If proof was really needed of the deep and enduring antipathy between the two sides who clash at Elland Road this weekend, then try asking Manchester United’s Paddy Crerand to play for Leeds United.
A preamble to this question mentions that Johnny Giles, a stalwart of the Leeds sides that Crerand has faced, was also consulted on the subject. “Did you ask him about their tackle?” says Crerand. “Did you ask him what Don Revie said before that game? They were mean. A very mean team.
‘That game’ was an FA Cup semi-final between the sides, on a bad day at Hillsborough 57 years ago, and it is the one to which the acrimony we will see on Sunday – in the first Elland Road Premier League of teams clash in front of fans for 13 years – can be dated.
Johnny Giles (right) and Pat Crerand remembered old Leeds vs Man United matches
Leeds welcome Manchester United to a crowded Elland Road on Sunday for the first time in 19 years
Some have conveniently cited the Wars of the Roses and cheap Manchester cotton destroying the Yorkshire wool trade as the source of this trans-Pennine football war. But no footballing rivalry of any kind ever existed between the two sides in the long and barren years before Revie took Leeds to the Premier League and posed an almighty challenge to United.
Sir Matt Busby sold Giles to Leeds in 1963 because he saw them as a failed colour, who had recently fought relegation to the Third Division. “There’s no rivalry when you’re not in contention,” says Giles. “No one really cared about us.”
Revie’s young Leeds side rose to the top flight in the summer of 1964 and beat Busby’s side 1-0 on their home turf – brilliant Bobby Collins scored – to take the league top spot. They were young and totally 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 putting a marker on us. We were the upstarts,” says Giles. They also began to develop a reputation for aggression – totally unfounded, Giles insists – which spread poison in that half. 1965 final at Sheffield Wednesday.
Leeds and United players faced off in a spicy FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1965
“It was a terrible day in every way,” Giles said of the Cup encounter. “The wind was blowing on the pitch and you had to aim for corner kicks at the edge of the box.” He doesn’t really remember what foul started things, although Denis Law definitely had a fight with Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner with Crerand.
“You had to commit GBH to get a yellow card back then,” says Giles. “Law was a great player but he was aggressive – physical – just like Stiles and Crerand. It wasn’t the bullying of Leeds that day.
Crerand sees it quite differently. “If they had taken a ball out into the field, we wouldn’t have known about it,” he says. “They were a good team, yes, but if you just looked at a Leeds player, they went down for a foul. They were cheating from the start that day. They came and kicked us. It all came of Leeds United. It didn’t come from us. The rivalry was on their side. We had nothing against Leeds United.
The figures confirm Giles’ historical version. Manchester United conceded 24 free-kicks to Leeds’ ten. Stiles and Law were the two reserved men. An iconic image shows Bremner walking around the court with a torn shirt. Eric Stanger of the Yorkshire Post compared it all to “a pack of dogs snapping and scolding each other over a bone”. There were no goals. Football was rather beside the point.
It erupted on the replay, at the City Ground in Nottingham Forest the following Wednesday evening. “Both sides knew they had to take it easy,” Giles recalled. “It was a good night to play football, which helped. There weren’t the tackles you get on a bad day.
So fans did the punch instead. When Leeds won 1-0 – Billy Bremner, 22, converting a Giles free-kick from 30 yards out – Man United fans flooded the pitch, hitting and pinning down referee Dick Windle, who had refereed both games. United fans felt he had favored 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 propelled Leeds to this season’s league title on average after Leeds stuttered, although Hillsborough’s draw was crucial. “That was the start of the rivalry,” Giles insists. “As for the First Division, we were up and they were soon down, down, down and that only added to the antagonism.”
Envy certainly cut both ways. Although champions Leeds finished 26 points and ten places above Manchester United in 1969, they felt the prestigious Old Trafford side were still favored by the BBC: ‘Busby Best and Charlton’, as they called the Corporation. Revie’s paranoia on this point fueled anger. Leeds fans perceived a repulsive right from Manchester fans who sang: “There is only one United.”
Football wasn’t there when these two teams met in the 1960s and 1970s
Given that competitive intensity rarely reached the peak of the mid-1960s, the lingering opprobrium was astonishing. Gordon Strachan knew nothing of this when he was sold to Leeds by the Old Trafford club in 1989. “I had 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 realize: ‘I don’t think these people like Manchester United.’
Just as freed Giles came back to haunt Busby, Strachan – who felt he had been ‘grounded’ by Alex Ferguson – steered Leeds back to the Premier League and then to the title.
“Manchester United were desperate to win the league and we were these up-and-coming guys, standing in their way,” Strachan said. “The songs you would hear the two sets of fans sing about the other club’s story – they stick in my mind. You’d be playing and hearing them and thinking, “That’s not right.”
Strachan always thought the sale of Eric Cantona to Old Trafford in 1992 “intensified the hostility”. Leeds fans thought Cantona had been given away and his imperious celebration in front of them after scoring in the 4-0 Elland Road win in 1996 was nothing short of inciting a riot.
Gordon Strachan immediately understood the rivalry between Leeds and Manchester United
Cantona has adapted a pattern of adversarial transfers between clubs dating back years. From Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan (1978) to Rio Ferdinand (2002) and Alan Smith (2004), it always seemed like the hottest properties were leaving. “Players like Hunter and Bremner would never have dreamed of leaving for Old Trafford. The fact that others did maybe showed how long those days were gone,” Giles recalled.
And of course, Ferguson was an accelerator of this most combustible mix. Leeds fans have never forgotten his words when he was beaten for the 1992 title – “Leeds didn’t win it; Manchester United lost it.
It was the year after the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, won for United by Lee Sharpe late, when a Leeds fan then took on Ferguson’s assistant Eric Harrison for the man himself and hit him.
The rivalry between Leeds and Man United spilled over into the era of Sir Alex Ferguson (right)
“He absolutely blew it,” Ferguson recounted in his autobiography. “The guy thought he was hitting me. The fans arrived. Chaos. And yet, there was something about the hostile atmosphere of Elland Road that I liked.
Giles, too, simply wouldn’t have had Leeds United against Manchester United otherwise. Things could be tricky at times, considering Nobby Stiles was married to Giles’ sister Kay. “Kay would say to Nobby, ‘Now don’t kick our John,'” Giles recalled.
But he would find this rivalry again in the blink of an eye. “There was no one falling and diving,” he says. ‘No one is trying to buy a fault. And when you were wronged, you didn’t want to show it. Difficult days. Difficult days. But exciting.