In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at rivalries over the years for the Whites.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
Every week Leeds United play a lead character in a different mini-soap opera; a never-ending story of feuds, power struggles and revolving heroes and villains with an opponent they share a long and, more often than not, bitter relationship with. Over the last two weekends we’ve had West Ham – a soap opera within a soap opera - in my lifetime often the whipping boys and over whom we’ve definitely held the upper hand, and this weekend we have Newcastle United; a clash between two northern heavyweights who are a magnet to discord and melodrama and who have sparred and arm wrestled to deliver plentiful high theatre and spectacle over the years.
Despite losing all four games [including the FA Cup] to West Ham since our return to the Premier League, prior to last weekend’s magnificent 3-2 win at the London Stadium, Leeds still enjoy a 45% historical win percentage against the Hammers, amongst our highest against all opponents. Jack Harrison’s virtuoso hat-trick last Sunday certainly upset the recent apple cart, but 49 wins and only 31 defeats from 109 games suggests Leeds have more often been the Phil Mitchell to West Ham’s Ian Beale.
That’s certainly my overall impression of West Ham, where away wins have been frequent over the years, but perhaps none so salaciously lapped up or so overwhelmingly against the odds as this latest one. In most cases a Leeds United win enables everything to make sense in the world, but I’m not sure even the Whites hold that power at the moment, nevertheless, they provided the most unlikely and the sweetest-tasting tonic and a rare enjoyable journey back from London.
However, the appearance of Newcastle United on the horizon brings the next episode of a long-running dispute between two foes with very little to separate them. Over 97 fixtures, things couldn’t be closer. Each team has won 39 games and there have been 19 draws, and casting your mind back, that’s probably a fair reflection of your memories of the various dust-ups at Elland Road and St James’ Park, where fortunes have switched like the wind and where there have been plenty of tense and gripping finales.
Fans of a certain vintage will even remember when Leeds v Newcastle was a staple part of the Christmas schedule; a ritual like falling asleep before the Queen’s Speech and feeling bilious after too much cheese. In the eight years between 1966 and 1974 Leeds played Newcastle six times on Boxing Day, and provided their own yuletide histrionics, but traditionally this is a fixture where neither team has enjoyed the upper hand for long.
At Elland Road I can recall various fixtures which are worthy of the immortal description of ‘ding-dong affairs’. Ian Baird’s last goal for Leeds with a trademark diving header among flying studs on a freezing cold December afternoon in 1989, secured three precious points on the road to promotion in an exemplary casting of the Clash of the Titans. Good Friday in 1994 saw a late Chris Fairclough header rescue a point against Kevin Keegan’s rampant Geordies amid a powder keg atmosphere. Two years later and Keegan lost the plot completely after his title-chasing side edged a close encounter 1-0, one of the few occasions I can remember Newcastle coming to Elland Road with clear superiority in the league table.
By Autumn 1997, Keegan had walked away from Newcastle and it was Leeds on the march up the table again. We hammered the sorry Geordies 4-1, fortunately aided by David Batty putting in his worst-ever performance at Elland Road and clearly hankering for a return to his former stamping ground. Batty was back in white in September 1999 when a late Michael Bridges goal secured a 3-2 win for Leeds after they had thrown away a two-goal lead.
Perhaps the ultimate exhibition of trading blows came in December 2001, when Bobby Robson’s Newcastle edged a tumultuous battle which came to define that era as something of a turning point for Leeds. 3-1 up thanks to goals from Lee Bowyer, Mark Viduka and Ian Harte, Leeds somehow let their lead slip, and at 3-2 a penalty was awarded against them when Eirik Bakke was adjudged to have handled in the act of shielding his face from the ball being volleyed into it from about three inches away. It was the kind of penalty that would never be given today, but I’m not bitter… Even though Newcastle went on to win 4-3. People think that defeat, shattering though it was, and indeed THAT penalty, signalled the calamitous decline from which Leeds have only just recovered, but in truth we won our next three games and topped the Premier League on New Years’ Day 2002 in the lead up to a trip to Cardiff City in the FA Cup, after which most memories are acutely dark and troubled.
Tussles between Leeds and Newcastle at that time largely merge into one, and always seemed to have an incendiary edge, perhaps highlighted by the terrifying pace of the likes of Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer and Nobby Solano – who I can only picture in my mind making a leaden-footed Ian Harte look like he was running backwards through treacle. And of course there was Alan Shearer. There was ALWAYS Alan “oh my god, not again” Shearer.
Most opponents with whom you share such proximity and such a rancorous on-pitch history sees this bitterness spread off the pitch, but in general there is a relatively respectful rivalry between Leeds and Newcastle, perhaps because they are similar types of club, because each are recoiling from previous years of mis-management and because of the neck-and-neck nature of hostilities in recent years.
Last season’s 5-2 win at Elland Road was a critical one for Leeds; it was our first home win in six attempts and saw us back to our free-scoring best. Given Leeds won both fixtures in 2020/21 it feels like somehow Bielsa’s men have missed out a stage in their progression and have leapfrogged over Newcastle to gain a rapid superiority after years in the doldrums. The 1-1 draw at St James’ back in September still rankles as a game Leeds should have won, and although the Dan James ‘penalty’ incident won’t dominate my sourness and resentment for as long as the Eirik Bakke one has/does, it still sparks enough frustration to suggest we owe them one.
Who knows what happens to Newcastle United now, given their game-changing takeover and yet the predicament they still find themselves in at the bottom of the table. There are plenty of TV romantics who are hoping for the ‘great escape’, but Leeds United are well-practiced in playing the archetypal rogue and revel in their antihero fondness for raining on anybody’s parade. That was very much the case when everybody expected fourth-placed West Ham to stroll to another victory over a further-depleted Leeds United last Sunday, so don’t expect us to have any qualms about providing another twist to the idealists’ narrative this weekend.
Every soap opera needs a pantomime villain; carving up opponents in perpetual turf wars, winning and losing skirmishes in equal measure, and always doing it with a playful charm you can’t help falling in love with. Boo, hiss and curse them all you want, because every soap opera needs a Leeds United.