Why are Manchester United and Leeds United massive rivals?

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Manchester United and Leeds United meet in a Premier League match for the first time in 16 years on Sunday afternoon.

In the more than 15 years that Leeds was out of the top flight, these two historic giants of English football each played only twice in cup competitions. The last of them was an early round of the EFL Cup in 2011.

Tomasz Kuszczak, Wes Brown and Jermaine Beckford
Recent games have been limited to cup competitions | Alex Livesey / Getty Images

An entire generation of soccer fans has missed one of the great rivalries of all time.

The last time Manchester United and Leeds met in the Premier League in February 2004, Ryan Giggs was just 30 years old, while emerging talent James Milner had turned 18 the previous month.

Up there with Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and most recently Chelsea, Leeds is one of Manchester United’s main rivals. Leeds have their own more established meat with Chelsea dating back to the 1960s, but Manchester United’s rivalry lives up to them too.

It is not a geographical rivalry in the sense of being local: a two-hour drive separates Manchester and Leeds. Nor does it arise solely from a competitive rivalry on the field between clubs that always fought for the same honors; if anything, Leeds replaced Manchester United as England’s dominant club in the late 1960s with only a few short years of overlap.

Jack Charlton and Bobby Charlton
Jack & Bobby Charlton played on opposite sides in the 1960s | Central Press / Getty Images

The football rivalry developed out of a long-standing rivalry between Lancashire, where Manchester resided until the new county boundaries were created in 1974, and Yorkshire. That was initially born out of the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century when the House of Lancaster and the House of York fought in what was essentially a 30-year civil war for the English throne.

Similar to Manchester and Liverpool, the rivalry was fueled centuries later by the dawn of the industrial revolution and the respective states of Manchester and Leeds as rapidly developing and expanding cities driven by industry.

A first football match between Manchester United and a Leeds club took place in 1906, but with Leeds United not formed until relatively late in 1919, the first proper meeting was not until 1923.

The rivalry as we know it really began in the 1960s, when Don Revie guided Leeds back to the top flight and immediately began competing for the First Division title.

Don Revie
Don Revie turned Leeds into a heavyweight in English football | Evening Standard / Getty Images

Leeds finished second to Manchester United in 1964/65, while the clubs also met in an aggressive FA Cup semi-final that season. When Matt Busby’s team peaked and finally faded after winning the European Cup in 1968, Revie’s team assumed his mantle, performing with remarkable consistency at a time when English football was far more fluid than today.

Despite Manchester United’s fall and relegation in 1974, their return to the top flight shortly after meant that the rivalry was still raging and another FA Cup semi-final in 1977 saw violent clashes between fans both on and off. from the stadium.

Leeds spent much of the 1980s outside of the top flight, meaning eight years went by without the clubs meeting. But the 1990s and the beginning of the Premier League era brought with them a new competitiveness and animosity, with Leeds having beaten Manchester United for the title in the last season of the former First Division in 1991/92.

Premier League Manchester United v Manchester City at Old Trafford 1992
Eric Cantona played for Leeds & Man Utd | David Ashdown / Getty Images

Leeds were largely inconsistent in the 1990s, but came back as one more threat towards the end of the decade when a young team led by David O’Leary finished fifth or higher five years in a row between 1997 and 2002, in a stage reaching the semifinals of the Champions League.

It was Leeds’ relegation from the Premier League in 2004, the regrettable result of unsustainable finances, that has led to a lull in rivalry of late. Both groups of fans would always name the other as a major enemy, but the lack of games diluted it in everyone’s mind.

The dynamics will be different, but to have one of the most important English football matches on the calendar again is welcome and is long overdue.

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