Ahead of Leeds United’s return to the topflight of English football, and as part of the Fans vs Covid-19 initiative, FSE spoke to Graham Hyde from the supporters’ trust and Michael Normanton from fanzine The Square Ball.

Our discussion was wide ranging, covering everything from Leeds fans’ community outreach efforts to the bittersweet experience of reaching the promised land while games are being played behind closed doors.

Read the full interview below.

FSE: It’s been 16 years since Leeds were last in the Premier League. How did it feel to celebrate promotion while fans were excluded from the stadium?

MN: I wouldn’t say it was an anti-climax—we’ve celebrated enough—but it wasn’t how I pictured it during those 16 long, dismal years. Watching Huddersfield win to seal the deal was strange, and I never envisaged watching such a momentous occasion on my own. So, yeah, bit of a weird one.

FSE: The trust and magazine have won plaudits for their community work. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

GH: One of the trust’s core principles is supporting and working with the local community, so we’ve always backed various charities.

Around 2 years ago, we teamed up with Leeds Fans’ Foodbank, which is an amalgamation of two foodbanks in the city. The aim was to raise their profile and help them to organise collections of foodstuffs and money at the stadium on matchdays. As an aside, we wanted to show that football fans can and do make a genuine contribution to the more vulnerable in society—that we aren’t just concerned with going to watch the football, having a few pints, having a pie, but also care about our communities.

And we’ve demonstrated that. The number of items donated has been incredible. But when the pandemic closed down bars and restaurants and public transport, it closed down foodbanks, too. As the reality of the situation became clear, we had an internal conversation and agreed that we had to support them through a difficult period because there was a danger that the momentum that had built up, not to mention the donations from fans, would stop.

The first idea we came up with was to encourage fans to donate the equivalent of the price of a pie and a pint—£5 or whatever—on the basis that they’d have spent that on a matchday anyway. That got some decent traction and raised a couple of grand quite quickly. I’ll let Michael tell you how things developed from there.

MN: The Square Ball has always had a cult following, but it wasn’t until the podcast launched that it really took off and provided us with a platform to raise significant amounts.

In the early days, we did some fundraising around the anniversary of the deaths of Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus in Istanbul. We donated a portion of the sale of each magazine to fund the purchase of candlelighters.  

But the first big thing we did was a sponsored walk from Elland Road to Rotherham before a game, which is about 30 miles. We lost, of course.

Off the back of that, a couple of years later, we did a tour of West Yorkshire football grounds in aid of Leeds Children’s Hospital and Muscular Dystrophy UK. We started at Elland Road, walked to Bradford, onto Huddersfield, and then back to Leeds. More recently, we teamed up with Huddersfield Town Supporters’ Association to raise money for our respective foodbank appeals.

Ironically, after all the walking we’ve done, by far the most money we’ve raised came from an auction of one of the club’s centenary shirts, which one of the players, Gaetano Berardi, kindly gave to us. There was a limited number of them, and he got his signed by all the squad and Bielsa. It raised over £30,000 in the end. It was ridiculous—we set the target at £2,000 because we didn’t want to look stupid if we didn’t meet it. It passed that mark within about an hour.

So, in short, getting a replica shirt signed by a right-back is more lucrative than walking miles and miles. That said, we will walk miles again.

In terms of the foodbanks, we’d always supported the trust’s efforts by mentioning the collections on the podcast and so on. When coronavirus hit, we thought what can we do that will raise money but also entertain people? So, we settled on the idea of playing the 2007/08 version of Football Manager (the season when Leeds started with minus 15 points) for 24 hours straight and broadcasting it live.

The response was phenomenal. We had a lot of support from prominent figures in the fanbase. John Richardson, the comedian, said he’d come on for an hour, but we got to the playoffs, so he stayed for far longer than he or any of us expected. Another comedian called Rob Mulholland came on, Matt Abbott, who’s a poet, as well as a few more familiar faces.

It was 1:30am by the time we got to the playoffs and there was still 1,500 people watching the live stream. We won the final, which is a novelty for Leeds fans. The 24-hour thing wasn’t as bad as we’d been expecting. It flew by fairly quickly, I have to say.

All in all, we raised more than £14,000.

FSE: You certainly seem to have challenged some of the more unfair and outdated stereotypes that are often levelled against football fans.

GH: The numbers speak for themselves. If you add together the funds raised by the trust and the magazine during the lockdown period, you get a number of around £30,000. That’s 15,000 to 18,000 meals for those in Leeds who are struggling. It’s a big impact.

But there’s still a stubborn constituency in the media who perpetuate that idea that football fans—and it is always football fans—are lager swilling hooligans with no conscience. And football’s not about that. It’s about clubs that are traditionally at the heart of communities—they’re families on a big scale. When that loyalty and enthusiasm is put to work it can make a positive difference.

MN: Absolutely. We didn’t expect to raise anywhere near the figure we did, especially because we were essentially messing around on a computer at four in the morning.

FSE: Going forward, how do you think being back in the Premier League will influence these kinds of community initiatives?

MN: I hope it will bring a wider group of people into the fold. A few years ago, we spoke to the club’s chief executive, Angus Kinnear, about the fact that not every part of the city is acquainted with or connected to Leeds United. Leeds has a big ethnic minority population, but in truth, the crowds at Elland Road are still overwhelmingly white. He thinks Premier League football is the key to changing that because most people’s route into fandom is through family, and that route isn’t necessarily open to people from some backgrounds.

Another thing: Leeds has an attraction for a lot of people in other Yorkshire towns and cities, including Wakefield, York, Scarborough, even Doncaster. From that angle, there’s plenty of scope to expand our current activities. But we’ll have to stay up first.

GH: Our main charitable partner this year is Andy’s Man Club, a group aimed at getting men to discuss their mental health with one another. Before Covid, they were growing exponentially, but obviously that came to an abrupt halt. Still, when we eventually emerge from the pandemic, I have no doubt that we’ll be facing a sizeable mental health crisis, and having a bigger audience to promote the work of Andy’s Man Club and other similar groups will be really important.

MN: On that note, it’s interesting how football can encourage people to engage with issues or causes that they would otherwise ignore or reject. From a mental health perspective, that means people who might have suffered in silence recognise that it doesn’t have the same stigma among their peers as they perhaps thought.

FSE: Away from the community side of things, what are the main issues that the trust and the wider fanbase are facing going into the Premier League?

MN: I think Sky and the persistent movement of kick off times will always be a major bug bear. I’m concerned that the powers that be have taken the wrong lessons from the flexibility around fixtures during the lockdown—they may well be thinking if we can do this now, we can do it all the time. But people still have to book days off work, look for the best train ticket deals, and book accommodation to follow their team. Nothing has changed.

Moving forward, a big sticking point for us will be if we attract big investment, because the Qatar rumours aren’t going away. It’s one of those things that many Leeds fans feel conflicted about. You look at how far Man City have come and do think that could be us. But you look at the dirty side of it and question whether it’s worth it.

GH: I agree wholeheartedly with Michael’s point about fixture changes. The trust has always been concerned about the cost of away tickets and how Leeds fans were being unfairly penalised by our own club’s insistence on overcharging visitors to Elland Road. Now, obviously, there’s a £30 cap on away tickets in the Premier League, so there’s at least a small reprieve there. That said, there’s still a strong argument to keep campaigning for Twenty’s Plenty.

We’re also stepping into a world where one of the objections to safe standing—cost—effectively disappears. In the Championship, spending £750,000 or there abouts installing rail seats is a big deal, and it means proponents have to look at a lot of different options, from crowdfunding to innovative sponsorship deals. That’s not the case in the Premier League. And if there’s one thing behind closed doors games have proven beyond reasonable doubt, it’s that football without fans is a pale imitation of the real thing. Anything that helps improves the atmosphere in the stadium and makes fans safer is something that we should be pushing for.

MN: To go back to the ticket prices: in many ways, this season is going to better because we won’t have that same price fluctuations. But the home ticket prices will be the next issue because we’re in a situation where there are no more season tickets available—people are actually having to pay to get onto a waiting list. I suspect when matchday prices are announced—whenever that’s possible—some will be truly eye watering. It’s not going to be cheap to sit on the halfway line to watch us play Man Utd. I wouldn’t be surprised to see those tickets going for £65, which isn’t a good entry point if you’re trying to get new people involved in a football club.

My worry would be that people will pay high prices to watch us in the Premier League, but, as we’ve seen before, if things go wrong, there’ll be no young fans there to replace them. Hopefully, the club can do enough to keep the community involved and give people a chance to go to their first game.

GH: There’s also the problem of lower level corporate deals where a ticket and a hot dog is suddenly £99. It’s the most expensive hot dog you’re ever going to buy, but there’ll be enough of a market for tourist fans to pay that, and the club know that’s easy money.

I also agree with Michael’s observation on future fans. I’ve got a lot of respect for the kids who’ve only ever seen us when we’ve been rubbish—for them, the last few years have been a revelation. If you’re not getting them in, year in year out, the fanbase is going to get older and older.

To this end, we set up a scheme called ‘Future Trust’ which gives every member the opportunity to sign up two children for free. We have an honorary ‘Future Trust’ president, Ben Shires, who presents Match of the Day Kickabout. We’re also in the process of implementing a junior board with the club, which will serve as an advisory group of sorts.

In that sense, the future looks bright.

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