Anytime Leeds United is playing, it’s like a carnival. All roads lead to Ellan Road, the home of Leeds. The cold and the rain dare not stop them.
Such a refreshing holiday! By the time you are reading this, I would be in the air, hurling myself back home filled with sweet memories worth sharing. One of the unforgettable memories is my trip to Leeds — a four-hour journey from London inside the National Express coach, passing through Gulliver’s Kingdom, Robin Hood country and the Sherwood Forest of Nottinghamshire, all evoking memories of my literary childhood journey of the distant past.
Leeds is far bigger and colder than I expected. Colder than London but not bigger. I was greeted by the John Lewis arcade store, a spectacular diamond-shaped architectural masterpiece worth seeing. I also visited the Royal Armories Museum, a multistorey building which features a beautiful collection of weapons of war from ancient to modern times. Our own Wole Soyinka thirsty for knowledge came here in the ‘50s to drink from the “Pierian spring” which enabled him to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you don’t know what I am talking about, let me take you back to my A-level Literature class where I read Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism. There, the great Romantic poet wrote the famous lines I have made my motto: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing/Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
Perhaps if Soyinka had not studied in Leeds he would not have acquired the literary knowledge and skill that shaped his worldview. He would not have met a teacher like Prof. Wilson Knight who mentored him and poured his knowledge and wisdom in the young, budding Nigerian writer. Perhaps but for Leeds, Soyinka would not have produced the literary masterpieces that won him the Nobel Prize. I tried to walk in the footsteps of Soyinka but autumnal rain wouldn’t let me achieve much. All I could catch was a passing view of Leeds University as we drove past on that Friday. The following day was a Saturday. Football day. I remember Anthony Burgess’ football quote: “Five days shall thou labour as the Bible says. The seventh day is the Lord thy God’s. The sixth day is for football.”
My host, Demola Paseda, knows my craze for football and obsession with Leeds United. He knows of my lifelong dream to buy the white-jersey-wearing club one day and bring it back to the premiership. You can therefore imagine my excitement when Demola announced: “I have good news for you sir. We are going to watch a Leeds United match.”
Anytime Leeds United is playing, it’s like a carnival. All roads lead to Ellan Road, the home of Leeds. The cold and the rain dare not stop them. It can’t. It doesn’t even try. They troop in like locusts, dressed heavily against the cold, most them wearing the club’s white and yellow scarfs or mufflers. We mingle with them. We become a part of them. We were swallowed in a sea of white faces. Yet we were not anonymous. A smart television crew from the Leeds United TV found me newsworthy as to approach me for an interview. I let them know that this was such a dream come true for me. That I had come all the way from Lagos, Nigeria to watch my team play. That this was my first time of watching Leeds live. They asked me who my favourite Leeds player of all time is and I mentioned Alan Smith, the striker and right winger who once played for Leeds and for England. He later moved on to Manchester United where he was converted by Sir Alex Ferguson into a holding midfielder after breaking his leg. He later played for Newcastle United.
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I also paid homage to Lucas Radebe, the South African defender who captained Leeds United and took it to greater height. There was a time they were third in the Premiership league and even played in the European Championship where they reached semifinals. Such was his importance that Alex Ferguson said: “Everyone should be interested in Lucas.” AC Milan and Roma also wanted him, but he turned down the offers. Eventually, he got injured and was never the same again.
I told the Leeds United TV how I was praying for Leeds to come back to the Premiership. The interview over, we went to join the sea of Leeds supporters that filled the stadium which has a capacity of 37,890. Almost everywhere was filled. Leeds was playing Brentford. Leeds wore their traditional white jersey while Brentford came in a striped red-and-white jersey.
The atmosphere is something else. Something dramatic, something passionate, something television cannot capture faithfully. The voices of the supporters chanting war songs roar like the sound of a mighty ocean. It comes in waves from one stand to another, catching on like Mexican waves. From their macho voices come songs that sound as primitive as when men first started war. Songs of raw passion. Songs of voices untrained. Songs of men at the war front. They must have been singing these songs from birth. Everybody knows it and they sing in clocklike synchrony. Some of the songs are rooted in hymns. Some come from popular songs. Just like in Nigeria we converted a Beatles song, All We Are Saying into an anthem we sing to inspire the Super Eagles to “give us a goal.”
Here, every team has its anthem. Liverpool has the popular “You’ll Never Walk Alone” while Leeds has “Marching On Together”.
The Leeds fans love to hate other clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United with passion just as they are also hated. And they show this hatred in their songs. I have never seen such passionate and vociferous fans. They cheer every move. They cheer all through. Even when things get tough, they continue to support their team. First half ended goalless. In the second half, tragedy struck and a penalty was awarded in favour of the away team which was converted. A funereal wave swept across to silence the crowd who did not understand what had hit them and why the referee awarded a penalty.
Football is like life. Full of tragedies. Calamity can strike anytime and hit you where it hurts most. Football is life. I was unhappy. Why must Leeds United lose on the day I came to watch them play? Did I bring them bad luck? I prayed. And God answered my prayers. In the 88th minute, Pontus Jansson headed in the equalizer and the stadium erupted in a volcanic outburst of joy, leaping and dancing, strangers embracing and shaking hands with strangers. The chants continued more forcefully than ever until the final whistle when the game ended in a draw that sent Leeds back to No. 3 position from No.1.
Football is a beautiful game. For me, one of the most beautiful things I saw at the Leeds United Stadium is the picture of invalids and the aged being wheeled to watch the match at an advantageous position. At the end of the game, they were wheeled back into safety. I wish my country can borrow a page and make life convenient for the handicapped.