Saturday, 19 December 2020

United and Leeds rekindle a rivalry for the ages

 One of English football's longest running rivalries reignites after 16 years as Leeds visit Old Trafford on Sunday. 
For the first time since 2004, the Red of Lancashire's United meet Yorkshire's white football tour de force, following the Elland Road's side rise to prominence under the tutelage of charismatic, obsessive and maverick manager Marcelo Bielsa. 

After Leeds financial meltdown, spectacular fall from grace and double relegation (they certainly know a thing or two about going from tier one to tier three), the two clubs have met twice in both domestic cup competitions, with honours even. But Leeds promotion back to the promised land after almost two decades ensured that this age old ding dong re-emerged on the Premier League fixture list. 

For all the mocking and schadenfreude towards the men from across the Pennines, there's no denying that the two league fixtures between these two Uniteds are ones to be relished. It is a crying shame, but also perhaps a blessing, that there will be no fans present to witness the occasion. The old adage may say time itself is a great healer, but that won't be the case when these two very different clubs, sleeping giants from two very different cities, lock horns again on Sunday. United and Leeds may have spent the last 16 years in different divisions, but there's no love lost here - its a fire that continues to burn as fiercely as ever. 

This is a feud - much like the United vs Liverpool loathing - that transcends football and one steeped in history, tradition and mutual hatred. Like many a tangled tale, its a complicated affair.
Bizarrely, its one that kick-started back in the days of Shakespeare and the Tudors when the Plantagenet house of Lancaster (red) and the house of York (white) were embroiled in a series of civil wars to establish supremacy and to eliminate potential heirs to the throne. I don't pretend to know all the bitter, gory details, but you get the idea of where and how this all started.

It was an underlying sense of feeling only exacerbated over time, reaching a zenith in the 60s when the two Uniteds were competing for trophies under two men whom hated each other. Matt Busby and his side were widely respected and appreciated by neutrals and even rival fans, whereas Don Revie and his "dirty Leeds" were reviled throughout the land. A pivotal moment was the Johnny Giles saga - a man who rose through the ranks at Old Trafford before signing for 'them' and going on to become the mainstay of Revie's all-conquering Leeds side. Busby's United were the slick, easy on the eye, youthful team playing football as it should be played. Revie's team were physical and dirty with a poor disciplinary record and a penchant for the incendiary. 

Revie's United were often regarded as the nearly men - we pipped them to the title on goal average (or goal difference) in 1965 whilst Leeds twice lost European finals as United finally won the cup with the big ears three years later. Six years later, Busby's Reds were relegated and Revie's Leeds were dominant champions. The balance of power continued to swing until Manchester's finest asserted their dominance - sparked by the signing of Eric Cantona from, you guessed it, Leeds, in 1992. As United finally scratched a 26-year itch, salvation came, with delicious irony, from an enemy. Thirteen titles in 21 years, all sparked by a phone call and the arrival of Cantona the catalyst. Up until until that seminal turning point, it had been David O'Leary's youthful, exciting and aggressive side to carry the air of potential champions - it was they, not us, whom had widely been tipped to become serial winners. 

Leeds ignominious plummet to relegation led to a firesale while Alan Smith - the lifelong Leeds fan who had declared he would never play for United - later did exactly that. Denis Irwin and Rio Ferdinand also followed the same path in swapping Elland Road for Old Trafford, as did Giles, Joe Jordan and the two Gordons, McQueen and Strachan. 

A common denominator here is that these two Uniteds - two of the biggest and most iconic football names in the land - have a long and colourful history of fights, fisticuffs and feuding. Many are local, many involve subplots, but there is something particularly fierce, perhaps even more so than our rivalry with Liverpool - there is something especially visceral about this one.

Its a rivalry just as fierce off the pitch as on it - with banners, Munich songs and reference to the two Leeds fans stabbed in Turkey in a European game at the turn of the century. 
Both managers like to play the expansive stuff, so the first cross-Pennines league meeting in 16 years may prove to be a festive cracker to warm the cockles. 

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