I was conceived, born, and grew up in Leeds.
After I left university, in Liverpool, I began to identify with Leeds United Football Club. This was in the late 1980s. The club had then, by no means, left behind its legacy of hooliganism.
I cannot deny that there was a certain cachet to being associated with the most hated and despised club in World Football. Unlike certain other clubs I could mention, we didn’t even bother to chant, “No-one likes us / We don’t care”. To do so might have sounded like doing our haters’ work for them, which we didn’t want to do, because we hated them as much as they hated us. It was just that our hatred, unlike, say, Rangers v Celtic, was a more equitable form of hatred. Apart from Sunday League teams, there is only one team in Leeds, and so, if you support Leeds United, you hate every other team in the world, equally.
Be that as it may.
In 1993, I was living in Glasgow, and became very perturbed about the fact that the Football Association fined Leeds United and Manchester United for withdrawing their respective teams from a youth competition, on the grounds that it would over-tax young players they were expecting to break into their senior teams. They regarded the youth competitions as a means of bringing young players on, not running them into the ground. The actions taken by Leeds United and Manchester United seemed completely reasonable to me.
I wrote to Howard Wilkinson, the then manager of Leeds United. I wrote to Alex Ferguson, the then manager of Manchester United. I wrote to the Football Association.
I got no response from the Football Association.
I got a printed letter from Manchester United, which acknowledged the point I had written about, and had a US-presidential-style pro forma signature from Alex Ferguson.
I got a hand-typed letter from Leeds United, with a hand-written signature in blue biro from Howard Wilkinson.
He acknowledged my letter to the Football Association (which I had enclosed). He said he agreed with all the points I had raised about youth football, and players potentially being required to play too many games.
The last line of his letter was, ‘Thank you for your support.’
The thing was that I hadn’t given him any support, other than emotional support. I hadn’t intervened. I hadn’t managed to change the situation. But he still thanked me for my support, and this is from a chap who has never been known for being emotional.
Even though the letter was about men’s football (and don’t get me started on the patriarchially-suppressed history of women’s football, because we would be here for the next two centuries) the words, ‘Thank you for your support’, in that letter struck me at the time as feminine. They also struck me as strong. And when you have feminine and strong, you have feminism.
I continue to reflect on this. If, as a man, I had to sum up my idea of what feminism has to say about the male-dominated world in one sentence, it would probably be, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’ That may sound trite, but I doubt I would have got this far without that letter from Howard Wilkinson, and, it is worth noting, I only got those words from him because I wrote to him in the first place. There are few things in the world which are as important as clear, timely, and honest communication.