Leeds, United? Why Touring Myanmar Benefits No One

One of the reasons people love to follow sport above other forms of drama (drama, say) is because the endings are never written and often surprising. Even outside of competition, because sport is controlled by humans, decisions are made that surprise, shock and delight, and this never-ending cycle rolls on day after day. Newspapers are sold from it, television is generated by it, radio phone-ins survive on it, and Twitter is kept ablaze by it. That capacity that the progression of time has to bring the unknown, its sport, and its all the time.

Yet some things are utterly predictable, and this itself becomes part of the story. Because it always happens, that modicum of hope that it might not flickers. Juventus getting goals late in games, the New York Yankees signing players on huge contracts, Australian cricketers not realising where the boundary of fair play ends, Leeds United going on a pre-season tour to Myanmar.

How does one benefit from two games in Myanmar?

First things first. There are parts of Myanmar that the British government advises against all but necessary travel. Leeds will not be playing in those parts. It can be argued that going to the country at all is an unnecessary risk, but so long as they ‘check travel advice’ before going, then they’re playing by the rules. The political hugeness of the decision is one that can be debated at length. I would take the standpoint that going there now legitimises (at least through the prism of Leeds Utd) the treatment of the Rohingya people. You are welcome to disagree.

Leeds United Football Club. Think about that name for a minute, and I’ll break it down. Leeds is a city in the North of England. United is a suffix used when two things come together and merge as one. This didn’t happen in the case of Leeds, who stepped into the breach left by Leeds City. Football is a game played on a Saturday afternoon. Club is a group of like-minded people who share a common interest. To this end, it is worth noting that in county cricket, one does not buy a ‘season ticket’, one buys a ‘membership’. It amounts to the same but better illustrates what a club is.

So, Leeds United Football Club should be a group of people in the city of Leeds who share an interest in football. So far, so uncontroversial. My question is this: How are those people, those members of Leeds United, benefiting from their team playing two games in Myanmar a short while after the season has finished?

Some twelve years ago, I went inter-railing with a friend. I’ve a lot of stories of that time, but only one matters here. Our first stop was Marseille, or a hostel just outside. At that time, I’d spent a couple of years really getting into the Chicago Cubs. I watched them a lot, participated in their online presence and felt like a genuine Cubs fan, despite being in England. Around that time, the rubber bracelet trend was large, and there was a Cubs one printed with the word “Believe” released with money going to the “Cubs Care” charity.

I lost that bracelet at our first hostel, that one just outside Marseille. Hadn’t taken it off for a year, and then I did, and it was gone. Somebody was taking my good deed. I suppose the important thing was that the good was being done anyway.

Now, I was living in Huddersfield at this time, and whatever the people of Chicago were going through was far away. But the Cubs, my team, were based there and it felt right that I should support those who are directly involved with the club.

The club, you see, that word again.

Maybe it’s because I’m from Huddersfield, which is a one team town, dominated by the Terriers. That club is a focal point. It might sound silly, but they hold a kind of magic. Even when they were in the third division, if a Town player was in school, it was big news.

The club, and it is fulfilling this brief more than ever under the stewardship of the excellent Dean Hoyle, should have a responsibility to the area it is in. It cannot do everything, but the club belongs to those like-minded people who started it every bit as much as the billionaires who run them now. If it makes it easier, you might want to separate ‘team’ and ‘club’. The team are the footballers, the coaches, the managers. They’re transient, like so many fans are nowadays, and while they may give their all representing the club, they will rarely step inside to become part of it.
The club is everything else. It’s not just community work, it’s the ticket office staff, its the stadium announcer, its the kit man. They will not change with the seasons, and they will more than likely be from the community in which the club is based. Relegation hurts these people, and hurts them badly. You see newspaper articles with numbers, only ever numbers, of jobs that will be lost. West Brom might have to do that, Sunderland almost certainly will. It is sad.

Marching on Together?

I do not denigrate the Premier League here. It has a very good community outreach, you probably fast forward through that bit on Match of the Day. Its on Football Focus too. In lazy shorthand, it’s the videos on local news of players giving Christmas presents to children in hospital. Yes, that’s nice, but there’s so much going on at Premier League level. It could do more, I’m sure, but I’ve seen kids in Haringey benefitting from Spurs, the people of Southampton getting something from the Saints, and Huddersfield, well…

We are currently on year nine of Pedal for Pounds, wherein a group of fans cycle a set journey (it has been to away games, from Dortmund, all sorts) to raise money for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, I know there are reading books in schools that are ‘Town related’ and I know that the players have been in to some schools serving breakfasts and chatting to kids and parents alike. That’s just the tip of a heart-warming iceberg in my particular part of the North but its a concept that works.

The off-the-pitch benefits are perhaps the best part of Huddersfield being in the Premier League. So much more money coming in means that so much more money can be used. Luckily, in Dean Hoyle, we have a man who I trust to do the right thing with it.

I don’t know much about that side of Leeds Utd. They’re not my club and its not my city. There is a Leeds United Foundation and they certainly do football related things in the communities around Leeds and beyond (when I looked at the website, there was stuff going on in Boston Spa – that’s a good few miles outside Leeds). Whatever their struggles on the pitch, Leeds remain a big club in a big city, and they make a big thing of the ‘together’ in their ‘Marching on Together’. I’ve no doubt the club do good.

If your club looks after the people around it, they will support it. You might not think Manchester City (for example) need it, and perhaps they don’t, but at least this – is every League Cup game a sellout? Does it hurt to have extra sky blue shirts on the streets of Manchester? Not coming from an area should not excuse a chairman the responsibility of running the ‘club’ for the area they’re based, just as supporting a team should bring some awareness of its base.

What point am I trying to make, then? Leeds United Football Club exists for the people of Leeds. The team may be cheered from beyond its boundaries, that’s all well and good. Touring Myanmar is of no benefit to those people. Not the ones who would want to travel to watch, not the ones who feel the influence of the club in other ways but will see its stock fall further because of a result of this tour, not even the players who will have just reached the end of a long and stressful season.

Leeds have taken a few missteps recently, and a few more not so recently. Andrea Radrizzani can defend himself as much as he likes, but he seems not to understand. One only has to think back to their new badge launch, for example. That was badly handled and the club lost face. It did not have to be that way. Going to Myanmar may bring in a lot of money to the coffers, but I find it difficult to imagine the benefits outweigh the raft of bad publicity that has come their way.

History dictates that in ‘Leeds United Football Club’ it is the ‘Leeds’ that does most of the heavy lifting. In my opinion, it might be time to pay attention to the other three words, for they are just as important.

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