Honestly discussing RALF B (Renegades, Atmospheres, Leeds, Fleetwood and Bolton)

by Jeff Weston

I was raised in the Elland Road Kop in the late 1980s. Such an upbringing is comparable to the feral child, Tarzan being among the Mangani great apes.

“Pass him up,” used to be the call – latecomers to the match who wished to stand at the top of the terrace (the Gelderd End) having their horizontal bodies slowly shifted there by a sea of hands.

You could say there was a bit of Tarzan in that – being suspended, not by a vine, but by faithful fellow fans. I was never ‘passed up’ because I was only 17 and assumed that the leaders of this song-stirring and rabble-rousing clan were wiser kids in their twenties.

 

Anyway, I was happy with my slightly less claustrophobic spot – happy to dance with 70-year-old comrades when Leeds scored, content to cudgel the air and roar when Vinnie Jones turned on a sixpence or Gordon Strachan half-volleyed home a minute and 49 seconds into injury time as in the jubilant 4-3 win against Hull City in February 1990.

Noise was seemingly easy then. Free. A manifestation of Yorkshire water and the needy vocal chords of football migrants who gravitated to Elland Road in search of solace.

I was one of those latter fans – a curious attendee following an older sibling who worshipped the Revie years (1961 – 1974) as if they represented a political chapter in British history.

We – Bolton-born lads – had the Frank Worthington 1979 wonder goal versus Ipswich to feast upon but it wasn’t enough. Leeds was somehow more – the embodiment of an erstwhile giant, a club that would most definitely come again.

Whether that new off and on glory era (1990 – 2001) was triggered by the clamour of starved spectators, the 400-game stewardship of ex-PE teacher Howard Wilkinson, the lucky sprinkle of Lee Chapman’s head or the tenacious magic of Gordon Strachan is open to debate.

What was clear is that games had an atmosphere – particularly those against the perennial enemy, Manchester United. And the cartoon army, Newcastle United.

There was reason to shout.

Since then I have drifted, however – become mortgaged-up and without the back pocket fare or wad of a twenty-something.

Hungry for local, cheaper league football, I have – in the traitorous view of many – turned to clubs just six and four miles from my house: Bolton (the town I originally suckled) and Fleetwood (the team from nowhere).

How is it possible to neuter a decade and a half of over-the-Pennines palpable loyalty, of ripping around the country in a VW Scirocco, Austin Mini and Vauxhall Nova, not forgetting my brother’s best man’s carpet vans?

The current Leeds players’ names never imprinted themselves in my head. A few seasons away from the sport and things alter massively. Allegiance is borne from being with players, knowing how they run, what gifts they have and what they do well in your immediate eye line.

Somehow, apart, I felt a kindred glow but nothing more. My attentions had turned to Ivan Klasnić at the Reebok Stadium and, afterwards, to David Ball at Highbury; exhilarating strikers I admired for their flair and felt I knew.

“If you don’t witness players close up, they don’t really exist” – that had become my maxim.

But with convenience came loss; the loss of noise. Sat inside the Reebok felt like a gig nobody had turned up for. Or if they had, they were timorous, wary of putting the engines at full throttle. 20,000 doesn’t generally get you the equivalent fruits of a 40,000 crowd, but these ‘exhausted’ individuals – my locals – weren’t even producing half the din.

Yorkshire, that forgotten world, had unfortunately set a horribly high standard in my head – that of crazed, almost rapacious aficionados, keen for good football and willing to do their bit. If I hadn’t stood in the Gelderd End or later sat in the East Stand Upper tier, then I might have thought that life inside Bolton’s modern stadium was adequate.

We all knew the truth though – understood what a real knees-up was. Bolton was comforting, safe, colloquially my ilk – a victim of all-seater stadiums perhaps – but too polite. The occasional burst of “Wan-der-ers…Wan-der-ers…Wan-der-ers” rose from the provincial vocal chords of those scarf-laden Lions of Vienna but the “flapping of gums” overall was insufficient, static by comparison.

Credit to the south-east villains who at least tried to muster up a familiar song together with the taunting of the away fans but such a small pocket could not carry the entire stadium.

 

Atmospheres are interesting phenomena. An April 2013 article raised the subject of engineering noise levels and improving acoustics. Some grounds simply don’t carry sound effectively. “The best [grounds] are like ravines,” the Telegraph’s Henry Winter commented. The Millennium Stadium. Estadio Mestella. Juventus Stadium. “You have the feeling of being on top of the pitch.”

Such a problem wasn’t relevant to Bolton. The Reebok Stadium (now the Macron), opened in 1997 with a capacity of over 28,000, merely had quieter citizens. A beautiful, distinct place – certainly no aesthetic menace to the landscape, no scourge – it exemplified engineering at its best.

In fairness to The Trotters they were in decline when I began to follow them in 2010. That probably explained some of the hush. Gone was the Bruce Rioch era (1992 – 1995). Gone too were the Sam Allardyce days (1999 – 2007). Bolton had suffered Gary Megson and would, during my time, suffer the maladroit Owen Coyle (despite the early promise of November 2010 tormenting Spurs, then Newcastle) and the lifeless Dougie Freedman.

Such rotten, Scottish souls were capable of killing the most vociferous and well-meaning, bullet-loaded voices of fans.

Was the piping or pumping of artificial sound around a ground the answer though? Did fans want nothing magnified into something (like bad alchemy, like an ignoble Old Trafford brew)? Never.

A month after the article I moved house to Thornton-Cleveleys (just outside Fleetwood). Removal van at the ready, I had no thoughts of football, no plan to get involved with such a mistress again. Coyle had strangled what love I had for the game and Freedman had put the final boot in with his nondescript persona and his tangential TV interviews.

Sod football! Let me sit out here on the Fylde coast – marooned.

But then I heard the ‘darkness to light’ story – from pub team to ‘principality’ (Prince Pilley in the background). I was curious. Full-time professionals in only 2010. Football league club in only 2012 – the year before I arrived. I had to see it.

The route to Highbury was more scenic and calming compared to Bloomfield Road. And around a mile shorter (which officially stamped me as a local). I foolishly imagined a luscious stand when ordering the tickets.

I mulled over sitting on row K as I had done at Leeds or something higher – say S. The Highbury Stand – opposite the more impressive Parkside – had only six rows, however (A-F). And one quickly realised that despite the draw of A with its proximity to the players, you were in for a front-row soaking via the unforgiving lashings of coastal rain.

B it was then. Beautiful.

Fleetwood, on the field, did not disappoint. I caught them – unlike Bolton – on the upswing. If this was a bandwagon, then I had jumped on serendipitously – witnessed the jovialness of Matty Blair, the inconceivable grace of Jon Parkin and the pomp of Antoni Sarcevic.

Bigger than the individuals, however – and the typical 2,800 attendance – was the belief that this already unimaginable story could get better.

I documented three of the games during that League Two play-off winning 2013/14 season (Torturous to Some , Napoleon at Aspern-Essling and Almost Preposterous ); three snippets of history which, looking back, capture the ruddy naivety of certain fans.

 

Fleetwood’s monumental rise was inexplicable in many respects – simply not humanly possible. A tiny fishing trawler community hitting the big time? Was this Queen Victoria and the North Euston all over again?

Fast forward and the splendid, early dessert for me in 2016/17 has been meeting former teams, Leeds United and Bolton Wanderers within a week and a half of each other (the first time competitively).

Both signal a titanic leap forward. Both act as a reminder of how precious playing football at this level is – particularly when you consider the dip in fortunes of the 2001 Champions League semi-finalists and the 2007/08 UEFA Cup prodigies.

Faced with the ‘Mangani apes’ of Leeds on Wednesday, 10th August in the EFL Cup, Fleetwood fans were surprisingly subdued. Theories abound, it seems that the Memorial Stand had a few key individuals on holiday, the occasion got to them (they had never sung in front of big-time fans before) or they were merely absorbing the moment – gazing into the jungle which had been flooded by a Yorkshire tide.

Ten days later on Saturday, 20th August, a 538-troop Fleetwood garrison made its assault on that Macron castle down the M61. Taking the lead in the match felt…normal. The Cod Army had become composed, filleted of any inferiority complex.

The atmosphere across the stadium was bouncy yet benign, but the importance of the occasion huge; Bolton Wanderers, four-time FA Cup winners, playing the coastal upstarts who by dint of their location would never have a big following.

Mutely sat there amid the Bolton supporters in the Upper North Family Stand in an act of benevolence to my guests, I thought of the word ‘renegade’ and what it meant. Deserter. Betrayer. Treacherous. Was I traitorous and disloyal – now on my third and final team (Fleetwood) – or were the real deserters those motorway punks who ignored their local side?

I recalled, half way into my tenure as a Leeds fan (around the mid-1990s), descending the steps of the then biggest cantilever stand in the world and overhearing a moron behind me castigating the entire team.

I challenged him – insisted that Rod Wallace had had a good game. He took this as an offer to fight. Dialectics or debate hadn’t reached Yorkshire if this kid was anything to go by. He preferred intimidation – didn’t take kindly to people undermining him.

I weighed him up. He was a little shit. One of those tough little shits though – the type that keep going like a Duracell battery. Being a fan but not a local (and still a few flights up), I decided to scurry down the remaining steps away from the truculent titch. Fortunately, he did not pursue me or deem my Bolton bones worthy of crunching.

In the immediate aftermath, while walking to the car, I did not feel like a 100% bona fide Yorkshireman. I felt like an outsider. The chants of ‘Ye-ork-sher…Ye-ork-sher…Ye-ork-sher’ that I often indulged in now felt a little hollow.

I hung around for a few more years – saw one of the best midfields ever to grace a pitch (Harry Kewell, David Batty, Olivier Dacourt and Lee Bowyer versus Valencia in 2001) and then the egregious nadir of the 2006 Championship Play-Off final against Watford (Leeds outclassed by Ashley Young) – but the love affair was slowly coming to an end.

In going to Yorkshire though, I found Lancashire. And in finding Lancashire, I discovered the best county in England.

This article was written by Jeff in advance of the Fleetwood Town fan forum that took place on Tuesday night.

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