Why the Man United vs Leeds rivalry is so venomous

From Denis Law and Jack Charlton scrapping to FA Cup brawls and Roy Keane and Alfie Haaland’s infamous clash… Manchester United and Leeds share one of England’s FIERCEST rivalries

  • Manchester United and Leeds United are set to meet at Old Trafford on Sunday
  • It’s the first time in 16 years these two traditional rivals have met in the league
  • This trans-Pennine animosity started in the mid-1960s and still rages on
  • Meetings between the two were marked by hooliganism in the 1970s and 1980s
  • Players who moved from Elland Road to Old Trafford have been vilified 
  • Personal feuds between players on opposite sides have often boiled over 

Manchester United and Leeds United may well be resuming hostilities against the backdrop of Old Trafford’s enormous empty stands this Sunday but the fixture will still carry the same edge it always has.

This full-bloodied animosity, deep-rooted in history, has been largely dormant for most of the 21st century but is poised to erupt once again in a first Premier League meeting in 16 years.

Few football rivalries in this country are so venomous both on and off the field, so often in the past 50 or so years straying beyond the pale and dividing not only two cities on opposite sides of the Pennines but friends and families as well.

The bitter rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds United will resume on Sunday. Billy Bremner gets a boot from Gerry Daly during a meeting at Elland Road in October 1975

Players from both sides scrap during the FA Cup third round tie at Old Trafford back in 2010 after Jonny Evans had fouled Jonny Howson 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the current Man United manager, and Rio Ferdinand square up to Ian Harte of Leeds (second right) in September 2002

In many ways, it’s a colossal shame that Covid-19 has precluded fans from attending Sunday’s game. Sir Alex Ferguson described meetings with Leeds as ‘fantastic, feisty occasions’ playing in ‘electric’ atmospheres with a ‘tinge of hostility’.

But as the clashes between Denis Law and Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles and his brother-in-law Johnny Giles, and Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland prove, blood can boil on the field just as easily as off it.

Those seeking a long lineage to this rivalry speak of the Wars of the Roses between the rival Plantagenet houses of York and Lancaster for the English throne in the 15th century.

Even now, Leeds play in white kit resembling the white rose of Yorkshire and Man United play in red shirts like the red rose of Lancashire.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought ‘Cottonopolis’ Manchester and the wool-producing powerhouse of Leeds, just 40 miles apart, into direct competition.

Travel between the two cities has become much faster and smoother in the last century and yet still those born on either side actively seek to differentiate themselves from those on the opposite side of the Pennines divide in an endless argument of superiority. You’re either Lancashire or you’re Yorkshire.

Man United keeper Pat Dunne clings onto the ball in a quagmire of a goalmouth despite the attentions of Jack Charlton (standing) and Jim Storrie (left) of Leeds in the 1965 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough

Billy Bremner (second right) heads home the decisive goal in the 1965 FA Cup semi replay

Bremner is lifted in the air in celebration by Jim Storrie after settling a fierce semi-final

In football terms, it all started in 1906 when Leeds City, as they were then known, beat Manchester United 3-0 in the Second Division in front of 6,000 spectators at Bank Street, the forerunner to Old Trafford.

But there wasn’t any rivalry between the two clubs to speak of until the mid-1960s. Indeed, when Don Revie was appointed manager of Leeds in 1961, one of his first acts was to telephone Matt Busby and ask if the Man United manager might have a spare hour to impart some managerial wisdom.

Busby invited the rookie manager over to Old Trafford and Revie ended up spending the whole day there.

But within a few years, Revie’s granite-tough Leeds side, featuring Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Billy Bremner and Giles, who crossed the Pennies from Busby’s team for £33,000 in 1963, were challenging Busby’s serial title winners and European Cup pioneers.

The touchpaper was lit in 1964 when newly-promoted Leeds came to Old Trafford and beat leaders Man United 1-0. In the tunnel beforehand, the 5ft 3in terrier Bobby Collins, captain of Leeds, booted George Best and proclaimed ‘that’s just for starters, Bestie.’

Johnny Giles signs for Leeds United in 1963 watched by Leeds manager Don Revie (left), Manchester United assistant manager Jimmy Murphy (centre) and Man United manager Matt Busby (right)  

Don Revie (left) greets Matt Busby (right) in the presence of Leeds player Jack Charlton in 1968

The equally tenacious Stiles took offence and clattered Collins into the perimeter fence at the first available opportunity.

Their meeting in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough the following March, with both teams chasing a League and Cup Double, was equally volatile.

A contest of agricultural tackles saw Jack Charlton and Denis Law throwing punches at one another, the Man United striker playing the final 20 minutes with his ripped shirt hanging off his shoulder.

The violent nature of the content, a goalless draw, was widely criticised by the press. The replay at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground saw the trouble spill onto the terraces, something that would become a running theme when the clubs met. Some supporters ended up in the River Trent amid the clashes.

Bremner won it with an 89th-minute header and when Giles tried to console Stiles at the final whistle, his old pal and relative told him to ‘f*** off’.

Johnny Giles (right, with his son) alongside Nobby Stiles and Pat Crerand at a 1968 function

A keenly-fought contest in 1974, a season which saw Leeds crowned as champions and Man United relegated to the second division 

Leeds lost the Cup final to Liverpool and were pipped to the league title by their Manchester rivals on goal average, that old divider of teams level on points.

Though Busby’s United would become the first English club to lift the European Cup in 1968, Revie’s Leeds would soon overtake them, winning the championship in 1969 and 1974 while enjoying their own European successes.

It took three matches to split the teams in the 1970 FA Cup semi-final, with Bremner once again rising to the occasion for Leeds in a second replay at Burnden Park in Bolton.

With the glory days of Best, Law and Bobby Charlton a fading memory, Man United were pumped 5-1 at Elland Road in 1972 and suffered the ignominy of relegation to the second division as Leeds won the title in 1974. Indeed, Leeds lost just three of their 25 meetings with their rivals in one 1970s run.

The FA Cup draw paired them together at the semi-final stage once more in 1977, by which time Man United had returned to the top tier.

Jimmy Greenhoff (far left) scores for Manchester United in the 1977 FA Cup semi-final

The match programme cover from 1977 billed the game as ‘The Battle of the Roses’

The match programme for the game at Hillsborough billed it as ‘The Battle of the Roses’ and it certainly was on the terraces as hooligans fought during a 2-1 win for a resurgent Man United.

Revie had long departed by then and as if to rub in their rivals’ decline, Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen, two of Leeds’ best players, moved to Old Trafford in quick succession during 1978.

Particularly gutsy was McQueen’s remark: ‘Ask all the players in the country which club they would want to join and 99 per cent would say “Manchester United”. The other one per cent are liars.’

He received a vitriolic welcome on his first return to Elland Road, thus starting something of a theme as other ‘Judases’ Eric Cantona, Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith would discover in the years ahead.

As Ferdinand reflected on his transfer in 2002: ‘There was a lot of bitterness from the Leeds fans when I left. I couldn’t have gone back or they would have lynched me.’

Tensions cooled when Leeds went into the Second Division during the 1980s but rose again oddly enough with the catalyst of Gordon Strachan’s move from Man United in 1989.

Leeds were champions before Ferguson got his hands on it but the shock sale of Cantona for £1.2m in 1992 proved fatal to the Yorkshire club’s chances of sustained success that decade.

As the story goes, Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby rang Man United chairman Martin Edwards to enquire about signing Denis Irwin before the conversation turned to Cantona.

Eric Cantona crossed the Pennines, leaving champions Leeds to sign for Manchester United as Alex Ferguson’s side embarked on a period of success

The Frenchman had been instrumental in delivering the title to Elland Road in 1991-92

Cantona missed a penalty at Elland Road in 1996 though Man United won the match 4-0 

Rio Ferdinand was described as ‘Judas’ by Leeds fans after his move to Old Trafford in 2002

The defender celebrates Man United’s victory at Elland Road in 2003-04, a season that saw Leeds relegated from the Premier League

The mistake was hammered home as Man United won four of the first five championships in the Premier League era at the beginning of a Fergie dynasty of success.

The two clubs’ encounters still carried plenty of venom. Keane damaged his cruciate ligaments in a tangle with Haaland at Elland Road in 1997, with the Norwegian accusing the Irishman of feigning injury as he lay in agony on the ground.

Keane’s revenge came four years later when he planted his studs into Haaland’s knee during a Manchester derby at Old Trafford.

The off-pitch element to the rivalry became all the more spiteful. A minority of Leeds fans had often referenced the Munich Air Disaster and made aeroplane gestures to goad their rivals, while some chanted ‘There’s only one Don Revie’ during a minute’s silence after Busby’s death in 1994.

There had been resentment over the widespread affection for Busby that they believed Revie didn’t receive upon his passing in 1989.

Man United captain Roy Keane takes a swipe at Alfie Haaland during the 1997-98 season

Keane later went down with cruciate ligament damage in the same game with Haaland accusing the Irishman of feigning injury

Keane would take his revenge on Haaland with an awful tackle when they met four years on

Keane has a pop at Haaland as he lies injured on the ground after getting his revenge in 2001

Any hope of a rapprochement in shared grief after the deaths of two Leeds supporters in Istanbul in 2000 were dashed when Man United fans displayed ‘MUFC Istanbul Reds’ and ‘Galatasaray Reds’ banners at their next league meeting.

It was Gary Neville who once described Elland Road as ‘a monstrous place’ and spoke of how Ferguson’s team talks there were ‘get in there, get a result and get out as quickly as we can.’

Aside from a brief spell at the turn of the Millennium when Leeds looked like title contenders, Man United held supremacy and once Leeds suffered relegation in 2004, something swiftly followed by Smith’s highly controversial move, the rivalry faded again.

Jermaine Beckford celebrates his winner against Man United in the 2010 FA Cup tie

Mind you, Jermaine Beckford’s winner in front of the Stretford End in a 2010 FA Cup meeting, when Leeds were in League One, served as a reminder of what bubbled not far beneath the surface.

Now they’re back on equal terms and one of the most intense rivalries in the game can resume at last.




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