Manchester United v Leeds: Badge-kissing, brawls and Britain’s bloodiest battle- The story of English football’s most intense rivalry

Manchester United take on Leeds for the first time in a decade with supporters in attendance on August 14, exclusively live on BT Sport.

Published: 10 August 2021 - 10.57am

Manchester United v Leeds - The story of the rivalry

Liverpool v Manchester United games have always been fierce,” Sir Alex Ferguson once said. “But it never reaches the levels of Leeds v Manchester United.”

On Saturday 14 August exclusively live on BT Sport, Manchester United and Leeds will meet in the top flight with fans in attendance for the first time in more than 17 years.

The fixture at Old Trafford will renew a rivalry with its roots in 15th-century British history. A rivalry that’s featured rampant hooliganism and on-pitch brawl, once described by The Daily Telegraph as “English football’s most intense”.

Former Leeds full back Ian Harte, whose experience of the fixture included being on the end of a vicious kick from Man United keeper Fabien Barthez, sums it up succinctly: “It’s hatred, isn’t it”.

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War Of The Roses

A series of 15th-century English civil wars fought between the red rose of House of Lancaster and the white rose of House of York for control of the English throne.

‘The Battle of the Roses’ was emblazoned across the FA Cup semi-final matchday programme between Leeds and Man United at Hillsborough in April 1977. It was a reference to events from four centuries previous, the series of English civil wars that became known as the Wars of the Roses.

They raged between the red rose of House Lancaster and the white rose of House of York until Richard of York’s heir Edward ended Lancastrian resistance in the Battle of Towton – estimated to be the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.

It might seem tasteless to liken a football game to a war but if the intention of the matchday programme, which featured a red ball placed between a red and white rose, was incendiary then it worked a treat.

The semi-final was marred by violence in the stands with Manchester United supporters, who’d bought tickets in the Leeds section, brawling with their Yorkshire counterparts. 

George Best is left injured in a heap during a Manchester United v Leeds clash.
George Best is left injured in a heap during a Manchester United v Leeds clash.

As one newspaper reported, “the yellow and white of Yorkshire at Hillsborough looked like an egg with a whole bottle of tomato ketchup poured over it”. In total there were 81 arrests in violence that left four policeman and countless fans injured.

On the pitch things weren’t much calmer with full-blooded challenge after full-blooded challenge flying in across the Hillsborough turf. Those included United’s Jimmy Nicholl’s brutal scything down of Leeds’ Joe Jordan in the box, penalised with a spot kick but nowadays would have surely resulted in a red card and lengthy ban.

United would go on to win 2-1 with former Leeds player Jimmy Greenhoff on the scoresheet to rub salt in the Yorkshiremen’s wounds.

Twelve years previous, another FA Cup semi-final between the two rivals resulted in no goals but 24 fouls, including an atrocious tackle from United’s Nobby Stiles on Leeds’ Albert Johanneson which saw the winger – the first player of African heritage to play in the FA Cup – injured and ruled out of the replay. There were also off-the-ball fights between Billy Bremner and Paddy Crerand, and Denis Law and Jack Charlton.

The growth of Manchester's cotton industry in the 19th century undercut Leeds' woolen industry.
The growth of Manchester's cotton industry in the 19th century undercut Leeds' woolen industry.

The feud that began in the battles between House York and House Lancaster and developed into a rivalry between Manchester and Leeds, would continue into the industrial revolution. In the 18th and 19th centuries, long before Leeds United and Manchester United took to the field, both cities underwent dramatic economic change.

Wool production had long been Leeds’ main industry but the 19th century saw Manchester become the epicentre of cotton production, which in turn undercut the Yorkshiremen’s produce.

“The successful cotton industry ruined our traditional woolen industry because it was cheaper to produce,” author Anthony Clavane told The Independent. “This was the beginning of Manchester’s new wealth: King Cotton.” The city would soon earn the moniker Cottonopolis.

While Manchester thrived, Leeds looked on with jealousy and it’s a story that’s been repeated over the decades both on and off the pitch. After Leeds constructed an impressive Town Hall in the mid-19th century, 40 miles across the Pennines Manchester responded with a series of grand architectural developments of their own.

Don Revie's side of the late 60s and early 70s were known as 'Dirty Leeds'
Don Revie's side of the late 60s and early 70s were known as 'Dirty Leeds'

While Britain fawned over Manchester bands Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Oasis, Leeds’ own music scene was overshadowed.

On the pitch, Leeds supporters felt Don Revie’s team of the late 60s and early 70s were never fully appreciated. They were labelled as ‘Dirty Leeds’ and viewed as employing cynical tactics. Performances like the total football 7-0 win over Southampton in 1972 were overlooked.

In contrast, Leeds resented the way Matt Busby’s Man United side were embraced by the British media and the 'biased' BBC – who Leeds fans branded Busby Best and Charlton.

As always with football, familiarity breeds contempt. Between December 1964 and December 1966, the two would face off on eight occasions in Division One and the FA Cup.

In 1964/65, Man United pipped Leeds to the Division One title on goal average after both teams finished level on points. A 1-0 win away at Elland Road towards the end of the season proved the decisive moment as Man United denied the Yorkshiremen a first league title.

The two teams met last season but without supporters on both ocassions.
The two teams met last season but without supporters on both ocassions.

“Ninety-nine percent of fans would jump at the chance to join Man United, the other one percent would be liars”
- Gordon McQueen

But it wasn’t until the 70s, when football hooliganism in England was at its ugly height, that supporters of both clubs took to fighting in the terraces under the monikers Leeds United Service Crew and Red Army.

It ignited in the 1970 FA Cup semi-final, a match that was replayed twice after goalless draws at Hillsborough and The City Ground before finally Leeds settled it 1-0 at Burden Park. “There was fighting at every one,” Dr Peter Maw told the Independent.

Following the furore of the 1977 semi-final, the sale of Leeds centre back Gordon McQueen to Man United further increased the acrimony between the two.

“Ninety-nine percent of fans would jump at the chance to go to Old Trafford,” the Scotsman would say. “The other one percent would be liars.” McQueen was greeted by chants of ‘Judas, Judas’ the first time he played at Elland Road in the red of Leeds’ rivals.

Leeds’ decline and relegation to the second tier meant the two were kept apart for much of the 1980s but the resentment never subsided. United fans could still be heard chanting ‘We All Hate Leeds Scum’ at Old Trafford despite eight years without a game against the Yorkshiremen.

Sir Alex Ferguson patrols the touchline at Elland Road.
Sir Alex Ferguson patrols the touchline at Elland Road.

That all changed with Leeds’ promotion in 1990 as the pair faced off four times – twice in Division One and twice over two legs of the League Cup semi-final. The first leg at Old Trafford was settled by Lee Sharpe’s 88th-minute winner despite the Man United midfielder standing two yards offside.

It was all too much for the travelling support. “I was on the pitch, [assistant manager] Eric Harrison was in the dugout,” Ferguson recalled in his autobiography. “Eric bears a resemblance to me and one Leeds supporter certainly thought so 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.”

 The following campaign saw Leeds and Man United in direct competition for the league title for the first time in 26 years and with tension simmering, a twist of fate engineered by none other than future USA President Donald Trump brought the bad feeling to boil.

In 1991/92, Leeds and Manchester United were in direct competition for the title.
In 1991/92, Leeds and Manchester United were in direct competition for the title.

First and second in the league were already set to meet in a Division One fixture on December 29 1991 while the pair had been drawn together in the FA Cup third round – due to be played on January 5 but pushed back until January 15 due to bad weather.

Yet the fixture list wasn’t done there. The draw for the League Cup, then known as The Rumbellows Cup, took place at New York’s Trump Tower and was broadcast live on popular football show Saint and Greavsie only for the business magnate to pull Leeds and Man United out the hat. “Oh Donald!” exclaimed Jimmy Greaves. “You don’t know what you’ve done there!”.

Trump’s selection meant the pair would meet three times in 18 days. For Ferguson, it was simply too much of a coincidence.

“My suspicions were: ‘What part has television got in this?’” said the Man United manager. “It’s tremendous for television, incredible.” It was dubbed ‘The Winter Trilogy’ by the media. 

Eric Cantona would leave Leeds for Old Trafford and go on to become the catalyst for Man United's success.
Eric Cantona would leave Leeds for Old Trafford and go on to become the catalyst for Man United's success.

In the League Cup semi-final clash, visiting Man United directors would have tea thrown over them from sections of the Elland Road support as they watched the visitors run out 3-1 winners.

There was resentment in the terraces, towards the boardroom and from the dugout. Ferguson’s side were perceived as the darlings of English football for their free-flowing attacking style of play decorated by the 1990 FA Cup and the 1991 Cup Winners Cup.

Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson would refer to “the best team in the county, according to the experts” when discussing his side’s title rivals.

Wilkinson’s mind games may have worked. Despite Leeds opening the door to Man United with 4-0 and 4-1 losses to Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City respectively, Ferguson’s men lost a decisive match at the home of their other great rivals Liverpool to hand Leeds a first title in 18 years.

Cantona celebrated scoring for Man United in 1996 in front of the Leeds supporters.
Cantona celebrated scoring for Man United in 1996 in front of the Leeds supporters.

The 1992 success would be Leeds’ third and last league title. Ferguson’s United would dominate the footballing landscape in the first decade of the Premier League era, claiming eight of the first 11 titles on offer.

One of the catalysts behind Man United’s first few titles was Eric Cantona, signed from Leeds in the winter of 1992 for just £1.2million. The Frenchman had fallen out with Leeds boss Wilkinson but possessed undoubted talent and while there were question marks over his temperament, the transfer was viewed as a major bargain even before Cantona’s achievements at Old Trafford.

“For that much?” Man United assistant Brian Kidd exclaimed on hearing the fee. “Has he lost a leg or something?”. Leeds fans were left furious with thousands calling up local radio shows to register their fury at selling a key player to their rivals.

Cantona’s glittering career across the Pennines in which he won four Premier League titles and two FA Cups, only increased Leeds supporters’ fury. As did the forward’s celebration in front of the home supporters at Elland Road after netting the fourth in a 4-0 thumping of his former club.

Jermaine Beckford's winner settled the 2010 FA Cup third round clash at Old Trafford.
Jermaine Beckford's winner settled the 2010 FA Cup third round clash at Old Trafford.

With Leeds out of title contention for the remainder of the 90s, the Yorkshire club’s supporters did allow themselves a day out at the 1993 FA Youth Cup final second leg as 30,000 watched on at Elland Road as the academy side overcame a United team featuring Phil and Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Robbie Savage. It was a record attendance in the competition until 2007.

Leeds’ frustrations towards their more illustrious rivals resulted in a classless moment at Ewood Park in 1994 when fans were asked to observe a minute’s silence following the death of Busby. “There’s only one Don Revie,” was the chant from the away section.

Man United would lose just one of the 14 meetings with Leeds between 1998 and 2004 as the Yorkshire giants failed to keep pace. Yet scraps on the pitch remained frequent – such as the run-in between Roy Keane and Alf Inge-Haaland that would culminate in the Man United midfielder inflicting a career-ending injury on the Norwegian in 2001 in a Manchester derby.

A tearful Alan Smith would leave Leeds for Man United after the Yorkshiremen's relegation.
A tearful Alan Smith would leave Leeds for Man United after the Yorkshiremen's relegation.

Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith would follow Cantona’s path by crossing the divide from Elland Road to Old Trafford in 2002 and 2004 respectively. Smith’s move stung the most. The forward was a Thorp Arch academy product, a lifelong supporter and a fan favourite.

Upon Leeds’ relegation to the Championship, through tears Smith kissed the club’s crest in the direction of the supporters who reciprocated by holding up signs reading ‘Thanks Alan’ and ‘100% Leeds’. The season before, Smith had vowed “never to sign” for Man United but with Leeds threatened by administration he was pressured into crossing the divide in a £7million move.

“It’s a stab in the back,” was the statement from Leeds United Independent Fans’ Association. “No Leeds fan would be seen dead in a Man United shirt, so Smith cannot be a Leeds fan… It’s a betrayal.”

Six years later and with Leeds languishing in League One, the two would meet in the FA Cup third round at Old Trafford. Greater Manchester Police in riot gear escorted 9,000 Leeds fans to Old Trafford to see The Whites pull off one of the biggest shocks in recent memory as Jermaine Beckford’s winner condemned Man United to a first FA Cup third-round defeat of the Ferguson era.

Manchester United fan display an 'Istanbul Reds' banner at Elland Road in 2011.
Manchester United fan display an 'Istanbul Reds' banner at Elland Road in 2011.

“It was like something out of the film Zulu”
- Sir Alex Ferguson on Man United's arrival at Elland Road in 2011

The touchpaper was lit. Nineteen months on from the Beckford winner, the two faced off in a League Cup tie and for the first time at Elland Road since 2004. Man United’s team bus arrived at a city centre hotel before the Tuesday night match only to be greeted by thousands of Leeds fans igniting flares and baying at Ferguson’s men.

“It was like something out of the film Zulu,” said Ferguson. “It was frightening. Our hotel had seven police vans protecting the team… Next time we’ll stay in Glasgow and get a helicopter down.”

In the ground, Man United chanted tastelessly about the Leeds fans who lost their lives at the hands of Galatasaray fans a decade earlier and held up a banner declaring themselves ‘Istanbul Reds’. The home support reciprocated by singing about the Munich air disaster more than half a century ago.

Ten years on from the last meeting featuring supporters, Manchester United and Leeds clash once again with fans in attendance on the first day of the Premier League season. Football’s great historical rivalry gets set for another chapter.