Jon Howe: No time for pleasantries

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Weekly column.

In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks back at the history between Leeds United and Arsenal.

Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.

Football thrives on rivalries. And those clubs that we lock horns with transcend mere sporting combat, to influence who we want to bump into at work on Monday morning, how we dress and how we insist that such petty, historical bitterness is passed on through generations of our family.

Leeds United are, of course, no strangers to the art of duelling in ancient feuds, and much as we have been brought up with our club’s ability to pick fights in an empty room, that talent for winding up all and sundry appears to show no signs of abating. Our 16-year ‘holiday from hell’ outside the top tier saw us encounter relentless sources of fresh conflict like the worst weekend in a seaside caravan park.   

And in the last 12 months alone we have picked fights on social media with such arbitrary protagonists as a pizza delivery company and an ex-boy band member, and just this week the soon-to-be ex-President of the United States of America.

Honourably-fought skirmishes though these might be, it’s not exactly Manchester United and Chelsea, or even Derby County. But there is nothing like fighting your corner to bring out the loyalty and spirit of Leeds United fans, particularly when there is currently no outlet for our passions on a matchday.

Which brings us to Arsenal; our opponents this weekend after another interminably dull international break, and a club who, somehow for a fabled ‘big six’ club, fail to rouse any extreme emotions amongst Leeds fans.

I’m sure there are fans who harbour a deeply entrenched dislike for the Gunners. Maybe you were terrorised by a goading Arsenal fan at school after they beat us 5-0 in 2004 on our way to relegation? Maybe you lost your wallet at Highbury on a freezing cold January afternoon spent watching Tony Adams lead a regimental offside trap for ninety minutes? Maybe it’s just a George Graham thing?

Football rivalries can be grudging and resentful and very personal, or they can be intrinsically weaved into a football club’s DNA, and the relationship between Leeds and Arsenal is perhaps more the former than the latter. Which is a little odd when you consider that Arsenal have been an omni-present thorn throughout our 100-year existence.

Arsenal can thank us – or at least Leeds City – for giving Herbert Chapman a platform to establish himself as a renowned football coach and later winning Arsenal’s first ever silverware in the 1920s. We also sold them Wilf Copping in 1934 for a then sizeable fee of £8,000, who would go on to win several trophies and England caps in a Gunners shirt. The rivalry was competitive and fierce, and our record attendance for over 35 years was for a game against Arsenal at Elland Road. 56,796 turned up to watch a 0-0 draw on December 27th 1932, just 24 hours after Leeds had beaten Arsenal 2-1 at Highbury in the traditional Boxing Day fixture.

Of course Arsenal were our opponents on two of our most celebrated occasions; our first ever silverware in the 1968 League Cup Final, thanks to a single goal from Terry Cooper at Wembley, and it was 1-0 again in 1972 when Allan Clarke’s stooping header brought our solitary FA Cup triumph.

That Leeds have only won the FA Cup once is down to a mixture of bad luck and our enduring fondness for saving our worst possible performances for the world’s most famous cup competition. But we can also blame Arsenal more than most other clubs. In six FA Cup visits to Elland Road they have never lost, and Leeds fans of a certain generation will ably recall a procession of endless sagas involving replay after replay going back to 1983. It took two replays to separate us then, three replays in 1991 and just the one in 1993. Ultimately, Arsenal won all of those ties, and recalling this, I’m starting to revisit my rather casual appraisal that “yeah, I don’t really mind Arsenal”. But then they have never quite elicited the venom and spite that other teams have.

Our Premier League record against Arsenal is not too bad, with some notable victories at both Elland Road and Highbury in the 1990s, and our performances to deny them the title via epic wins in 1998/99 (1-0 at Elland Road with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s last goal for Leeds) and 2002/03 (3-2 at Highbury with Mark Viduka’s last-minute winner) are up there amongst our best memories of that last residency in the top flight.

On the other hand, we were also Arsenal’s whipping boys on many occasions, and they regularly plundered four goals at Elland Road in that era. One such encounter in 2002/03 saw Arsenal win 4-1 with a display you just had to admire. Nobody hates losing more than me, but I ended this match thankful it wasn’t much worse. I recall feeling palpably terrified that Arsenal could literally do anything they wanted on that pitch and we were powerless to stop them. Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Kanu; ‘that’ Arsenal were a team that combined stature, athleticism, pace, sharpness of thought and endless technical ability.

Overseeing this was Arsene Wenger, a manager who appeared to mix dignity and decorum with an ability to get under the skin of the likes of Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho. You had to admire him for that alone. But back at Elland Road during that 4-1 defeat, Henry was putting in the best individual display I’ve seen in the flesh in my lifetime, and Wenger was showing us a blueprint for the next twenty years of English football, whilst fans and media were still hankering after a bit of ‘Stuart Pearce’ bulldog spirit and ‘characters’ like Gazza.  

Arsenal gave us David O’Leary, we gave them John Lukic, twice. We each mourned the loss of David Rocastle. Our paths have crossed outside the top flight too, with three further FA Cup encounters in 2011, 2012 and 2020, all won by Arsenal, but all viewed positively as moral victories for Leeds given our status at the time.

Most football fans have a view of Arsenal distorted by an entitled fanbase struggling with context after going nine trophy-less years between 2005 and 2014. During this period Leeds started their first ever League One season on minus fifteen points, if you want some perspective. But then football is all about your own personal kingdom, and doubtless plenty other clubs would eye our recent ‘lower tier’ journey with envy, or would kill just to be in existence at all.

I guess, ultimately, what presides between Leeds United and Arsenal is respect, rather than antipathy. A rare thing in football. But that will all be forgotten on Sunday when three precious points are at stake, and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds hope to give Mikel Arteta another trip to the dentist. And let’s face it, forgetting what is even-handed and sportsmanlike for a moment, we most definitely owe them one.