Despite languishing in the Championship and below for the past 16 years, Elland Road is still regarded as one of the great footballing cathedrals in Britain, and for good reason.
The Premier League is the ultimate goal for any club in the country but only really a realistic one for those currently in the second division, with the gap in revenus ever-growing and the demand of players to be playing at the best level possible.
However, whilst the glory of pitting yourself against England’s best sides is something that is extremely desirable, the drawbacks of Premier League consolidation is the seemingly unnecessary sanitation of the ‘traditional’ matchday experience. Something quite hard to quantify, but is extremely apparent when looking at virtually any of the ‘big six’ in the top flight. While their home atmospheres drift further towards neutrality, the vast away followings still hold up as they always have, with the likes of Manchester United and City, Liverpool and Arsenal all still bringing the noise up and down the country.
It’s clear that the nucleus of loud and proud supporters has been drowned out by the tourist-driven nature of elite-tier football in the likes of the Emirates Stadium, Old Trafford, and the Etihad Stadium, which can barely hold a candle to the likes of Highbury, Maine Road and the ‘old school’ raucous atmosphere of the top division.
Safety rightly has to take precedent nowadays after the disasters such as Hillsborough, Heysel and the Bradford fire, making stadiums much more equipped to deal with such problems, meaning all-standing terraces have been taken out and a much stricter approach to stewarding and policing has come into play.
All of these factors have worked well to ensure the safety of fans in the ground but have seen the rambunctious nature of following your team fall by the wayside in all but a select few cases. One of the most glaring outliers in this discussion is Elland Road.
A traumatic exit from the Premier League in 2004, followed by a drop into League One just a few years later might have swept the club into a plague of negativity thanks to mismanagement from the top, but that hasn’t deterred the fans from doing their bit each week, holding the record third-tier home attendance up until Boxing Day 2018.
The club are now seemingly on their way to an eagerly-anticipated return to the top flight, permitting an almighty collapse from here until the end of the season (whenever it returns), so pundits and top-flight supporters are licking their lips at the prospect of Leeds’ inclusion at the Premier League table, spelling a breath of fresh air amidst a division that has completely changed its identity since the Whites last enjoyed a season in it. The growing financial reward and global attraction of the league certainly has a lot to do with it as Premier League clubs grow their brand, while Leeds have remained stuck with not having the same reach as clubs they once tussled for European places with.
Elland Road isn’t the only footballing institution standing firm while the riches of the elite game sterilise the atmosphere, with Nottingham Forest and others still demonstrating their great support along with viewing figures that topple some Premier League sides, showing that the need to move into these modern, often soulless, arenas might not be as necessary as it seems.
Pundits and managers alike have been effusive in their praise of Elland Road as well as the Leeds support in general, with Jonathan Woodgate signalling his positivity towards his former club after his Middlesbrough were thumped 4-0 back in October, claiming it would be ‘some train to get on’ (quote via the Yorkshire Evening Post). Gary Neville’s insight into the relationship Leeds have with Premier League heavyweights is also worth noting, and also highlights the change from this rival mentality that has dipped hugely since Leeds’ demise, and he is one former Red Devil who cannot wait for Leeds to make it back and add some more spice to the division, paying particular attention to how Elland Road played a part. He said this on Sky Sports (retrieved via Yorkshire Evening Post): “It was brutal when we went to Leeds.
“Even more brutal than going to Liverpool. The rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United was huge, but the rivalry with Leeds was almost a deep hatred.
“There’s a little bit of respect between United and Liverpool but with Leeds there was a real nastiness – like they would come onto the pitch if they could.
“Leeds I always felt was a huge club when we were playing against them. When people ask what is a big club I always think of Leeds United.
“Just the feeling when you go and play football there is incredible. It’s different. It’s a different place to play football.”
Split into four ‘stands’, Elland Road presents a daunting proposition for away sides with a cauldron of noise awaiting that can’t really be replicated by a lot of stadiums in the Premier League, which struggle to hold the noise of even larger crowds. The concept of ‘stands’ is slowly fading with the biggest stadiums around ditching that aesthetic for a more ‘bowl’ shape, largely to their detriment.
With Leeds having two ends now named after club legends, the mentality of the club is now encapsulated perfectly in Don Revie (North) and Norman Hunter (South) at both ends of the pitch. Two men dogged in their quest for success, approaching the game in a manner unnerving for opponents, and demonstrating immense loyalty to the club, they manage to boast all the qualities of what being amongst an Elland Road crowd is all about.
While Tottenham, Arsenal, and Man City have opted for moves to bigger stadiums with more grandiose to them, there is something much more settling and true to the core values of the game about the likes of Elland Road, St. James’ Park, or the City Ground (among others).
A fanbase not affected by the ever-changing climate of football and the subsequent riches becoming the forefront of the game’s priorities at its peak means that Elland Road will always stand out from the crowd, even if the clout of QSI catapult the club to stardom, as is being suggested by Andrea Radrizzani.
The best way to pay tribute to the late Don Revie, John Charles, Norman Hunter and Billy Bremner is to keep Elland Road as close to fabric which made it one of the country’s most iconic grounds, while still trying to enhance its capabilities to keep pace with the Premier League. Liverpool did this with Anfield and it has worked to great success.
Radrizzani’s work to connect the fans with their club after that became at risk of fading away has to be commended, with the decision to commemorate Hunter’s legacy the latest masterstroke, and what it has done is further epitomise what Elland Road means beyond just being the home of Leeds United, but to stand as part of the last bastion of the traditional culture of an English football fanbase.
Many are not keen on Leeds thanks to the heritage left behind by Revie’s conquering side and their robust approach to get there, but having grown a reputation as the club and fanbase that everyone loves to hate, it has only seen the Leeds fans embrace this characteristic and take it in their stride, much akin to the names branded onto Elland Road for forevermore.