OLIVER HOLT: Leeds and United chants aren't tribal, they're inhumane

OLIVER HOLT: Singing about death – as heard from Leeds and Man United fans – isn’t tribal, it’s inhumane. Monsters behave like that… plus, why clever Graham Potter can win without touchline antics

  • Oliver Holt’s new weekly column will be published on MailOnline every Monday
  • Sick chants mocking death and tragedies need to be eradicated from football 
  • Plus… why Graham Potter will be a success at Chelsea – even if he isn’t angry

The traffic was light on the journey north so I arrived at Elland Road a few hours before kick-off for the Leeds-Manchester United game on Sunday.

There was already a queue outside Graveley’s fish and chip shop opposite the ground and the terrace at The Old Peacock pub was thronged with customers. Programme sellers were setting up their stalls on the pavement behind the Jack Charlton Stand.

I walked over to where the statue of Billy Bremner stands outside a corner of the stadium, arms raised above its head in triumph, reaching for the skies, a great captain made immortal in bronze and raised high on a marble plinth. Clusters of Leeds scarves and flags had been draped round the statue’s neck and tied to its right leg. ‘Side Before Self Every Time,’ an inscription at the statue’s base says.

There was something else, though. The statue has become more than a meeting point or a place for fans or tourists to have their picture taken. It has become a shrine and a place of solace. The area around it is bedecked with wreaths and letters made out of flowers in white and yellow spelling out, ‘Grandma’ or ‘Husband’ or ‘Grandad’. Club crests often adorned each letter.

Beautiful, heart-wrenching messages from loved ones to daughters and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and dear friends who have been taken away from them were written on cards. Football means so much to people in our communities, it brings them so much joy and so much comfort and such a sense of belonging, that they are brought here to our stadiums in life and they are brought here in death as well.

Billy Bremner’s statue can help you to feel the power of football’s ability to help heal loss

The game itself was relatively ordinary but the atmosphere inside Elland Road was as raw and as vivid and as visceral as it gets in English football these days. This is an old and bitter enmity and there are few occasions where the tribalism of the game is better illustrated. Sometimes, modern football feels sanitised and corporate. Not here. The intensity of the emotion sent a chill down the spine.

But then it was all disfigured. Just before half-time, Leeds fans started singing songs about the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, a plane crash in which eight young United players of the famous Busby Babes team lost their lives. And the visiting fans started singing about the tragedy that befell Leeds in 2000 when two of their supporters were stabbed to death in Istanbul before a UEFA Cup semi-final against Galatasaray.

I didn’t hear who started singing the songs first and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. The Munich chants were louder but then it was a Leeds home game. Leeds fans at Old Trafford have reported standing in the away section in the past and being deluged with dozens of packets of Turkish Delight. This is not about blaming individual clubs. This is about a sickness that has to be removed from our national sport.

Liverpool supporters are targeted, too. Opposition fans routinely sing songs that reference the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, which claimed the lives of 97 Liverpool fans. But Hillsborough songs are sung more and more despite the unimaginable pain they cause the families of those who died, despite the fact that what happened to Liverpool supporters that day in Sheffield could have happened to any supporters at the Leppings Lane End. Songs are sung about Tottenham fans and the Holocaust.

It is hard to fathom. How do you reconcile the way fans of all clubs lean on football to ease the pain and the grief of losing loved ones with singing songs that celebrate the deaths of fellow supporters? How can it be that we are still tolerating that? How is it that fans can still chant about Hillsborough, Munich and Istanbul and not be shamed by it? That is not tribalism. It’s inhumanity. Only monsters behave like that. It is grotesque.

Songs about Istanbul and Munich are often sung at Leeds vs Manchester United matches

The songs are sung so often now that they have been given a collective term, a bit like a virus. ‘Tragedy chanting,’ the FA and the Premier League call it. To their credit, Leeds and Manchester United released a joint statement condemning it straight after the game. The FA have addressed it recently, too.

‘We are very concerned about the rise of abhorrent chants in stadiums that are related to the Hillsborough disaster and other football tragedies,’ its statement read. ‘These chants are highly offensive and are deeply upsetting for the families, friends and communities who have been impacted by these devastating events and we strongly condemn this behaviour.’

The singing of these songs is not new. I started going to football regularly in the early 80s and I heard the Munich songs so often at various grounds I still know the words off by heart. I hear those songs now and they make me feel sick. Football is about tribalism and hostility and loathing and rivalry but it is also about community.

There are times – as with opposition to the European Super League – when just being a football fan matters more than who you support. There are times when just being a football fan is the most powerful kind of identity.

It should be the same with these chants. Fans of every club should be united against them. Clubs must take their cue from Leeds, who banned a fan for life for singing Hillsborough songs before a match with Liverpool earlier this season.

Enough is enough.

Pay a visit to the statue of Billy Bremner if you want to feel the power of football’s ability to help heal loss. Pay a visit to the statue of Billy Bremner if you want to put the abhorrence of tragedy chanting into its full horrific context. Those chants are a stain on our game and they shame our football. It is time to rid ourselves of their poison and their pain.

Manchester United’s players celebrate their win – which was marred by the fans’ chants

My sporting bucket list 

We all have a bucket list of sporting events we would most love to attend. Starting this column has concentrated my mind on mine:

1. A cricket match with a capacity crowd at Eden Gardens in Kolkata.

2. A Superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate at La Bombonera.

3. A match at the US Open tennis at Flushing Meadows.

4. Cairo derby between Al Ahly and Zamalek.

5. Demolition derby at the Hopkinton State Fair, New Hampshire.

What would make your top five? 

Boca Juniors fans cheer for their team before a 2004 clash with River Plate at La Bombonera

Forget the clamour for anger… Potter will succeed 

Those of us who are admirers of Graham Potter had to suppress bitter laughter on Saturday when we were told that the Chelsea manager should have reacted more angrily to his team being denied a late penalty when an obvious handball by West Ham’s Tomas Soucek was ignored.

Pundits appeared to think it remiss of Potter that he did not sprint down the touchline like a madman, haranguing the fourth official, clutching his head and falling to his knees.

Potter is a clever, astute man and a brilliant coach who does not feel the need to play to the gallery or blame others.

His reaction – he sought solace in humour – showed strength, not weakness. I have never wavered from the belief that if Chelsea keep faith with him, they will be repaid handsomely in trophies.

Graham Potter kept his cool at West Ham – and he showed strength in his reaction

It’s like Salt Bae! 

There is something vaguely distasteful about the way suitors are jockeying to buy Manchester United.

I can’t help but think of FIFA’s favourite chef, that preening idiot Salt Bae, carving up a piece of meat he has covered in gold.

The jockeying around Manchester United has served up a reminder of Salt Bae’s antics

I was wrong about VAR… it’s time to ditch it 

I was among the misguided minority who was in favour of VAR. I thought technology would eliminate human error and subjectivity and eradicate obvious mistakes that could have a devastating effect on a team’s fortunes.

I was wrong.

One of the many VAR errors that pockmarked last weekend might yet cost Arsenal the Premier League title. Until the technology is advanced enough that it does not have to rely on humans interpreting it, it should be ditched. It is causing more harm than good.

VAR Lee Mason should have ruled out Ivan Toney’s goal against Arsenal on Saturday

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