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Promised Lane: The Reinvention of Leeds United, by Anthony Clavane: football story interwoven with social history is a triumph


According to sources that can be regarded with at least reasonable confidence as authoritative, there have been some 278 books written that can de described, one way or another, as being about Leeds United.

Among those are some fine works and many that are more run of the mill, yet to stand out from the crowd still requires something special.  Anthony Clavane has pulled it off with Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United, published today (August 19th) under Random House’s Yellow Jersey imprint.

The title is no throwaway line.   It was inspired by a sign that once hung inside Leeds railway station bearing the words: ‘Leeds, the Promised Land delivered’ but, as the reader discovers quickly as he or she is drawn into a compelling narrative, the phrase has a particular resonance for the author.

Clavane grew up within a substantial and upwardly mobile Jewish community in Leeds in the 1960s and 70s and the book he has produced is a story about much more than a football club.

While the highs and lows experienced by Leeds supporters during the author’s lifetime hold the tale together as a central thread, Clavane has managed to relate the history of the team to the evolution of the Jewish population and the physical, social and cultural development of the city of Leeds.

He does so superbly and the end result is an intimate, personal account of his own life that reveals a secret history of the club and its relationship with the Jewish community and is also an affectionate and poignant celebration of an era in the life of a northern English city that may never be repeated.

Clavane, a sports writer with the Sunday Mirror, says that while the idea for the book had been germinating in his mind for some time, it was a personal milestone that provided the impetus for turning it into a reality.

“I’ve just turned 50, which I felt was a natural time to reflect on my life,” he told The Sports Bookshelf. “So the book is in part a personal memoir.

“Supporting Leeds United has been a big part of my life and I wanted to discover why I had been so passionate about the club as I was growing up and to try to explain why, when rivals such as Liverpool and Manchester United achieved sustained success, Leeds would reach the top only to fall spectacularly.

“But I also wanted to explore the development of the city of Leeds during my lifetime and its cultural history, particularly as the home of a clutch of writers, such as Alan Bennett and Keith Waterhouse, who gave the city a literary heritage which, I feel, has been largely ignored.”

Clavane was uniquely placed to witness and appreciate how the Jewish population of Leeds not only helped create the circumstances for a kind of emancipation in the city in the 1960s but were fundamental in turning Leeds United from a lowly, provincial team with little prospect of advancement to a power across Europe.

His Lithuanian great-grandfather, Phillip Clavanski, had been among the wave of Jewish migrants, fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire, who arrived in Leeds in 1900.  Some 8,000 made it to Leeds, where they settled in the Chapeltown area of the city to a life initially of squalor but which at least gave them freedom and hope.

By the time Anthony was born, the community had moved on, its standing in the city raised by the success of former immigrants such as Michael Marks (of Marks and Spencer) and the tailor, Montague Burton.  The lower middle class surroundings of Moortown were now the centre of Jewish life in Leeds.

The connections with the football club developed as the Jewish population in Leeds, by now numbering 20,000, sought to further their integration and acceptance by their Yorkshire neighbours.

“They wanted to feel that they belonged, to show that they were Leeds, and one way to do that was to show passionate support for the local football team,” Clavane said.

“At first they were involved with rugby league, which used to be much bigger than football in Leeds.  But in the 1960s the Jewish community developed wider aspirations.  Instead of being involved in a narrow, parochial rugby club, they had ambitions to successful on a wider, national level, in the same way that Burtons and Marks were becoming national brands.”

In fact, crippled by debts, Leeds United would have folded in 1961 had not three Jewish businessmen -- Manny Cussins, Albert Morris and Sidney Simon -- made the club interest free loans of £10,000 each, which then was a huge sum.  The trio joined the board that appointed Don Revie as manager.

“There is a wonderful description of the 1960s board in David Peace’s book, The Damned United,” Clavane said. “In his words, they were ‘Half Gentile, half Jew; a last, lost tribe of self-made Yorkshiremen and Israelites.  In search of the promised land; of public recognition, of acceptance and of gratitude'.”

Clavane recalls, extraordinarily, that Revie and many of the Leeds players were among his family’s neighbours in Moortown, young men, like his family, from humble roots happy to be living in modest, semi-detached houses and seeing themselves as middle class.  Forty years later, when the players of Peter Ridsdale’s ‘living the dream’ era would speed away from Elland Road in their Porsches and Ferraris to their leafy village homes well away from the city, such domestic circumstances would be unimaginable.

“Revie actually lived across the road from our family,” Clavane said. “He lived in quite a modest semi-detached house at that time, although he would later move to Alwoodley.

“Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer and Mick Jones also lived nearby.  We could knock on their front door to get their autograph or watch Mick Jones practising his putting in his garden.  I can remember going to Jewish coffee mornings and talking to David Harvey or Eddie Gray, who would be sitting in a corner looking bored but fulfilling Revie’s wish for the players to be part of their local communities.”

Cussins and Silver would go on to be among the club’s most famous figureheads and would remain so until the ownership of English football clubs passed from self-made local businessmen to the corporate management of the modern era.  After Silver sold up in 1996, the connection with the Jewish community in Leeds largely ceased.

Clavane argues that Revie’s reinvention of Leeds United in the 1960s, transforming a team struggling near the foot of the old Second Division into one that would not only win the First Division title but take the quality of football in the English domestic game to a new level, was mirrored in a new era of optimism and self-belief in the city beyond, during which Leeds, the introverted, rather prickly northern industrial citadel, began to shed its inhibitions and discover a pride in its identity.

It was during this period that several notable writers emerged, including Waterhouse and Bennett, as well as the popular novelists Jack Higgins and Barbara Taylor-Bradford, enabling Leeds to make a contribution to modern culture that ought, in Clavane’s eyes, to be recognised in the same way that Liverpool and Manchester have been in respect of their musical heritage.

Waterhouse’s iconic novel Billy Liar, the story of a fantasist undertaker’s clerk with dreams above his station in a fictional northern city, not only draws its story from a working class population filled with a new sense of possibility, It also inspired Clavane, who began his professional life as a history teacher, in his desire to become a writer.

“Waterhouse and Alan Bennett influenced me more than anyone,” he said. “They made me want to write.”

Clavane’s portrait of Leeds the city is inevitably bleak at times, in particular when observing its more recent history, in the wake of the decline of manufacturing industry and the ravages of the Thatcher era.   He notes with some sadness that the shiny, urban chic of a revitalised city centre, once optimistically dubbed “Barcelona on the Aire” exists cheek by jowl with some of the most deprived inner-city areas in Europe.

The possibilities of the 1960s and 70s came to little in the end.  “The book is in one way a lament, an homage to a golden era, a unique set of circumstances that will not occur again,” he said.

The sadness is exacerbated by the change in atmosphere around the city and the football club in the late 1970s and early 80s, which ultimately drove Clavane away.  He settled into a family life of his own in Colchester, a world away from Leeds, although he is a proud member of a small enclave of Leeds fans known as the Essex Whites.

“I turned away from the club after the atmosphere at the ground became unpleasant, when there was racism directed at black players -- this at the club where Albert Johannesson had been an icon.  There was National Front literature being sold outside the ground,” he said.

"There was a certain amount of anti-semitism. I found myself being questioned over where I came from.  Graffiti saying ‘Hitler was a Leeds fan’ appeared outside the ground.  For a Jewish person, listening to fans making a hissing sound meant to represent the gas chambers when Spurs fans came was not a comfortable experience.”

Leeds United had sunk to their lowest point, in the third tier, when Clavane began writing, and the way in which they stumbled over the line to achieve promotion to the Championship last season confirmed that the frailties highlighted in his conclusions, the answer to his questions about why Leeds have often failed at the final hurdle and could never maintain the success they did achieve, still exist.

Those are that the club, indeed the city, lacks self-belief. Like the main character in Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, when opportunity presents itself it does not have the courage or the sense of self-worth to take it.  In short, it chokes.

It is a state of mind that Brian Clough, of all people, needed little time to identify during his tortured 44 days as manager.  As Clavane recalled, he summed it up in his programme notes before a match against Queen‘s Park Rangers one August night when he declared that Leeds, in his opinion, 'have sold themselves short’.

Clavane does not buy into the tales of incessant bad luck or conspiracy, despite several high-profile occasions when scandalously bad refereeing decisions left Leeds fans feeling robbed.

“We are not the Damned United,” he writes. “Thinking we are, however, is part of the problem.”

Click on the link to buy Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United.

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