Leeds Utd v the National Front
How fans fought back against the rise of the far right on the Elland Road terraces
Elland Road is far from the first place that might come to mind as a home of anti-fascist action. Reputation precedes and all that. But in the 80s, with Leeds United deep in one of its many dreary periods, and the city the club often uncomfortably represents not doing much better, action was certainly required.
“When I arrived in 1985 there was still loads of graffiti saying ‘Adolf is a Leeds fan’,” said Paul Thomas, one of the founders of Leeds Fans United Against Racism and Fascism. “In other places the National Front had been pushed out of public spaces, but in Leeds they’d never done that. In the middle of Leeds on a Saturday morning outside WH Smith they used to have a paper sale with anything from 10 to 30 NF people there in the centre of the pedestrianised area.”
Such confident displays were not limited to city-centre retail areas. Gaining traction at the famous old football stadium to the south of the centre was always likely to be a target for the NF. “I first turned up at the ground and again, there’s a row of far-right paper sellers outside,” he said. “On a big game, they had maybe 35 people selling there – one game we watched them and they sold 200 papers in an hour.
“I used to stand on the Lowfields terrace and people would be stood next to you reading the NF news and laughing at it. There were occasions where they actually had copies of Mein Kampf for sale. Of course, no-one’s going to buy 900 pages of nonsense, but the presence was very visible, and that at the football and in the city made people from all sorts of backgrounds want to do something about it.”
It’s arguable that the previous decade had been more fruitful for the NF, with the 80s left over to a smaller group of more virulent racists after others either joined the BNP, ended up in prison or drifted away. The 70s had seen regular showpiece marches, predominantly through areas considered to be ‘Asian’. The problem was far from simply a few hardliners punting an extremist rag; but with a resurgent far-right came a stiffened resistance to them.
The Anti-Nazi League had done much to fight back against NF attempts to establish themselves as stalwarts on the streets of the city, including literally fighting them, while the national Rock Against Racism movement found committed organisers and solid support in the city’s venues. At its peak, gigs were being put on once a fortnight, and a feeling that a tide was finally turning to an eclectic soundtrack culminated in the multicultural Northern Carnival Against Racism in 1981, following a celebratory march through the city.
Yet it’s possible that any shifts in perception gained from these activities were at least partly lost on the Elland Road terraces. Leeds’s status as a regional club means that it’s always tended to attract support from Yorkshire’s smaller towns – those underexposed to both multiculturalism and arguments in favour of it. But whatever the reasons, the status quo couldn’t be maintained. Not only was there a strong moral case to stand up to the racists, but support was beginning to dwindle – and it wasn’t just due to the decidedly poor quality of the football on offer. Thousands had voted with their feet and found new things to do with their Saturdays, finding the Elland Road experience – as well as away days – too toxic to be part of.
Even at its worst, this was never a situation of all fans singing in one racist voice. “In the days when we had atmosphere it didn’t take much to get a chant going. But if people join in, does that make them a racist?” asks Thomas. “It might be by 20 people, but it allows some to say that Leeds is a racist club... racist chanting was always an issue in grounds; was it thousands? No, but in the 1980s, hundreds did at times. But then, you’ve got to break down the mindsets and motivations of people within that.”
The campaign against the NF, and the racist chanters, was a two-stage process. First, it involved members of Leeds Fans Against Fascism and Racism going to the ground in numbers, leafletting and giving out branded badges and stickers. Another popular addition to the offering was a fixture calendar featuring a photo of the then-Leeds captain Brendan Ormsby with the club’s two new, and more pertinently black, signings, Vince Hilaire and Noel Blake. Rights to the image were bought, but it later turned out that you were supposed to have a licence to reproduce the fixture list. What was done was done, though, and this was Leeds in the 80s. The league didn’t sue.
After a year came Marching Altogether – a fanzine with a specifically anti-racist bent. “We did our homework before we started... Leeds was quite late coming to the fanzine scene. We were a year or two behind some of the other clubs. Our USP was it was free – it had to be because the 14-19-year-old lads we wanted to reach weren’t going to buy it,” said Thomas. “We didn’t need a lot of writers because it wasn’t a very thick thing. We did it a few times a season and we wanted funny content, we didn’t want to be preachy. A group coalesced after a couple of people got in touch who were regular match-goers and wanted to write something, including one who was really into cartoons.”
The fact that a nose-thumbing, DIY fanzine ended up providing a significant impetus in stemming the tide of racism on the terraces is perhaps not surprising. Out of late-70s Leeds had sprung a thriving post-punk counterculture led by bands like Gang of Four and Mekons – their keynote venues no strangers to the occasional attack from National Front heavies. Every venue, every promoter, almost every idea had to have its own ’zine – and so it was that Leeds Fans United Against Racism and Fascism got in on the action.
Of course, riffing off the punk ethic was never the preserve of the left, and perversely, the NF’s youth magazine The Bulldog was in some ways a precursor to anti-racist zines, with features like the ‘Racist League’, which saw clubs climb or fall down the table based on a perceived commitment to racist acts, a depressingly popular part of its jokey and in-your-face package.
If the take-home message was very different, Marching Altogether’s content was little less balls out. Regular favourites were the comic strips Eric the Football Hooligan and 101 Things to do with a Klu Klux Klanner – the latter based on the fact that there were a group of Leeds fans that enjoyed dressing up as the KKK. The far-right fancy dress’s most notorious appearance came when the club were promoted at Bournemouth in 1990, with fans effectively taking over the city, not doing anything to improve their decidedly low status among the wider public.
“Every cartoon came to an unfortunate end for the Klansman, whether that’s being thrown off the stand roof or having the police horses run over them,” said Thomas. “Eric was basically a bit of a div who was prone to joining in with racism – we deliberately played the line of ‘idiots go for racism’.
“The reaction we got was that instead of being on the terraces reading The Flag you’d see people looking at the fanzine. When there’s kids with shaved heads reading and laughing you think, ‘Ah, my work is done.’”
Giving out the fanzine was also a successful conversation starter. Some ended up confrontational, but a lot of them could more appropriately be described as robust. “Some people would come up and shake your hand or have an argument and then shake your hand,” said Thomas. “Quite a lot told us that they join in [with racist chants] but know it’s wrong. We’d made them think about that, rather than that it was just a bit of a laugh.”
Heading towards the 90s, a fanzine upsurge was growing among the Leeds faithful, with others like The Hanging Sheep and The Square Ball developing at the time. The latter is still going strong, with increasingly high production values and a significant multimedia broadening of scope. As a publication, it has always been clear about anti-racism, without making it a central focus.
Marching Altogether had its niche, but care was taken to ensure the politics was of the subtler ilk, with a focus from the start on keeping things light and not branding people as racists. A feature on where black players came from – with the not particularly hard-to-discern message that ‘sending them home’ was largely going to mean a very short trip – was about as close to an ‘inform and educate’ tone as it got.
Perhaps even more than the content, an important factor in appealing to the fanbase was for those behind it to be clearly seen as, first and foremost, one of them. While having the whole line-up of Chumbawamba giving out leaflets (this actually happened) is all well and good, it’s not necessarily going to win the hearts and minds that needed to be won. Earlier Anti-Nazi League presence at the ground had been met by, at best, scepticism and, at worst, flying fists, while the Socialist Worker’s attempts to punt their publications at the ground proved increasingly unsuccessful. Marching Altogether, meanwhile, grew in the collective consciousness.
“People would come up in the early days and say, ‘Who are you, you’ve never been at Elland Road. Who plays left back for Leeds then?’ We thought that was actually a good point well made, so we decided it needed to be led visibly by fans,” said Thomas. The importance of getting fan culture at the forefront rather than heavily pushing a message is something also not lost on Mick Ward, the External Partnership Manager for the LGBT+ Leeds fans’ group Marching Out Together and veteran equality campaigner in the city. “It’s important to have something fun, but you have to link your message to the football,” he said.
Overt left-wing politics and football have rarely been easy bedfellows and there’s a sense that this is down to something of a ‘sniffy’ attitude among the left; a belief that football is monolithically a reactionary and racist environment – something quickly picked up on by fans.
There’s no getting around the fact, though, that Leeds has a strong association with the far right, whether that’s the founder of the British National Party Eddy Morrison hailing from the city or, in more recent times, Leeds crests often having a high profile at English Defence League and pro-Tommy Robinson rallies. Fascism had lurked for decades in the city before the NF formed, conflating economic uncertainty with racial othering. Just a week before the more famous Battle of Cable Street in East London in 1936 there was the Battle of Holbeck Moor, in the shadow of Elland Road. Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists marched to the moor following a night of attacks in the Leylands, a working-class Jewish area of the city, only to find themselves dramatically outnumbered by leftists when they got there, and roundly chased off the scene.
Political neutrality among West Yorkshire Police could in no way be taken for granted as opposition to the racism was stepped up. The hounding to death of the British Nigerian David Oluwale on the streets of Leeds by police in 1969 was certainly not a distant memory, while lingering, more general reactionary tendencies in the force were laid bare in the hapless, blinkered handling of the Yorkshire Ripper case. The early attitude to Leeds Fans Against Racism and Fascism’s growing presence at the ground was one largely of obstruction.
“When we first said we were going to go down and leaflet we told the police, because we had to. Then they went to the Yorkshire Evening Post and said they feared political violence at the ground because we were coming down,” said Thomas. “They framed us like that, but they’d had the NF outside the ground for 15 years!”
With the fanzine working to change individual attitudes with humour, an institutional response was still going to be needed to ensure Elland Road was not considered a safe platform for racist views to be shouted out loud. As often with institutional responses, things took far longer than they needed to.
It might be tempting to imagine that some engagement from the club might have been forthcoming in the face of years of unabashed racist chanting, extremist paper retailing, occasional fruit-throwing and the Popplewell Inquiry of 1985. The latter mainly focused on the Bradford City fire but also looked at the death of a teenage boy during rioting around the Birmingham City versus Leeds match of the same season, which cited racism and fascist organisation (some members of the Leeds Service Crew hooligan firm even going as far as parading in Nazi armbands) as significant factors in prolonged disorder. Yet digging heads deeper in sand was the preferred option of the club, demanding hard evidence that Leeds United had a problem at all after a meeting was arranged with the anti-racist campaigners.
Unsurprisingly, that evidence was not remotely hard to find – the Terror on Our Terraces report published by Leeds Fans Against Racism and Fascism proving less of an original investigation than a compilation piece. The group pulled together reports entirely from the public domain, including an undercover investigation of Leeds National Front by the Yorkshire Evening Post, which highlighted attacks on ethnic minority areas organised in pubs on the way to Elland Road – and called a press conference. National and local media coverage followed, forcing the club to acknowledge what had been in plain sight all along.
Far from coincidentally, a leaflet decrying racism signed by the squad and the manager Billy Bremner was waiting for fans at the turnstiles around the time of the report’s unveiling. This proved to be the start of much broader change, which accelerated when Howard Wilkinson became manager in 1988 – a man aligned with the chairman Leslie Silver when it came to trying to turn around the decidedly tarnished reputation of the club.
Marching Altogether was published until 1995, at which point it was seen to have done its job. Yet spikes of interest in the far-right arrive – and leave – in waves. The content remains more or less the same, give or take new targets on which to hang it. Racism at Leeds United has also been prone to peaks and troughs. Even in relatively recent years, where the club might hope to badge far-right elements as ‘problem solved’, there have been notable instances of the racism, if not the fascism: the period after the club’s tragic trip to Istanbul in 2000 and the trial of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate a year later are cases in point.
If Marching Altogether sought to link racism and stupidity, the harsh truth is that ignorance never really goes away. The club only months ago had to react sharply to reports of isolated incidents of abuse of black players during games against Stoke City and Nottingham Forest. While very few fans are likely to equate refrains of “the Whites go marching on” with a statement of racial superiority these days, and the vast majority are far more willing to help the club in identifying racists than joining in with them, there are enough who still haven’t got the memo for the matter to be taken seriously.
Elland Road is still a very white place on match days, and there has never been a BAME fan group to date. Undeniably, though, the current club hierarchy’s willingness to engage with social issues within and outside the stadium is unrecognisable from those early efforts to alert the club to its racism problem – and there’s plenty of proof that official backing works. “With Marching Out Together, the club were supportive early on,” said Ward. “With the early anti-racist stuff, the club were just denying there was an issue. Having a presence means you nudge and nudge. In our case, that meant that when someone set up an anti-Marching Out Together Facebook page, he was inundated with people calling him an idiot.”
Despite a renewed spirit of civic optimism in the city and a black female Lord Mayor, underlying problems remain, fuelling a vulnerability to far-right ideology. “Leeds is your classic twin-track city,” said Ward. “There’s a big gap between rich and poor, and we haven’t been able to resolve it. In the 10 miles from north to south Leeds you lose a year of life expectancy every mile. It is a city of migration, and people pick a new target. Now, hardly anyone is racist to African-Caribbean people. When I was a kid, they were the target, then it became Asian people, and has since drifted to Muslims and Roma.”
To say that Leeds has a bit of a chip on its collective shoulder would be a profound understatement. But with the city’s officials setting ambitious targets for health, wellbeing and culture and Leeds United more professionally run than it has been for over a decade, there’s a little more optimism about the place than there has been, albeit still with plenty of that characteristic edge. No one likes us, we don’t care, will only work for you as a civic motto up to a point.
Fanzines are still plugging on, but most find more audience on social media than paper. While a number still have a campaigning thrust on issues like ticket pricing and club ownership, tackling racism in the stands is generally considered the domain of clubs themselves, albeit relying on the willingness of fan to call out fan.
Kick It Out took on the metaphorical baton from inventive fan campaigning in the mid-90s, bringing a corporate sheen and unified voice to inclusivity on and off the pitch. While enjoying some victories, it cannot rest on a job well done – especially when facing the febrile atmosphere of current British politics. With reports of racist abuse rising by 43 per cent in the 2018-19 season, the struggle to push football’s ever-timid authorities to take prejudice and abuse in English football grounds seriously sadly doesn’t look like ending any time soon.
While words like ‘front’ and ‘fascist’ are no longer part of politics of any profile and certainly not a part of match day experiences, umbrella groups like the Football Lads Alliance – again, not without an LUFC-daubed St. George’s flag or two – are a reminder of that familiar toxicity. Signs of hope can be hard to pick out from signs of concern, especially with much of the political and social discourse having gone digital. The next generation of football fandom’s creative fascism-fighters should be on alert.