If proof were really needed of the deep and enduring antipathy between the two sides who collide at Elland Road this weekend, then try asking Manchester United’s Paddy Crerand about playing Leeds United.
A preamble to this question includes mention that Johnny Giles, a mainstay of the Leeds teams Crerand went up against, has also been consulted on the subject. ‘Have you asked him about their tackling?’ Crerand says. ‘Have you asked him what Don Revie said before that match? They were nasty. A very nasty team.’
‘That match’ was an FA Cup semi-final between the teams, on a foul day at Hillsborough 57 years ago, and it is the one to which the acrimony which we will see on Sunday – at the teams’ first Elland Road Premier League clash before fans for 13 years – can be dated.
Johnny Giles (right) and Pat Crerand have reminisced over old Leeds vs Man United games
Leeds host Manchester United at a packed Elland Road on Sunday for the first time in 19 years
Some have conveniently cited the War of the Roses and Manchester’s cheap cotton destroying Yorkshire’s wool trade as the source of this trans-Pennine football war. But no football rivalry of any kind ever existed between the two sides in the long, barren years before Revie took Leeds up to the First Division and posed United an almighty challenge.
Sir Matt Busby sold Giles to Leeds in 1963 because he considered them a busted flush, who’d recently fought off relegation to the third division. ‘There’s no rivalry when you’re not in the running,’ says Giles. ‘No-one really cared about us.’
Revie’s young Leeds team reached the top flight in the summer of ‘64 and proceeded to beat Busby’s team 1-0 on their own turf – the brilliant Bobby Collins scored – to go top of the league. They were young and utterly fearless, with a 20-year-old Normal Hunter, a 21-year-old Paul Madeley and a 22-year-old Giles.
‘Winning at Old Trafford was us putting a marker down. We were the upstarts,’ Giles says. They also began to develop a reputation for aggression – entirely unfounded, Giles insists – which leaked poison into that 1965 semi-final at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground.
Leeds and United players clashed during a spicy FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1965
‘It was a terrible day in every sense,’ Giles says of the Cup tie. ‘The wind was blowing down the pitch and you had to aim corner kicks at the edge of the area.’ He doesn’t really recall which foul set things off, though Denis Law definitely fought off-the-ball with Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner with Crerand.
‘You had to commit GBH to get a yellow card in those days,’ says Giles. ‘Law was a great player but he was aggressive – physical – and so were Stiles and Crerand. It wasn’t Leeds bullying that day.’
Crerand sees it altogether differently. ‘If they had taken a ball out onto the pitch, we wouldn’t have known it,’ he says. ‘They were a good team, yes, but if you just looked at a Leeds player they fell over for a foul. They were cheating from the off that day. They came to kick us. All that came from Leeds United. It didn’t come from us. The rivalry was all from their side. We had nothing against Leeds United.’
The numbers bear out Giles’ version of history. Manchester United conceded 24 free kicks to Leeds’ ten. Stiles and Law were the two men booked. An emblematic image captures Bremner walking around the pitch in a torn shirt. The Yorkshire Post’s Eric Stanger likened it all to ‘a pack of dogs snapping and snarling at each other over a bone.’ There were no goals. Football was rather beside the point.
It did break out at the replay, at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground the following Wednesday evening. ‘Both sides knew they had to calm it down,’ recalls Giles. ‘It was a good night to play football, which helped. There weren’t the tackles you get on a bad day.’
So the fans did the punching instead. When Leeds won 1-0 – 22-year-old Billy Bremner converting a soaring 30-yard Giles free-kick – Man United supporters swarmed onto the pitch, striking and grounding referee Dick Windle, who’d officiated both games. United fans felt he’d favoured Leeds, whose own fans were also involved in crowd trouble for the first time in the club’s history. Windle needed medical attention.
Busby’s side pipped Leeds to that season’s league title on goal average, after Leeds stuttered, though the Hillsborough tie was defining. ‘That was the start of the rivalry,’ Giles insists. ‘Where the First Division was concerned, we were on the up and they were soon down, down, down and that just added to the antagonism.’
The envy certainly cut both ways. Though champions Leeds finished 26 points and ten places above Manchester United in 1969, they felt the glamorous Old Trafford team were still favoured by the BBC: ‘Busby Best and Charlton’ as they called the Corporation. Revie’s paranoia on this point fuelled the anger. Leeds fans perceived a loathsome entitlement in the Manchester fans who sang: ‘There’s only one United.’
Football was beside the point when these two teams met in the 1960s and 1970s
Given that the competitive intensity has rarely reached the mid-60s peak ever again, the enduring opprobrium has been astonishing. Gordon Strachan knew nothing about it when he was sold to Leeds by the Old Trafford club in 1989. ‘I’d never been or played or watched a game at Elland Road before I arrived,’ he says. ‘Leeds had never been remotely a challenger to Manchester United. But it took me two weeks to realise, “I don’t think these people like Manchester United.”’
Just as the released Giles returned to haunt Busby, Strachan – who felt he’d been ‘put out to grass’ by Alex Ferguson – led Leeds back up to the First Division and then to the title.
‘Manchester United were desperate to win the league and we were these up and coming guys, getting in their way,’ Strachan says. ‘The songs you’d hear both sets of fans sing about the other club’s history – they stick in my mind. You’d be playing and hear them and think: ‘That’s not right.’
Strachan always felt the sale of Eric Cantona to Old Trafford in 1992 ‘intensified the hostility.’ Leeds fans believed Cantona was given away and his imperious celebration in front of them after scoring in the 4-0 Elland Road win of 1996 was not far off incitement to riot.
Gordon Strachan worked out the rivalry between Leeds and Manchester United straight away
Cantona fitted a pattern of antagonistic transfers between the clubs going back years. From Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan (1978) to Rio Ferdinand (2002) and Alan Smith (2004), it always seemed to be the hottest properties leaving. ‘Players like Hunter and Bremner would never have dreamt of leaving for Old Trafford. The fact that others did maybe showed how that era was over,’ Giles reflects.
And of course, Ferguson was an accelerant to this most combustible mix. Leeds fans have never forgotten his words when he was beaten to the ‘92 title – ‘Leeds didn’t win it; Manchester United lost it.’
That was the year after the League Cup semi-final first leg, won for United by Lee Sharpe late on, when a Leeds fan subsequently mistook Ferguson’s assistant, Eric Harrison, for the man himself and hit him.
The rivalry between Leeds and Man United spilled into Sir Alex Ferguson’s (right) era
‘He absolutely panned him,’ Ferguson related in his autobiography. ‘The guy thought he was hitting me. On came the fans. Pandemonium. And yet there was something about the hostile atmosphere at Elland Road that I quite liked.’
Giles, too, would simply not have had Leeds United v Manchester United any other way. Things could be delicate at times, given that Nobby Stiles was married to Giles’ sister, Kay. ‘Kay would tell Nobby: “Now don’t you be kicking our John”’ Giles remembers.
But he would have that rivalry back in a heartbeat. ‘There was no-one falling down and diving around,’ he says. ‘No-one trying to buy a foul. And when you were fouled, you didn’t want to show it. Tough days. Tough days. But exciting ones.’