Strange but true: Leeds United exited 1989 as Second Division leaders, finished 1999 on top of the Premier League and 2009 at the League One summit. But as their manager, Simon Grayson, and captain, Richard Naylor, readily confirm, fluctuating fortunes have never stopped Leeds fans defining themselves by their enmity with tomorrow's FA Cup opponents, Manchester United.
The duo are the boyhood supporters who ended up filling the roles occupied by Don Revie and Billy Bremner when the trans-Pennine fixture developed into one of the game's fiercest rivalries during the 1960s. Far from being affronted by the anti-Leeds songs that have cascaded from the Old Trafford stands lately, Grayson has been encouraged by them.
"I take it as a compliment," said the 40-year-old former Blackpool manager, who once warmed the bench at Elland Road with Eric Cantona. "When teams go from the Premier League to League One like we did, the rivalry can dwindle away. It's a testament to us as a club that they probably hate us as much as they did when they played us on a regular basis."
Leeds will be backed by 9,000 followers and, according to Grayson, they could have taken 30,000. "Our fan base is absolutely astonishing when you consider what the club has been through over the past few years. Wherever we go, even in midweek, we fill our allocation. We have to do ourselves justice at Old Trafford because our fans have been through a lot of turmoil and lots of money has been spent on following this team."
Naylor, who served Ipswich before joining his home-town team, recalls feeling a sense of awe when passing Cantona's house in Leeds on his way to school and anguish on hearing the Frenchman had become a Red. The defender, 32, acknowledges that "growing up as a Leeds fan, with the history, you don't like Manchester United very much" yet agrees with the suggestion that the Stretford End "chanting disrespectful stuff" is a back-handed tribute.
There are, however, no illusions of parity. "Man United have gone on to great things over the past 10 years. Leeds haven't, and there's envy that we haven't. Ask any Leeds fan and they'll say we're as big a club as them, but on a global basis you can't compare the two."
Naylor regards the third-round tie as a reward for "the most loyal supporters in the country". He added: "It'll be good to see so many Leeds fans at Old Trafford. Matches between the clubs are always an event. It's the sort of game we want week in, week out."
Both men temper their fervour with professional admiration for Sir Alex Ferguson and the champions. "Sir Alex has achieved fantastic things in the game that we're all trying to emulate," Grayson said. "If you do half as well as him, you've done a decent job." Naylor spoke of his "huge respect" for Wayne Rooney and admitted he would be cheering him on in the World Cup.
Grayson accepts that whatever combination Ferguson settles upon will be "fantastic", while Naylor, a young reserve at Ipswich when they crashed 9-0 at United, hopes he rolls out the big guns. "If we're going to get a decent result I don't want anyone making excuses and saying 'it's because we played our reserves'. Rooney is the top striker in the country so it would be great to pit my wits against him."
Leeds' record commands respect – apart from their sole League One defeat by Millwall, they have lost just once, 1-0 to Liverpool in the Carling Cup – and Grayson is confident he has a "talented group of players" who will "thrive on the occasion".
Unlikely as an upset may appear, the sight of Brian Flynn at Leeds' 4-2 win at Stockport on Monday was a reminder of another year that stands out in their history. In 1981, some 17 visits ago, a rare goal by the man now managing Wales Under-21s secured their last victory at Old Trafford.Reuse content