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The partisan terrier

RICHARD MILLS on the sometimes surreal, sometimes tragic, story of Vladimir Dedijer, a Yugoslav partisan fighter, member of Tito’s inner circle and a big Huddersfield Town fan

Huddersfield Town’s return to the English top flight after 45 years, including a dramatic win against Manchester United last week, has thrust the club into the global limelight. Yet this is not the first time overseas fans have devoured coverage of the Terriers’ fortunes.

Between the world wars, when Town competed at the summit of the English game, a schoolboy in a Belgrade attic fell in love with the team. Throughout Vladimir Dedijer’s remarkable life – which included a decade of guerrilla warfare and revolutionary state-building as part of Tito’s inner circle of Yugoslav communists – he never relinquished that passion.

Dedijer was born in 1914 and lost his father in the First World War. Football fascinated him from earliest childhood, when his father brought home a red rubber ball from France.

He played the game in Belgrade’s cobbled streets, pausing for sombre funeral processions for fallen soldiers. The family lived a short distance from the ground of the Belgrade Sport Club, BSK, one of the most successful football teams in interwar Yugoslavia.

BSK played in pale blue and white stripes and young Vladimir used to listen to the roars of the crowd from his bedroom window on dreary Sunday afternoons. His mother’s refusal to let him go to matches provoked one of his first acts of rebellion, as he recalled years later: ‘Once, unable to resist the temptation, I escaped from the house and ran to the football grounds… I had no money for the ticket. I tried to climb over the high wooden fence. I was a clumsy boy and when at last I climbed to the top, a gendarme with a big moustache started after me. I tried to jump down, but my coat was pierced by a sharp-pointed board in the fence, and I remained hanging from it. The gendarme slapped me several times and I had to return home with a torn coat.’ His mother, livid, punished him with a permanent ban from the BSK ground.

The boy had to look elsewhere for his weekly fix. His little brother Boro was being schooled in England and he regularly sent home blue envelopes stuffed with newspaper cuttings of the English football results. Vladimir took a shine to one club in particular, perhaps because its strip was blue and white like BSK’s. Boro fed his brother’s growing obsession with news about Huddersfield Town.

Vladimir’s adopted team won three league titles in a row in the early 1920s, but the ‘tragedy’ of losing the 1928 FA Cup Final to Blackburn Rovers caused deep distress. Following this drama from afar left a lasting impression: ‘In the attic room the fate of Huddersfield became my greatest concern, and during the week I spent hours and hours wondering what was going to happen to them the next Saturday.’

This fascination ignited a love for the English language. Dismayed when one of Boro’s letters was late, Vladimir again acted against his cash-strapped mother’s wishes in a quest to discover Huddersfield’s latest result.

In a Belgrade bookshop he blew a week’s school dinner money on the continental edition of the Daily Mail. From there, he rushed up to his attic room and, hiding beneath the bed, searched for the weekend’s scores: Huddersfield had won! He then tried to decipher the match reports: ‘Not knowing a word of English, I borrowed an English-Serbian dictionary from my aunt and picked out the stories word by word. Soon it became my favourite pastime.’ He was amazed to find the English had stolen Serbian vocabulary for the game, including ‘gol’, ‘korner’, ‘half’ and ‘faul’! After six months learning English in this manner, Dedijer’s mother caught him red-handed and gave him a beating.

By the mid-1930s, Vladimir had matured into a talented young journalist and worked as a foreign correspondent for Politika newspaper. This took him to London in 1935, where he watched his beloved Huddersfield for the first time in a match against Arsenal.

Faced with strict censorship of his work, Dedijer also matured politically in the repressive environment of interwar Yugoslavia: a fledgling constitutional monarchy that had degenerated into dictatorship.

Disgusted by the state’s treatment of communists and other political prisoners, he had written an anonymous letter to the Manchester Guardian to protest against the Belgrade police’s use of torture. He also exploited the travelling his job entailed to act as courier for the illegal Communist Party.

Eventually, public support for Republican Spain, expressed in articles and lectures, cost him his job at Politika. He continued to nurture contacts with the clandestine communist leadership and, in 1938, even harboured their indefatigable general secretary, Josip Broz Tito, in his attic.

When Axis forces invaded Dedijer’s homeland in the spring of 1941, he immediately joined the partisans, a movement hastily put together by hardened communist revolutionaries. Tito’s partisans evolved into one of the most effective resistance forces in Europe. Nevertheless, its members paid a heavy price in four years of brutal guerrilla warfare. Dedijer was no exception.

At Tito’s side throughout the campaign, he lost his wife Olga – a partisan doctor – at the Battle of Sutjeska, where he also sustained an injury. His war diaries remain one of the most vivid accounts of the partisan struggle and Dedijer became Tito’s official biographer.

Yet, even at the height of battle, he didn’t forget his love for football. In 1942, in the temporarily liberated Bosnian town of Foca, Dedijer organised a match between the partisan General Staff and a battalion from Serbia.

He played in a team packed with renowned communist fighters, as Tito watched from the touchline. The partisan leader took photographs during the General Staff’s 4-0 triumph, but had to leave before the final whistle, as worrying reports arrived from the frontline.

When the partisans emerged victorious in 1945, Dedijer took up senior roles in the communist government of the new Yugoslavia, representing his country at both the Paris Peace Conference and the incipient United Nations.

Tito also rewarded Dedijer’s love of sport by making him Chairman of the Yugoslav Physical Culture Association. In this capacity Dedijer returned to England in 1950.

Fifteen years earlier he had watched on from Highbury’s terraces as a young journalist. Now, as Chairman of the Yugoslav Foreign Affairs Committee and head of Yugoslav sport, he returned to Arsenal’s ground to preside over Yugoslavia’s international against England.

He undoubtedly loved his country and its national representation, which earned a hard-fought 2-2 draw, but as soon as he could, Dedijer made his way north to Yorkshire. As a member of Huddersfield Town’s supporters’ association, he joined a crowd of over 39,000 to witness Town’s 3-2 triumph over Tottenham Hotspur.

Spurs went on to win the First Division that season, as Huddersfield dodged relegation. Yet, soon afterwards, the plights of both Dedijer and his adopted club took sharp turns for the worse.

By the early 1950s the international honeymoon period for communist Yugoslavia was long over. Stalin had expelled the over-confident Yugoslavs from the Eastern Bloc in 1948, leaving them isolated.

At home, some of Tito’s closest allies ventured to criticise the disconnect between communist rhetoric and the reality of one-party rule. When Milovan Djilas, president of the Federal Assembly and second only to Tito in public prestige, called for two-party democracy in 1954, he was expelled, ostracised and eventually imprisoned.

Dedijer, who had looked up to this hardened revolutionary, was the only senior figure to side with Djilas. He paid a heavy price. Although repression in Yugoslavia tended to be less draconian than in other communist states, Dedijer was expelled from both the Party and his position in the History Department at Belgrade University. Cut adrift, he also endured new personal tragedies: one of his three sons committed suicide in 1958, having reportedly been interrogated about his father’s activities. A second son died less than a decade later after another apparent suicide, although there have been rumours of the involvement of police in his death.

Eventually granted freedom to travel, Dedijer took up a string of visiting lectureships at universities in North America and Europe. The early 1960s brought him to Manchester, where he could indulge his passion for English football once again.

Writing in the Manchester Guardian, he explained this love and shared his thoughts as to why football had stagnated here as the continental game thrived. His adopted team had fallen from grace, plying their trade in the Second Division.

Nevertheless, he wrote of his joy at news of Huddersfield’s routine league victory over Norwich City. In time, his loyalty was recognised with honorary membership of the club.

Dedijer became a respected historian and human rights activist. He nurtured close friendships with intellectuals from Bertrand Russell to Jean-Paul Sartre, and he even chaired the Russell Tribunal, a symbolic institution which convicted the United States of America in absentia of war crimes in Vietnam.

By the time of his death in 1990, Dedijer had been rehabilitated in his homeland as a public intellectual. Yet the socialist state that he had helped to found was on the brink of violent disintegration.

Huddersfield Town, on the other hand, has fought its way back to flourish. Perhaps today, in a faraway attic, a child is following Huddersfield online, as excited by the club’s embrace of European innovations – with German coach David Wagner at the helm – as young Vladimir was by its familiar strip all those years ago.

Dr Richard Mills lectures in Modern European History at the University of East Anglia. The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia: Sport, Nationalism and the State, will be published by I.B. Tauris in December 2017

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