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Gary Younge
Letting the side down

Outside, the bouncers stand with their backs to the main entrance looking over the city square. It is the ideal vantage point from which to retrace the flight of Sarfraz Najeib as he ran from his attackers towards the church bearing the message: "Salvation for all". But these were no ordinary assailants. Among the accused were footballers Jonathan Woodgate, who has been found guilty of affray, and Lee Bowyer, who has been cleared of all charges. Though race was ruled out as a motive in the retrial of Woodgate, Bowyer and two other men, the case came as a blow to the club which has spent more than a decade struggling to shake off a reputation as one of the most racist in Britain.

The Asian student had been beaten to within an inch of his life and the two were originally charged with racially aggravated assault. The players' fame would ensure national headlines; the race of their victim initially ensured national debate. The combination of the two would send both the city and the criminal justice system into denial. What had started with taunts outside the Majestyk unravelled to engulf the football club and, by association, cast a pall over the city.

The first trial collapsed in April, when the media also found itself in the dock. While the jury was still deliberating, the Sunday Mirror published an interview with Najeib's father insisting that the attack was racist. The judge ruled it the "most serious form of contempt".

When the trial restarted last month, the jury sat in a quite different world. Nearby Bradford had been scarred by some of the worst racial unrest since Brixton 20 years earlier. And the events of September 11, followed by the war in Afghanistan, had stoked existing ethnic and religious tensions while temporarily belittling the importance of both stardom and sport.

So while media attention this time around has not been anywhere near as intense, the ramifications are still considerable. For in a one-team city which has spent much money and energy rebranding itself from a provincial manufacturing base to the bustling home of call centres and Harvey Nichols, the repercussions will begin now the trial has ended. In the past, when club supporters have been involved in violence, the city council has been quick to distance itself. This time it will not be possible.

As the first trial drew to a conclusion, the city was preparing to hand its education budget over to a profit-making company, Education Leeds. The chairman of Leeds United, Peter Ridsdale, is also the head of Education Leeds. But when the accused's team-mate Michael Duberry changed his story, implicating Lee Bowyer, his closest friend and the club's lawyers as well, some campaigners called for the transfer to be suspended. "We were very concerned about any implications which this whole issue might have on the reputation of Education Leeds and its ability to credibly run education services for the city," says Pauline Bailey, the chair of Leeds Case, which lobbied to stop the handover.

Albert Johanneson was quick of foot and sharp in aim. As one of the few black players in the English league in the early 60s, and the first to play in an FA Cup final, he was even rarer. He had left his black township near Johannesburg and headed for Leeds in 1961: the year South Africa left the Commonwealth so that it could maintain apartheid, and the African National Congress adopted armed struggle so it could get rid of it. At first Johanneson stood aside while his team-mates plunged into the communal bath, unsure whether whites and blacks were permitted to mix. His colleagues threw him in.

Back then, Tony Stanley was one of the few black faces on the terraces - a teenager who had arrived from St Kitts as a child and fell in love with the club. "Very occasionally you'd get trouble but usually people would just be patronising," he says. "They'd come up and pat you on the head and say: 'Have you come to see Albert?' They saw themselves as a white-only club so the only reason they could think you would bother coming would be to see Albert."

As time went on, the self-image of Leeds as a white club didn't change, but the reality of life in the city did. More non-white immigrants settled, particularly in the Chapeltown area, and the miasma of organised racism that wafted through the country settled on the terraces of Elland Road, where the National Front recruited openly.

Nick Varley, a Leeds supporter and author of the authoritative Park Life, a Search for the Heart of Football, recalls hearing at his first match a call-and-response chant involving "hundreds, possibly thousands of fans", aimed at the one black player on the pitch.

"Trigger, trigger, trigger," called one side of the stand.

"Shoot that nigger," came the reply.

"Which fucking nigger?"

"That fucking nigger," was the answer, as the crowd pointed at the target of their venom.

"All around me were fans who joined in," writes Varley. "Not everyone, by any means, but a lot."

By the late 70s, Stanley - now director of the Leeds race equality council - found going to support his club a profoundly uncomfortable experience. He had to walk past the NF paper sellers to get to the turnstiles. And still he kept going. "You decide at an early age to make a commitment to a club and then you have to make up your mind what is more important: are you going to let them stop you going or are you going to do what you want to do? Going to Elland Road became like an act of defiance."

Meanwhile, a white Leeds fan, Paul Thomas, had had enough of standing among what he felt was the silent majority. Along with friends and activists from the local trades council, he set up Leeds United Against Racism, in order to challenge the presence of fascists at the ground. "I thought either you tolerated the racism or you did something about it," he says.

When they told police they intended to leaflet the ground with an anti-racist message, the initial reaction was hostile. The police made it known through the press that they feared political violence would break out. The club considered suing the campaigners for unauthorised use of the club badge on the leaflets. But, says Thomas, the response from fans was encouraging. "Quite a few came up and congratulated us, saying stuff like: 'It's about time somebody did something about that lot.'"

Under pressure from the council, which then owned the ground, club officials were persuaded to meet the demonstrators. The club was in denial. Despite the choruses of hate ringing from its stands, the managing director refused to believe there was a problem and demanded proof. The anti-racists produced Terror on the Terraces, recording the abuse. "It's not as though we did any great undercover work," says Thomas. "We were just reporting what had already been reported."

Gradually, thanks to persistent activism, a change of management at the club and more pressure from the council, the atmosphere started to improve. There were statements condemning racist chanting from senior management and regular adverts in the programme against racism. The club developed its links with local black and Asian communities (it is presently working with Kosovan refugees). It also distributes anti-racist certificates to schools. Stanley now goes to Elland Road with his son, brother and nephew. "They have made great strides. There was always a feeling that the club had gone further with some of the things they did than a lot of other clubs."

Racism has not been eliminated there, any more than it has anywhere else in the country, but it is no longer the dominant culture. Recently Thomas sat near a racist heckler and was backed by other fans when he asked him to stop. When the man threatened Thomas, he called the club's anti-racist hotline to complain. The club called him back quickly, asked detailed questions about the incident, and then called again to say the man's season ticket had been withdrawn.

Now, once again, Leeds United finds itself associated with allegations of racism, although this time very much against the run of play. Many Leeds fans - including committed anti-racists such as Thomas - believe racism was not a factor: "I think it tells you more about young men and alcohol than it does about race," he says.

Nevertheless, the club's handling of the issue has come in for sharp criticism. Stanley wrote to it at the outset and recommended suspending the footballers until the trial was over. "That's the advice we would give any employer who came to us with a situation like this," he says. But while England ruled out Bowyer and Woodgate, Leeds promised only that they would dismiss the players if they were found guilty. In the meantime they could carry on as normally as possible. This, the club argued, was natural justice; far better than seeing men who could be innocent forced into more than a year of idleness while awaiting a verdict.

The club was slammed for its insensitivity and the manager, David O'Leary, soon compounded this impression by complaining that preparations for the case were distracting his players from their football. "It has been a ridiculous situation at times," he said. "I have come in some mornings with training plans written down and, when I look around, I haven't got the player I need because he has had to go to see the police."

When Duberry changed his story, explaining to a stunned court that he had wanted to tell the truth earlier but that the club's solicitor, Peter McCormick, had confounded him with legal jargon and ordered him to stick to his story, Leeds United was well and truly in the dock. Though McCormick would later insist in court that he had never told Duberry to lie, the club had been painted as both insensitive to the plight of the victim and indifferent to the legal integrity of its players.

Accusations of racial attacks should not be made lightly. Nor are they easily retracted. Like accusations of sex attacks or child abuse, charges of racist violence stick to the accused long after the event that prompted them because they occupy a particular moral space. Attacking someone on the grounds of race is regarded not as an average human failing, like attacking someone because you are drunk or they have upset you, but as the absence of a basic level of humanity. No remorse, it seems, can compensate.

One of the main recommendations of the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence is that a racist incident should be defined as: "Any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person... This definition should be universally adopted by the police, local government and other relevant agencies."

In Najeib's original statement he told the police that one of his assailants had said: "Do you want some, Paki?" But in a sequence of events that is becoming increasingly common, this was later removed. Adding a racial aspect to the charge increases the sentence and therefore increases the stakes for the jury. Moreover, there were no independent witnesses to this account and Najeib could not be certain who had said it.

So eight months after the attack, the racial element was dropped from the charge. The Najeib family went along with this, but then the crown prosecution service went one step further and eliminated race as a motive altogether. This, say friends of the family, was a mistake. It reduced the incident to a nightclub brawl, they say. By removing the issue of race from the Hull courtroom, the CPS removed the context which would not only have given this specific attack meaning but effectively erased the issue from public discourse. Those who didn't want to talk about it now didn't have to.

In his summing-up, Mr Justice Poole went out of his way to eradicate race from the collective conscience of the jury. "We live in a time and a society where there is a particular sensitivity to racism and race," he said. "But you should know the prosecution in this case has stated publicly in a pre-trial hearing that it does not suggest there was any racist motive in this attack." The motive, he added, was "group retaliation".

When the Sunday Mirror story which led to the first trial's collapse quoted Najeib's father insisting that the motive for the attack was racial, the judge went even further, denouncing Macpherson's definition of a racist attack. "The risk of police using [the Macpherson definition] in their investigations in the absence of evidence has the potential for causing serious mischief and ought to be reconsidered."

When the Guardian asked Leeds city council for an interview to discuss issues of race there, it refused. "It has already been established that there was no racial motive, so we'd rather not comment," said a spokeswoman.

But every denial of a racial element to the incident challenges us to imagine a situation in which three white youths chase an Asian youth through a town centre before he is beaten up and left unconscious. To fix that scene firmly our minds and then not to think about race.

For the attack did not take place in a vacuum. It took place in a police district where the deputy chief constable conceded to the Lawrence inquiry that his force did "not have the full confidence of the minority ethnic communities". It happened in a city which has seen incidences of racial harassment increase almost 13-fold between 1995 and 2001; and where one of the sharpest rises has been in "attacks including actual/grievous bodily harm".

Just a month after the first trial collapsed, Nelson Mandela arrived in the city. The contrast between his journey and Johanneson's 40 years earlier could not be greater. Mandela leaves a democracy and arrives in an economically vibrant and culturally regenerated city. Leeds is the largest British legal and financial centre outside London.

But alongside the boom - the city's economy is growing faster than any other in the country - is the deprivation. The Leeds postal area LS6 is the most burgled in the country. Last year Ofsted failed the whole local education authority. Many of those left behind, black and white, feel neither ownership nor affection for the way in which the city has changed. In their alienation one begins to see the roots of racial animosity. Among the vast majority of measured responses to the trial on one fanzine website, , racism occasionally rears its head. "The lads [Bowyer and Woodgate] are been done for who they are," writes one. "Where I live, gangs of Asians routinely knock fuck out of white lads, but plod has orders to keep out of it. After all, we're all only working class. No fucking mileage for Fleet St in that!"

Elsewhere on the terraces, fans are feeling more bewildered than belligerent that their club is once again linked with racial intolerance. "It looks as though they've been doing a great job with the fans," says Stanley, "but neglected to do the same with the players."

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