Football: Epic ahead as Leeds aim to cut gap at top: United's tough test

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The Independent Online
AS BEFITS the New Year's Day programme, old acquaintance will be foremost in the minds of many spectators, though there is unlikely to be any cup of kindness at several venues staging potentially vitriolic reunions.

In the match of the day - of the year, in fact - Leeds go to Old Trafford knowing that anything less than their first victory over Manchester United since Brian Flynn's winner there some 12 meetings and 13 years ago will confirm them as also-rans in a title race which Howard Wilkinson et al have virtually conceded anyway. Even a shock success would leave Leeds 12 points behind the champions.

As if that did not guarantee a ferocious contest, there is the Eric Cantona factor. Hell hath no fury like a Leeds supporter scorned, as their former idol's acrimonious return to Elland Road in February proved. Gordon Strachan is sure to get a hot reception from his old crowd, as will David White as a former City man, but provided the bitterness is confined to the stands an epic is in prospect.

That is quite a caveat, because United-Leeds matches have a history of bad blood on the terraces. In a commendable attempt to defuse the atmosphere, both Strachan and Gary McAllister have appealed to their followers not to sing the sick song mocking the memory of those who died in the Munich air disaster.

United's pre-eminence since Cantona crossed the Pennines - not to mention unrivalled attacking pace which may prove too much for Leeds's suspect central defence - is such that the best chance of stopping them might now be for the Bishop of Durham to decree that they do not exist. Not that there has been any slacking by the pursuing pack, but too often they have strengthened the leaders' position by taking points off each other.

The visit of second-placed Blackburn to Aston Villa, in a fixture which promises a classic confrontation between Alan Shearer and Paul McGrath as well as the opening of Villa's new stand, is another case in point. Kenny Dalglish claims Rovers have gained in confidence from taking United to the wire last Sunday, but Villa are fresh from a fine win at Norwich and anxious to turn over a new leaf at home.

At the bottom of the Premiership, Glenn Hoddle's return to Swindon is also sure to inflame passions. The mention of his name over the Tannoy last Monday provoked fierce booing, possibly a first for Chelsea's wholesome player- manager. All of which is harsh on Hoddle - who is injured and sits out today's six-pointer - since he did lead Swindon to promotion before leaving to work for Ken Bates.

In the First Division, the sight of Barry Fry on the Birmingham bench at Southend may cause even greater hostility. Fry, who defected to the Midlands only three weeks ago, said he expected 'a terrible reaction' at Roots Hall and added, tongue only slightly in cheek, that he might have to wear a bullet-proof vest and tin hat.

Feelings are running high between the clubs, with writs and injunctions flying about and Fry's hate mail including a threat to shoot him. Undeterred, Fry was busy yesterday paying pounds 150,000 for Watford's ex-Barnet utility player Roger Willis, although George Parris refused to move in the opposite direction. He also re-signed the former Blues midfielder, Peter Shearer, on a free transfer from Bournemouth, while Carl Shutt, a Terry Cooper buy from Leeds, joined Manchester City on loan with a view to a permanent move.

Another return, that of Gary Mabbutt MBE to training yesterday, should gladden the most hard- hearted opposing fan. The Tottenham captain, who suffered a broken cheekbone and damaged eye socket in a now-infamous collision with Wimbledon's John Fashanu in November, will have further surgery on Tuesday to remove a steel plate inserted at the time of the original operation. According to the Spurs manager, Ossie Ardiles, Mabbutt 'looked good' in the five-a-sides. Whoever takes the new year's honours today, that is cheering news


Joe Lovejoy on David Batty,

Football Diary

Team news, page 22