Always the best of enemies
The Uniteds of Leeds and Manchester will resume an enduring rivalry this afternoon, writes Paul Wilson
There's a big game taking place at Old Trafford this afternoon. The television cameras will be there, the biggest crowd of the weekend will turn up, even if the occasion is not quite sold out, and at the end everyone will want to know the score. Which is remarkable, really, given that Manchester United are playing at home in the third round of the FA Cup against a team two divisions below them.
Manchester United versus Leeds United just has to be a big game, even if the reasons are mostly historical and the two sides have not met for five years.
In what may be a calculated snub towards Manchester City, Alex Ferguson now prefers to build up his team's rivalry with Liverpool as the keenest in the north, leading to the two biggest grudge matches of the season, yet it has not always been that way. Before Liverpool rose to prominence in the 1970s and '80s, setting a target of league titles that it has been Ferguson's proud achievement to reel in, the two Uniteds were the cocks of the north, the Lancashire-Yorkshire boundary the most conspicuous frontline in football outside derbies between teams from the same city.
For a while, as Leeds emerged as a force under Don Revie, the Yorkshire team even held the upper hand. Manchester United had the glamour, the Best-Law-Charlton trinity and the tragic romance that held everyone's attention in the 10 years that spanned the Munich disaster and Matt Busby's European Cup triumph in 1968, but as the '60s turned into the '70s it was Leeds who were winning matches.
Damned United or not, Revie built an immensely strong side and, between winning the league in 1969 and 1974, Leeds were runners-up three years on the trot, a notable level of consistency in an era when honours tended not to be monopolised by the same two or three clubs. Liverpool had six seasons without a trophy until Bill Shankly's second great side won the league and the Uefa Cup in 1973.
Manchester United fared even worse after 1968, famously enduring a season in the Second Division as Leeds lost Revie, then Brian Clough, and went all the way to a notorious European Cup final in 1975.
Joe Jordan, one of a number of leading players to have appeared for both clubs, remembers being captivated while still a young player in Scotland by the grim but compelling drama the two Uniteds produced in the twice replayed 1970 FA Cup semi-final. Goalless draws at Hillsborough and Villa Park were followed by another tense game at Burnden Park, Bolton, where Billy Bremner scored the only goal to take Leeds to the final, itself replayed, against Chelsea.
"They were just epic encounters," Jordan says. "Meetings between the two clubs were always the big clashes, but the 1970 games were enthralling."
Everyone of a certain age remembers the equally gripping final that year, in no small part due to its undiluted savagery, yet it is important to remember also that in 1970 Chelsea and Leeds were still arriving on football's main stage -- neither had ever won the FA Cup.
There were other ways to measure success, however, and Gordon McQueen remembers being impressed -- how could he not be? -- when walking into the Leeds dressing room as a teenager down from St Mirren in 1973. "There was Jack Charlton, a World Cup winner with England, Johnny Giles, the captain of Ireland, and Billy Bremner, the Scottish captain," he recalls. "Leeds were a huge team at the time, some of their players were like legends."
For all that, the magic formula was lost when Revie left to manage England in 1974, despite Clough being shown the door in 44 days and Jimmy Armfield's initial success in steering Leeds to a European Cup final.
"Everything started to fall apart when Revie left," McQueen says. "I enjoyed playing under Clough but I'm not sure he was the right man for the job, and nothing was quite the same after that." McQueen joined Manchester United in 1978, managing to inflame an awkward situation even more by declaring there was no one bigger. "Ninety nine per cent of footballers want to play for Manchester United," he said, quite memorably. "The rest are liars."
To no one's great surprise, the switches of allegiance by Jordan and McQueen did not go down well in Yorkshire, even though it says much about the relative innocence of the age that both continued to live in the Leeds area for six months while playing on the other side of the Pennines.
"What we had to put up with was a lot worse than anything that happened to Eric Cantona, Rio Ferdinand or Alan Smith," McQueen says. "We couldn't go outside without getting abuse." That was because Manchester United were beginning to grow strong again by 1978, while Leeds fans had the uneasy but accurate suspicion that selling two of their best players to rivals meant they were entering a period of decline. So it proved, and Leeds spent most of the '80s in the Second Division, before winning the last of the old-style league titles under Howard Wilkinson in 1992.
They were slightly lucky to do so, given that Ferguson's Manchester United blew up in the final furlong, yet even so one wonders what might have happened had Wilkinson not made such a gift of Cantona to the Old Trafford cause the following season. The Frenchman had played his part in securing the 1992 title for Leeds, though Wilkinson's failure to see his true worth was just about the end of him as a manager and the beginning of Ferguson's pomp.
The present Manchester United manager has no hesitation in describing Cantona as one of his best signings and the catalyst for all his side's subsequent achievements, and it remains odd that Old Trafford's 26 barren years were brought
to a close by a player deemed surplus to requirements not only by historic rivals, but by the previous season's champions. Yet trans-Pennine business has always gone on. Gordon Strachan was part of Leeds' title success, after all, and among players in recent decades to have appeared for both sides are Andy Ritchie, Denis Irwin, Lee Sharpe and the aforementioned Smith and Ferdinand.
"It's a funny sort of rivalry," says Lou Macari, who never played for Leeds but joined Manchester United from Celtic when Revie's side were at their peak in 1973. "These aren't teams from the same city, not even the same county, yet geographically they are quite close and the rivalry used to be fierce.
"When I first came to Manchester, the derby game was against City, and that was the first fixture everyone would look out for. The toughest game of the season was always against Leeds, and that would be the second. Matches against Leeds were always battles, really big games, but that wasn't through Lancashire-Yorkshire rivalry. It was because Leeds were so good. They had a great side, some really big name players. I can still list them all. They always gave you a game and to be honest they often got the better of us. I can remember playing them in the semi-final the year we won the FA Cup against Liverpool, and what a tough match it was.
"I looked at the present Leeds teamsheet the other day and it hit me that I hardly knew any of the names. I'm not saying they aren't any good, just that things have changed a lot since my playing days. I imagine that if Manchester United put out a full strength side in the Cup tie it will be a mismatch. I'm still going to be there, though. I wouldn't miss it for anything."
Manchester Utd v Leeds Utd,
ITV, Setanta Ireland, 1.0