Why Leeds no longer have place in McCall's affections

Sheffield United player-coach grew up in shadow of Elland Road but bitter experiences have changed his loyalties

Phil Shaw
Friday 07 March 2003 01:00

Stuart McCall was born in Leeds, lived on Elland Road's doorstep and used to fantasise about emulating his father by playing for Leeds United. He idolised their great Scots and followed them home and away, even after their sharp decline coincided with his first steps in the professional game. Life was, to coin a chant, Leeds, Leeds, Leeds.

Three months from his 39th birthday, McCall still reminisces fondly about Tony Currie's feints and Duncan McKenzie's flicks. He recalls joining in the cries of "Ole!" which greeted each pass in the 7-0 skewering of Southampton as a starry-eyed seven-year-old. And he still prizes a picture of Eddie Gray presenting him with vouchers for the club shop as the local newspaper's "most sports-mad kid in Leeds".

Yet the midfielder who shares Billy Bremner's nationality, hair colour and combativeness no longer calls himself a Leeds fan, and not simply because he is now player-coach to Sheffield United. Should the First Division play-off candidates repeat this season's Worthington Cup victory over Terry Venables' team in Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final at Bramall Lane, he will feel not the slightest pang of regret. McCall fell out of love with Leeds due to the mindless insensitivity of some who sported their colours and because of his affinity with their nearest neighbours.

He would love an FA Cup winners' medal to add to the Scottish equivalents gained with Rangers; his one FA Cup final, with Everton in 1989, brought him two goals but also defeat by Liverpool. If it does not happen, however, there will be no talk of tragedy. For the weekend before the May showpiece marks the anniversary of an event that is a permanent reminder of the importance of keeping sporting setbacks in perspective.

The Valley Parade fire of 1985 claimed nearly 60 lives. McCall's father, Andy, was badly burned. When the young McCall and his Bradford City colleagues should have been hoisting their Third Division championship trophy, he was frantically driving round West Yorkshire's hospitals, still in his muddy kit, looking for a 60-year-old casualty or, for all he knew, a corpse.

McCall Snr survived and recovered to see his son's career blossom. Then, 16 months later, with their ground still under reconstruction, Bradford received Leeds at Odsal rugby league stadium. McCall Jnr, who was injured, looked on in disbelief and disgust as a chip van was set ablaze in the Leeds end.

"To do that so soon after the fire was beyond belief," he says. "Smoke was billowing into the sky. People were panicking, kids crying. From that day I changed. People say, 'Oh, you're a Leeds fan', but I'm not. That one incident put me off supporting them. I'm not saying I hate them or anything, but I felt I'd be betraying the Bradford people if I took one of the chances I've had to join them."

No such considerations had weighed on Andy McCall's mind when he embarked on three seasons with Leeds late in a career which had included a spell playing between Matthews and Mortensen at Blackpool. He partnered the great John Charles and later, after retiring, moved into a house behind the Peacock pub opposite the ground.

"It was perfect for me, growing up there," the tartan Tyke recalls. "I loved the fact that Leeds had so many Scots. I had a Yorkshire accent, but if Scotland were on TV, or even if Jocky Wilson or Alan Wells were on, I'd feel emotionally involved. Leeds had Bremner, Lorimer, the Gray brothers, Harvey and later, McQueen, Jordan and Arthur Graham, though I must admit Currie was my biggest hero."

McCall planned to follow the blond playmaker – now, coincidentally, part of Sheffield United's backroom set-up – into the Elland Road midfield. He was captain of Leeds City Boys from 10 to 14, but grew less quickly than his contemporaries, still being "small and puny" at 15. Only lowly Bradford spotted his potential, which was "the best thing that ever happened to me".

At Everton he spurned England's overtures and committed himself to Scotland, with whom he would win 40 caps. A glittering sojourn with Rangers produced enduring friendships – the day we met, he suspects (wrongly) that a message left by Rainer Bonhof is an Ally McCoist prank – as well as honours galore.

Then there was the night the Scottish champions dumped his home-town team from the European Cup in 1992. "Even after we came from behind to win 2-1 at Ibrox, a lot of the Scottish ex-Leeds players were in the English press saying it wasn't a matter of whether Leeds would win the second leg, but by how many," remembers McCall. "That disappointed me, and those articles got pinned up in the dressing-room. We felt sure we'd score, which we did. We won 2-1 again, and the first one in to congratulate us was Alex Ferguson."

Going "home" to Valley Parade, McCall settled "unfinished business" by leading Bradford into the Premiership. When he left again last summer, after the unravelling of City's financial structure in the wake of relegation, the Sheffield United manager, Neil Warnock, saw his experience as perfect for bringing on the prodigious talent of Michael Tonge, Phil Jagielka and Michael Brown.

"I was impressed with Neil's optimism about going for the play-offs," says McCall. "Also by his honesty: he told me what he could offer, which wasn't much, but also said I could coach the reserves. I thought I'd be a fringe player, but once I got in, I stayed in.

"The young lads are as good as the gaffer said. Big clubs wouldn't be talking about £4m for midfield players if he was the long-ball merchant he's supposed to be."

Incredibly, Sunday's derby is United's 10th consecutive home draw in cup combat. "I'd have been happy to play anyone as long as it was at the Lane and it wasn't Arsenal," McCall says. "We've beaten three Premiership teams, but they're on a different planet. If we'd got them, my hamstring would have gone there and then!"

In November, Sheffield trailed Leeds from the 24th minute to the 90th before stunning them with two goals: 2-1 again. "Their best man was Jonathan Woodgate," states McCall. "He was holding it all together until he had to go off. Without his leadership, they started wobbling.

"Now, of course, he's with Newcastle. They've had other changes at the back, where they also lost Rio Ferdinand, and Dominic Matteo's been injured.

"Leeds fans tell me they've got problems in midfield as well. But with Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Mark Viduka, they still have terrific firepower. Kewell has fantastic ability, although I think he might be slightly disappointed in what he's achieved these past 18 months. By the standards he set, he should be scoring more goals like his [fifth-round] winner at Crystal Palace.

"Palace were flying then, so to pull that win out, even with the luck they had, showed they're still capable of putting it together. No two games are ever alike, but at least we know we can beat Leeds," insists McCall. "I've got mates who follow them, so I've been getting phone calls and text messages saying what they're going to do to us. It's going to be a cracking tie."

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