Henry Winter: Leeds prepare to renew hostilities with Manchester United

01 January 2010 06:41
So what was the gist of his mates' messages about Sunday's collision with Manchester United? Naylor smiled. "They said: 'Go and smash Gary Neville'!''

As a professional, Naylor stressed his "utmost respect'' for Neville, Wayne Rooney and the rest of Sir Alex Ferguson's team. As a man with "Marching On Together'' on his lips and a White Rose tattoo on his arm, Naylor understood the supporters' passion.

So did the League One side's impressive manager, Simon Grayson, who also grew up following Leeds, when they encountered Manchester United regularly.

Both men know that this fixture is the War of the Roses with shin-pads, that it is about Norman Hunter chasing George Best across muddy pitches, about Eric Cantona flitting across the great divide of the Pennines. It is about the Leeds decorator who refuses to charge for painting over red walls. It is about fervent emotion and white emulsion.

It is about a constant craving beating in hearts scattered around the world, about the texts filling Naylor's phone, about the insatiable demand for tickets from Grayson's family and friends. It is about the messages of support pouring into Elland Road and a special Yorkshire Evening Post web page. It is about fans from New Zealand and Florida, Dublin and Edinburgh, as well as Batley and Tingley, pledging their allegiance to their beloved Leeds.

Above all, it is about memories and hopes, about a faith that endures through the darkest of times. "Come on Leeds, this club will rise again let's show the Premier League what they're missing!'' read one message. "Come On You Whites Give 'Em Hell,'' commanded another. "Sing out loud and proud for the whole 90-plus Fergie-time minutes,'' beseeched another fan.

Naylor and company may be outplayed on Sunday, Grayson's men may go out of the Cup, but these runaway leaders of League One will remind everyone they are marching on together into the limelight again. New year, new decade, new era.

However much Leeds supporters may hate the place, Old Trafford represents a theatre of reawakening dreams for them. "This is where we want to be week in, week out,'' said Naylor. "This is where this club and fans deserve to be.''

Many of Naylor's toxic-texters will be among the 9,000-strong raucous choir in the upper tier of the old Scoreboard End. Leeds calculate they could have sold three times their allocation. "We have got probably the most loyal supporters in the country,'' said Naylor.

From Newcastle United to Manchester City via Sheffield Wednesday, other groups of fans can claim similar devotion during troubled days. Leeds's collapse from "living the dream of the Champions League'', as Grayson put it, has been extraordinary. Point deductions, law cases, relegations, Manchester United winning another Champions League, the selling of crowd favourites, debt and near-destruction: the litany of agonies has been long.

Throw in Dennis Wise as manager and the nightmare was complete. Yet the fans never walked away.

"They've backed us through the turmoil,'' said Grayson. "It does surprise me. The fans would have every reason to not come through the turnstiles. But it is the hallmark of a fantastic fan base that we can take 4,000 on a Tuesday night to Bristol Rovers. We are taking 9,000 to Old Trafford and we could take 30,000.''

Naylor concurred. "A game like Sunday's is almost a reward for the fans' loyalty after going to some of the ---- places we have had to over the past few years,'' said the defender. "With no disrespect, going to many League One grounds is still a fall from grace compared to some of the big grounds we used to go to.''

Along with Grayson, Naylor was talking at the club's Thorp Arch retreat, a facility-filled symbol of Leeds's ambition but a reminder of lingering financial restraints (they do not own the place). Both Grayson and Naylor embody the honesty, hard work and belief in Leeds that underpins the club's revival.

The FA Cup offers an exotic treat compared to the bread and butter of the League One campaign, Leeds's overriding priority, but Naylor's eyes still light up when informed that the Stretford End has been singing even more about its enmity towards the old foe.

"If you ask any Leeds fan, they like it when they hear clubs chanting disrespectful stuff about them,'' continued Naylor. "Man United do it. We will do it to them whichever league we are in because of that rivalry. It's a proper rivalry. It's not one that's just come about in the last few years; it's got history. Man United have gone on to great things over the past 10 years while Leeds haven't and there is envy that we haven't.''

The last Leeds player to score a winner at Old Trafford was Brian Flynn 29 years ago, so there was something spooky about Naylor's chance choice of Tshirt. "Class Of 81,'' it declared. "Courage, Ability and Success.'' The designer's name will particularly please chairman Ken Bates and the club's accountants: Replay.

This will be the first time Leeds and Manchester United have met in the Cup since 1992, yet in the Sixties and Seventies there were three semi-finals, two of which were decided by Billy Bremner.

"These are two big teams from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties,'' observed Grayson. "This fixture five years ago was a Premier League fixture. It could have been a Champions League fixture. Leeds were, not so long ago, a top team. So when Manchester United fans sing 'We hate Leeds' it is a compliment.

"When teams go from the Premier League to League One as we are now, that rivalry can dwindle away. So it is a testament to us that Man United hate us probably as much as they did when we played them on a regular basis.

"But whatever our fans sing, Man United are still the best club in the country. We are not in terms of where we are at the moment, but we are in terms of the size of our club.''

Sunday will bring some welcome atmosphere to Old Trafford and some equally appreciated lustre for the Cup. "When you see the size of the two clubs and the intensity of the game it will show you what the FA Cup is all about,'' enthused Grayson. "I can't believe people don't treat the FA Cup with the respect it is due. It is steeped in history.''

The past will invade the present. The Stretford End will sing of its love for Cantona, whose 1992 switch still rankles Elland Road. "It was disappointing,'' recalled Naylor. "Cantona rented a house not far from me in Leeds and we used to walk past on the way to school. I was at Bramall Lane when we won the title and Cantona was on the sideline doing kick-ups in front of all the Leeds fans. He was just adored. To see him go across and have the success he did was gutting.''

So much history. Naylor and Grayson derive confidence from more recent history, from the memory of testing Liverpool at home in the Carling Cup, of Robert Snodgrass filling the nightmares of Andrea Dossena, a £7 million Italian left-back reduced to rubble. "We have some talented players that can perform, certainly in the next level, the Championship, and hopefully in the next level after that,'' added Grayson.

Sunday will clarify the extent of their progress. Grayson hopes Ferguson will field his A-listers. "Our players would love to be playing against Rooney. It would make it even better if we managed to get a result with the likes of Rooney, Vidic, Giggs all playing.''

Grayson has lost his lucky pen but still maintained his superstition of not speaking to his wife before away games. He is saving his breath for one final rallying cry before Naylor and company leave their Old Trafford dressing room. "Good luck,'' Grayson will tell them. "And make sure you win.''

Source: Telegraph