It started on the pitch and continued on the terraces. The Chelsea-Leeds United rivalry resumes tomorrow at Stamford Bridge and most of the players and staff involved will wonder what the fuss is about.
The teams meet for the first time in eight years. That was a tepid 5-1 victory for Chelsea at Elland Road in the League Cup, when the biggest threat of disorder was from the managers: Rafa Benitez and Neil Warnock had history of their own. Yet until Leeds were relegated from the top flight in 2004, this fixture was one of the English game’s flashpoints.
For the players, the loathing reached an apex in the 1970 FA Cup final, a tie that Chelsea won after a replay. The second game at Old Trafford has achieved iconic status as one of the most brutal encounters in domestic football. “At times, it appeared that Mr Jennings [the referee] would give a free-kick only on production of a death certificate,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney, the great sports journalist.
The showdown in the final was the culmination of a decade of dislike. The clubs emerged from the second tier in consecutive seasons in the early 1960s and became symbols of the national divide.
Their clash of styles reflected the mood of the country. Chelsea, with the ground’s proximity to the King’s Road, became associated with Swinging London and finished third in the table in 1964-65. Leeds were a place above them in the Yorkshire club’s first season after promotion. Don Revie’s team were northern to the core.
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Leeds were not the only club irritated by Chelsea’s perceived ‘flashiness’. Bill Shankly was enraged by the west London club’s attitude before the 1965 FA Cup semi-final, telling his team to “stuff those wee cocky Southern buggers”. Revie’s resentment went even deeper.
What both Chelsea and Leeds had was a core of talented players and a rugged ethos. The antagonism built over a number of seasons. Revie’s team had a goal disallowed in the 1967 FA Cup semi-final that Chelsea won 1-0. Six months later revenge was exacted when the London club were spanked 7-0 at Elland Road in the league. Running battles took place all over the pitch whenever the teams played. The most legendary match-up was between Peter Osgood, the swaggering, flamboyant striker, and Jack Charlton. The Leeds centre half was the essence of downbeat northern grit; the Chelsea centre forward a home counties wide boy. Their duels were explosive.
The hatred – and former players from both sides admit that the feelings were that intense – was replicated on the terraces. In the hooligan era a section of supporters of both clubs prided themselves on being the most violent group in the country. Chelsea’s Headhunters and the Leeds Service Crew clashed regularly. In 1982 the West End erupted in a series of skirmishes between the supporters. Two years later, when away fans damaged the scoreboard at Stamford Bridge, Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman said: “I shall not rest until Leeds United are kicked out of the Football League. Their fans are the scum of the earth, absolute animals and a disgrace. I will do everything in my power to make this happen.”
Little more than two decades later Bates became the principal owner at Elland Road and very quickly got into a series of rows with Chelsea, first alleging his former club tapped-up youth players at Leeds. Later Bates defended himself against an accusation from Stamford Bridge that he had made antisemitic comments about Roman Abramovich.
Relations between the fans remained tense but the antagonism was largely theatrical compared with the excesses of the 1980s. These days the headhunters in West London are more likely to be highly paid recruitment specialists.
But the hostility could be reignited from the dugout. Frank Lampard crossed swords with Marcelo Bielsa and his team during the Englishman’s stint in charge of Derby County. A member of Bielsa’s staff was caught watching Derby’s training in what was referred to as ‘Spygate’. Leeds were eventually fined £200,000 and their supporters mocked the Derby manager during the first leg of the Championship playoffs two years ago by chanting “Stop Crying Frank Lampard” to the tune of “Stop Crying You Heart Out” by Oasis. The Chelsea legend got his own back by singing the same words ironically in the dressing room after Derby won the second leg to advance to Wembley.
Like the last time Chelsea and Leeds met, the managers are at the epicentre of the feud. Decades have passed since the two clubs first clashed but there is life in the old rivalry yet.
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