The digital media age means the demand for crap masquerading as ‘content’ is insatiable. Football is excellent at providing a regular supply of crap. If someone, somewhere with a platform capable or arranging words in order is not prepared to provide some analysis of your preferred club’s Tuesday afternoon behind closed doors friendly, you better start getting worried, writes Gary Hartley.
There’s something of a ‘collective egotism’ about modern football fans; the demand to know that our void-covering passions can be justified in column inches. Everything from Match of the Day running order to Google search statistics are pored over in search of that cast-iron proof that yes, ‘we’ are a big club, bigger than your poxy club which, by the way, receives a maximum of a hundred comments under Guardian Football articles. Tin-pot, mate.
But there is another side – the side that means Mario Balotelli doesn’t last long at any particular club. That’s a whole other multi-faceted story within this one, and not one I’m about to tell. This one is about my club, Leeds United – a lower mid-table Championship side granted a significantly higher level of media news and comment than such a position rarely merits. The problem is less would very much be more.
Why Always Us? Well, Leeds in 2015 are the ‘perfect storm’ of media appeal: Impulsive, rent-a-quote foreign owner in aviators who sometimes sits with the fans for a good picture opportunity, court cases both present and historic hanging over the premises, a coaching conveyor belt set to quick burnout, on-field racial abuse allegations and players past and present taking to social media to aim passionate, semi-literate stabs at the innumerate fleshy bits. Oh yeah, and our results have been poor; considerably worse than a single football club in one of the largest metropolitan boroughs in the UK should logically be.
Even viewed from a more formal Media Studies perspective, the club is ticking all the right boxes to be a never-ending story. It’s hard to find points on which LUFC dissent from Galtung and Ruge’s seminal list of ‘News Values’, which, entirely coincidentally, were conceived in 1965, just as Leeds began to mount a serious challenge for honours under Don Revie.
To revisit the Norwegian cultural theorists’ work shows them made to fit for modern day Leeds United: Frequency – check, Negativity – check, Personalisation – check, Unexpectedness – check. The club has also have mastered the art of turning the unexpected quickly into a predictable narrative, and that, you’ve guessed it, is another news value: Continuity.
Perhaps the most pertinent fit of all the set to Leeds is Consonance – the ability to provide tales which live up to the media’s expectations. Historical Dirty Leeds, current Crackpot Leeds, or both, the maelstrom of Elland Road is eager to provide.
This is not just a perspective derived from the chip on our collective shoulders about a Southern/Manchester media vendetta. Sure, I firmly subscribe to the collective view that outsiders consider us West Yorkshire Scum the enemies of something vaguely pure and beautiful in the game that should be inked into submission – but the conspiracy-neutral economic pragmatist would probably also take the view that the club is worthy of the space it occupies.
At least part of the reason Leeds are media darlings is because of the advertising-driven nature of the media: readers, web hits, comments, virulent commercial radio phone-ins? Leeds drive ‘em. It’s a massive club you see. If there was no ready-made pantomime, they’d have to make one. There’s that egotism again.
It really is all hands to the pump to cope with the volume that Leeds thrust out: from national news court reporters to the myriad of tongue-lolling fan blogs, everyone is well within their right to find a spot in the trough to slam their greedy face into.
As it turns out, there is a point where you want the column inches to stop, and the football to begin. That point is after your club’s former Managing Director has been in a Dubai prison cell for months, your former Chairman is running a radio station above a Subway across the road from your stadium, and spy cameras have been found in the executive bogs. Incredibly, this point has long passed, but the stories keep rolling.
When the daily salacious mainstream media article-count exceeds the club’s point tally and the blog hits more than spectator numbers at home games, it’s clear that the story is no longer any use to the team. Remember them? Those blokes running around on the grass? Yeah, them. When we, the fans, have almost forgotten about their value to the narrative, no manner of big club drum-banging is going to save you.
Leeds United is an easy news pitch; high-profile, long-suffering sells. While some fans admittedly thrive in this craven ‘us versus them’ dramarama, I’d rather not be aping the Millwall posture. Right now, I’d like the club to be a Derby County or Middlesbrough, quietly oozing Championship competence, boring even.
Perhaps these are just the instincts that creep up on you on turning thirty, but I can’t help feeling that good tidings will never come until Leeds United becomes less news agency, more football club again. Which begs the question: Is this even possible?
Well, conversely, a few wins would probably go a long way less in making the noise from LS11 a lot quieter. In spite of the media-satisfying freak show, there are signs the current patchwork of cosmopolitan incomers and academy-grown kids may well get it together at some point; and no one’s going to want to report that, surely. It just doesn’t fit the established narrative, or provide the kind of surprise the neutral is looking for. Maybe the temperature in the stadium will rise again as the server manning the hashtag #Lufc cools off.
Gary Hartley is an ever-exasperated Leeds fan awkwardly juggling comic performance poetry and rangy football writing. He’s recently written for The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, The Green Soccer Journal and The Two Unfortunates. Follow Gary on Twitter: @garyfromleeds