lot. “And it’s Wigan Warriors.... Wigan R-F-C! They’re the finest roogby tea-eam... that this world’s ever seen!” Wow! What an atmosphere!
Wigan started well, and by half-time were 13-6 up. It was exciting and impressive. I was shamelessly thrilled by the frenzied noise and the barely contained savagery of it all. The match was live on Sky, so we had the peripheral excitement of the mobile camera teams running around the touchline and even across the pitch at times.
I was impressed also by the huge video screen that is now part of the rugby referee’s equipment. At least twice, the ref ran to the screen and carefully scrutinised the slow motion replay before reaching his decision. Sub-GCSE football pundits scoff at the idea of using technology like this to make decisions, but I was struck by how quick and, more to the point, how fair it seemed to be.
Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of rude chanting from both sets of supporters. Leeds v Wigan = Yorkshire v Lancashire. But whilst the singing was passionately abusive, there was a marked lack of true hatred in it. Contempt and derision and chauvinism were all there (just like at football) but this abuse was strangely hollow.
Strong on gesture, but without the feeble lack of self-esteem and self-control that marks out our game. Hostility without the life-and-death element. Passion without flailing hysteria. Good old fashioned derision - not smiley-faced but real, contemptuous derision. But without the snarling, frantic, sweaty, bone-crunching, let-me-at-em bloody violence that you find over here on our side.
The Leeds fans reacted with equanimity to the half-time deficit. It was in keeping with their disappointing season so far. After starting as one of the favourites for the title, they had somehow managed to lose four of their first five games. At half-time I went for a pint in the big bar below the stand. Side by side, Wigan and Leeds fans queued up for more fuel, and again there was much banter and insult-throwing - but nothing that ever approached a physical confrontation.
I bought my beer and leant on the wall, against a massive photograph of thousands of Leeds fans standing on the terrace I’d just left. A nice touch, I thought. As I was looking at it, I was aware of two guys hovering behind me. “Ah, there it is!” said one. He then took a small tin of black paint from his coat pocket, opened it, dipped a finger in and smeared it on a large white nail that was stuck through the middle of his head. In the middle of his head in the photograph, I mean.
Yes, it was the same guy, affronted by the fixing that had placed a large white blob in the middle of his black thatch in the picture. Satisfied with his restoration work, they drifted off again. There were another two blokes next to me. I was startled when one said to the other, “Remember that time they tied yer to a chair and beat yer with a cricket stump?”
What was even more startling was the reaction of the second man. He looked puzzled. “No,” he said, eventually. And then after a pause, “Oh yeah, yer mean when they bust me cheekbone? Oh aye...” I never found out why, or who, or what, or whether...
Talking of which, the deluge was still in full flow as I made my way back up the stairs. Leeds were now attacking the end that I was nearest, so the terrace seemed even fuller and noisier than earlier. The second-half began with Wigan scoring another try to make it 19-6, and an air of exasperated pessimism descended over a rain-soaked Headingley. “Should have stayed in t’bloody bar,” I heard someone behind me growl. This was the football equivalent of being 4-1 down at home. It was going to be one of those nights. Yes, it certainly was.
The fightback began. The atmosphere became frantic as Leeds scored two quick tries, the second by a bloke bizarrely called Ritchie Blackmore (though you have to be above a certain age to smile at that). He received the ball around the halfway line and just went for it. Like a hot knife through butter. Through one tackle, then another. Suddenly the crowd was in an ecstatic panic. It was like a mass session of electric shock therapy as everything slipped into glorious slow motion. The noise was stupendous.
As he got to the line the place erupted. The long drawn-out chant of “Rhi-noooos... Rhi-nooos” suddenly took me back 30 years and I found myself uncontrollably throwing an arm in the air and singing “Rod-neeeee, Rod-neeeee...” Yeah, like a hot knife through butter.
As if this wasn’t enough excitement, a streaker then appeared. A skinny male youth wearing nothing but a pair of trainers suddenly legged it onto the pitch and balletically paraded his wares to the masses. For a good minute or two he ran around the pitch as the game continued.
Now chased by a dozen stewards in fluorescent coats, and three or four policemen and a gang of fat men in suits, the streaker at one point caught up with the Leeds forward line and even made a grab for the ball, apparently with every intention of going for a surreal try - a moment in the history of the game that might only have been surpassed by that momentous evening in the George Hotel in Huddersfield in 1895 when... ah, but let’s get back to the game.
The surrealism was complete when this flimsy, naked lad was brought down by a massive Wigan forward, who then happily scraped his flattened frame from the sodden pitch with one arm and threw it towards the forces of law and order as though it were a parcel of tripe. And perhaps by now that’s all he was. They gratefully dragged him away across the pitch, his heels sending up a powerful fountain of rainwater like the jetstream of a power-boat. Crikey, this was getting ever weirder.
A minute or two later, another solo-effort Leeds try, and it was hug-a-stranger time. A penalty from an impossible angle took Leeds into the lead, and they hung on for a famous and fabulous victory. As the decisive kick went over, I was swept down the terrace in a wave of delirious humanity like you used to see in the Liverpool Kop in the 60s and 70s. And even, dare I say it, in the Loft during the mid-70s. Yes, this was nostalgia of the very finest vintage.
No sooner was that delirious plate whisked away, more brainfood was ready to be served. I was standing right next to the away players’ exit-tunnel, and as the final whistle went, I leant over to watch them all troop in. There were dozens of braying Leeds fans leaning over and screaming abuse at these guys as they passed by within a foot or two. But instead of just shuffling past with heads bowed, the Wigan players gave as good as they got, stopping to snarl and scream back at the Leeds fans.
For some reason, I wanted to clap them. And I did. As each player ran the gauntlet of abuse, growling and yelling back at the Leeds fans, and punching the air in frustration, they came across me, clapping enthusiastically, and they each, in turn, clapped me back and shouted out to me “Thanks, mate”, or “Cheers”, and some Australian-sounding Everest of a Wigan forward, blood spurting from his nose, called out “Appreciate it, mate” - before getting back to screaming at his detractors next to me.
Don’t tell me these guys are pampered robots. I can’t explain what it was that switched back on in my heart tonight, but I was stunned by the immediacy and by the meta-reality of it all. Believe me, Rugby League can be enthralling. There was something raw and vital and energising about it all - something that reminded me, mournfully, of what football used to be like before all-seater stadia. The true throb of the terraces. The ‘presence’ of the players. And players as emotional, real people. Hell, spectators as emotional, real people. Which isn’t to do down the likes of us. We’ve had no choice but to grin and bear it as our players have moved from mere heroes to intangible deities, and as our stadia have moved from rattling pressure cookers to gently simmering, lidless woks.
Let’s not forget the reasons we had to make a change. I remember vividly the bloody terror of the unsegregated terraces of the 70s, and I don’t want to see those fearful days again. But there must be a middle way, and tonight I saw it.
The rain was easing off as I hurried round the corner to my home. But in contrast to the earlier, leaden journey, now I was energised and optimistic. Tonight I saw the ghost of a loved one I’d simply forgotten ever lived. Tonight was like tasting some fantastic dessert from my childhood that I’d long forgotten about.
We football fans still get massive excitement and joy from seeing our team play, and score, and win. But something deep and fundamental truly has left the game of football, but it’s drained away so slowly and so quietly that most of us aren’t even aware that it’s happened. Or that it was ever different. I got in, turned on my computer and found myself tapping out another email. ‘Darling,’ I wrote, ‘We’ve got to stay in Leeds...’ And a few minutes later, as I looked up, I noticed that the rain had stopped at last.
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