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Doing the Rounds

4 January 2013

Russell Kempson takes in the Leeds United versus Chelsea game, alongside the media team at Elland Road

Eddie Gray sits in a corner of Billy's Bar, named after Billy Bremner, another Leeds United legend. A large photograph of Bremner adorns the wall behind Gray; a Christmas tree is illuminated by blue flashing lights. The mood is friendly, relaxed - the calm before the storm.

The storm of the Capital One Cup quarter-final between Leeds and Chelsea, the keenest of combatants down the ages, at Elland Road the next evening. And Gray is keen to reminisce about the clubs' memorable past clashes, not least the fiercely contested 1970 FA Cup Final, which Chelsea won after a replay.

How winger Gray, with that wand of a left foot, tormented Dave Webb, the Chelsea defender, in the first game; how Gray came to grief at the hands - or rather feet - of Ron 'Chopper' Harris in the rematch at Old Trafford; and how the mists of time had failed to dim the Leeds-Chelsea rivalry.

"We had some great games," Eddie says. "There was a lot of terrific players on both sides and some real characters, too. And some of the games, no doubt about it, were brutal. Nowadays, some of those might have ended up three-a-side. That's how the games were but that's how the game was then. It was nastier but it was accepted.

"The game has always been tough and if you were a decent player, there was always someone to give you a kick to slow you up a bit. There would always be players trying to stop you from playing. When I played, the old adage was never truer - 'the first tackle is free'. That's how it was then.

"In the '70 Cup Final, I thought that we were superior. I won the man of the match award at Wembley and Dave Webb, who I got on really well with, was playing against me. In the replay, Ron Harris marked me. And he did mark me, all over my body. 

“He caught me a beauty, did Ron. But he was just doing his job for the team. The irony was that, in the replay, Dave scored the winner. And I'd won the man of the match at Wembley by turning him inside out. But that's what makes football."

Gray, a grey-haired 64-year-old, pauses - but the memories keep on coming. "With Chelsea and us, it was always the King's Road boys versus the gritty Yorkshire team," he says. 

"That North-South divide, it always made it interesting. But 'Southern Softies?' I don't think so. Just look at the Chelsea team then. Eddie McCreadie, Chopper Harris; and Peter Osgood could look after himself as well. He was a great player and they were a good team.

"The rivalry between them and us has always been there. It might be a completely different generation now and perhaps a lot of the foreign players will not understand it. But the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard will know all about the history. And the funny thing is that the ex-players, after some of the battles we had, just laugh about it now.

"Norman Hunter and Chopper are doing a turn in the banqueting suite, on stage together, before the game tomorrow night. I'll go along and see them. And I might take a ball up on to the stage, put it in front of them and say: 'Listen. This is what you're supposed to kick'."

Nowadays, the former Leeds player, coach and manager gets his kicks as an analyst with Yorkshire Radio and LUTV, the Elland Road-based media. He is in his fifth season with Yorkshire Radio, covering home and away games with Thom Kirwin, the commentator and chief sports correspondent, and is also a regular on the midweek shows, the game previews and the post-match phone-ins.

Leeds look after their own. Statues of Bremner and Don Revie, the former manager, are prominently situated outside the ground. It was Revie who once said of Gray's finesse: "When he plays on snow, he doesn't leave any footprints." Peter Lorimer is a club director and Hunter, Paul Reaney, Mick Jones, Allan Clarke, Terry Yorath and Frank Worthington are all involved in corporate entertaining on matchdays. "I see them all the time," Eddie says, "which is great."

Dear to him, too, is the radio audience of around 100,000. When Gray speaks, in that familiar Scottish brogue, they listen. "I really enjoy it," he says. "And sometimes I have to hold Thom back because he's a real dyed-in-the-wool Leeds fan. But I like to think I can be more objective.

"If I think the other team is playing better than we're playing, I'll say it. I'll be honest about it. Some of our managers may have not liked that but if you're watching and assessing the game, the one thing you can't do in football is fool the fans. If they think the team has played poorly, they'll let you know. There's got to be a nice balance and you don't criticise players just for the sake of it.

"I wanted to stay in football and this work gives me that opportunity. When you get to a certain age you think 'I've had my time playing, coaching and managing' but you still want to watch games. And I'm doing it for the club I've been with all my career. I'm still passionate about the club, I still get that buzz before every game and before I finish in this job I really hope we'll be back in the Premier League."

Gray particularly relishes the cut-and-thrust of the phone-ins, when the emotions of the callers - from as far afield as Australia, America and Canada - can be raw. Win, lose or draw. "It can get a bit feisty," Eddie admits. "We let the supporters have their say. The game is all about opinions and if you want to express it, express it. I might not necessarily agree. In fact, at times, Thom and I disagree. But it's all done in the right way. Okay, the game has changed in many ways, but the fans are important and they should have their say. The game without fans is nothing.

"Some of the funniest callers are those who've not been to the game. The majority of them have but some haven't and yet they talk as if they were there because they take the commentary of Thom and myself as gospel. If we say a player has not had such a good game today, the fans will come on and say that he was poor. And you think: 'Well, you've not really made up your own mind about that. You're just taking our word for it'. That amuses me sometimes."

Kirwin is, indeed, dyed-in-the-wool Leeds. A journalism graduate from the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, he was "dragged along" to his first match - at four years old - by his mother Elizabeth. "I was too young to take it all in," Thom recalls. "It was only when I was seven or eight that it sunk in and I began to enjoy it. By 10, I was really obsessed. I always loved radio and Leeds United and had an idea in my mind, through my teenage years, of how I could combine the two. Once I'd decided that, it was a case of making the steps to do it."

Do it, Kirwin did. He joined Yorkshire Radio at its launch in 2006 and took up the match microphone a year later. The station mixes its music content with an abundance of sport, from football to rugby league, from cricket to horse racing. And although Leeds United are the real deal, the other local clubs - Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, York City, Rotherham United, Huddersfield Town, Doncaster Rovers and Hull City - are also covered in detail.

The Gray-Kirwin combination would appear perfect - the old warhorse, the legend, and the young buck, the fanatical tyro. "Yeah, I am biased," 28-year-old Thom says, unashamedly. "I want Leeds to win. It's a partisan commentary, there's no doubt about it. I'm a Leeds fan, Eddie's a Leeds fan. There's no point in pretending I'm not, everyone who listens knows that. Part of why I think we've done well and why I think our matchday service and our show is good is because of that passion. And I know that 99 per cent of our listeners are Leeds fans.

"If the opposing team scores, you can tell by the tone of my voice. I'm not jumping around. But if it's a great goal, if someone pops it in from 40 yards, fair enough. You still have to paint that picture as well as you can. It's not like Sky's 'FanZone'. I'm not ridiculing the opposition and constantly praising Leeds. If a Leeds player has not played well, like Eddie, I'll say it. I'm certainly not disrespectful to the opposition. I do a lot of prep work and I'm well aware of the qualities of the other sides. But I want Leeds to win and if they don't, I'm in a bad mood.

"It's the fifth season that Eddie and I have been together and the thing that I like about him is that he's coached in the modern era and can give a different slant on the game. He can look at things as a coach and an ex-player as well. My job is to tell people what's happening and Eddie's is to tell them why it's happening, because I've not played the game to any standard. Well, I have, but a terribly low standard.

"Eddie and I do differ at times but perhaps that makes for a better listen. We have to have some impartiality but we're not told what we can and can't say. The club trusts us, certainly as far as news is concerned, to do the right thing. We offer a good service to Leeds fans but it's so much more than that with all the other stuff we do."

Thom has a dream. "I want us to get back to the Premier League," he says. "I want us to be playing Chelsea twice a year guaranteed. When I've thought of what it's been like since we were relegated, it's been pretty painful. I almost think of Leeds as an ill relative. I love them so much, I'm waiting for them to get better. And they'll only be better when they get back to the top flight. They'll have pulled through."

If and when the patient recovers, Ben Fry, the 35-year-old Yorkshire Radio station director and matchday MC at Elland Road, will be just as chuffed. In the station's compact studios and offices above the Centenary Pavilion next to the Revie statue, as a Christmas pantomime is recorded by the staff in a nearby studio, Fry tells it as it is. Gray is their crown jewel.

"When you look at what Eddie's done in his career," Ben says, "be it playing, coaching or managing, it's all been about this club. From our point of view, you can't buy that kind of experience and that kind of insight. The respect that the fans have for him is immense. When Eddie speaks, they listen and take on board his points.

"They don't always agree but that's the reason why the phone-in works so well. He provides an opinion, he debates it with the fans and, because of who he is, there's always that element of respect. He is very media savvy and people always want to know his take on matters."

Matchday and a storm is brewing. It is a dank evening, the rain lashing down on Elland Road. In the LUTV studios under the West Stand, figures hurry hither and thither. Damian Dexter, the director, and Jen Guild, the executive producer, are always on the move, advising and organising.

James Varley, the video journalist, explains the close cross-platform relationship between LUTV, which has 7,000-10,000 subscribers, Yorkshire Radio and the club website. "There's no point in us all doing our separate interviews," he says. "We all help each other out." And he reveals how some of the Leeds fans prefer the in-house viewing in the concourses to the real thing. "Some might spend half an hour in the bar, watching it on our TV, then come out and watch the last 10 minutes," James says. "I think some like their beer more than the football."

Guild takes a breather. She worked as an editor for the production company that produced Chelsea TV, before joining LUTV on its launch four years ago, and once met Jose Mourinho in a lift. "I just said 'hello'," Jen recalls. "No, I wasn't star-struck, because I've worked in football for such a long time. It was just a surprise."

Tonight, Jen is producing the half-time and full-time highlights packages for Elland Road's big screen. "If it's a good game, we might have eight minutes at the end," she says. "If it's not so good, maybe five minutes. I edit as we go along and it can get a bit tricky if there's a late goal."

Kick-off approaches, the rain continues to cascade from the heavens. Up in the radio and TV gantry, with its panoramic view of the ground and pitch, Kirwin and Gray prepare for their pre-match stint. Gray has just arrived, ducking to avoid the low metal girders, after renewing acquaintances with Chopper Harris - "It was good to see him again" - and helping his grandson, Joe, a Chelsea fan, to get autographs from the visiting players. "He was well made up," Eddie says.

The teamsheets arrive and Chelsea, despite their exertions in the Club World Cup and a 12-hour flight back from Japan, have named a decent side. "Our guys have got to be up for this," Eddie tells the listeners.

"We're only three games from Wembley." Bernard Smith, a member of the Yorkshire Radio fans' forum, joins Kirwin and Gray and, lip microphones at the ready, the trio get set for the eagerly anticipated quarter-final.

It goes well for Leeds, initially. They surge through the tempest and, in the 37th minute, Luciano Becchio fires them in front. Kirwin, partisan as ever, salutes his brave lads with a clenched fist. Smith, too. Gray, a picture of calm, limits himself to a broad grin. He is still smiling at the interval, with Leeds 1-0 ahead. "Not bad, eh?" he says.

During the break, I chat with Smith, one of the founder members of the forum, which was set up four years ago to give the Leeds supporters a radio voice. They are also included in the regular midweek football shows. "It's fantastic, sitting on the gantry with my headphones on with Thom and Eddie," Bernard, a 54-year-old medical franchise manager, says. "They know a lot more about football than I do but it's good to have my say. I was a bit overawed at first but Eddie knows me well now and, as everyone in the game knows, he's an absolute gentleman. He always supports you in anything you're trying to say."

Smith has supported Leeds since he was seven. "I've been through the lot," he says. "The glory years, the heartbreak, the relegations and living the so-called dream." It is his first match representing the forum this season, won in a draw. "I got a lot of texts and emails from fellow forum members saying you lucky so-and-so," he chuckles.

The chuckling would soon stop. Chelsea equalise two minutes into the second half, with a goal from Juan Mata, and go ahead through Branislav Ivanovic. There is little reaction from the Three Amigos with the microphones but, when Victor Moses makes it 3-1, Thom holds his head. At 4-1, Norman Hunter, sitting nearby, gets up and leaves the gantry; at 5-1, many home fans head for the exits, too.

Still, though, despite the numbing cold, there's more work to do. Kirwin heads for the players' tunnel for interviews and Gray and Smith prepare for the post-match phone-in, which is filmed live for LUTV and presented by Michael Weadock. "You could say I've been pretty busy," Weadock muses, after his never-ending evening shift for various radio, TV and website outlets.

The callers have their say, Eddie and Bernard offer perspective. "We ran out of steam but they stepped up a gear as well," Bernard says. "Back to the bread and butter against Middlesbrough on Saturday," Eddie adds. "Yep, three points. That will do me," Bernard concurs. Michael narrowly avoids decapitation as a cameraman and his bulky equipment squeezes past him.

At 10.20pm, that's it. Off air, job done. Gray bids his farewells until the next match, when he will do it all again. Little rest for a Leeds United legend.

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