The Joy of Six: Leeds United v Manchester United matches – The Guardian

Eric Cantona had a mixed time on his returns to Elland Road. He won two and lost two; he scored a penalty and missed a penalty. That miss, a genuinely shocking moment after he’d scored 15 out of 15 in competitive games at United, came during the first half of what turned out to be his last game at Elland Road. It was never likely to be his last word.

In the second half, Cantona set up Karel Poborsky’s majestic net-rattler and then scored an adroit volley to complete a crushing victory. The goal was almost a means to a celebration: a lazily provocative Messiah pose right in front of the Leeds fans. One corn-fed gentleman was so enraged that he made a futile attempt to clamber over the plastic seats and engage Cantona via more traditional communication methods. Two days later, Cantona’s old friend Howard Wilkinson was sacked. RS

2. Leeds United 5-0 Manchester United (Division One, 20 December 1930)

Herbert Bamlett can’t have been that bad a manager. He nearly led little Oldham Athletic to the title, after all, only for events to conspire against him. During the run-in, left-back Billy Cook refused to walk in a match against Middlesbrough, a case of mistaken identity, and was banned for a year. Without him, the Latics lost their last two games. Everton won the title by a point.

But it’s the hard-luck stories of the big clubs that survive, and Bamlett is chiefly remembered these days for the most abject season in Manchester United’s gilded history: 1930-31, which started with a dozen straight defeats and was packed with fiascos from August to inevitable relegation in May. A 6-0 home defeat to Huddersfield, a 7-4 loss at Old Trafford to Newcastle. A 6-1 humping at Derby, 6-2 at Chelsea, 5-1 at Blackpool and West Ham, 7-0 at Villa.

Arguably the most egregious of all, however, was a 5-0 skelping at Elland Road just before Christmas. Bobby Turnbull scored a hat-trick, while notorious hard-man Wilf Copping dribbled through the visiting defence at will. “Manchester United gave the poorest exhibition of football seen at Leeds for a long time,” the Manchester Guardian reported, a damning verdict given the hosts were relegation-bound themselves. Still, when times are bad, bragging rights are something to cling on to … even if the animosity wasn’t quite at fever pitch yet. The result remains Leeds’ best against their biggest rivals. SM

3. Leeds United 1-0 Manchester United (FA Cup semi-final replay, 31 March 1965); Leeds United 0-1 Manchester United (Division One, 17 April 1965)

Here’s where the stags really begin to rut. Don Revie’s side, freshly promoted, were on course for the Double. Only problem was, so were Matt Busby’s men. The pair were drawn in the semi-final of the FA Cup, and spent 90 minutes at Hillsborough kicking seven colours out of each other, Jack Charlton, Billy Bremner, Nobby Stiles, Denis Law and Paddy Crerand enjoying themselves like the proverbial pigs. Good luck if you found yourself in the middle of that.

Leeds United football players Bobby Collins, Billy Bremner and Jack Charlton return home to Leeds Central station after their victory over Manchester United in April 1965
Leeds United football players Bobby Collins, Billy Bremner and Jack Charlton return home to Leeds Central station after their victory over Manchester United in April 1965. Photograph: Getty Images

Brouhahas broke out on the terraces as well, and did so again four days later during the replay at the City Ground. The on-field behaviour was much improved, though. According to Big Jack, Manchester United put on a performance as stylish and dangerous as they ever were under Busby, but Leeds somehow held on, wrested the ascendency, and nicked it in the last minute, Bremner twisting in mid-air to steer home an outrageous curling header.

Bremner was missing 18 days later when Manchester United came to Elland Road in the league. Had they won, Leeds would have gone five clear at the top with four games left. They went into the game as favourites, Busby’s side having failed to find the net against Leeds in both Cup games and the earlier league match at Old Trafford, which the visitors won 1-0. That particular lean spell ended after 14 minutes – or 284, if you like – when John Connelly drove home. Leeds failed to respond, despite the best efforts of newly crowned Football Writers’ player of the year, Bobby Collins, and went down again in their next Bremner-less match, a 3-0 hosing at Sheffield Wednesday. Busby’s third great side won their first title; Revie’s team, not quite ready yet, lost the Cup final as well. SM

The Class of 92 are a pedant’s dream. For a start, they weren’t even at school! More important, two of the six, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville, didn’t play a single minute of the 1991-92 FA Youth Cup-winning campaign. Scholes was too small and Neville was 15 years old. But the group couldn’t call themselves the Class of 93 as they were hammered by Leeds in that year’s final.

Leeds won 2-0 at Old Trafford and then clinched the FA Youth Cup for the first time three days later with a 2-1 win at Elland Road. The second leg was on Sky TV – a seriously big deal in those days – and both games were watched by crowds in excess of 30,000. Leeds’ victory was a major surprise; even then, Manchester’s team were seen as all-conquering. It was also thoroughly deserved, and Leeds’ superiority was symbolised by Jamie Forrester’s memorable overhead kick that made it 3-0 on aggregate.

Paul Scholes scores a penalty at Elland Road in the FA Youth Cup final of 1993 as Robbie Savage looks on
Paul Scholes scores a penalty at Elland Road in the FA Youth Cup final of 1993. Yes, that is Robbie Savage behind him, or Robert Savage as he was known back then. Photograph: Getty Images

But winning the Battle of the Roses is no guarantee of winning the war. Manchester found that out in the 1991-92 season, when they put Leeds out of both cup competitions and cleared a path for Leeds to pip them to the one they really wanted. Leeds found it out, too: their Youth Cup-winning team, though full of potential stars, amounted to little at the highest level. Alas, the only Class of 93 most people still talk about is the one from Saved by the Bell. RS

These were the teams for that second leg:

Leeds (4-4-2) Pettinger; Couzens, Tinkler, Daly, Sharp; Smithard, Ford, Bowman, Oliver; Forrester, Whelan

Man Utd (4-4-2) Whitmarsh; P Neville, Casper, G Neville, Riley; Gillespie, Scholes, Beckham, Thornley; Irving, Savage

Nearly all Premier League games sit in a dusty mental archive, yet at the time they were the entire world for all involved. Exhibit A: Elland Road, 27 April 1994. Manchester United won the 1993-94 title by eight points, yet that doesn’t tell the story of a seriously squeaky title race. United had a spectacular spring wobble – four red cards in five games, the death of a treble, 15 points dropped in nine games – and had only partially recovered when they went to Elland Road in late April. They were also loathed around the country like never before, or perhaps since.

United had four matches to play and were two points ahead of Blackburn, who had played a game more. It looks comfortable now, because we know what happened next. At the time, it was season-defining.

Manchester United celebrate Ryan Giggs’s goal at Elland Road in April 1994
Manchester United celebrate Ryan Giggs’s goal at Elland Road, which put them on the verge of retaining the title. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Leeds’ post-title slump was almost entirely down to their away form – they had lost only two league games at home in over three years – so a trip to Elland Road was still fraught with peril. What followed was the kind of hard-fought but ultimately emphatic win that makes groaning muscles feel like a reward for worthy behaviour.

Andrei Kanchelskis scored early in the second half when Mark Hughes styled out a dodgy first touch to great effect. Five minutes from the end, Ryan Giggs – who many said was in his fellow bairn Gary Kelly’s pocket after a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford earlier in the season – scored an exhilarating second after a one-two with Hughes. His celebration, though not quite at Cantona levels, was almost as memorable as the goal. “He liked that one,” said Paul Ince, the man Giggs usually celebrated goals with, in Are You Watching, Liverpool?, Jim White’s tremendous book about the 1993-94 season. “When he scored that goal he thought: ‘Yeah, up yours,’ so he done the Chris Eubank bit to show, like: ‘I’m back.’”

So, after a desperate few weeks, were United. But you probably had to be there to remember it now. RS

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Frank O’Farrell’s Manchester United won 10 of their first 14 matches in the 1971-72 season. George Best scored an imperious hat-trick in a 5-2 December win at Southampton that put the Red Devils five clear at the top. Saints striker Terry Paine graciously admitted that it was “a privilege being out on the same pitch as them … they are a marvellous side”. Manchester United’s long five-year wait for an eighth English title looked over.

But times change, and quickly. The O’Farrell wagon derailed spectacularly, United drawing three matches before losing another seven straight. By the time they went to Elland Road in February, they were a mid-table irrelevance. By contrast, Leeds, as ever during the Revie era, were in the title mix. The visitors did well to keep the game goalless in the first half, but by the 74th minute the scoreline was 5-1 to Leeds. The hosts in effect declared at this point, opting instead to toy with their hapless rivals; one passage saw them ping the ball around for one minute and 20 seconds, a 22-pass sequence soundtracked by contemptuous chants of “ole!” and “easy!”, living legends such as Best and Charlton given a rare runaround.

In their very next league game, Leeds reprised this routine by humiliating Southampton at the tail end of a 7-0 rout, every feint, shimmy and backheel immortalised by erstwhile BBC schedule-filler 100 Great Sporting Moments. But for some reason the original matador-and-bull dance never became part of the canon, despite the Match of the Day cameras having also witnessed Manchester United’s impotent shame. The most underrated passage of play in the history of English football? Yes. SM

This article was amended on 13 August 2021 – the 1965 FA Cup replay referenced in No 3 took place at the City Ground in Nottingham, not Villa Park as originally stated.

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