‘The Elland Road saga’: How ‘utter hatred’ between Manchester United and Leeds defined the 1991/92 season

Leeds celebrate winning the title in 1992

‘Utter hatred’ between United and Leeds finally had an outlet

A tone was set, but not a pace. A problem was the rivalry rarely had an outlet. The two Uniteds were rarely in direct competition, and spent nine of the next 25 years in different divisions.

When Leeds were finally promoted in 1990 after eight years in the old Second Division, they finished fourth and faced United in the semi-finals of the League Cup. Lee Sharpe scored a winner against the run of play with two minutes left, but from much more than two yards offside.

Some of the emotion – which was mostly, to quote Ferguson, “utter hatred” – finally had an outlet.

“I was on the pitch, Eric Harrison was in the dug-out,” Ferguson wrote of that game in his first autobiography. “A lot of people think Eric looks like me. One Leeds supporter certainly did, because he whacked Eric. Absolutely panned him. 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.”

Ferguson was one of the few.

“United and Liverpool dislike each other intensely, but there is a grudging respect and admiration between both clubs,” Paddy Crerand once said. “There is none of that between United and Leeds.”

History weighed over so much of the 1991-92 season, although Man United initially played with an exhilarating freedom. Ferguson’s side had clearly improved through winning the 1990 FA Cup and 1991 Cup Winners Cup, and finally looked set to win their first title since 1967.

“We were free-scoring, and playing some of our best football,” Clayton Blackmore tells The Independent now.

United had the highest-scoring attack, the meanest defence, and were top of the table ahead of Leeds United by two points and with two games in hand. The holy grail seemed in hand.

At Elland Road – and Anfield – there was a disgruntled suspicion the media were all behind United, that their story was too seductive. Leeds felt overlooked, dismissed.

Wilkinson, for his part, willingly saw an opportunity in this. He would talk about how United were “the best team in the country according to all the experts” and tell his players to repeat the same message in public: “It’s Man U’s title, it’s a competition for second.”

In private, however, he was the opposite. He willingly told his players “we can do this!”

“That reverse psychology was there,” Gary McAllister tells The Independent. “He kept us concentrated.”

The Leeds players were certainly struck by Wilkinson’s singular focus. That could be seen around the club. While history unavoidably surrounded United, Wilkinson felt it had already burdened Leeds too much. One of his first decisions as manager was to remove all of the photographs and memorabilia of the Don Revie era.

“He wanted the club to stop being a dusty, threadbare mausoleum and become a living, vibrant entity once more,” Rob Bagchi wrote in his excellent biography of the club.

The team itself, calculatedly put together over two years, had a similar focus.

Its finest strengths were in midfield: the ingenuity of McAllister, the industry of David Batty, the thrust of Gary Speed and the experienced class of Gordon Strachan.

Howard Wilkinson on the touchline as Leeds win promotion in 1990

From there, Wilkinson’s assistant Mick Hennigan told Dave Simpson for ‘The Last Champions’, “it was about creating chaos, especially in the penalty box”.

Leeds were hoping to be the chaos element in United’s serene surge to the title they wanted most, to play on that desire.

First, they knew they had to get a result in the very first act of the trilogy.

The league game, 29 December 1991

As the Manchester United players got off the bus at Elland Road, they were greeted by the usual chant.

“Scum! Scum! Scum!”

“You gotta expect that,” Blackmore laughs now.

In the away dressing room, Ferguson gave his usual sentiments at Elland Road. “Get in there, get a result and get out as quickly as we can because we are not welcome here.” He was priming his team for battle.

That, as McAllister argues, was what these matches inevitably became. The emotions of the stands introduced emotion to the play.

“It’s the crowd that drives it. Physical intensity takes over, and you have to win the battle to allow yourself to go play. It was about earning the right to get the ball down, because it was very hard to put your head up and play. The little moments and small margins within that become crucial.”

Wilkinson did have a big decision to make. That was on the fitness of Strachan, whose sciatica had flared up.

The 34-year-old was Leeds’ key player and also personified another rancorous element of the rivalry. The history of the two clubs had been characterised by prominent players going in either direction, with most of the ire focused on those who went from Leeds to Manchester.

The transfers of Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen in 1978 brought ‘Judas’ t-shirts, ‘Judas’ chants, and a whole lot worse.

By contrast, Strachan had been a little dismissed when United sold him in 1989, primarily because Ferguson had so abruptly dispensed with him. “People thought he was coming here to retire,” McAllister says. The sale of Strachan had admittedly helped Ferguson to build this new United team, and in that time he had spent double what Wilkinson had. That was another difference between the sides. It wasn’t quite complete equals. United were wealthier and more glamorous.

Strachan, however, undeniably elevated Leeds. In his absence, they had drawn three successive games to let United streak away with five wins in a row.

Gordon Strachan became Leeds’ key player after leaving United

Wilkinson understandably went with his best player for such a huge game.

“Leeds are a different proposition when he’s orchestrating the play,” Elton Welsby said on ITV’s ‘The Match’.

While the circumstances ensured Wilkinson needed his team primed, Ferguson was looking at it from a longer perspective, “like chess”. The nature of these games meant he felt he had to think two games ahead. He wanted to keep winning on all fronts, and felt it psychologically important to beat title rivals in any big games, regardless of the competition.

It was for these reasons that Leeds started the livelier, but the game gradually became dogged.

United began to subdue them.

“They were a good footballing side, hard and strong,” Blackmore says. “Lee Chapman was up front, more of a target man, get it into the box, winning headers.”

He didn’t win many against Gary Pallister, who was generally having a superb game.

In the studio, Jack Charlton was full of praise. “Pallister hasn’t lost the ball yet against Lee Chapman. If nothing happens with Lee Chapman, nothing happens. Pallister has won it hands down up to now.”

Peter Schmeichel – just signed that summer – barely had to make a save. By contrast, John Lukic was very busy, most notably when keeping out Andrei Kanchelskis.

New signing Peter Schmeichel was rarely troubled

While the Russian ensured there was a lot of play on one wing, that wasn’t quite the case on the other.

The 18-year-old Ryan Giggs was experiencing his first trip to Elland Road and wasn’t really showing the locals why he’d been so heralded.

John Giles described comparisons with George Best as “fatuous” and said he looked “somewhat overawed by the occasion and the demands of a head to head with Mel Sterland”.

Giles’ opinion, like much else with Giggs, was to change.

United were meanwhile absorbing Leeds, until they eventually struck midway through the second half.

A corner fell to Neil Webb on the edge of the box, and the midfielder hit a low bouncing volley into the far corner past John Lukic.

United were in control, and could have added to their lead, only to start sitting back. Strachan and the Leeds midfield began to find space, and an opening. Ten minutes from the end, Rod Wallace – very much the little livewire to Chapman’s large presence – picked up the ball on the right, cut inside and played in McAllister.

Pallister, previously so precise, was a fraction too late.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” McAllister says now. “Gary Pallister laid out a leg and I just nudged it past him. You’re looking for little lapses like that, and they can be the difference.”

It was to prove a difference in an even grander sense than just this game. In the moment, Strachan had a wider perspective too. He was Leeds’ usual penalty taker, having scored four that season, but felt his back was inhibiting him. Sterland was given the ball, and he gave Leeds the equaliser.

They felt they needed more, but a 1-1 draw had at least prevented United scorching away.

“It was vital we didn’t lose,” Wilkinson said. “The teams are very evenly matched.”

Things were about to be knocked off kilter. A mere three days later, United suffered one of their most infamous defeats – and a first in 13 games – as Queens’ Park Rangers won 4-1 at Old Trafford, Dennis Bailey scoring a hat-trick. Ferguson would put it down to the “cabbage patch” of a pitch. Leeds meanwhile beat West Ham United 3-1 at Upton Park, allowing them to go top.

Manchester United suffered a 4-1 defeat at QPR

David Batty was one player now feeling strident.

“I fancy us to beat Manchester United in both the FA Cup and the Rumbelows Cup because we can now consider ourselves the best team in the country. “The encouraging thing is that we’ve been gathering points when we have not played well. We are due a convincing performance. I wonder what we are capable of when we really click.

“There won’t be a replay.”

The two were meant to meet in the FA Cup the very next game, only for a torrential downpour to see it postponed a mere two hours before kick-off. A visiting crowd still turned up to shout “scum” at the United bus.

This was why Ferguson liked the hostility. He saw it as a challenge.

“My players know how to handle the pressure and even look forward to the matches. I am sure my team won’t bottle out.”

The League Cup fifth round, 8 January

The least important of the games, which was perhaps one reason it was by far the most entertaining. Duly, in the second act of the trilogy, the empire struck back. But that was in a proper back and forth, that showcased the dashing best of early 1990s football, played at 100mph. The fact it was a midweek night game no doubt helped, and it could be felt in one of those crackling atmospheres.

Trump didn’t end up going, but there may not have been a seat for him. The game was delayed five minutes due to fixture congestion. That’s how intense it was. That’s how Leeds started. Strachan this time didn’t make the team, but Wilkinson’s side made many more chances than in the league game. They looked like they had a point to prove, that this was the performance Batty had been talking about.

The opening goal was a classic flowing strike of its time. It was also a classic Leeds goal of its time, and the type of “chaos” Wilkinson demanded. The United backline didn’t know where to go in the face of a bombardment, finished off by devastating delicacy. Chapman and Pallister jumped for a Lukic kick-out that Batty came on to, playing a one-two of headers with Wallace before the forward brilliantly flicked it on for the oncoming Speed. The winger lashed it past Schmeichel and into the top corner.

The Leeds crowd erupted, the goal an extension of their exuberance.

United needed to find their feet, and did it as Blackmore found his range.

Midway through the first half, the full-back – in for the injured Denis Irwin – had forced Lukic to tip a 35-yard free-kick over the bar. Leeds hadn’t learned, but Blackmore had.

Minutes later, Mark Hughes was pushed over in the same area.

“Neil Webb wanted to take it,” Blackmore says now. “I said ‘No, Webby, I’ve got the range. I’ll just move it to the left.’ Lukic had tipped the first one over. I always say it was one of my best goals, because I knew what I was going to do with it and put it exactly where I said. I didn’t smash it, I just curled it into the top left corner.”

It was the goal of the game. The performance of the game, however, was still to come. That was from Giggs. He seized the stage.

Far from being intimidated by Elland Road in the first game, he had clearly internalised the surroundings. He was now about to release.

Shortly after half-time, Giggs just ran at the Leeds defence, before slipping in Kanchelskis. The Russian scored what was to become a trademark goal, poking it under Lukic to end up in the corner.

United were in front, and Leeds were just struggling to keep up with Giggs.

“He was too agile, too fast,” Blackmore beams now. “He was just unplayable. He won that game.”

Giggs also clinched it later in the second half, sliding in to convert Paul Parker’s cross and make it 3-1.

“He showed this time he had learned from his previous visit,” Ferguson said of Giggs, before praising his maturity.

“Leeds’ tactics tonight caught us napping, so the majority of our attacks were down the left. That meant Ryan had to accept a lot of responsibility but that is no problem to him. The experience alone of playing here will do the lad so much good.”

Ferguson also praised the resilience of his team.

“To go to Leeds and win is a feat at any time but to do so after QPR made it extra special. It was a magnificent effort. That will be the watershed of our season.”

It was, but not quite in the way Ferguson had anticipated.

Leeds meanwhile showed a resilience of their own. This elimination was their first defeat in 13, but they responded with the season’s stand-out display. Wilkinson’s side hammered third-placed Sheffield Wednesday 6-1 at Hillsborough. Chapman scored a hat-trick, with Wallace, Tony Dorigo and Mike Whitlow adding flourishes a performance of champions.

This was the display Batty had been talking about.

The FA Cup third round, 15 January

Leeds immediately picked up where they left off, flying into United straight away. Batty actually didn’t play this game, as the postponed fixture meant a suspension landed on this. Blackmore was meanwhile dropped for Irwin, and got one of those vintage Ferguson explanations. It wasn’t quite telling Gary Neville that he was left out because of Combat 18 hooligans, but it was close.

“Denis came in and he said ‘I want to attack them more’,” Blackmore laughs now. “We’d won 3-1 and I’d scored!”

The role of the full-backs was no little thing, though, and McAllister believes his Leeds side were actually ahead of their time in that regard.

Clayton Balckmore in action for Manchester United

“Right-backs and left-backs are generally wingers now, they play really high up the pitch. Well, you look at Mel Sterland and Tony Dorigo, they were very attacking. We had the assurance of David Batty, who didn’t venture far away from the centre-backs, Chris Whyte and Chrissy Fairclough, so that enabled the two full-backs to go.”

Through that, Leeds subjected United to a barrage.

After just 12 minutes, Chapman peeled away from Pallister for the first time in the trilogy, but somehow put a free header wide. Steve Hodge then forced a supreme save from Schmeichel, Steve Bruce cut out a cut-back that seemed destined to set up a goal, before Chapman again went close from a McAllister free.

“We were never in the race,” Ferguson said later. It was scarcely believable Leeds hadn’t scored. It was less believable when United took the lead. Giggs finally gave them an outlet and, with what was their first attack of the game, Mark Hughes headed in from close range just before half-time.

Strachan, again sidelined, immediately described it as a “travesty” on BBC during the break.

Injury was soon added to injustice.

Chapman had done everything but score, having one header blocked and then somehow seeing a certain goal cleared off the line by Pallister. This was why he was one of the best centre-halves in England.

For one of Leeds’ last big attacks, Pallister just got ahead of Chapman. This time, though, the striker fell into the net and onto his left hand.

Visibly in pain, he needed treatment for several minutes, and had to spend the night in the hospital with a broken wrist. It was a pivotal moment, not just in the game, or for Leeds, but for the history of English football.

This really was one of those incidents that rippled out in so many unexpected ways – although that would only become clear over time.

On the night, it was clear Leeds just wouldn’t get the break. “Leeds had none of the luck,” Barry Davies said on commentary.

United, desperately but also defiantly, held firm.

They’d won again. The home crowd were chanting again, but had this time changed the words.

Rather than “Scum! Scum! Scum!” it was “Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!”

Hughes could set that aside. “It’s a pleasure to play in this United,” he said afterwards. “Everything’s going well at Old Trafford at the moment.”

***

In the dressing room immediately after the game, Wilkinson told his players they could now “concentrate on the league”.

These were much more than consoling words. They were true, and brought concentration.

United’s cup wins ended up being the ultimate pyrrhic victories. Almost every element of these games ended up being turned over, right down to who was celebrating.

For one, there was no sense of psychological superiority. That was aided by physical benefits Leeds enjoyed from the free schedule.

“Going out of the cups gave us a clean run,” McAllister says. “It didn’t have the negative impact expected. We just got on with it.”

For Blackmore, this was key, but there was another element.

“With the rest, Saturday to Saturday, you can play your best team every week. Like Leicester City, when they won the league. You’ve got stability then. Everybody knows each other. You get better and better and better as a team. You know exactly what everybody does.

United’s form suffered after a change of formation

“We changed the shape of the team a bit. We got to Christmas scoring so much, then we went 4-5-1 and scored half the goals the rest of the season.”

Leeds picked up on this.

“We sensed things weren’t right,” McAllister says. “Hughes had been left out and we felt we had a bit of a chance.”

United won the Rumbelows Cup, but lost their rhythm in the league. Ferguson himself famously regretted not signing Mick Harford, especially given the aerial threat he would have offered on United’s awful pitch. By contrast, Wilkinson acted.

Chapman’s injury directly led to one of the most famous arrivals in English football: Eric Cantona.

Ferguson would see his effect. Cantona offered something different, at the exact time United were going stale. An anxiety could be seen in Ferguson’s media appearances after games.

Without an English title to his name at that point, Ferguson hadn’t perfected his mind games either. He was outfoxed by Wilkinson. Ferguson tried to put the pressure on Leeds by pointing to how this team hadn’t won anything, but the more he spoke, the more serene Wilkinson became.

The Leeds manager began to speak to his players in golf terminology. “Trust your swing,” he’d tell the players.

United celebrate winning the Rumbelows Cup in 1992

It meant errors – and there were some major ones – just didn’t affect them. Remarkably for a side chasing a title, Leeds lost 4-1 and 4-0 in the final 10-game run-in, to QPR and Manchester City respectively. These days, it would bring all manner of questions about their mettle.

Wilkinson just dismissed them as the kind of things that can happen.

“That’s one thing that really sticks out,” McAllister says. “There was no talk we’d blown it. Howard just went ‘listen, it’s done, we go again.’”

As with the cup games, there was no panic. That is proven by the response.

Leeds followed those two defeats with two of their finest wins, beating Wimbledon 5-1 and Chelsea 3-0. In the latter, Cantona scored one of the goals of the season, a Dennis Bergkamp-like flurry of divine touches that ended with a ferocious finish.

“I am sure that Eric Cantona would not have been signed by Leeds if Chapman had not been injured,” Ferguson said in his autobiography. “That piece of business was bad news for us in February 1992.”

The bad results meanwhile continued. United’s season infamously collapsed in what Ferguson described as “lunatic congestion of fixtures” – pushed at one end by the cup runs, and at the other by the insistence on finishing the season early for Euro 92 – that forced them to play four games in seven days.

The fateful final defeat was at Anfield, just making the manner of it all the most painful possible loss for United.

A quarter of a century of emotion imploded in the space of a few days, losing the decisive game to Liverpool, and losing the title to Leeds.

Leeds celebrate winning the title

Wilkinson could meanwhile savour the sweetest of victories.

So much could be traced to the months before, and that trilogy.

For one, Leeds won the title by four points. Had United held their lead in the league game, they’d have been level.

Ferguson later said on TV that Leeds hadn’t won the title, United had lost it. He could point to those cup results.

The reality is that they were a trilogy that contributed to the hardest of defeats, but one that made Ferguson learn what was required to go to the next level.

If Leeds’ run was what Barry Davies described as a classic case of being able to focus on one competition, United’s situation was a classic case of having to go close once to finally win it.

Ferguson changed his approach to run-ins, and mind games. He’d taken note of that new Leeds signing from France.

Things would change.

Wrapped up in those three games were United’s glorious future, one of the finest successes in Leeds’ history, and so much of the energy in this rivalry to this day.

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