“Marching On Together”: Identifying with English Football
Updated: Jul 14, 2019
*Written entirely by Jeff Miller*
Before coming over to England, I knew that one of the cultural “musts” would have to be going to a professional football (soccer) match. By happy coincidence, Katie and I happened to pick a city whose football legacy is replete with stiff rivalry.
Not to mention, lurid violence.
Professional football in England is divided into different leagues. You can think of these leagues as similar to American baseball leagues; for example, you have major league baseball, and minor league baseball.
However, whereas an American baseball player can move up to the majors from the minors, in English football, the entire team can progress up to the next league, and also fall backward in league status, depending on their performance.
Many of you may already know about some of the big English football teams (called “Football Clubs”, hence the F.C. at the end of each team’s name), like Manchester United F.C. and Chelsea F.C. These teams currently occupy the top tier of English football, known as the Premier League. Even if you’re not familiar with these teams, you’re certainly familiar with some of their world-famous players, such as, and perhaps especially, David Beckham, who previously played for a variety of different clubs, including Manchester United F.C. and, ironically enough, the L.A. Galaxy.
Leeds United F.C. was also in the Premier League a few years back, but because of poorer performance, was “relegated” back down to the next level, known as the Championship League. Teams that play at this level are still considered “professional” teams, but have to perform at a certain level in order to earn their way back into Premier League status.
The Plight of English Hooliganism
In what I believe is a quote from famous footballer Eric Cantona, who played for both Leeds United and Manchester United football clubs, “You can change your wife, change your politics, change your religion. But never, never can you change your favorite football team.”
I think no matter where you’re from in the world, and even despite how little you watch or follow sports, it’s still exciting to know when a team from your town, state, or country does well.
At the extreme though, you have some fans who follow and support their team like a religion, their team becoming a huge part of who they are; their personal and communal identity. And when those teams win big, like when the White Sox won the World Series back in 2005, and when the Cubs won the World Series back in 2016, the die-hard fans go ballistic, and the pride they feel is personal and overflowing.
And just as equally devout when their team is losing, or is under criticism from fans of rival teams, these die-hard fans can be especially defensive, even hostile towards each other, and while the more laid back fans may look at this as childish, and perhaps stupid, to these die-hards, there is nothing more important in the world to argue about. An attack on their sports team is a personal attack on them.
In England, this aforementioned “extreme end” assumption of identity through fandom has many times been manifested by the phenomenon known widely now as Hooliganism, which for our intents and purposes, will be defined here as mob action and violence between gangs of opposing football fans – gangs known as “firms”. Many of you may be familiar with the Elijah Wood and Charlie Hunnam film Green Street Hooligans, which gives you at least a basic idea (bearing cinematic liberties in mind) of the subject.
While less of an issue these days, football hooliganism was rife back in the 1970s and 1980s, back when firms like the Leeds Service Crew and the Millwall Bushwackers from London caused widespread rioting and violence at matches, leading to serious government crackdowns, up to and including fan segregation; a measure that still appears to be well in effect today.
To read more about the phenomenon of football hooliganism, I encourage you to visit the following Wikipedia page:
For now, we’ll move on to my experience.
Match Day: The Leeds United F.C. v.s. Millwall F.C.
How many sports teams do you know of who have a Wikipedia page dedicated solely to the their rivalry with their arch enemy? Such is the case with Leeds United F.C. and their longtime nemesis, Millwall F.C. from London (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leeds_United_F.C.%E2%80%93Millwall_F.C._rivalry). By happy circumstance, when I was looking for a match to attend after New Years, I found that these two long term love birds were going to be playing soon…
… for the first time in months…
… here in Leeds…
… after Leeds lost by one point during their previous match…
I mean, what else was I supposed to do?
The ticket to the match cost about 36 pounds (about 50 dollars), for what looked like would be pretty decent seat.
The stadiam, called Elland Road, was only two miles away from our flat, so I decided that I would at least walk to the match, and perhaps take an Amber Car back.
As I strolled up to the stadium on match day, the Leeds United fans were easy to identify, many of the gentlemen wearing their neatly tucked white, blue, and yellow scarves.
My first stop after snapping a few phone pics of the stadium exterior was to collect my ticket from the ticket office. It was about 35 degrees outside that day, and my lips were so numb by the time I finished my two mile journey that when the young chap behind the counter asked for my name, I said something like “Miwar”, which, now that I think of it, probably sounded a lot like “Millwall”, ha! Oops! Bad start…
Making my way out of the ticket office, and feeling a little left out in the swag department, I decided that my next stop would be the Leeds United F.C. team store. I knew I at least wanted to get a shirt so that people would know who I was there to support, and also so I could start joining in the collective team pride that makes sports fun (working on defining a bit of my own identity, I suppose).
After spending a good thirty minutes hunting, I settled on what I still think is a pretty sweet club shirt, made by a company called Kappa (whose logo is the silhouetted guy and girl sitting back to back, and is liberally slapped all over every article of apparel they produce).
I liked this shirt particularly because of the LUFC logo on the left, which is topped by the ever present white rose of Yorkshire. I also grabbed a soccer ball (er-hm, I mean a “football”), and a pin for Katie’s and my collection.
By the time I finished paying it was only about thirty more minutes to kick off, so I wasted no time in getting to my seat.
Elland Road Stadium, while looking pretty modern from the outside, was less-than-so on the inside for sure. There was a lot that seemed pretty outdated, from the windows, to the paint on the walls, to the wooden folding stadium seats that looked and felt like they’d been installed 50+ years ago. Other than that, there was a large screen in the corner of the arena for viewing the score and replays, and the pitch itself seemed to be in very good shape. Not many frills past that, although the concession stand had some interesting choices!
Four fifths of the stadium was filled with home-team fans, and stuffed in one tiny corner, were all the Millwall fans.
I found out before the match that fans of a visiting team are only allowed to buy a certain amount of tickets, and the tickets are all for seats within the visitors section. Strictly enforced, this meant that at the game, the home fans and visiting fans were completely segregated, unlike American sports where, while there are areas where the visiting fans will collect themselves, it’s certainly not rare to see other visiting fans mingled in here and there amongst the home fan population, despite the fact that this makes them prey to hecklers from time to time.
Such is not the case in England.
I could see very clearly where the Leeds fans in the Southern stand, which was apparently reserved for their most serious fans, because these guys never sat down for a minute, and chanted and heckled regularly at their Millwall next door neighbors. The Millwall fans were there to match their fervor.
One of the coolest and funnest parts of the match for me was singing along with the fans sings the Leeds United anthem, Marching On Together which you can actually listen to on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1NXh1JRZik).
I warn you, this old-timey march is extremely catchy. Dork that I am, I looked it up and memorized at least the refrain so that I wouldn’t look like a complete outsider while I was there. Singing the song with all of the other fans was very similar to singing Hail to the Orange at an Illini game, only this wasn’t a college game; this was a professional game, which I thought was really cool that despite this team represents the larger population of a city rather than just a university, the sense of unity and pride was not diminished in the least; there are several verses to Marching On Together, and these people weren’t just singing the refrain.
There were, of course, a few other cheers and chants that were a little less wholesome, and while hearing profanity at a sporting event is certainly not a uniquely English experience, I think hearing an entire stadium sing the following example over and over again at the top of their lungs to the opposing players and fans was pretty unique as far as my experience is concerned:
You’re too shi-it!
You’re too shi-it!
You’re too shit to play for Leeds!
You’re too shi-it!
You’re too shi-it!
You’re too shit to play for Leeds!
Another delightful highlight was when one of my neighbors shouted at the ref, which again, is not unique to English football, but there was real harmony in hearing an angry Englishman shout “You DAFT BAStard!” after a bad call.
At one point during the match, after Millwall had scored one of their goals, one of their players took a the opportunity to run by all of the Leeds fans and challenging them to “bring it”, raising his arms and gesturing toward himself, which was met with a lovely display of the inward-facing “peace sign”, the European equivalent of the “middle finger”.
Curiously, after the first Millwall goal, smoke began to appear from in front of the Millwall fans. I found this a bit concerning, as it caught the attention of the fans around me as well, who didn’t act like this was something that was to be expected. Not only that, but it seemed that the stadium staff were trying to put something out at the base of where the Millwall fans were.
After a few minutes of nobody saying anything, the game simply resumed, so I supposed it was simply a way that the teams celebrated after a goal, and put it out of my mind, while simultaneously scanning the stands for the fire exits (haha, jk)…
This appeared to happen one other time later in the game, but no announcement was made, and nobody else gave it much attention.
The game did not go well for Leeds at all during the first 45 minute half. Millwall scored three goals, and Leeds none… It was a pretty sober half time as it looked like everyone was regretting having braved the cold to come out and see this massacre.
I’m not even a football aficionado, but even I could tell that the Leeds players themselves were performing very poorly, and it seemed defeat was certain.
At halftime, there was no halftime show. No cheerleaders. No entertainment. I understand that this is standard in English football.
The climate in the Leeds United locker room must have been far more animated, however, because when Leeds United took to the field again in the second half, they arose with fury.
Within the first fifteen to twenty minutes, Leeds United scored three times (!), tying the game and changing the mood drastically.
At one point, a fight almost broke out on the sidelines between the players and the coaches, but was brought under control fairly quickly.
Still tied up at the last few minutes of the match, there were very few fans still left in their seats, and we, Leeds, sang Marching On Together in the hopes that victory would soon be in our grasp.
And then, almost as if they had been payed off, the Leeds United defense let one of the Millwall players dribble almost all the way up to the goalie, fire, and in an instant all hope was dashed like a strong wind suddenly abandoning the sails of a ship, and Millwall walked away with a 4 to 3 victory. A sobering end to a great second half.
During the last few minutes of the game, an announcement came over the PA system, that said something to this effect:
“We request that the visiting fans remain in their seats after the match concludes until the home fans have cleared the stadium and the area immediately outside. This is for your own safety.”
I’ve been to a quite a few sporting events in my day, but asking the visiting fans to remain inside for their own safety at the end of the game was a first. The announcement played at least once more before the game ended.
Before heading out myself, I hung out for a few more minutes to watch the fan spectacle at the south end of my stand, where the Millwall fans still stood, chanting and heckling for their team, surrounded by stadium staff, who stood shoulder to shoulder, forming a barrier around them to keep them contained in their tiny pen.
All the while, a few remaining hard core Leeds fans in the South stadium, who appeared to be pretty drunk at this point, pushed against a stadium security guard in “hold-me-back” fashion, shouting insults at the Millwall fans as they drowned his voice out with their continued to chanting.
Outside things were mostly quiet, with most of the Leeds fans making their way away from the stadium. However, the police had blocked off the portion of the road that ran along the stretch of stadium from where the Millwall fans were expected to exit from. There was a pub, called The Old Peacock, that I wanted to visit after the game on this very stretch, opposite the stadium, but I now wondered how I’d be able to get there.
I crossed the street along the row of barricading policeman into a parking lot on the other side, and noticed that some other fans were making their way down this parking lot, along the blocked street, in order to get to the same pub I wanted to get to, therefore successfully circumnavigating the blockade.
I decided to follow.
After I reached the parking lot, I found that it was full of Leeds fans, and they all had their eyes fixed on the opposite side of the street at the stadium exit, and the only thing standing in between them and where the Millwall fans would soon be exiting from, were several police mounted on horseback, and on foot.
They stood there chanting for several minutes, and then the police took up a new formation at the opposite end of The Old Peacock parking lot, forming a wall that went all the way up to the pub patio, which was packed with people who were apparently just as eager as I was to see if something was going to happen.
The police then started moving their line closer and closer to my side of the parking lot, in effect, moving the Leeds fans toward the parking lot exit, and eventually funneling them up the street and away from where the Millwall fans would be coming out.
Not wanting to be caught up in the group that was going to be forced out, I quickly made my way up the parking lot with a few others , away from the street, toward the back gate of the pub, where a bouncer was checking IDs and letting people into the beer garden in back. After inside, I peered back out and watched as the police successfully dissipate the rest of the Leeds fans so that Millwall could have a better chance of escaping unscathed.
The Old Peacock
The Old Peacock was a large pub, but certainly packed to the gills (feathers?) on the inside and outside. I stepped up to the outdoor service counter and ordered the most enticing drink written on the chalkboard menu on the wall on the side: a Yorkshire Blonde, an IPA-esque beer with, as the name implies, a nice blond color (“blonde” may of course refer to some other element of “beer-ology”, but alas, I am no connoisseur).
It. Was. Delicious.
After hanging out outside for a few minutes, I was asked if I would take a phone photo for a large group of drunk guys, and foolishly set the last fourth of my beer on the ground, the only space available, in order to do so. Of course before I could finish with my task, my beer was promptly kicked over by another passing belligerent, and in an instant, I was done drinking for the evening.
I did, however, decide to take a walk inside the pub to see what it was like, in case I ever came to another game. As I wondered in, it was hot and steamy from all of the patrons, and there was barely any room to walk at all on the wood floor now slick with humidity.
After taking a quick tour and hearing a small group break out into Marching On Together one last time, I made my way back out into the street, now less restricted than before, and made my way back home through the dark cold, glad to have gotten a taste of a famous rivalry, and delicious British pint, in the context of English football culture.
Photo Credit: All photos were taken with my (Jeff’s) cell phone, and made to look many times better by Katie, haha.