You don’t have to scratch very hard at the varnish of the Premier League and “new” football before the veneer starts to peel away. The television companies still plaster their coverage with shots of happy-go-lucky fans with painted faces and suspiciously new looking scarves looking excited, but old football, the old rivalries and quite a lot of the old poison still remains. It’s half a decade since Leeds United last played Manchester United, and the Leeds support – for the best and the worst of reasons – is treating this as the cup final. Manchester United supporters could have been forgiven for allowing Leeds United to start to fade towards the recesses of their memories, but the single act of the two clubs’ names being pulled out together has allowed old enmities to resurface.
There are so many strands to the rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds United that it is difficult to know where to start: a bad tempered FA Cup semi-final between the two sides in 1965, the ascendency of the nouveau riche from Yorkshire as Manchester United fell into a torpor that would result in their relegation in 1974 as Leeds won the First Division championship, the sudden volte face of Eric Cantona from Elland Road to Old Trafford in November 1992 or the occasional tussles between the two clubs at the top of the table just prior to Leeds’ spectacular implosion each, in their own way, tell a truth about the fractured relationship between the two clubs but, even combined, they don’t tell the full story.
The most overused word in the red and white enclaves of Lanchashire and Yorkshire over the last few weeks has been “scum”, a vile word which conveniently demhumanises the other side of the divide. It could all be considered to be pretty harmless under most circumstances, but there is a lingering suspicion that this is a match that will bring out the worst in both sets of supporters. The Leeds United supporters forum WACCOE has been closed, although whether this was due to overexcitement about this match or not remains unknown. There are reports from Manchester at lunchtime that there are vast numbers of ticketless Leeds supporters being turfed out of pubs in the city.
All of this masks two significant details: Manchester United have not – their 5-0 win against Wigan Athletic last week notwithstanding – been playing particularly well this season and Leeds United have, under the careful tutelage of Simon Grayson, been playing some outstanding football this season. A surprise result would, of course, be seismic, but unlike most other combinations of The Champions League Four against League One, it is possible to see how it could happen. The likes of Robert Snodgrass and Jermaine Beckford are clearly too good for League One. If they play at their best and Manchester United have another one of the off days that they have been prone to this season, it is possible to say “Why not?”.
After a tepid Third Round day yesterday, a which felt as if the hangovers from New Years Eve had stretched into a second day, Old Trafford is alive this afternoon. Leeds haven’t come to Old Trafford to sit eleven men behind the ball and pray for a draw. Jermaine Beckford is the liveliest of all, firing a shot over the crossbar and then having a go from more than thirty yards out that sails over while, at the other end, Darren Gibson fires across the face of goal and wide and Wayne Rooney’s ball across goal should be touched in by Gibson but isn’t. After nineteen minutes, however, Leeds snatch the lead. Ricard Naylor pick-pockets the ball and John Howson’s outstanding long ball sends Jermaine Beckford clear. Beckford appears to miscontrol with a first touch that sends him well wide of Tomas Kuszczak, but he recovers and rolls the ball under the goalkeeper and in.
Manchester United are misfiring. Shortly after the goal, Luciano Becchio should really double the advantage for Leeds but heads over. Leeds still have to survive a scare when Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov finally manage to unpick a superbly marshalled Leeds defence. Rooney’s flicked finish beats Kasper Ankergren but Jason Crowe slides goal-wards and clears the ball at the last moment. Ten minutes from half-time, Wes Brown picks up the first yellow card of the match for a tap at the shins of Luciano Becchio. It’s a sign of frustration, really. Leeds are playing very much like the equals of Manchester United and when half-time comes with them having held their lead with some degree of comfort.
The early stages of the second half see tempers start to come to the boil, and Brown is lucky to escape a second yellow card as the referee briefly looks like losing control of things. It is something of a surprise that, when Ferguson makes a double substitution, Brown isn’t one of those withdrawn, but Alex Ferguson can ill-afford to withdraw fit defenders from matches at the moment. Fabio Da Silva shoots just high and wide, and then Michael Owen miskicks the ball wide when it may have been easier to hit the target. At the point, however, that Manchester United should be pressing still harder for an equaliser, Leeds United start to break and look likely to grab a second goal themselves. Jermaine Beckford is put through and rolls the ball agonisingly wide of the goal, and then Robert Snodgrass fires in a free-kick that hits the angle of post and crossbar but bounces out.
Finally, the Manchester United onslaught starts. As the clock ticks over ninety minutes and with a minimum of five extra minutes allowed for stoppages Michael Owen heads wide, and then follows the now traditional injury time Old Trafford goalmouth scramble, although this one ends with Kasper Ankergren saving from Wayne Rooney. Leeds clear the ball, however, and with the five extra minutes having become six, the final whistle blows. Manchester United are out of the FA Cup, beaten in the competition by a club from below the top division for the first time since AFC Bournemouth, then managed by a certain Harry Redknapp, beat them 2-0 at Dean Court in the Third Round in January 1984.
This afternoon, however, isn’t about Manchester United, and neither should it be about the poisonous aspect of the relationship between them and Leeds United. They now go on to play Manchester City in the League Cup semi-final on Wednesday night. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Alex Ferguson will doubtlessly point to the injury crisis that has torn his defence apart but, for a club with the resources of Manchester United, there can be no excuses. A defeat to a Third Division team in the Third Round of the FA Cup is an abysmal result, and no amount of excuses can mask this single, undeniable fact. This may be what hurts Manchester United supporters the most. There is no referee to blame and no circumstantial evidence to coud the issue. They were outplayed today.
The story of this afternoon’s match should, however, really be about Simon Grayson, who has built a team that previous managers in recent years at Elland Road have singularly failed to – one that can balance the expectations of the club’s vast support, plays open and attractive football and has the unfettered to confidence to go to Old Trafford, take an early lead and still look the more likely side to score until late into the second half. It is probably too early to talk of them becoming the first side from outside the top two divisions to make an FA Cup final, but they are better positioned to do so than most others in recent years. After a performance like that this afternoon, who would they possibly be afraid of meeting in the next round? There is talk that they will lose Beckford in the transfer window and there is no doubt that his loss would be a massive one. However, they’ll have made a substantial amount of money from this match. It is possible that much of the talk about his loss was started on the assumption that they would lose this afternoon. The next four weeks will say much about the ambitions and intentions of the owners of Leeds United. Selling Beckford would certainly disrupt the equilibrium of the team and make them a pot of cash. With Beckford leading their attacking line in the way that he did this afternoon, however, the sky could be the limit for Leeds United this season.