Carling Cup: Manchester United return to cauldron of hate
One of English football's fiercest rivalries resumes this evening as Leeds United host Manchester United in the Carling Cup.
Hatred being a major nutrient of the club game, this is one of the great sustaining fixtures, even though 40 miles and the Pennines lie between the clubs. Across those peaks flows regional antipathy, rooted in the Wars of the Roses and the Industrial Revolution, finding its recent form in football; a series of brutal semi-finals, exhausting title races, and the transfer of Eric Cantona in 1992, setting up two decades of Manchester domination.
It is a dynamic of distaste and envy and one that does not even require regular meetings to maintain it.
“As a kid, my dislike was principally theoretical and vicarious, as we never played them,” recounts Daniel Harris, Manchester United fan and author of ‘On The Road: A journey through a season'.
“But my dad would immediately recall the thuggery of Don Revie's team if ever they came up in conversation.”
The antipathy is certainly matched. “It's not the first result I look for, but I do feel a lot happier if they've lost,” admitted Anthony Clavane, author of ‘Promised Land: A Northern Love Story.’. “I am sure, deep down, it is a tribal thing.”
The two tribes have been warring for centuries. The House of York and Lancaster spent much of the 15th century in bloody conflict for the English throne. Competition for the crown was replaced by competition for commerce and the cities were set against each other again.
Centuries of rivalry and jealousy could only lead to antagonistic football clubs. This first exploded in the 1964-65 season, in which Manchester United pipped Leeds for the title on goal average.
There was also an FA Cup semi-final, featuring a fight between Denis Law and Jack Charlton, “establishing the enmity that was to follow”, according to Harris. The tie was repeated five years later.
“The 1970 semi took even longer than the 209 minutes of 1965 to discover a goal, and was also more fraught off the pitch,” said Harris, “my dad certainly remembers it with the opposite of nostalgia. I remember finding the programme from the second replay, and receiving a lesson as to why we didn't like Leeds in our house.”
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Don Revie's side won nearly everything, establishing Leeds as England's leading team, at the cost of Matt Busby's Manchester United.
After a quiet 1980s, during which Leeds were in the Second Division, the definitive, encapsulating period of the rivalry was the early 1990s. In 1991-92, Howard Wilkinson's Leeds won the First Division title thanks to Manchester United's implosion.
In November 1992, Leeds sold French forward Eric Cantona (pictured) to Old Trafford for £1.2m. Cantona took the trophy with him; Manchester United won their first title since 1967. Leeds have not finished ahead of them since.
Given the cities' histories and their associations, there was a sense of fulfilment when Cantona signed for Sir Alex Ferguson. “The excitement when he signed was quite something,” remembers Harris. “Partly because of the shock, and partly because we were desperate for almost anything.”
For Clavane, the memories are not quite so sweet: “Selling him to Fergie's mob was the worst transfer decision in history. It was a clear signal that Leeds were again selling themselves short.”
Cantona's transfer was arguably the most transformative in English football history. “It's unarguable that he made all the difference to United,” said Harris.
“We weren't going to win the league in 1992-93 until we signed him, we won the double in 1993-94, we didn't win the double in 1994-95 because he was suspended, and when he came back we won the double in 1995-96. He was the symbol of Fergie's first great side.”
After a brief, but damaging, flirtation with success in the early 2000s, Leeds were relegated from the Premier League and are yet to return to the top flight.
“The differing fortunes of the two clubs over the past 20 years symbolise the two competing narratives of English football — and indeed, of the north,” said Clavane.
“Manchester United have lived the post-Sky dream; Leeds United paid the price of trying to do so.”
Cups provide the only games between these teams now, but 2010's FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, which Leeds won, showed that the contempt and spite which made the game so vital are still there.
Tonight's fixture may no longer be between England's two best teams, but there are more important things in football than excellence.