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 Leeds United Versus Manchester United: Football's War of the Roses

Football rivalries often have a simple explanation – teams from the same city or who play in stadiums nearby. But what about Leeds United versus Manchester United, two teams located approximately 50 miles apart with vastly different trophy cabinets? It appears the answer lies in a series of civil wars that broke out during the mid-to-late 15th century, known as the War of the Roses.

People who follow English football are more used to seeing Manchester United compete for top honors and Leeds United struggling to regain its place in the Premier League. Where Manchester United regularly features in UEFA Champions League betting markets, Leeds United spent 16 seasons outside the top flight and currently plays in the second tier of English football. It has not always been that way.

An Unforgettable First Meeting
Manchester United and Leeds United first faced each other in the league on January 20, 1923, in the old English Division 2. The game ended in a rather dire 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. The return match at Leeds United’s Elland Road stadium took place a week later, ending in a 1-0 away victory for Manchester United.

Passions Runs High During the 1960s and 1970s
After the Second World War, Manchester United became a footballing power, winning three league titles during the 1950s. Matt Busby had built a fearless Manchester United squad that beat all comers. Meanwhile, Leeds United signed former player Don Revie as a player-manager before he took the manager’s job full-time. Revie’s Leeds gained a reputation for being uncompromising and fierce, leading to the media and rival fans referring to them as “Dirty Leeds,” a moniker still used today. The 1964-65 season saw the rivalry between the teams ignite. The teams were drawn against each other in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, with the game taking place at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium. It was a fiercely fought encounter that included Leeds’ Jack Charlton and Manchester’s Denis Law punching and wrestling each other. The game ended 0-0, with Leeds winning 1-0 in the second leg. Manchester United and Leeds United finished first and second in the league that season; each earned 61 points, but Manchester United won the title by having a better goal average. Leeds United became a dominant force in the late 1960s and early 1970s, winning the league twice and never finishing lower than fourth with Revie at the helm. They toppled several European giants, including Barcelona, Juventus, and Napoli, while Manchester United struggled and were relegated during the 1973-74 when Leeds won the league.

Violent Clashes in 1977
Manchester United and Leeds United faced each other in the 1977 FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough. The media called the game “The Battle of the Roses,” and it lived up to the billing. Extensive violent clashes between supporters outside the stadium before and after the game, plus during the match inside the stadium, resulted in many injuries and arrests. Around this time, football violence or hooliganism was increasing in English football circles. Leeds sold Joe Jordan and Gordan McQueen to Manchester United a year later. Jordan and McQueen were two of Leeds’ best players, and McQueen was a darling of the fans. Leeds fans booed and threw objects at both players, and more violent clashes happened outside Leeds’ Elland Road stadium.

Reviving the Rivalry in the 1990s
Leeds United were relegated in 1982, while Manchester United continued competing for honors. Howard Wilkinson was appointed Leeds’ manager in 1990, guiding the team to the Second Division title, gaining promotion back to the top tier of English football. Two seasons after Leeds’ promotion, the last league championship before the introduction of the Premier League, the title race was between Leeds United and Manchester United. Leeds won the title by four points, with former Manchester United midfielder Gordon Strachan and Frenchman Eric Cantona being instrumental. However, in 1992, Cantona was sold to Manchester United for £1.2 million. Cantona proved to be the catalyst for Manchester United’s future success, leading them to four Premier League titles in five seasons and eventually being voted as the Manchester United player of the century. To this day, Manchester United fans call Cantona “King Eric.” The rivalry has continued to the present day despite Leeds’ long absence from the Premier League. Both sides have clashed in domestic cups and the Premier League, with Manchester United coming out on top more often than not.

Does the Rivalry Stem From the War of the Roses?
England is split into 48 counties, and English people are proud and protective of their origins. Leeds is in Yorkshire, and Manchester is in Lancashire, two counties bordering each other and have been fierce rivals for centuries. The War of the Roses was a series of civil wars fought over the control of the English throne from 1455 to 1487. The belligerents were the House of Lancaster and the House of York; the House of Lancashire used a red rose as its heraldic badge, while the House of York used a white rose. Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and ascended the throne as King Henry VII, ending the War of Roses. His marriage to Elizabeth of York united the houses of Lancaster and York and established the Tudor dynasty. Today, Manchester United plays in red, while Leeds United plays in a white strip, symbolizing those historic houses. People from Lancashire and Yorkshire grow up disliking each other, but most do not know why that is meant to happen. That deep-seated hatred spills over into football, where passions naturally run high. Each Manchester United versus Leeds United is akin to a small-scale War of the Roses, a real us versus them encounter that has footballing roots back to the 1960s but a history dating all the way back to the 1400s. Not many football rivalries can claim that.

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