Why are Man Utd and Leeds football rivals? History of derby explained

What us the basis of the Man Utd and Leeds rivalry?
What us the basis of the Man Utd and Leeds rivalry? / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Manchester United versus Leeds United is one of Premier League football’s most enduring rivalries.

Rivalries are everywhere in football, of course. They crop up, and endure, for various reasons and for different lengths of time.

Some are sleeper rivalries, the result of competition for honours. Those ones settle down and only re-emerge when trophies are on the line. Some rivalries are down to geography, others come of football itself.

Occasionally, in the case of Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, they are, well, complicated.

The rivalry between Man Utd and Leeds is one of the most fiercely enduring in all of football though, with its roots going as far back as the mid-15th century to the pre-Tudor era.

So, just why are the two clubs, who sit 40 miles apart, such fierce and historic rivals?

Why are Man Utd and Leeds rivals?

The rivalry between Man Utd and Leeds long pre-dates football. You have to go back more than 500 years to discover its roots.

Don’t worry, though, you don’t have to be a history buff to get it. Just watching Game of Thrones will pretty much catch you up. It’s basically the Starks and Lannisters – two powerhouses in a fight for control and influence in a castle-strewn landscape.

The War of the Roses was a series of bitter conflicts in a 32-year civil war between the House of Lancaster (Lancashire's red rose) and the House of York (Yorkshire's white rose) that ultimately ended with the extinction of both houses and the birth of England's Tudor dynasty.

Once swords and spears were dropped, the rivalry between the cities of Manchester and Leeds continued through the English industrial revolution, as again both directly competed for greater regional prosperity. Often, the success of one meant a decline of the other.

Football rivalry between Man Utd and Leeds

At this point, some may be asking why, then, Leeds and Manchester City not rivals. If it was all about distant, deep-rooted history then they surely would be.

The answer is, of course, football, and can be traced back to two men: Matt Busby and Don Revie.

In the 1960s, both clubs were really taking off with iconic managers in their respective history and they were on a collision course. A 1965 FA Cup semi-final descended into a punch-up between Jack Charlton and Denis Law, with the Yorkshire post reporting: “Both sides behaved like a pack of dogs snapping and snarling at each other over a bone.”

Leeds won the Cup semi-final but Man Utd won the League that year – pinching it from Leeds on goal difference.

That was the start of the football rivalry, but not the end. They fought bitterly intermittently from there-on. In 1991/92, for example, the last season before the Premier League began, Leeds and Man Utd were battling it out for the title. Leeds won it, Man Utd took their title the following year.

Then there has been the individual player battles too, with Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland springing immediately to mind.

Alan Smith didn’t help much either. Smith was asked at the height of Leeds’ modern era in 2002 if there was one team he would never play for: “Yes,” he said. “Man Utd.”

Smith was Leeds born and bred, and following their relegation in 2004 he had vowed to remain at the club to help rebuild it. Within weeks, he had signed for Man Utd, and the anger and sense of betrayal is still palpable today.

So, the reason Man City and Leeds are not rivals is essentially down to football alone, and from a Leeds point of view there is a definite ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ kind of situation going on there. The red colour of Man Utd’s kit it also a factor given the history.

Man Utd vs Leeds head-to-head record

Manchester United have definitely had the better of the rivalry over the years. In fact, they have nearly won twice the amount of derby matches between the two sides as Leeds.

That includes winning all of their encounters in the League Cup and just shading the FA Cup head-to-head too.

Man Utd wins

Leeds wins






FA Cup




League Cup








Top scorers in Man Utd vs Leeds games

Famously, the Charlton brothers were on different sides of the Pennines divide in their club careers. Bobby played for Man Utd while Jack wore the white of Leeds.

Bobby scored nine goals in the fixture during his career, the most of any player to date, which puts him two ahead of former Leeds forward Mick Jones and Bruno Fernandes.

Billy Bremner and Ryan Giggs both netted five goals during their illustrious playing careers.

  • Sir Bobby Charlton (Man Utd) - 9 goals
  • Mick Jones (Leeds) - 7 goals
  • Bruno Fernandes (Man Utd) - 7 goals
  • Billy Bremner (Leeds) - 5 goals
  • Ryan Giggs (Man Utd) - 5 goals

Memorable Man Utd vs Leeds matches

Man Utd 4-3 Leeds, 2002

Leeds had an outstanding team in the early 2000s. Around that time, they were standing toe-to-toe with the best clubs in Europe. That included Man Utd.

The teams played out a true thriller at Old Trafford too, with an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brace helping the Red Devils to a 4-3 win.

Man Utd 0-1 Leeds, 2010

After Leeds' financial troubles than came from chasing a shortcut to glory, they fell back into the EFL for many years.

In January 2010 they were drawn in the FA Cup against Man Utd at Old Trafford. No one gave them much of a chance, but remearkably a Jermaine Beckford goal won it for them.

It was the first time Sir Alex Ferguson was knocked out of the FA Cup by lower league opposition.

Man Utd 3-2 Leeds, 1998

Man Utd had plenty of memorable moments in their treble-winning season of 1998/99, but an early-season home win against Leeds was up there.

The match ebbed and flowed with both teams in an attacking mindset and it looked like it was heading towards a 2-2 draw.

However, Nicky Butt of all people popped up with a late winner for Man Utd.

Leeds 2-4 Man Utd, 2022

Fred, Anthony Elanga, Scott McTominay
United won a classic at Elland Road / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

Elland Road was at its raucous best when United rocked up in January 2022 to contest the first derby played in front of supporters since 2003.

Covid-19 restrictions had prevented Leeds' return to the top flight being witnessed by supporters, but both sides made up for lost time to put on a spectacle in West Yorkshire.

Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes had United 2-0 to the good at half-time, before Rodrigo and Raphinha netted within a minute of each other to take the roof off. Leeds couldn't sustain the momentum though, with Fred and Anthony Elanga netting to seal the points for the visitors.