By Liam Twomey
For the uninitiated, Wednesday evening sees a Premier League giant and a middling Championship club battling it out for a place in the Capital One Cup semi-finals. Those well versed in the history of English football, however, know something far more significant and incendiary is in prospect.
In the modern era, there is nothing to suggest Leeds versus Chelsea should be anything more than the kind of strangely-compelling mismatch common in the sphere of cup competition. The two sides have not met in over eight years, and are separated by 28 places in the league pyramid.
Yet the stench of hatred is in the air. Chants at Elland Road and Stamford Bridge hint at a mood of anticipation, but not in the good way. Seasoned neutrals are filled with dread rather than excitement, and West Yorkshire Police are worried enough to have taken the rare step of insisting the visitors can only take up 3000 of their 5000-ticket allocation for the game.
The search for an explanation for this strength of feeling begins some 50 years ago and – as with all of football’s enduring rivalries – on the pitch.
In 1963, Chelsea were promoted to the top flight. Leeds earned their passage the following year, and by the 1964-65 season both were battling Manchester United for the league title.
The Blues recorded a 2-0 win over their rivals at Stamford Bridge in September, but the result was not what stuck with the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Phil Brown. “'Never mind the ball' seemed to be the order of the day as scything, irresponsible tackles ruffled tempers,” he wrote. Leeds winger Johnny Giles was stretchered off after just half an hour following an Eddie McCreadie challenge.
Under the guidance of legendary boss Don Revie, Leeds developed a reputation as much for their unbridled aggression as for their formidable talent, and ‘Dirty Leeds’ became a common moniker. Chelsea were renowned for their style, but also boasted captain Ron “Chopper” Harris and others who were well versed in the dark arts. Neither side shirked physical confrontation, and the result was a war.
Numerous more battles followed, but it is the FA Cup final replay of 1970 which remains infamous. Harris kicked Leeds winger Eddie Gray into submission, McCreadie flattened Billy Bremner with a kung-fu kick to the face, Jack Charlton kneed and headbutted Peter Osgood, and Norman Hunter and Ian Hutchinson exchanged punches. Referee Eric Jennings used his yellow card once.
Such brazen physicality was not unheard of elsewhere in the football of the time, but the regularity and the extremity of the violence on show suggested this rivalry was more than merely sporting. Leeds versus Chelsea had become the North-South divide in microcosm – a battle of perceived contrasts, or “Yorkshire grit versus flash Cockney”, as Blues historian Rick Glanvill describes it.
In the years that followed the fortunes of both clubs waned, but tensions escalated as hooligans took up the fight. Some 213 arrests were made when the two sides met for the first time in four seasons at Stamford Bridge in October 1982. Two years later, travelling Leeds fans responded to a 5-0 defeat which saw their rivals promoted back to the top flight by smashing up the scoreboard.
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Both clubs, however, had spent well beyond their means in pursuit of success. Chelsea were reportedly one week away from bankruptcy when Roman Abramovich bought the club from Ken Bates in July 2003. Leeds were not so lucky and, after an enforced fire sale of players, were relegated the following summer, forever becoming a cautionary tale for the rest of English football.
While the Blues have enjoyed the most successful period of their history and campaigned with distinction in Europe, their historic rivals have floundered in the Football League. But although the pair no longer competed, Leeds fans showed their enduring disdain in protest at the ownership of Bates, and in the frosty reception afforded to Stamford Bridge legends Dennis Wise and Gus Poyet when they assumed the managerial reins in October 2007.
Current circumstances dictate that none of the players who take the field on Wednesday evening will grasp the true nature and history of this fixture. Most of the Leeds squad have never faced Chelsea, while Frank Lampard has had to educate his team-mates on the game’s significance. For the teams themselves, it is just about the football.
When they hear the chants and feel the vitriol pouring from all four sides of Elland Road, one can only hope it stays that way.
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