Issue What is a derby match as Leeds United argue they have no local rivals

As told by Jason Mckeown

In the Championship on Tuesday evening, a club recently promoted from League One entertained a side recently relegated from the Premier League. But while it might have appeared the home fans would be excited at such an occasion, it was largely the visiting supporters who considered it a big game.

Leeds United were entertaining Hull City in what appeared to be a Yorkshire derby, with 2,500 Tigers’ supporters travelling down the M62 on a cold Tuesday evening to back their team in a 2-2 draw. The overall attendance of 24,906 was higher than Leeds’ three previous home fixtures, but indifference towards their evening’s opponents was apparently the overriding emotion from a large section of United fans.

In an attempt to represent at least part of the overall mood, an article by a Leeds fan in the matchday programme declared that Leeds United don’t have any true derbies. In the piece, the writer revealed:

Given the proximity of Hull, it would be fair to say that our visitors probably consider this game as a derby…yet from our point of view…our games against them are not what you would call derbies.

At the end of the article the writer concludes:

So do we have a proper derby match? My view is no. We have some proper rivalries, but in terms of derby matches we just don’t seem to do ’em.

The comparison between derby and rivalry is at the heart of this issue and their own chosen outlook. Leeds is in a central position of probably the largest density of football clubs in the country, with numerous Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs comfortably within an hour’s drive, so they are not short of opponents who qualify as a derby. Nor are they shy of neighbours who look upon them as rivals. We Bradford City fans, of course, have a strong disliking for our nearest league club. We’re in good company with Huddersfield Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Barnsley and Doncaster Rovers supporters joining Hull in loathing the Elland Road outfit.

But to Leeds, none of us are truly worthy of the title ‘derby match’ because we’re not considered worthy of being their rivals. Leeds United unquestionably have the most successful history of any Yorkshire club, and during the glory days were able to build up huge derbies against Manchester United and big rivalries with Liverpool and Chelsea. They’ve fallen from their top flight perch during recent years, which has caused them to face the likes of Huddersfield on a regular basis. But even the three defeats and two draws from six games against the Terriers hasn’t resulted in any significant development of a reciprocal animosity towards Town.

Back to the article, talking about potential derbies:

There are a handful of teams nearer to us than them (Manchester United, their considered rivals). In no particular order: Huddersfield, Bradford, Oldham, Bury, Rochdale, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster Rovers all come in at less miles than a trip to Old Trafford.

Of those, we’ve never played Rochdale, barely played Bury, Oldham doesn’t have that feel and neither does Huddersfield, and the South Yorkshire clubs have each other.

The simple truth is that Leeds fans continue to believe their only rightful place is among the elite – a view that an increasing number of national media pundits seem happy to encourage too – and so victories over neighbours they are ‘temporarily’ forced to slum it with remain largely hollow. This is largely understandable, it’s not as though you can turn on the tap and start hating someone that for a long time you considered yourselves above, indeed we ourselves were a few years back intensely disliked by Hull when most of us couldn’t care less about them.

But perhaps it might be worth considering the relationship of Leeds United – and specifically its supporters – in the medium term history with the rest of the clubs in Yorkshire and beyond. The hooliganism problems of Leeds United have been detailed at length elsewhere but suffice to say that much of the antipathy towards Elland Road has a basis in the violence of the 1980s. City centres boarded up, riots at ground, the infamous scenes of Odsal. That the antipathy is not historically reciprocal is perhaps reflective of the fact that that violence was not, or at least was not to the same extent.

So what about us?

That leaves Bradford City as our only real derby candidates. Situated less than 10 miles away and knowing their fans dislike of everything connected with ourselves – their fanzine onece produced a “Super Leeds” special containing only blank pages – it would seem that our occasional games against the Bantams are the closest we come to a proper Yorkshire derby.

Yet, even still, that’s hard to grasp. Aside from a handful of meetings in the late ’80s and a couple in the Premiership, we have never played each other enough to generate a proper rivalry. I dare say that on that basis we could share the same “rivalry” with Guiseley or Farsley.

Hmm…consider ourselves well and truly put down.

Which leaves the Bradford City-Leeds rivalry looking extremely one-sided. Over the years I’ve had numerous Leeds-supporting friends tell me that City fans are petty and jealous-minded for disliking Leeds United, and how they couldn’t care less about the Bantams. Indeed many Leeds fans also have season tickets at Valley Parade, and City have a long-standing agreement that home games don’t clash with the days Leeds are at Elland Road. Throw in the lack of times the two clubs share a division, and you and I are often lectured to “get a life.”

But at the same time the behaviour of some Leeds supporters towards City suggests not all of them feel indifferent. Aside from the trouble at Odsal in 1988, witness the ugly scenes before, during and after the first ever Premier League meeting at Valley Parade between the two clubs in 2000; where at the height of the Lee Bowyer-Jonathan Woodgate trial, certain good citizens of Bradford were singled out for abuse and, allegedly, violence. Or what about the JPT tie at Elland Road in 2008, when a bus containing City fans was attacked by Leeds followers?

Elements of their support are also known to semi-reguarly chant about the Bradford Fire. A Leeds-supporting friend told me that, on the day City marked the 25th anniversary of the tragedy with a home game against Northampton that saw BBC Football Focus in attendance, the coach load of Leeds fans he travelled back from their game at Charlton with included renditions of that horrific song.

If any of these incidents were due to a derby rivalry they would still be emphatically wrong. But if these are the actions from a minority of a club’s supporters, let us be thankful their majority do not consider us serious derby rivals. It would only encourage such morons even more.

Football derbies can be an ugly and over the top thing, but in a sport that is all about beating others to triumph they can also add positivity and colour. As a football fan you want your team to be the best, and that especially includes getting one over teams who you know supporters of. Victories over Huddersfield will always mean more than wins over Watford, similarly the pain of losing to Burnley – round Skipton way at least – is more unbearable than a defeat to Nottingham Forest. Football supporting is all about enjoying the highs and coping with the lows, and if those highs cause lows to your mate or your uncle or your boss at work they are that bit sweeter.

Above all though, derby rivalries give more depth to football and something to aim for. Only three or four teams can be promoted from a division each season, only one team can win the FA Cup. Finishing 11th in a division might be disappointing, but if your neighbours finished 12th and you beat them on their own patch or in the cup there’s a significantly greater degree of pride to take. In 2005, for example, Premier League Blackburn’s FA Cup win over Championship Burnley was ranked by Rovers supporters as the highlight of the season.

In the world of Bradford City, Leeds United are an evil and obnoxious presence while we are the good guys. That may seem unfair and unjust, but it adds a greater level of purpose and provides us something to strive for – beating the dark side, eventually. Their failings offer light relief when we’re feeling blue over our own. It should never distract from the thing that ultimately matters – our own team. And in all my time supporting City I’ve never met a fellow fan who would consider Leeds losing to be anywhere near as important to City succeeding. There’s a sense of perspective at all times, but along with Huddersfield it’s still an important rivalry to us.

Jealousy? Not at who they are, and certainly not at what they want to become. I lived in Sunderland for three years and saw first-hand the intensity of the rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle – and I feel jealous that we don’t have a derby as passionate. Huddersfield for sure is a great rivalry and I hate them more than I dislike Leeds, but personally I don’t know a single Town fan so to me it isn’t quite the same. When I saw a Newcastle fan crying because his team had lost to Sunderland and everyone else in the work environment supported the Mackems, I was jealous. I’d love us to have that sort of rivalry with Leeds, but that’s probably never going to happen.

As for Leeds, they may consider themselves above forming a derby rivalry with any of their near neighbours, but deep down their fans must know that when it comes to rivals they actually have plenty to choose from. The rest of the football-supporting country appears to hate them.