I sat among 30,000 Leeds United fans yesterday as Lee Bowyer made his first appearance for the club since he was acquitted of a vicious attack on an Asian student outside a city centre night-club.
All around me inside the Elland Road ground a deeply disturbing reality was evident in the roars of adulation that greeted him. Outside the ground, outside the city of Leeds, was the inescapable sense that the game of football, which has fought to transform itself into acceptable middle-class entertainment, is, once again, in trouble.
That Bowyer and his co-defendant Jonathan Woodgate – the latter found guilty of affray for his part in the assault – have precipitated a crisis in football cannot be denied. The excesses of a sport funded by television millions are increasingly being called into question, and the last thing it needed was for Bowyer and Woodgate reveal its murkier side.
As long as the England team did well – and in the quietly urbane manner of their Swedish coach – there were those who would argue that all was well with the game. But just as the glowing face of Michael Owen could be seen last week picking up the European footballer of the year award and enhancing his status yet further as a supreme role model, so Leeds was representing so much that is bad in the game.
Under the circumstances, it was perhaps inevitable that Leeds fans, with a siege mentality that goes back to the 1970s, would adopt a defiant stance. This manifested itself in the heroes' welcome that greeted Woodgate and Bowyer yesterday.
In the pub across the road from the Elland Road ground before the kick-off, I heard reasonable voices talk in terms of one or two problem players failing to add up to a problem for the game.
"I think it's disgraceful how the press have treated them," said Terry Rider, 55, who has been supporting Leeds since he was a boy. "We just want to put all this behind us and get on with the game."
Fair enough, maybe, and the club certainly was looking to put the episode behind it if it possibly could. But once inside the ground, it was obvious that the fans had other ideas. It was 45 minutes before the kick-off, with the stands still two-thirds empty, when Bowyer trotted on to the pitch and drew a righteous cheer from the crowd. In response, he raised his arms above his head and applauded. When the teams were announced, the full extent of the crowd's loyalty to Bowyer became even clearer. His name prompted the biggest and longest cheer – and if that which greeted Woodgate's was more muted, that may have been because he was only a substitute.
Bowyer was well and truly among friends – the vast majority of them young, male and aggressive, and seemingly holding him up as the victim that he sees himself. "For Lee Bowyer, stand up! For Lee Bowyer, stand up!"
Somehow, you knew that Bowyer would get on the score sheet. The twisted logic of the occasion demanded it, and when it happened a few minutes before half-time, the whole of Elland Road stood united in frenzied acclaim. Everywhere, that is, apart from the Newcastle fans, who provided their own comments on proceedings with chants of "Racist Leeds, racist Leeds".
Everybody, it seems, has something to say about the state of football in general and Leeds in particular. Except, that is, for the Asian man running a newsagent's next to the ground. I asked him if I could speak to him about the outcome of the trial and he declined to comment. "Management has told us not to say anything." The tension in his reply was palpable.Reuse content