For Leeds supporters making the pilgrimage to Elland Road from the west of the city, Wortley Recreation Ground is where the excitement of match day turns from a murmur to a drumbeat. Coming up over the crest of the hill and snaking across the windswept playing fields, under the trees and past the mud-spattered goalposts, the stadium gradually rises up above the red-brick houses in the distance.
While, several hours beforehand, the pitches still echo with the shouts of kids doing their best to recreate Tony Yeboah’s wonder-goals, the closer it is to kick off, the likelier it is that the sound of fans singing Leeds anthem “Marching On Together” will be carried over on the wind. By that stage, on any given weekend, a steady stream of white shirts will be winding its way over the footbridge, down the alley opposite, beneath the overgrown concrete underpass and onto Lowfields Road, where fans are funnelled to the ground under the M621 motorway.
Richard Harris has been walking the same route for the best part of 40 years, having watched his first Leeds match in 1982. His son, Conor, has joined him intermittently for the last 15, having started going to games around the time that Leeds – on the back of one of English football’s most notorious financial crises – were relegated to League One.
It’s become routine to meet at “the top”, on Highfield Avenue, grab a pint in a snug local pub, the Queen, then amble down across the Rec.
“I used to have a season ticket while I was at school, 13 to 17, and would go to every home game with my dad… that’s been the ritual for him, and passed on to me when I was attending,” says Conor. While Leeds made their long-awaited comeback to the Premier League last year, he remembers their lower-league days fondly. “I liked being the only one who stuck to supporting the local team while all the other lads at school started supporting Chelsea, Liverpool or whoever. It was nice to give them a bit of stick about that.”
On the other side of the motorway bridge, as fans emerge in the shadow of the East Stand, many stop to pick up a copy of The Square Ball from a little fold-out table strewn with cardboard boxes. Interspersed with intricate illustrations of Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa and various cult heroes, it’s one of the most lovingly-made fanzines going.
“When we first started doing the magazine, I said, ‘I don’t mind writing stuff or whatever, but I’m not going to go and sell it,’” says Michael Normanton, as he takes payment from his next customer. “That didn’t last long, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s been fun actually, apart from when it snows.”
The fanzine has been going since 1989, though Michael and co. took it on 11 years ago, after a brief hiatus. Selling The Square Ball has drastically altered his experience of match day, which now starts several hours before kick off, requires him to slog to his usual spot with tons of copies and culminates in a mad dash to his seat, often five minutes after kick off.
“Prior to doing this, I’d be meeting my mates in town at ten or 11 for a three o’clock kick off, going to the pub and then going out afterwards. All of a sudden you’re stuck here, you’ve got a car and what have you, but, given that I’m knocking on a bit, it’s probably added a bit more longevity to my life and knocked some of the years off the hard boozing.”
Thumbing through the fanzine in the build-up to the game is a match day ritual for thousands of Leeds fans. It’s not hard to spot readers waiting in the sprawling queues for the burger vans, leaning by the turnstiles or sitting at the feet of the statue of Leeds legend Billy Bremner further up the road.
Among them is Andy McVeigh, otherwise known as the Burley Banksy. He’s also made a profound impression on the match day experience at Elland Road, having created a maze of landmarks around the ground by decorating electricity boxes with Leeds-themed street art.
“I’d never done any street art before, and I just started doing it around where I live in Burley, because all the boxes were covered with tagging, ‘eff this’ and ‘eff that’ – that kind of stuff,” says Andy. “I painted over them with flowers at first, and then I was walking down to the game one day and thought: ‘Hang on, there are loads of these boxes around the ground.’
“I thought I’d do a pathway to the ground for fans… I thought it could be like a little history lesson on Leeds United. I found doing it really therapeutic. It was weirdly relaxing, and it became a bit addictive. Some people run, some people go to the gym, some people drink. I just occupy myself painting all the time.”
Not only is his artwork beloved of Leeds fans, but many interact with it on the way to the game. Having come down off what is universally known as “the curly bridge”, past the massive Leeds mural at the end of the terrace on Tilbury Mount, those approaching Elland Road from the direction of Holbeck are greeted by an electricity box dedicated to the late Gary Speed.
“I put on the side of it: ‘Touch the badge for Gary and for a win today.’ People all touch it on the way to the game. I’m walking behind them and it does give me a little glow, as cheesy as that is! I didn’t realise it would mean that much… it’s a lovely feeling.”
When Andy first started, he could never have imagined that his art would inspire a match day ritual in itself. “I get loads of messages saying: ‘My kids count them down on the way to the game,’ or, ‘When my little lad sees them he gets all excited,’ and things like that,” he adds.
“This area is all industrial, but lots of people say it’s brightened it up for them. Some people have even messaged to say they’ve been suffering with their mental health and it lifts them when they see them. I never thought it would do anything like that.”
Following the trail of electricity boxes to the ground, passing along the outer perimeter of the South Stand, many Leeds fans make two detours in quick succession.
The first is to Graveley’s Fish and Chips, where the queue meanders out of the door, down the road and round the corner in a seemingly endless procession. The smell of hot batter hangs in the air as people wait patiently for heaped portions of salty chips and fish butties. Then it’s on to the Old Peacock, a pub that has stood on the same site in one form or another since 1826.
“It’s very much a spiritual home for Leeds fans,” says Graham Hyde, vice chair of the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust, as he shows off a can of ‘ALAW’ (‘All Leeds Aren’t We’) lager. “It’s obviously right opposite the ground. The only equivalent I can think of elsewhere is the Strawberry at Newcastle, notwithstanding, say, [Brentford’s former ground] Griffin Park where there were pubs on every corner.”
Before Elland Road was sold to Leeds United it was named the Old Peacock Ground after the pub, forging an unbreakable connection between the two. Before the club even existed, the pub was serving local workers from the clay mines and brickworks in Beeston.
“Going back a few years, you’d certainly have had a few players in here,” says Graham. “Back in the days where they did their training regimes on Fullerton Park, just behind the West Stand of the stadium, the chances are they’d come over for a pint and a cig after training.”
While sports science has kicked on a bit since the 70s and 80s, Leeds supporters’ bond with the Old Peacock seems stronger than ever. Once upon a time, fans would sit on the roof and be able to see some of the pitch over the long-gone South Stand terrace, nicknamed the Scratching Shed. These days, supporters spill out of the huge pub garden sinking pints almost until the start of the game.
They are often joined by Anders Palm, chairman of the Leeds United Supporters’ Club of Scandinavia (or LUSCOS, for short). He regularly travels from Norway to watch the team, dropping into the pub to meet the friends he’s made during his 50-odd years as a Leeds fan.
“We got a live game on national television in the 70s, so we grew up with English football,” he explains. “We’d sit up with our fathers and brothers and watch the English game. I chose Leeds because Peter Lorimer was my favourite player, I liked the white kit and, I think, sometimes it was probably a little bit of a coincidence. You know, an uncle would bring home some scarves from England and give someone an Arsenal scarf and someone a Leeds scarf, then you just became a supporter. Once it’s in your heart, it’s not going away.”
Having started out with an advert in a football mag back in the 80s, LUSCOS initially had a couple of hundred members. It now has 8,000, with some making the trip over the North Sea for practically every home game. “Last season, of course, we couldn’t come because of the COVID situation, but the season before that I think I made 20 games, which is the most I’ve ever had,” says Anders. “I’ve met so many people through supporting Leeds that I would never have met if I hadn’t started supporting the club. “
Whether travelling in from Norway, Wortley or Holbeck, supporting Leeds is a communal endeavour. As a one-club city, notwithstanding nearby non-league sides, the team is a massive source of pride and a huge part of the local identity. “That’s the thing about football, it’s not just about the game itself,” says Graham, before heading back into the Old Peacock for a swift one before kick-off. “It’s such a social activity, such a social gathering, and it feels like you’re coming from all four corners of the country – all four corners of the globe, really – to share a moment together.”