United vs Leeds: The hostile game English football has been missing

‘Truly hostile, visceral and historic’: Gary Neville and Joe Jordan reflect on Manchester United vs Leeds, the ‘proper game that English football has been missing’ ahead of Old Trafford Premier League reunion

  • Manchester United and Leeds are preparing to face off in the top flight again 
  • The two old foes meet at Old Trafford on Sunday for Premier League action 
  • Gary Neville says the Leeds rivalry comes above even that of Manchester City 
  • Joe Jordan, who crossed the divide, says the occasion will feel its history 

Joe Jordan pauses to reflect on how exactly he would describe the atmosphere of a Manchester United versus Leeds game. 

‘Healthy!’ is the reply he comes up with. ‘Terrible’ is the word used by Gordon McQueen, his Leeds and later Manchester United team-mate. ‘Moody as hell,’ is the phrase Gary Neville uses, who describes Elland Road as the most hostile ground he ever played at.

Sunday at Old Trafford sees the revival of one of the great English football League fixtures, not played since 2004, when a certain Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came on as sub in a 1-1 draw.

There have been two cup meetings in that 16-year cessation of League hostilities, including a much-celebrated win in the FA Cup for Leeds at Old Trafford in 2010 and victory for Manchester United at Elland Road in the League Cup a year later.

Hostile and always fiery, Manchester United vs Leeds has a reputation for taking no prisoners

Of course, one key ingredient will be missing: fans. ‘That’s such a shame,’ says Jordan, a member of the iconic Leeds team of the Seventies and one of those who has been on the receiving end of the toxic wrath reserved for players who cross the Pennines to join Manchester United, a move he made in 1978, followed soon after by his friend, McQueen.

‘I’m getting on a bit,’ says Jordan, who won the League and played in the European Cup final with Leeds. ‘But this fixture is enormous. I look at it in the paper and think, “That is a proper fixture”. 

‘It has stories behind it, the iconic figures like Billy Bremner, Jonny Giles, Norman Hunter, Big Jack [Charlton] and for United Denis Law, George Best, Bobby Charlton. People don’t realise how big a fixture it is.’

For Neville, it is the most visceral of rivalries. ‘It’s historic,’ he says. ‘Let’s be clear, the biggest game is Man United-Liverpool. But for atmosphere Elland Road was by far the most hostile ground we ever played at, that and Galatasaray.

‘Liverpool is the team you most want to beat because of the rivalry and the success of the two clubs but I would say, in terms of hostility, Leeds is above all of them.’

The last time the two sides met the now United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer featured

Though often referred to in terms of the Roses rivalry because of the red rose of the House of Lancaster and the white rose of Yorkshire from the civil wars of 1455-1487, friction between the cities might properly be ascribed to the Industrial Revolution.

‘The development of the Bridgewater Canal in Lancashire helped Manchester cotton supersede Yorkshire wool,’ says Andy Mitten, journalist and editor of United We Stand, a Manchester United fanzine, who has researched the rivalry. ‘But there was no football rivalry until Don Revie…’

Revie took over Leeds as player-manager in 1961 and in 1964 took them up to the old First Division, where they met Manchester United, who, though still recovering from the Munich Air Disaster, were on the cusp of regaining the League title in 1965 and 1967 and winning the European Cup in 1968 under Sir Matt Busby.

Rob Bagchi, in his biography of Leeds, reports how in the first League meeting, Leeds striker Bobby Collins kicked George Best in the tunnel. That provoked Nobby Stiles, who went in late on Collins on the pitch, clattering him into the perimeter wall at Old Trafford, threatening that every time he kicked Best he was ‘going to f***ing well hit you like that, only harder.’ But Collins would score the only goal of the game.

The rivalry really kicked off in a famous FA Cup semi-final of March 1965, in which Denis Law and Jack Charlton brawled in a match described by The Guardian as a ‘sordid shambles’ of ‘open violence’ while The Daily Mirror described it as ‘X-certificate stuff’. 

It ended in an ugly 0-0 draw and Leeds won the replay 1-0 at the City Ground, Nottingham, with an 89th minute Bremner goal — the violence spilling over into the crowd.

Leeds won the title in 1969, just as United began to wane, and that precipitated an epic series of FA Cup semi-final games in March 1970, in the days when replays were played to the bitter end without the option of a penalty shoot-out. 

Joe Jordan knows all about both clubs have bravely crossed the divide (pictured playing for United, right, during the 1979 FA Cup final)

Jordan here seen in action wearing the famous all white strip of Leeds United

Two replays, one period of extra time and 300 minutes of football were watched by 173,500 people at Hillsborough, Villa Park and Burnden Park, and Bremner scored the only goal of the trilogy in the third game.

Jordan, who joined Leeds shortly after, remembers the folklore of those games handed down in the Leeds dressing room. ‘I remember the players talking about those games when I first came, so that rivalry was there,’ he says.

‘Prior to me coming [to Leeds], there was a period when Manchester United still had Law, Charlton, Besty and then a period when those three world-class players went over the hill a bit. 

By the mid-Seventies, those players had gone and there was a wee bit of turmoil at Manchester United, changing managers. They were still one of the biggest clubs in the world but the team was in transition, and Leeds were top.’

Leeds won the title in 1974. But while Manchester United had united the nation in grief after Munich and inspired neutrals with their attacking football, Leeds would never enjoy universal approval. 

United’s Pat Crerand grabs hold of Billy Bremner as Bobby Charlton tries to intervene during the 1965 FA Cup semi-final fixture between the two sides

In fact, the ‘Dirty Leeds’ nickname sticks to this day. ‘Leeds of that era weren’t other people’s second team, if you know what I mean,’ says Jordan. ‘You either supported Leeds and were a Leeds supporter or you didn’t support them and you gave them what you thought.

‘So playing with Leeds, wherever you went, you had to be sure you wouldn’t be intimidated. I had a good schooling. That dressing room was strong, big personalities. It [abuse] would go straight over their head.’

That would stand Jordan in good stead when he made the switch to Old Trafford in January 1978, when Leeds were in decline and United appeared to be in the ascendancy. McQueen followed, adding his famous line that really riled Leeds’ fans: ‘Ninety-nine per cent of players want to play for Manchester United and the other one per cent are liars.’

Leeds’ legend Billy Bremner takes studs to the rib cage during one of the many heated clashes

‘The supporters were nae happy,’ says Jordan. I understand their view because they see their team and were asking, “Why are we selling players?” There was a lot changing at Leeds. It was coming to the end of that era.’

Their legendary team was disintegrating, Johnny Giles having gone in 1975, Bremner and Hunter left in 1976 and Allan Clarke went soon after Jordan.

The sense of decline at Leeds probably intensified the vitriolic reception when the pair returned to Elland Road in August 1978. 

‘They tried to put me on my backside stepping off the team bus,’ recalls McQueen. 

‘They were spitting on us and things like that.’ But McQueen is phlegmatic. ‘It was par for the course,’ he says. ‘It did nae bother me at all.’ He scored in front of the Elland Road Kop and Jordan set up a goal as United won 3-2. 

The rivalry was suspended between 1982 and 1990, with Leeds in the Second Division. But it was about to reignite in spectacular fashion. For the first time since the Sixties, the team became genuine rivals for the title. 

Leeds finished fourth in their first season back in the top flight in 1991 at a time when Sir Alex Ferguson was desperately seeking United’s first League title since 1967.

Mitten attended Elland Road for the first time as a teenager in this era. The corner terracing for away fans, surrounded by Leeds fans and hemmed in by fences, and the walk to it across a wasteland of industrial estates, was one of the most notorious experiences for away fans in the Eighties and Nineties.

‘Going to Elland Road was vicious,’ said Mitten, who was punched to the ground despite having a police escort with United fans in 1991. ‘It was pure hatred.’

The 1991-92 season saw them meet three times in 18 days at Elland Road, with Ferguson coming out on top in a League Cup tie, a trophy his team would win that season, and the FA Cup. But it was the League that mattered most.

While everyone was distracted by that trilogy of games, a charismatic Frenchman who would come to define the most intense period of rivalry between the clubs was signing for Leeds on loan from Nimes.

Eric Cantona pokes Leeds United’s Steve Hodge in the nose in 1994 as tensions start to boil

‘Eric Cantona was huge hero in Leeds,’ said Mitten. Though he only scored three goals, he was seen as the catalyst that propelled the club to their first League title since 1974. As the team celebrated on the steps of the town hall, Cantona took the microphone and, in faltering English, pronounced: ‘I don’t know why I love you, I just do.’

‘Audio cassettes were made of that moment which sold out in Leeds,’ says Mitten. ‘So to go and be such a huge success at Old Trafford galled Leeds’ fans.’

Cantona made that most controversial of moves to Old Trafford in November 1992 for £1 million and would inspire another northern powerhouse to their first title for decades. The difference was that United’s led to an era in which they utterly dominated, winning 13 Premier League crowns.

Leeds’ success, though followed by a Champions League semi-final in 2000 under David O’Leary, eventually ended in relegation in 2004, financial ruin, and three seasons in League One. Their exile from the top flight only ended last summer.

Neville remembers the return of Cantona to Elland Road with United in February 1993. On the fringe of the first team, Neville travelled as a fan and stood in the away end with his dad. 

‘Honestly, it was moody as hell, There was a massive police presence and massive concern as to how it would go off. It was a mess, though we got out all right. 

‘There was Sol Campbell going back to Spurs, Paul Ince going back with Liverpool to Old Trafford, but I can’t think in the modern era where there’s been that real spite.

Gary Neville (left) says playing at Leeds’ Elland Road stadium was one of football’s most hostile

‘It has gone a bit in the last five or six years, which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes you love the odd game where it feels like a throwback and the tackles are flying in. There are fewer of those, as tackling has been sanitised. The atmosphere is a lot less because of lack of standing and different make-up in the crowd.’

That game ended 0-0, like so many of the clashes cited as classics between these teams, an indication that vitriol rather than the football that has often animated this rivalry.

Neville also recalls the last time Leeds, then in League One, came to Old Trafford in that FA Cup tie of 2010 and won 1-0. ‘It was an absolute shambles.’ he said. 

‘The boss made six or seven changes and those of us who came in were nowhere near it in terms of being ready. I got caught out badly. It was a terrible day. One of my worst days in football.’

However, like most enmities, there is a frisson of mutual respect. As Jordan says: ‘I think United fans are glad to have them back because Leeds is a big name.’ 

And though lacking fans, the enormity of Sunday’s occasion should be evident.

The Leeds United of today renowned for their relentless, openly attacking style of play

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