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I Know I Have To Go

Leeds United 2-0 Southampton, 18.08.2001

Johan Cruyff said that he had two addictions in his life, smoking and playing football. Despite not being a smoker myself, its second hand scent sparks a vivid nostalgic experience, thanks to its association with football matches and my old man.

It really is difficult to picture a stadium filled with smokers, but at the turn of the millennium grounds were chimneys that collectively sighed a grey haze for two hours every fortnight. And my dad was a committed contributor.

Born a couple of miles from Elland Road and having grown up watching the most successful period in Leeds’ history under the stewardship of Don Revie, naturally there was to be only one team for him. He was a season ticket holder when they won their third first division title in 1992, but knocked it on the head after my twin brother and I came along two years later.

A hard worker and devoted father, there was always that one thing that was his and his alone. As we’d graduated from nappies to dungarees, his regular attendance to LS11 was resurrected and he would come home on a Saturday evening waxing lyrical about the performances of Rio Ferdinand, David Batty and Ian Harte. So when the call came to be invited into his exclusive world on the eve of our seventh birthday, we considered it a mammoth privilege.

Silk Cut purple was and continues to be his weapon of choice, burning three down to the tab end on the walk down the Wesley Street hill.

I distinctly remember on that walk just how breathtaking Elland Road looked in the distance. Stadiums are unique pieces of architecture and what I saw was a living, breathing organism that invited you to witness something magical. Burger vans lined the road with that unique ‘it’s not quite entirely meat but fuck me it’s tasty’ smell, complimented by the sensual sizzle of fried onions.

Being a warm August day, there wasn’t a jacket in sight and the area around the ground was flooded with a sea of replica jerseys. Billy Bremner’s statue greeted us on arrival draped in sentimental memorabilia and we agreed that if either of us got lost, we’d meet under Billy’s avuncular figure.

Little did I know that Leeds weren’t to be my team, but if you’d asked me that day I’d have told you I bled yellow and blue. It’s an impossible task to recall a match hosted by a club with such a strong cultural identity without it playing a starring role in the memory.

We stood in the South Stand behind the goal, quickly realising the done thing to do was to join the extremely biased posse and give Paul Jones as much stick as humanly possible. Marching on Together played on the speaker and, thanks to our rehearsal on the drive from Wakefield to Beeston, we made sure (because it’s so important) that our fists saluted away from the chest each time we sang the name of the city.

There’s so little I actually remember about the game itself. Watching the highlights back nineteen years later, the second goal scored by Alan Smith was a gorgeous finish, cinderellaing on the ball at shin height and cushioning it just inside the post. Not that I had any idea at the time what a good goal looked like.

As the subs warmed up at half time, I asked who the player with the Simpsons yellow hair was. Turned out it was James Beattie, who I came away from the game idolising because of his audacious and, retrospectively, shite hairstyle.

Having worked for the club’s charitable arm years later, a lot of the young people I coached told me their favourite player is Ezgjan Alioski for sporting an equally crap barnet. Some things never change.

And so the coveted mystery that dad had been talking about most weekends turned into something real. No accumulators or fantasy team performances to distract my attention like they would in the future. Watching the game that day was a child with a pure and innocent love for the sport that would continue to dominate his brain two decades later.

“If smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go”. As the coronavirus pandemic snatches football’s most integral component from a large portion of a fresh season, Mark Twain’s words seem to have a ring of truth to them. What I know for sure is, when I’m out walking my dog and catch a whiff of someone’s cigarette, I’m there again. Heaven.

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