Book of the week: Rich nuggets from a lunar landscape

BOOK OF THE WEEK
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The Independent Online
Love Hurts: Motorways, Madness and Leeds United

by Neil Jeffries and Fraser Marr

(Mainstream Publishing, hardback, pounds 14.99)

Bards and Beatles, philosophers and poets have had their say about love down the centuries. Now for a pre-millennium definition with a difference.

Love is making a 400-mile round trip from London to Stalybridge on a foggy, snowswept November night to see Leeds reserves play Oldham. There are but a few hundred similarly smitten/sad souls present and a floodlight failure causes the goalless game to be abandoned. Yet desire is undiminished. Four days later, the travellers meet for the next trek.

The title Love Hurts is well chosen, for this book explores a fine line between devotion and masochism. Written as a pithy diary by Jeffries and illustrated by Marr's photographs, it chronicles the 1996-97 football season in which they clocked up 13,000 miles pursuing their shared passion.

This was a campaign extraordinary for Leeds' terminal ordinariness. As George Graham masterminded a plethora of 0-0 draws, supporters were denied even the relegation battle which would have kept apathy at bay. But failure and frustration are more conducive to good football literature than success, and a lunar landscape of a season is transformed into a rich tapestry.

We are drawn into a world of obsessives. When not watching Leeds or in transit to do so, they spend small fortunes ringing Clubcall, phone each other endlessly to dissect transfer gossip, or page Ceefax. For all their fanaticism - one acquaintance will not buy the new replica shirt because the sponsors' logo contains red (connoting the hated Manchester United) - their allegiance becomes ever more critical.

Ian Rush is a particular target, the jaded embodiment of Howard Wilkinson's lost plot, though not their pet hate. Jeffries records Marr's aside that Sunderland were ingeniously locating the tallest stand at their new stadium next to the Wear "so they won't lose too many balls when Carlton Palmer plays there".

Wry observations and images pack its pages. Walking to Old Trafford, the pair feel "as welcome as a herpes sore on an archbishop's lip", even with colours hidden. When the papers note that Ian Wright has outscored Graham's entire team despite missing several games, the riposte is that "Leeds haven't played in every match either".

Alongside strands of soap opera and farce, there are also elements of road movie. The "motorways" bit owes less to lazy alliteration than to near-misses with wildlife in the fast lane (not just a badger, but also a swan, a peacock and a low-flying aircraft).

One evening they are still inching along the M6 as the match at Liverpool starts. When they arrive, Graham's men are 3-0 down; being stuck in a traffic jam really was more fun than watching Leeds. Reading about it - and fans of virtually any club should recognise the emotions and humour herein - is even more entertaining.

- Phil Shaw

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