Why do Leeds and Manchester United hate each other so?

Ian King
Leeds United's Jack Charlton and Bobby, of Manchester United.

When Leeds United and Manchester United play, they tap into a rivalry that is both hundreds of years old and a creation of the modern world.


When Leeds United and Manchester United take to the pitch for their match at Elland Road on Sunday, they are reigniting a derby that is simultaneously more than 500 years old and very much a production of the industrialisation of football.

The Wars of the Roses were fought from 1455 to 1487 between two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster and the House of York. These were not the counties, as we now know them. The leading members of both lines had lands and titles dotted all over the country, with the Duchies of York and Lancaster only being the most important. While the Houses of Lancaster and York were eventually brought together by the House of Tudor, the rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire persisted, through the industrial revolution and the formation of county cricket. But the rivalry between Leeds United and Manchester United did not emerge until the 1960s.

Under the managership of Don Revie, Leeds won the Second Division championship in 1964, and immediately headed towards the top of the First Division the following season. By the end of March 1965, there was a single point separating the top three – Chelsea, Leeds and Manchester United – when Leeds played Manchester United in an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. 65,000 people saw a bad-tempered goalless draw, and Leeds won the replay 1-0; as noted in this newsreel, the referee was assaulted by a spectator at the end.

On the one hand, this was a new rivalry, partly a creation of football’s industrialisation in the 1960s, when the arrival of regular televised football and the ending of the maximum wage led to a shift in power to big city clubs like Leeds and Manchester United, where bigger attendances could fuel bigger wages. But those wanting a Wars of the Roses motif could still point to the divided House of Charlton, with Jackie wearing the white of York and Bobby the red of Lancaster.

The two clubs were drawn together again in the 1970 FA Cup semi-final, and by this time a lot had changed. The rivalry between Leeds and Manchester United had grown, and at a time when hooliganism was generally starting to significantly rise. Manchester United had won the league in 1967 and the European Cup in 1968, but Matt Busby had since been moved upstairs and Leeds had won the league in 1969 and were establishing themselves as a powerhouse. They went into the match in the middle of a punishing chase for a treble of the league championship, the FA Cup and the European Cup.

The match, played at Hillsborough, ended in a goalless draw, as did the replay at Villa Park. There were no penalty shootouts in 1970, so it was eventually settled by a second replay at Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park, with Billy Bremner scored the winning goal, just as he had in 1965. But Leeds ended the 1969/70 season potless, losing out on the league title to Everton and in the European Cup semi-finals to Celtic.

The decline of Manchester United continued throughout the early 1970s, and by 1974 they and Leeds were poles apart. As Leeds celebrated their second league championship win, Manchester United were relegated to the Second Division. But their stay there only lasted a year, and after their return to the First Division in 1975, the fortunes of the two clubs began to slowly shift.

The two teams met in a third FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in 1977, and there were extensive violent clashes between supporters outside the stadium both before, during and after the match. This time, Manchester United won 2-1, and beat Liverpool by the same score in the final to claim their first major trophy since the 1968 European Cup. The mood between the two clubs wasn’t helped in 1978 when Leeds sold Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen to Manchester United. It was a visible shift in power between the two clubs.

By the late 1970s, both clubs were playing second fiddle to Liverpool, but Manchester United had regained some degree of poise while Leeds were by now in decline. Don Revie had left Elland Road for the England job in 1974, and in 1982 Leeds were relegated from the First Division. They wouldn’t play each other again for another eight years; some might argue that it’s a small mercy that they were separated by a division when hooliganism was at its worst in the mid-1980s.

When Leeds did return to the top flight in 1990 they did so just as they had in 1964, with a bang, and in 1992 they snatched the last First Division title from Manchester United on the last day of the season. But while another football dynasty was about to be built, this time it wasn’t on the east side of the Pennines, even though Leeds did play something of a part.

The story is a well-told one. Eric Cantona had arrived at Elland Road halfway through the 1991/92 season, becoming a key player in their title-winning team, and he’d started the following season with hat-tricks against both Liverpool (in the Charity Shield) and Spurs (the first hat-trick ever scored in the Premier League), before falling out with the Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson.

The story is told that the Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby called the Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards about the possibility of signing Denis Irwin. Irwin was not for sale but, by chance, Alex Ferguson was sat opposite Edwards, and passed him a note which read ‘Ask about Cantona’. Leeds were desperate to offload Cantona, and the sale was agreed at £1m, but reported to the press as £1.2m to spare Fotherby’s blushes among unhappy supporters. Manchester United had missed out on Alan Shearer in the summer and were desperate for a goalscorer; Cantona’s goals would help them win the first Premier League and he would go on to become arguably their most important player of the 1990s.

From the 1992/93 season on, Manchester United would spend the next two decades enjoying the most sustained period of success that any English football club has ever enjoyed. Leeds could only briefly challenge at the end of the 1990s, and the financial gamble taken by chairman Peter Ridsdale to get them to that level proved hopelessly unsustainable, which led to a crash which left Leeds in the third tier and this particular derby a fading memory.

The collapse of Leeds United after their relegation from the Premier League in 2004 meant that, for 16 years, the two clubs were limited to just a couple of meetings. Leeds were in League One when they drew Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup in 2010 at Old Trafford, but Manchester United were in the grip of green-and-gold protests and a Jermaine Beckford first half goal was enough to snatch Leeds a 1-0 win. When they met in the League Cup at Elland Road the following year Manchester United won 3-0.

It would be 11 years before they’d play again, and a lot has changed in the intervening years. By the end of this season, it’ll be nine years since Manchester United last won the Premier League, but financial inequality now mean that the clubs operate on quite different financial planes. Years of success and a huge global fanbase, combined with ruthless exploitation of the commercial side of the club’s business, has made Manchester United a global powerhouse, even if their team is malfunctioning on the pitch.

Leeds, on the other hand, were away from the Premier League for 16 years. That’s a long time to go without that TV money, and the club’s growth was stunted by being away for so long. It wasn’t possible for them to return to the Premier League in the way that they did in 1964 and 1990. They fell a long way, spending three years in League One and coming extremely close to complete collapse.

And besides, the financial inequalities within the Premier League make the idea of going straight from the Championship to challenging for the league title ludicrous. Even Leicester took two years, and they were a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Leeds United are still looking over their shoulders at the prospect of getting dragged into a relegation fight, while Manchester United are in a tussle for a place in the Champions League. In some respects, they remain poles apart.

But of course, none of that will matter much when the teams of Leeds United and Manchester United take to the pitch to lock horns again, Leeds in the white of the House of York, and Manchester United in the red of the House of Lancaster. The most enduring football rivalries can have little to do with the game itself, and the rivalry between these two counties, these two cities and these two football clubs is a manifestation of an enmity that goes back hundreds of years.