One of my earliest football memories is of walking through a caravan site near York, while on a family holiday. My elder brother was wearing his ‘LUFC 1992 Champions’ t-shirt. I would have been nine. A car drove past and the driver wound down his window, calling out ‘Cantona’s just been sold to Man U!’. I had no idea what he was on about, but his tone told me it was bad news.
I’ve often heard people describe the moment they chose their football team. In my childhood in Leeds there wasn’t a choice: your team is Leeds.
The first Leeds kit I owned was in the wilderness years following that giddy time as league champions, in the 1995/96 season. I was in Pudsey market with my mum and saw a full kit: shirt, shorts and socks, all in a presentation box that looked like it should be holding the Crown Jewels. I was starting to play a lot of football at school and this was perfect. Stick this on and you’ll definitely be as good as Tony Yeboah. (Which – obviously – no one was.)
I went to my first game in 1998: a 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final defeat to second division Wolves. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink missed a last-minute penalty. We have yet to get that far in the cup since. Welcome to Leeds United.
But of course, I was intoxicated. The noise, the atmosphere, the sheer number of people. How do they all know what to sing at the same time? And, of course, everyone wearing the same colours: scarves, hats, shirts. The same as me. We were all part of the same thing and taking pride in showing it off.
Being a Leeds fan has been part of my life ever since. Of course it’s not the only thing- football can be guilty of caricaturing its importance. But it’s always there.
I would be back at Elland Road whenever I could. I even went to see the reserves, who played at the ground in midweek and let us in for free. My next birthday – my 16th – I was given that season’s shirt from my parents, bearing the name and number of my hero: David Batty. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.
Football is such a dominant part of so many lives. I remember as a child being sat in church and the vicar’s first words to us being: ‘for those of you wondering, Leeds are 3-0 down’.
The shirt is the tangible connection to that universal presence. Not only is it a link to the team, but to a time and place. My favourite remains the Nike kits between 2000 and 2002. It was such an exciting time to be a Leeds fan: the team was full of brilliant young players like Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Lee Bowyer, zipping it around and smashing in 30 yarders seemingly every week. Even the news that Nike would be making our kits seemed to confirm that we’d been elevated to a new level.
It was during that time that I moved to Nottingham to study at Nottingham Trent University. I loved wearing my shirt or scarf around town: it seemed to invite people to come and talk to me about the team (believe it or not they were usually even positive). I’m proud of my roots but I was very ready to see somewhere new, and my late teens and early twenties were a time of discovering and resolving that tension within myself. Having that identity was one way of grounding myself, making myself comfortable with being me while engrossing myself in a new city.
To this day I can travel anywhere, and as soon as anyone clocks where I’m from they want to talk about football. Even travelling abroad I often speak with people who can wistfully reel off the names of Leeds players past and present. While the club’s form collapsed and they tumbled down the leagues, it was great to have that reminder of our significance. It was definitely needed while watching dross like Sean Gregan and Michael Brown in the shirt.
I play five a side with mates every week, which makes a good excuse to carry on collecting shirts. I have many Leeds ones. Another great inspiration is Barcelona, where I first visited when I was 17. The city is of course endlessly fascinating, and I had the incredible good fortune to be at the Camp Nou for a 7-0 hammering of Real Betis. The team included future Barca coaches Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique- the latter got a hat trick so I got a shirt with his name on the next day.
Guardiola’s team of the early 2000s is the closest to footballing perfection I’ve seen. Incredible players like Iniesta, Messi and Xavi, so many of whom came through the youth system, playing mesmerising football. A humble, intelligent coach drilling humility, respect and sportsmanship into everything they did.
And of course: their shirts are seriously, seriously smart. I own many!
Working in museums is an absolute privilege. One of the joys is being able to harness the power of objects, to tell stories and make connections between people, places and time. That can happen with objects that are totally unfamiliar and fantastical, and also with ones that are incredibly familiar. Football shirts are a great example of that- as NFM shows brilliantly.
As I’ve grown and changed as a person, watching and playing football has been a consistent part of my life. The flowers at my wedding were white, blue and yellow. The scouser in my band was never happy with me wearing a Leeds shirt on stage. My youngest son is called Jack Lucas Brown- his middle name coming from the great captain of Leeds and South Africa, Lucas Radebe. I take Jack and his brother Oliver to see Nottingham Forest, just a short walk from where we live. They’re intoxicated by the same things I was at Elland Road.
Many of you will be able to say similar things. That’s why the material culture of the game has such a power of connection, and why the work museums such as the National Football Museum is so important.
Simon Brown is a Curator at Newstead Abbey, Project Curator at National Justice Museum and a trustee of the Museums Association.