x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Leeds on United's radar again

The Manchester manager Ferguson set to rotate but Grayson will field a full strength side at Old Trafford today when the rivals meet for the first time in six years.

Part of the way through Manchester United's Carling Cup victory against Tottenham last month, the Stretford End resurrected an old chant. "We all hate Leeds scum," is not the most edifying of sentiments, although the vitriol tends to be returned with interest, but the significance lay in its airing. For six years, as far as Manchester United have been concerned, Leeds United have been out of sight and out of mind.

A sporadically great contest was put on hold in 2004. Until now: the most intriguing draw in the FA Cup pits United against United, Premier League champions versus League One leaders, Lancashire in competition with Yorkshire. "It's a fantastic, feisty rivalry," said Sir Alex Ferguson. Andy Ritchie, who has played for both clubs, said: "It's like a war of the roses." It was a duel that acquired meaning in the 1960s when Don Revie, the then Leeds manager, bought Johnny Giles from Sir Matt Busby and built a team to rival and rile the Scot's.

A decade later, Revie's Leeds won the title in the same year the post-Busby Manchester United were relegated before a rapid change in the balance of power. Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan defected across the Pennines as the Red Rose side reasserted their superiority. By the 1990s, the regeneration of two post-industrial city centres meant Manchester and Leeds were embarking on a contest for the unofficial title of the capital of the north.

A footballing rivalry was resurrected, too. "It was always there but it became more intense then," added Ritchie. "It became a massive game then." Manchester United, having waited for a quarter of a century to win the title, finished second behind a Leeds side captained by one of their cast-offs, Gordon Strachan, in 1992. Ferguson exacted revenge in appropriate fashion. Unappreciated by Howard Wilkinson, Eric Cantona exchanged Uniteds the following season. He was the catalyst for an era of dominance at Old Trafford.

It was briefly threatened by the emergence of a youthful Leeds side under David O'Leary. Instead, their overspending prompted an unprecedented decline. After their captain, Rio Ferdinand, became the latest to make the contentious move to Manchester United, Leeds were relegated in two of the subsequent five seasons. There are ways of illustrating their subsequent fortunes. Manchester United became champions of Europe in 2008; four days later, Leeds lost to Doncaster Rovers. Now, however, there are signs that their years in the wilderness are nearing an end.

They have an eight-point advantage at the summit of their third tier and have won 68 per cent of their games - a statistic that even Ferguson cannot top - since Simon Grayson's appointment a year ago. In Jermaine Beckford, they possess a 19-goal striker and, with two players for every position, appear to have imported Manchester United's theories on strength in depth into League One. Pride has been restored and The Damned United have been transformed into the grand United.

While Ferguson is set to rotate - indeed, this will be the 100th game since he last fielded an unchanged team - Leeds' 1-0 defeat to Liverpool in the Carling Cup illustrated their ability. While Bradford and Huddersfield are closer, both geographically and in the league standings, Manchester United are the scalp they prize the most. "The Leeds fans probably do want to beat them more than anyone else," said Ritchie, who spent four years at Elland Road.

"They can't wait for the game and they have been talking about it ever since the draw was made." But win, lose or draw, Leeds have already achieved something: they are back on Manchester United's radar again. @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae Man Utd v Leeds, KO 5pm, Aljazeera Sport +3 & +5