Friday 24 November 2017

United in hatred

Leeds and Red Devils now leagues apart but age-old animosity and bitterness still fester

Jack Pitt-Brooke

One of English football's fiercest rivalries resumes tonight as Leeds United host Manchester United in the Carling Cup.

Hatred being a major nutrient of the club game, this is one of the great sustaining fixtures, even though 40 miles and the Pennines lie between the clubs.

Across those peaks flows regional antipathy, rooted in the Wars of the Roses and the Industrial Revolution, finding its recent form in football -- a series of brutal semi-finals, exhausting title races, and the transfer of Eric Cantona in 1992 setting up two decades of Manchester domination.

It is a dynamic of distaste and envy, and one that does not even require regular meetings to maintain it.

"As a kid, my dislike was principally theoretical and vicarious, as we never played them," recounted Daniel Harris, Manchester United fan and author of 'On The Road: A journey through a season.'

"But my dad would immediately recall the thuggery of Don Revie's team if ever they came up in conversation."

The antipathy is certainly matched. "It's not the first result I look for but I do feel a lot happier if they've lost," admitted Anthony Clavane, author of 'Promised Land: A Northern Love Story'.

"I try to dress this up as a meritocratic thing -- we all want the Premier League to be more competitive -- but I am sure, deep down, it is a tribal thing."

The two tribes have been warring for centuries. The House of York and Lancaster spent much of the 15th century in bloody conflict for the English throne.

Competition for the crown was replaced by competition for commerce, and the cities were set against each other again.

"The industrial revolution really affected the rivalry," explained Clavane. "Their successful cotton industry ruined our traditional woollen industry because it was cheaper to produce.

"Yorkshire weavers were undercut, and this was the beginning of Manchester's new wealth: King Cotton."

Centuries of rivalry and jealousy could only lead to antagonistic football clubs.

This first exploded in the 1964-65 season, in which Manchester United pipped Leeds for the title on goal average.

There was also an FA Cup semi-final, featuring a fight between Denis Law and Jack Charlton, "establishing the enmity that was to follow", according to Harris.

The tie was repeated five years later. "The 1970 semi-final took even longer than the 209 minutes of 1965 to discover a goal, and was also more fraught off the pitch," said Harris.

"My dad certainly remembers it with the opposite of nostalgia. I remember finding the programme from the second replay, and receiving a lesson as to why we didn't like Leeds in our house."

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Don Revie's side won nearly everything, establishing Leeds as England's leading team, at the cost of Matt Busby's Manchester United.

"Not only did they take over from us as the country's best side," Harris said, "but in many ways, they were the antithesis of Busby's United, who, though no pushovers, understood the importance of sportsmanship and always played to entertain. Us against them has always felt like a battle between good and evil."

Clavane countered: "Leeds fans, and anyone who saw the great team in their prime, know who was the more attractive team of the 1970s.

"Anyone who witnessed the famous 7-0 against Southampton knows that Don Revie's team played total football."

After a quiet 1980s, during which Leeds were in the Second Division, the definitive, encapsulating period of the rivalry was the early 1990s.

In 1991/92, Howard Wilkinson's Leeds won the First Division title thanks to Manchester United's implosion.

In November 1992, Leeds sold Eric Cantona to Old Trafford for £1.2m. The Frenchman took the trophy with him as Manchester United won their first title since 1967.

Leeds have not finished ahead of them since.

Given the cities' histories and their associations, there was a sense of fulfilment when Cantona signed for Alex Ferguson.

"The excitement when he signed was quite something," remembers Harris. "Partly because of the shock, and partly because we were desperate for almost anything, but also because he was so obviously everything a United player should be."

For Clavane, the memories are not quite so sweet, and echo the divergence of the past: "Selling him to Fergie's mob was the worst transfer decision in history. It was a clear signal that Leeds were again selling themselves short."

Cantona's transfer was arguably the most transformative in English football history.

"It's unarguable that he made all the difference to United," said Harris. "We weren't going to win the league in 1992-93 until we signed him, we won the double in 1993-94, we didn't win the double in 1994-95 because he was suspended, and when he came back we won the double in 1995-96.

"Cantona was the symbol of Fergie's first great side. Though he's not necessarily the best player I've ever seen, he's almost certainly the most important, and by a mile the most loveable, interesting and iconic."

After a brief but damaging flirtation with success in the early 2000s, Leeds were relegated from the Premier League and are yet to return to the top flight.

"The differing fortunes of the two clubs over the past 20 years symbolise the two competing narratives of English football," said Clavane.

"Manchester United have lived the post-Sky dream; Leeds United paid the price for trying to do so."

For Harris, the off-field contrasts offer the basis for solidarity between clubs "imperilled by boardroom behaviour -- in Leeds' case by idiocy, in United's by greed."

Cup games provide the only games between these teams now, but 2010's FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, which Leeds won, showed that the contempt and spite which made the game so vital are still there.

Tonight's fixture may no longer be between England's two best teams, but there are more important things in football than excellence. (© Independent News Service)

Leeds United v Manchester United,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 7.45

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