Following the intensity of the last 2 books I read I almost took a break, but I decided that rather than take a break from reading I would move onto a completely different subject from Jesus & read The Last Champions by Dave Simpson. The book is a look at the 1991-92 Football League championship winning team, Leeds United. 1991-92 was the last season of the old first division before the formation of the Premier League, the invasion of countless fortunes and the slow transformations of the game I grew up loving into the almost unrecognizable entity that it is today.
I actually bought the book for my mother when it first came out, she then brought it for me to read when she visited from England last year, and it has sat on my shelf until a couple of weeks ago. The book would be of interest to sports fans in general in addition to those with an intrigue into management techniques and general human interest, but mostly to fans of the once great Leeds United.
This was the last team to win the top domestic football honor in England with an English manager. It was a team assembled on a low budget filled with players who made “normal salaries”, the kind of money that today’s “superstars” make in a week, not a year. Leeds United might not have had the greatest collection of talent that season, but what they did have was one of the all-time great work ethics and a genius manager whose depth of preparation and unique man management skills got a group of players to all peak at the same time, for a whole season, to achieve the impossible, something that only the richest of the rich can dream of today.
I say that they did not have the greatest collection of players, however don’t believe everything you read in the press about that team. Not the greatest, maybe, possibly the most underrated collection of heroes ever? In my opinion; absolutely.
Now, I am biased, I was a season ticket holder in 91-92, my third year of watching Leeds United. I used to stand on the west side the old “kop” on a plastic box (to make me tall enough), with my Mum and Uncle. Biased I may be, but I think that my experience of watching the team week in week out would also make me something of an expert on a set of players that the country / world did not see nearly as much as they would have done today. These were the days of one live televised game per week, although whenever we were on tv we certainly shined.
I could easily sit here and regale you with tails of Rod Wallace’s lightning pace, Chris Fairclough being better than Des Walker or Steve Hodge’s key contribution as almost a forgotten man in the legendary LUFC midfield of 91-92, but I won’t. Nor will I bore you of my teenage love of David Batty, the lad who grew up only a few short miles from me and went to the same high school. Maybe I will go into the beginnings of my Leeds United fandom on a future blog entry, but this is supposed to be about a book.
What a book it is too, it reminded me of the club I fell in love with, not the one I keep up with today hoping for a magical tweet of surprising good news, but one which, much like the sport they play, is virtually unrecognizable as the same entity today. It reminded me of a strange time in life, when football was an oasis for me, an escape from the horrors of high school. A time when I was trying to find my place in the world, Leeds United gave me that place. The team and the sport became my love, my passion, my community. Standing on the terraces I found my voice (literally), I could make as much noise as I wanted and instead of being scolded (when screaming at unfathomable decibel levels), I would receive only nods of approval. The atmosphere at Elland road in those days, especially on the kop was unparalleled, I don’t care the event or the size of the crowd, nothing can compare with that booming, ferocious cauldron that we created back then. I’ve been to old firm games, a cup final, different US playoff sports, only Celtic could get close, but even they, with all their numbers, could not match the atmosphere of eland Road in those days.
The book visits with many of my childhood heroes, sharing their stories and memories of not only that season, but the 2 prior, basically reviewing the first 3 years of my attending the games. Gary Speed (rip) made the statement that he was so young and he didn’t really appreciate what had been achieved; he just expected to always be that successful. I felt the same way, I am glad that I didn’t know then what I know now, although I would have savored it more, it would have tainted it somewhat.
It was certainly a different time, in many ways a different game. Back then the team was part of the community, I was too young to be in bars and see the players mingling freely with the citizens of the city, but the connection with the city and myself was just as real. These were not mercenaries, these were real people, who played the game in the manner that it is meant to be played and cared like fans, not just employees.
As a Leeds United fan I am lucky enough to have seen us be the best team in the country, I have my own tales to tell just like my Mum and my Uncle had from the Revie days. I am one of the fortunate few, I doubt there will be another generation that will be able to say the same thing. I am truly grateful to Dave Simpson for writing this book, taking me on a misty eyed journey through our shared history. The book keenly reminded me of what I once loved so dearly and also of what is rapidly going from not appreciating to utterly despising about the current era of the game.
Ok one memory – a quick contrast from then and now. Today players fall over at the slightest touch, begging the referee to give the opposition a yellow card or worse, gamesmanship, trying to seek an advantage at any cost. More than once back then I watched Gordon Strachan, captain of Leeds United, talk the referee out of giving the opposition a yellow card, getting up quickly from a hard foul, not a slight glance. Sportsmanship, fair play, respect and honor. Trying to win against their best with your best simply to see if you are good enough, because that is the point. That more than anything is what I miss about sport and more than anything what money has ruined about sport in general, not just association football. Read the book, hop on youtube and watch digitized VHSs and pine for the good old days, I certainly did.