Losing My Favourite Game: ‘White Flags’ with Matt Abbott

Welcome back to Losing My Favourite Game, the feature that invites football fans to travel back in time to the worst days of their lives and relive them in detail for our reading pleasure.

This week we’re absolutely delighted to be joined by Matt Abbot. Poet, educator, activist, and performer, Matt took his one-man show Two Little Ducks to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 before embarking on a 22-date UK theatre tour in autumn 2018, receiving a hat-trick of 5* and 4* reviews. This tour was accompanied by his début collection of the same name, published by Verve Poetry Press. His début collection for children ‘A Hurricane in my Head’ was published by Bloomsbury in July. Matt also fronts indie act Skint & Demoralised and runs spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs. He’s an ambassador for Trinity Homeless Projects and Eureka! The National Children’s Museum. Most pertinently, he’s been a die-hard Leeds United supporter since the age of seven, which thankfully gives him plenty of ammunition for this feature. 

Rather than dwell on the years in administration, the crushing fall to the third tier of English football, the fallow years in League One, or the absolute clusterfuck that was Massimo Celino’s ownership of the Whites, Matt is taking us back to where it all began. The real beginning of the end, when the semi-final of the Champions League was beginning to feel like a distant memory, and Peter Ridsdale’s decision to sign Seth Johnson for £7m was beginning to look more than a little questionable.

By the beginning of the 2003/04 season, Ridsdale has cleared his desk and been replaced by Professor John McKenzie, the first of three chairmen that Leeds United would get through in their final season in the Premier League. David O’Leary and most of his babies had also bade farewell to Elland Road, with a firesale over the previous eighteen months seeing Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Keane and Harry Kewell all sold in a bid to balance the books. In their stead came a rag-tag bunch of loanees ranging from has-beens, to never-weres and never-would-bes, and though the club retained the goals of Alan Smith and Mark Viduka, a catastrophically leaky defence would eventually prove their downfall. By the time Peter Reid was sacked on November 10th, Leeds were bottom of the table, had just been walloped 6-1 by newly promoted Portsmouth, and had conceded 31 goals in 12 games.

The appointment of 70s hero Eddie Gray brought some much-needed stability over the Christmas period as the Whites went five games unbeaten, but it would take another ten weeks from Boxing Day for them to earn their next point. A rally in Spring that included three wins from four took them to within touching distance of safety, before defeat to relegation rivals Portsmouth in a six-pointer at Elland Road left the writing on the wall. Still, fans Marched on Together to the Reebok Arena, knowing that defeat would all but end Leeds United’s fourteen year stay in the top flight. Among the travelling contingent was one Matt Abbott.

 

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Bolton Wanderers 4-1 Leeds United
Premier League
2nd May 2004

The game I’ve chosen all-but sealed our relegation from the top-flight. If memory serves me correctly, following this result, we’d have needed to beat Charlton 33-0 in our next game. As it happens, that finished 3-3, so if we’d just moved the hyphen…

Now, plenty of fans suffer relegation and I dare say some are relatively accustomed. Many seem able to dust down and prepare for one maybe two seasons in the league below, before winning promotion and forgetting the whole thing. Which is exactly what we thought would happen with Leeds, fifteen years ago.

That said, I barely need to fill you in with what was going on at Leeds back then. 2 years, 4 months and 1 day earlier, I’d seen us beat West Ham 3-0 on New Year’s Day, leaving us top of the table. Robbie Fowler scored, and in hindsight, his signing was emblematic of the sheer lunacy that took place in Peter Ridsdale’s boardroom. This was less than a year after we’d lost to Valencia in the Champions League semi-final. Fans and pundits alike expected us to mount a serious title challenge, right until third tier Cardiff shocked us in the FA Cup on my 13th birthday, and the wheels began to fall off in spectacular fashion.

So, there I was – about to head to Bolton to find out if Leeds genuinely could go down. It felt like jumping off a building in Tomb Raider, just to see if Lara could survive.

The build-up was unfamiliar, which did nothing to alleviate the tension. See, this is the thing with away games – you seek out familiarities; equivalents; quirks and routines. You might’ve researched pre-match pubs or just stumbled upon somewhere, hoping it’ll do. Who else has ended-up in a Harvester?

My dad and I, who usually travelled by train, were travelling by car from our hometown Ossett. And much as this sounds ungrateful, the guy giving us a lift was a classic killjoy cynic. To this day I wonder why some people bother when they spend every waking minute predicting worst-case scenarios. Not ideal when you need an away win to avoid relegation.

It takes an hour over the M62, and both Ossett and the stadium are next to the motorway either side. The stadium opened in a retail park in 1997. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? This isn’t Goodison, Fratton or Ewood by any stretch of the imagination, but if it was unique and quaint that I was looking for, then that’s exactly where my dearly beloved were about to send me.

As always with Leeds, the away end was packed. 5,000 of us were there to watch our team climb the gallows. We were in fine voice, but when Mark Viduka netted a penalty on 27 minutes, the mood shifted dramatically. It became vociferous, and suddenly felt like we might manage to escape again. Nobody expected the previous season’s 3-2 at Highbury.

Six minutes later, Viduka received a second yellow. Petulant, unnecessary and self-destructive in a way that’d become second nature. But you know how it is going down to ten men – sometimes it works in your favour, and when you have Alan Smith and James Milner in your side, there’s every chance it will. We hung on til half-time, with fifteen minutes to catch our collective breath and ponder possibilities. Optimists stayed in our seats chanting our hearts out – unable to take our eyes off the pitch. Cynics shook their heads and surrendered to the bar, as if a flat pint of Foster’s and a Balti pie could do anything to mitigate misery.

Two minutes into the second half, Youri Djorkaeff equalised. Six minutes after that, he put Bolton ahead, and two minutes after that – as if this wasn’t cruel enough – Ian Harte scored an own goal to put the game beyond doubt. Ten minutes into the second half, and all we can do is watch a car crash from the zebra crossing.

Kevin Nolan added a fourth on 78 minutes, but that just turned us up a notch. We were the band on the sinking Titanic. The Bolton fans shielded perplexed expressions from the afternoon sun. In stoppage time, we chanted, “we’re going down in a minute” – the longest I’ve ever experienced. I still couldn’t quite believe it.

At the final whistle, we burst into tears at all angles. Some embraced pals, others openly wept, and others just quietly sobbed to themselves, unable to clap or swing a scarf. Quite frankly, I’d never seen anything like it, and even though I’d cried when we were knocked out of the UEFA Cup the previous season, I was numbed by the spectacle. It was highly surreal, and what’s more, bizarrely uplifting. What strikes me about Leeds is that we almost deal with tragedy better than we do with triumph. It’s ingrained in our psyche and this experience at 15 prepared me for what was in store. I was edging out of boyhood towards a moronic detour before gradually maturing. By the time I reached manhood, we were in League One.

I’m twice the age I was at Bolton. Leeds are playing tantalising football under Marcelo Bielsa and for the first time since a woeful Play-Off final in 2006, promotion is within reach. Bolton may have prepared me for the heartbreak that we suffered against Derby back in Spring, but it only hits you twice as hard when deep down, you knew it was inevitable.

Still, we’re football fans. We rationalise, recover and reset. We delude ourselves regardless of facts and we always hope for the best. Even that day in Bolton.

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Thanks to Matt for sharing the trauma of the day Leeds United were effectively relegated from the Premier League. Matt’s band Skint & Demoralised recently released their fourth album ‘We Are Humans’ on Fierce Panda Records. It’s available via all major digital providers here, and is released on limited edition white vinyl on 25 October (pre-order here). You can also follow Matt on Twitter

 

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