Monday 16 September 2019

Tony Ward: 'Marching on together as super Leeds dare to dream of new dawn'

Super Leeds: Kemar Roofe heads home a dramatic injury-time winner for Leeds against Blackburn Rovers. Photo: George Wood/Getty Images
Super Leeds: Kemar Roofe heads home a dramatic injury-time winner for Leeds against Blackburn Rovers. Photo: George Wood/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's been a 60-year love affair and on St Stephen's Day this complex relationship got my pulse racing like never before. After witnessing the greatest sporting finale of my life to date, I was never more grateful to be a fan of Leeds United.

The atmosphere at a sold-out Elland Road turned on a knife-edge and back again, as first visitors Blackburn hit the front on 90 minutes, the 2-1 scoreline silencing the home faithful who have been nervously dreaming of a return to England's top flight.

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But Leeds front-man Kemar Roofe then struck twice in stoppage time to steal an unlikely victory, opening a three-point gap at the top of the table and making it a St Stephen's night to remember for yours truly and 35,000 others at the ground.

It's hard to believe but it is now the best part of six decades since I began my love affair with everything Leeds United.

Just to enlighten a little, I was born in Dublin - in Terenure - but we lived the first five years of my life in Royal Park Terrace in Leeds.

On St Patrick's Day in 1960, my dad had a massive coronary and passed away at the age of 51.

Tony Ward at Elland Road
Tony Ward at Elland Road

In the aftermath of Danny Ward being laid to rest in Killingbeck Cemetery on York Road, we - June and five-year-old son - returned to her family home in Priory Road, Harold's Cross where I enjoyed the most wonderful upbringing in what was a typical working-class area of that time.

I recently read Damian Lawlor's absorbing biography on Jason Sherlock and suffice to say the parallels were uncanny. But I was ahead of that again as a child of the sixties.

It was the era of flower power, of Woodstock, of unprecedented musical talent: the Beatles, the Stones, Bee Gees, Moody Blues, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, James Taylor - I loved them all but had a particular penchant for Steve Ellis and Love Affair.

'Rainbow Valley' and 'Everlasting Love' were their biggest hits of many but for me my 'Everlasting Love' was well under way.

Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa with some supporters. Photo: George Wood/Getty Images
Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa with some supporters. Photo: George Wood/Getty Images

It was the era of 'Match of the Day' and of Jimmy Hill, David Coleman et al bringing the beautiful game into our sitting-rooms - albeit very fuzzily on Saturday nights.

There was Kenneth Wolstenholme's amazing voice on commentary and of course England winning the World Cup in '66. But above all that there was Leeds United and the Theatre of Dreams that was Elland Road.

I was nine when I caught the bug. It was 1963/64 and after securing promotion the team representing my home away from home were back among the elite.

The Revie Years were exceptional. The following season we finished (apologies to no one for using the personal pronoun) runners-up to Man United in the league and to Liverpool in the FA Cup (by way of an Ian St John winner in extra-time). I was devastated but oh so proud.

I can recall in a blink the feel-good factor to life as a kid in a much less-privileged Dublin to what it is for so many growing up today.

My three favourite team sports have always been association football, rugby and Gaelic football, and probably in that order.

As one who spent his youth between Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, Dalymount and Milltown, I bow to no self-appointed fíor gael or so-called League of Ireland patriot who dares condemn those Irish fans from the four corners of this island who make the trek to follow the English or Scottish team they support.

Yes, Celtic are at the top of my list too - who dares not speak of '67.

With respect to Paul Madeley, Terry Yorath and others, the regulars tripped off the tongue at Leeds - Sprake; Reaney, Cooper; Bremner, Charlton, Hunter; Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles and Gray.

So too at Glenmalure where the fortnightly trip to see the Hoops - weekly if they were at Pat's, Bohs, Shels or Drums in between. Even Lourdes Stadium and Oriel got the odd visit.

Smith; Keogh, Courtney; Mulligan, Nolan, Fulham; O'Neill (what a player), Leech, Gilbert, Lawlor, O'Connell pretty close to the line-up called out by Sean Carroll most weeks at Milltown.

Point being, we didn't ignore our own top flight or the big GAA games in Croker.

In October of next year, LUFC will celebrate its 100th birthday. How magical if the centenary celebration coincides with that long overdue return to the Premier League.

I love Leeds United and everything this great club and city stands for. We're not perfect, but it is the pride of Yorkshire, a one-club city representative of Yorkshire folk, the salt of the earth.

There is a very real affinity with Ireland and with everything Irish. We're not Man United, we're not Liverpool, we're not Glasgow Celtic; we're Leeds and we're special.

Whether Marcelo Bielsa will take us back to where we belong I'm not too sure, but it is proving some ride since he took control during the summer.

The January window will be crucial, particularly in terms of strike-power, but the football currently being played is a joy to behold, particularly at LS11 OES or Elland Road to you and me.

We have been down to Division One, now known as the Championship, and back yet the support of the Irish faithful has never waned.

To follow a football club with passion is a treasured experience for life. They may not admit it readily but I doubt there are too many GAA diehards who haven't enjoyed that pleasure as a child.

I feel at ease in the company of Leeds fans on that pilgrimage from Dublin Airport to Leeds Bradford. I guess it is significant that so many are of a similar vintage.

We all have our ups and downs in life and mine is no different, but one of the few constants and pillars of strength through difficult times on that journey is the love of that football club of choice.

It wasn't the case for me but often there is an element of indoctrination from dad to son or daughter. No harm there either.

And whereas rugby and Gaelic games have always had their heroes who could be touched, soccer, because of the system, has always lacked that vital home element for young sportspeople smitten by role models.

'Match of the Day' and the 'Big Match' made for our lifeline. Then there was the Shelbourne game. Leeds had that August fixture with Shels in Tolka that became an annual event.

There they were in the flesh. Our heroes, living and breathing like the rest of us, or as Shay Deering once said to me when sharing a flight with the New York Cosmos, including the greatest footballer of all time, on a rugby trip to Trinidad in the early seventies, "Jaysus, Pele goes to the jacks". Mind you, a certain Lionel Messi challenges for that greatest of the great mantle now.

As a kid, I was a half-decent footballer playing for Dublin Schoolboys and Ireland, or Éire as we were listed back then at U-15. Liam Brady was a contemporary - he wearing 10 and me 11.

Liam played for St Kevin's and, along with Ringsend lads Frank Stapleton (Bolton) and Dave O'Leary (Reds United), all three signed for Arsenal.

I was one of a number on the trial radar at that time but my mum determined otherwise.

Bill Darby and Billy Behan, as Dublin-based scouts to the Gunners and Man United respectively at that time, were regular callers to the house in Priory but alas to no avail.

The Inter Cert was coming up and for my mother that was the only game in town.

I was devastated but accepted it for what it was. However, I often wonder 'what if?' What if it had been a Leeds talent scout trawling the DDSL fields of the metropolis at that time.

World War III would definitely have broken out in Dublin 6 and I'm not sure the trial decision - to go or not to go - would have been quite the same as it was. I jest but you get the point. My passion for Leeds held no bounds.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since and, while I have been fortunate to visit and play in many of the top stadia around the world, no sporting venue gives me the same goosebumps as when making the approach to Elland Road, which I did once again on St Stephen's Day.

And amazing as Ireland's victory over the All Blacks was in November, Leeds' dramatic victory over Blackburn Rovers left it in the half-penny place for me.

I could relate so many stories over so many years but can you imagine what it meant to this wannabe in his first year out of school signing for Rovers, breaking into the first team and then lining out alongside Bobby Collins.

There was a mere 24 years between us at the time Mick Meagan as player-manager made him a Hoop but playing with wee Bobby was in my mind akin to playing alongside Pele.

The year just ending has provided us with the most amazing memories across a vast array of sports.

To top that in 2019 for me? What about World Cup success in Japan and the Peacocks finding their way back into the Premier League.

Such is the beauty of sport, we dare to dream. Mine began back in '63 and continues with the same enthusiasm to this day. It ticks now to the Bielsa beat.

Marching On Together.

Irish Independent

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