In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe talks about the rivalry between Leeds United and Manchester United.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
For some Leeds fans our Premier League re-birth still feels like a dream, or a form of disposable fluff; detached light entertainment to amuse us until we can get back to our true existence and experience the sights, sounds and obnoxious smells of football in the flesh, in reality. To those Leeds fans it still feels like this enforced absence is two seasons merged into one; a kaleidoscope of the fantastic and the other-wordly, while others feel a heavy dose of actuality every time a six foot beast in any given opposition shirt launches himself at a ball arrowed in at our distressed defence. To the rest of the Leeds fanbase, the Premier League won’t feel real until we play Man Utd.
Football rivalries are the currency that keeps football going, the world over, and perhaps more than the usually futile pursuit of trophies, or promotion, because it involves everyone. Every club has rivals, whether they are geographical, the result of past battles and historical grandstanding or the fruits of bizarre social media confrontations that border on the hallucinogenic.
Some rivalries are one-way and you only realise it’s a ‘thing’ when you go one-down after eight minutes at some godforsaken hole in an industrial estate it takes three trains to get home from. Other rivalries are in the blood; the ones you retain for years, and you yearn to be rekindled, even though you would never admit it.
But then some people might define ‘rivals’ as the teams you actually play against; those you are vying for promotion with, those who can cost you the points on a Saturday. Following that line of thinking, we might have to admit that Huddersfield Town were actually rivals, but aren’t anymore, and Brentford and Reading too; teams which fail to rouse any strong emotions except when we are each locked in combat.
In that sense, what do we feel about Manchester United? Well of course it’s hard to explain that in words, and most of us can express it just with a flash of disdainful scorn, or a playful glint in the eye as we recall past encounters. Some rivalries endure, and distant separation doesn’t dampen their catalysis. The embers always glow, they never die. But to one generation of Manchester United fans, Leeds are merely a team that embarrassed them in the FA Cup ten years ago. And maybe they only react to us in the same way we get mildly agitated when we see someone wearing a Histon Town scarf at Grantham North services?
My first Leeds v Man Utd game was the League Cup Semi-Final Second Leg at Elland Road in 1991. I had grown up in the 1980s hearing songs about “Manchester” and not really understanding the significance, but promotion changed all that. And while the league game at home early in that 1990/91 season was a relatively tame affair, the two-legged cup encounter was like a crash course in appreciating the potency of generations of boiling hatred. A spray of spittle and coins greeted Lee Sharpe’s last-minute winner as Leeds fans on the Lowfields terrace felt a long walk home was justifiable consequence for parting with their bus fare as a means of expressing anger and wrath.
It was a feeling that barely subsided in its vacuum-packed intensity for more than a decade, perhaps fuelled by that Manchester United side containing and being led by a rogue’s gallery of pantomime villains. Except there wasn’t much laughter. For every Ince v Batty there was a Hughes v Fairclough and a Chapman v Bruce a few yards behind, and each match of the era – and there were loads - was enough to make Gaetano Berardi salivate, but then wince.
Of course, in my callow youth, I knew there was a historical rivalry, and a 15th century ‘War of the Roses’ dust-up you couldn’t escape. And I knew there was a long line of thunderous encounters and epic, exhausting Semi-Final trilogies between Revie’s rancorous and derided Leeds and Matt Busby’s cherished and lauded “United”.
There was also the Charlton brothers’ rivalry, and how Leeds had journeyed on a different trajectory upon poaching Johnny Giles in 1963. It all added up to a Molotov Cocktail of tension, bitterness and recrimination, which led an unrelenting, incendiary existence throughout the 1990s. Every transfer between the two clubs had seemed to signal the end of an era for one and the start for another. Jordan and McQueen going one way, Strachan the other, and then there’s Cantona, and Ferdinand and Smith; almost like there was a conjoined lifeline between the two, where one had to influence the fortunes of the other. Until Leeds got relegated and Manchester United disappeared into another galaxy, and but for that outlandish skirmish on January 3rd 2010 - the valour and audacity of which will surely never be repeated - and a 3-0 League Cup defeat in 2011, when the low-key atmosphere at a downtrodden Elland Road felt half-hearted and ‘forced’, our paths haven’t crossed.
And yet our long-awaited meeting on Sunday afternoon won’t be the rousing occasion it should be, or the powder keg confrontation a legion of Manchester United fans will have secretly welcomed back on their fixture list. But it might still help a new generation of Leeds fans, who have heard folkloric stories and blushed at the brusqueness of songs, understand what this ‘Man Utd’ preoccupation is really all about, just like fans my age did in the early 1990s. Because there will still be an inescapable cavalcade of interest, narrative and history going on around it.
Until a Leeds player wheels away in manic elation having scored in front of a packed ‘Beckford End’ at Old Trafford, or the red shirt of the opposition sees the whites of the eyes and feels the breath of rage at Elland Road, no fan of either side will experience the full tumult of a nuclear-charged antipathy that comes ingrained at birth and will never cross a gargantuan divide.
We’ll say it quietly, but it’s what we have all missed and what we have all wished for. Sometimes competition is hearty, healthy and for gentlemen, sometimes it transcends anything rational and becomes something we can’t explain, and don’t really need to. Leeds v Manchester United is just that; a whirling dervish of intrigue, spite and combat. Then we dust ourselves down and move on.
This Sunday might be a pale imitation of what we have seen in previous years, and it might miss the divisive characters and the caricatures of fervid extremities. But we will still be able to see what it means, and perhaps then, finally, and for all of us, this Premier League ‘thing’ will definitely be something to remind us; something with emotions, something we can touch, and something we have definitely felt before.