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Leeds v Manchester United: a history of conflict and contempt

From the War of the Roses to the capture of Cantona, Jack Pitt-Brooke finds the many reasons behind a bitter rivalry

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Tuesday 20 September 2011 00:00 BST

One of English football's fiercest rivalries resumes this evening 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," recounts Daniel Harris, Manchester United fan and author of ' On The Road: A journey through a season' to The Independent. "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 history which really affects the rivalry," explained Clavane, "is the industrial revolution. Their successful cotton industry ruined our traditional woollen industry because it was to cheaper to produce. Yorkshire weavers were undercut, and this was the beginning of Manchester's new wealth: King Cotton." The feeling of Manchester superiority, which defines the rivalry, was realised in new ways. "There's clearly a sense of cultural envy there," he said. "Loiners claim their writers, artists, musicians are ignored – Keith Waterhouse, David Storey etc – whereas the swaggering Mancs – Oasis, Coronation Street etc – have always been the darlings of the media." For Manchester, Harris claims "better music, better literature, better television and a distinct identity and attitude".

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 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, 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. Like Arsenal, Leeds were a team that everyone could hate together for their utter joylessness, though they did also play some good stuff.”

The impression persists, though, that Leeds did not (it's the premise of The Damned United ), causing Clavane to bristle: “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.” The perception that Leeds receives insufficient credit, relative to the feted Manchester, had a new manifestation."

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 French forward Eric Cantona to Old Trafford for £1.2m. Cantona took the trophy with him; 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 Sir 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. He 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 – and, indeed, of the north," said Clavane. "Manchester United have lived the post-Sky dream; Leeds United paid the price of 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."

Cups 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.

Daniel Harris was shortlisted for best new writer at the British Sports Book Awards for his book, On The Road: a journey through a season; Anthony Clavane's 'Promised Land: A Northern Love Story', was named Sports Book Of The Year by the National Sporting Club

Far from United: five memorable meetings

* Leeds United 0-0 Manchester United (27 March 1965) Denis Law and Jack Charlton fight in a violent but goalless FA Cup semi-final.

* Manchester United 0-1 Leeds United (26 March 1970) Billy Bremner's goal settles the second replay of another FA Cup semi.

* Manchester United 1-0 Leeds United (17 April 1996) Roy Keane scores a late winner as Alex Ferguson's team march to the title.

* Leeds United 0-4 Manchester United (7 Sept 1996) Eric Cantona scores against his old team, and Leeds sack manager Howard Wilkinson.

* Manchester United 0-1 Leeds United (4 January 2010)

Jermaine Beckford scores the only goal of a third-round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford for Leeds who were then in League One.

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