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Promised Land – The Reinvention of Leeds United by Anthony Clavane

by Max Farrar
6 May 2011 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Anthony Clavane (2010) Promised Land – The Reinvention of Leeds United, London: Yellow Jersey Press

It’s a truism that everyone now is a sociologist, since sociological thinking – so strikingly novel fifty years ago – infuses most intelligent commentary these days.  Perhaps ‘cultural studies’ is now entering the mainstream too?  Anthony Clavane, history graduate, ex-school teacher and now a sports writer at the Sunday Mirror, has produced a book which is as comfortable with novels and films and the history of Leeds, especially its Jewish aspects, as it is with breath-taking goals by his ‘Dirty Leeds’ heroes.  The ‘cultural political’ mode of analysis pioneered by CLR James in Beyond a Boundary and perfected by Stuart Hall and his co-workers infuses this excellent book.

Promised Land is as much a cultural study of football as it is of a city and its people.  While it lacks  the explicit resource to radical theory that characterises academic cultural studies, its ability to transcend the narrow disciplinary confines of literature, history and sociology makes it the kind of book public intellectuals would love to produce.  If only they could write as vividly and accessibly as Clavane.

If there was any doubt about Clavane’s breadth you only have to consult his bibliography, which appears to list everything ever written about Leeds (including, I’m pleased to say, my own book on Chapeltown).  Amongst those Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (Penguin, 1957), with its scrupulous attention to working class life in  Hunslet – close to Leeds’ ill-starred football club – takes pride of place.  But Keith Waterhouse’s almost-forgotten Billy Liar (Penguin, 1959) provides this book’s leitmotif.

It is Billy Liar’s inability to make the break with Leeds – to follow his girlfriend Liz as she boards the train for London – that underpins Clavane’s narrative of Leeds United: its destiny, like Billy’s, is always to choke whenever success seems within reach.  Ever searching for the promised land – just like Clavane’s great-grandfather, arriving in Leeds in 1900 in flight from persecution in Russia – Leeds United only had a glimpse of paradise in the early 1970s glory days of Billy Bremner and Don Revie.  From then on, and Clavane recites the dates almost liturgically, Leeds United occasionally rose high (2000) and more often fell low, very low.

What marks this book out is that this rise and fall is not merely about the fortunes of the club.  It is about a city that has risen and fallen, and is now falling again.  Clavane continually links that rise and fall to the presence of its migrant communities.  He draws on his family history to reveal the curious connection between the development of sport in Leeds and the development of its Jewish settlers.

The cultural historian Tony Collins has published the story of Leeds Parish church developing its rugby league team in 1901 in its effort to stem the tide of drinking and depravity the church elders saw all around them in the centre of the city.  The irony of their ‘muscular Christianity’ mission was that large numbers of its rugby team’s supporters were the newly-arrived Jews who had been confined to the poorest houses the city would allow them, in the area known as the Leylands, adjacent to the Parish Church.  Neither muscular nor Christian, these fans were condemned by their conservative religious leaders for breaking Shabbat.  Clavane’s great-uncle Louis Saipe, the first historian of Leeds Jewry, defended them on the grounds that this was a way that the Jews could integrate themselves into the life of the city.

Clavane goes on to show how the next generation – having defied the city’s rampant anti-Semitism – became ardent supporters of Leeds United.  When businessmen such as Many Cussins and Albert Morris were invited to join United’s board in the early 1960s, the motive, as Clavane delicately puts it ‘was financial rather than enlightened’ and their immediate cash injection saved the club from bankruptcy.

Ever aware of the corrupting influence of big money on the game of football when television sponsorship took off in the 1980s, Clavane points out that Leeds United was a pioneer in engaging its local business leaders in return for privileged entry into the stadium’s boxes.  But even the later infusion of Leslie Silvers’ money and skill couldn’t keep Leeds back at the top for long.  (Silver was another self-made Jewish millionaire who was an excellent Chancellor of Leeds Met University after his adventures in football came to an end.)

This is a book rich in detail and beguiling in its eloquence.  It almost made me want to become a supporter.  But I parted company with Leeds United in the mid 1970s when the National Front, moving easily between anti-Semitism and anti-black racism, established a presence amongst its supporters.  My job in the Coalition against Racism and Fascism, and then the Anti-Nazi League, was to talk to NF supporters while others gave out our propaganda.  These Nazis took the unity out of United.

In these heated discussions with young white men from south Leeds I learnt a lot.  They had a thirst for knowledge, being provided for them then by Andrew Brons, now a BNP MEP.  But as they morphed into the ultra-violent Service Crew it became impossible to engage in debate.  Fortunately, anti-racist United supporters took over and eventually, with Leslie Silver’s support, and the introduction of an all-seated stadium, they changed the composition of the crowd.

Nevertheless, a crowd that so hated the Leeds police they sang songs  sympathetic to David Oluwale still contained people who supported the despicable Lee Bowyer, acquitted, somehow, of grievous bodily harm on Safraz Najeeb  in Leeds city centre in January 2000.  Clavane’s  hostility to this section of the United supporters is  palpable as he relates this shaming episode.  His segue from the rise in white racist attacks following the trial of Bowyer and his two accomplices into a discussion of the emergence in Beeston – adjacent to the stadium – of the Mullah Crew, two of whose members bombed London in 2005, is daring and provocative.

Like Ben Carrington (in Race, Sport and Politics, Sage, 2010) Clavane notes that Khan, Tanweer and Hussain were sports nuts, one of the reasons why so few of their friends could believe they had become jihadis.  But – unlike the writer Caryl Phillips, who, with many of my other black friends continues to follow the fortunes of Leeds United with the diligence of the demented – Leeds Asians in general have never identified very strongly with the team.  (Shakeel Meer is an honourable exception!)

It’s probably a step too far to suggest, as Clavane seems to, that had they followed their Jewish and African-Caribbean fellow settlers along the path to United’s stadium, 7/7 might not have taken place.  But one of the strengths of cultural studies is its willingness to make imaginative leaps, and this is just one of this book’s many pleasures.

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