Walking down the road to meet my friend for a socially distanced drink last Friday night, my youngest son pinged over an anxious text message, the words heavy with understatement. ‘Big 30 minutes coming up’. I knew exactly what he meant. Nearly half an hour later another message hit the phone: GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL Huddersfield goal 86th minute!!’. My heart swelled. West Brom had failed to beat Huddersfield. Thanks to the alchemy of the points system, Leeds United were going up.
The club’s promotion to the Premier League after 16 years in the Championship, with a three-year low in League One, provoked an outpouring of joy and relief across the city, not just a precious distraction from the misery of the pandemic but because football fandom is a rollercoaster ride of hope over expectation.
Football at its best is culture at its best, storytelling that beats almost anything you’ll see on stage or screen. No scriptwriter on earth could have dreamed up the two goals Man City scored in extra time to rob Man United of the 2012 Premiership title on goal difference in the dying seconds of the season. Neither would they have conjured Liverpool’s magnificent pullback from three down at half time to win on penalties against AC Milan and clinch the Champions League trophy in 2005. There isn’t a writer of ballads or a composer of concertos who could match the tears of heartbreak on any small child’s face when their team loses out in a final.
These are epic tales, games you tell your kids about, allegories for the joys and sorrows we experience in real life and actual, palpable events that serve as benchmarks for a billion lives across the globe.
That’s why, irrespective of your views on the beautiful game, if you live in Leeds right now you know that the promotion of Leeds United really matters in ways that far outstrip club loyalties. Put bluntly, you couldn’t buy the publicity whether you’re intent on selling hotel rooms or advertising your city’s other amazing cultural offerings.
This bodes well for Leeds 2023, a one year multi-million pound cultural festival that despite being instigated several years ago has taken on a whole new level of significance in this lockdown world of pain. People want, and need, something to look forward to, a renewal to hang their hopes on, a period of recovery that can heal the wounds inflicted by Covid-19. Just as football fans pin their dreams on the next match despite the joys or sorrows of the last one, during lockdown we all discovered the nurturing power and shared experience of online singing, clever videos and opera on Italian balconies – and overcame the most challenging of obstacles to embrace it.
Leeds United’s poignant pandemic promotion provides a global stage for the city’s cultural life to dance upon. A whole new generation of visitors from South Korea to San Francisco will soon be flicking their phones to find Leeds on a map. Business leaders in Germany will be especially glad that the Northern Powerhouse spans both sides of the Pennines and bankers in Beijing will be googling ‘things to do in Leeds’. The city will be ready for them.
Anyone who doesn’t associate sport with other forms of culture is missing a trick. Leeds now has a Premiere League club to put it on the global map and a festival of culture to aid recovery. Put the two together and you’ve got rocket fuel for any city.
Ruth Pitt, Chair Leeds 2023
First published in the Yorkshire Evening Post Saturday 25 July 2020