Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink knew nothing of the enmity between Leeds United and Chelsea when a £1.8million transfer brought him to England in 1997.
Like many foreign players, Hasselbaink had a limited understanding of United’s past and required an education in their deepest rivalries. His lessons came from Eddie Gray, a coach at Thorp Arch and as close as Hasselbaink would come to the horse’s mouth; one of the men who drew the battle lines between Leeds and Chelsea half a century ago.
Gray told him of two supremely gifted teams whose ambition and competitive instinct gave in to brutal aggression and outright violence. Peter Lorimer, United’s leading goalscorer, once claimed that Chelsea’s modus operandi in the 1960s and 70s was to kick “everything above grass”, a quote which provoked ripostes about pots and kettles. “I got the feeling that they were as good as each other and as bad as each other,” Hasselbaink jokes.
The clubs have not crossed paths for nine years and they spend their weekends separated by hundreds of miles and numerous league positions. Their supporters still chant about each other week after week.
They will have an opportunity to do so at close quarters tonight when the sides meet in the last eight of the Capital One Cup. Leeds expect a crowd of more than 35,000, up 14,000 on the average attendance at Elland Road this season.
Something more than the semi-final place at stake has caught the imagination.
“There’s a lot of history behind the rivalry,” Hasselbaink says. “It goes back a long way. Eddie taught me all about it. I was new to England and I’d ask him ‘why the rivalry, why the hatred?’ In 1997 it was difficult to see where it came from.
“He said Leeds and Chelsea were two talented teams who stood in each other’s way. Every time they met, the football was brilliant and the aggression was crazy. In between playing they seemed to like kicking the s**t out of each other.
“You can tell how deep the rivalry went by the fact that everyone still speaks about it now. Most rivalries that aren’t local don’t last so long. This one won’t go away.”
Hasselbaink has a foot in both camps tonight. A striker with Leeds for two seasons, he came back to Elland Road as a Chelsea player in 2001 after a year in Spain with Atletico Madrid.
The abuse he received owed less to with the echoes of Gray, Bremner and Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris than it did to his own acrimonious departure from United.
“As a Chelsea player you go to Elland Road expecting to have the crowd on your back,” Hasselbaink says. “But on that occasion it was more like the crowd versus me; nothing to do with me playing for Chelsea and everything to do with me leaving Leeds.
“It’s one of my regrets. I wish the way I’d left Leeds had been done differently. I wish the situation had been handled better. I actually wanted to finish my career there.”
Hasselbaink’s transfer to Madrid was as contentious as the story behind it. His second season with Leeds saw him score 20 times and earn the Premier League’s golden boot but the summer of 1999 was filled with claims that Hasselbaink planned to move on from Elland Road unless the club agreed to substantially improve his contract.
Leeds were proposing a deal worth £25,000 a week, enough to make the striker the highest-paid player in their history. Atletico let it be know that they would pay almost twice as much if United were willing to consider selling Hasselbaink.
“It soon became clear that Hasselbaink and Leeds would struggle to meet in the middle.
He played in a pre-season friendly at Birmingham City but was met by a banner saying ‘Hasselbaink: Judas, Greedy, Selfish’. When Leeds accepted an offer of £12million on August 4, manager David O’Leary said: “I’m not surprised that people are calling him a greedy son of a bitch.
“He keeps on peeling off from the rest of the players in training and asking me why I won’t pay him what he wants or sell him. I’m sick to death of it.”
Hasselbaink’s recollection is different. “I never wanted to leave,” he says. “I wanted to be a Leeds player for the rest of my career.
“I was 27 at the time and at that age you’re heading into your best years. I wanted to give my best years to Leeds.
“I didn’t make stupid demands but I did ask the club to make an offer somewhere close to what other clubs were offering.
“Give me 20 per cent less than that or 30 per cent less, no problem. It went nowhere and I’ve always felt that the club basically wanted to sell me.
“O’Leary was looking to bring new signings in and they’d get £12million if I went to Madrid. That’s a big profit two years after signing me for £1.8million. To me it was a business deal which suited Leeds.
“It was hard to sit back and hear people calling me greedy and saying I forced my way out but I don’t hold grudges and I’d shake O’Leary’s hand if I saw him; (Peter) Ridsdale’s too.
“All I could do was go and prove myself. I scored more than 30 goals for Atletico and if I’d scored them for Leeds then maybe we’d have won the title. Selling me was the wrong decision in my eyes but then again, who am I? At the end of the day it was a decision for O’Leary and Ridsdale to make. They had their vision for the club.
“But it was important for me to explain my side of things and to make my respect for Leeds clear. It’s quite simple – without Leeds United I’d never have had the career I had. That’s a fact.”
True to the conventions of divided loyalties, Hasselbaink will watch tonight’s quarter-final with a neutral mindset. He is certain, however, that Chelsea would prefer the circumstances to be different.
Their squad flew back to England from Japan yesterday after an appearance at FIFA’s World Club Cup which was scarcely worth the effort. Their centre-back, Gary Cahill, will serve a suspension tomorrow after his dismissal in the final and a disrupted flight schedule left Chelsea’s players with precious little time to prepare for this evening’s tie.
“Chelsea have a lot of internationals in their squad so they’ll be used to busy schedules,” Hasselbaink says.
“But most European games or international games involve two or three hours in a plane. A 12-hour flight home from Japan is different. Jet lag will be a factor. Sleep patterns are such a big part of preparation these days and as much as you can sleep on a plane, it’s not the same as sleeping in your own bed. Mentally it does you no favours.
“Chelsea will have spent last week adjusting to the time difference in Japan. Now they’re being asked to adjust again. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but some of their players will be feeling a bit weary and a bit fatigued.
“It won’t help them, put it that way.”
Excuses of any sort are rarely tolerated at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, is not expected to attend Elland Road tonight but the Russian is always watching and always ambitious. Since buying the club from United chairman Ken Bates in 2003, he has devoured eight managers and ruled as men with his power and wealth do.
Like Hasselbaink and Leeds, Abramovich and Bates parted company without an especially friendly handshake.
Bates stayed on as Chelsea’s chairman in the aftermath of Abramovich’s takeover but walked out in 2004 complaining of a “clash of eastern and western cultures”. “The new owners’ philosophies, values and standards are not mine,” he claimed by way of a parting shot.
“Bates will be desperate to win this game,” Hasselbaink says. “I can see why it would be personal for him.
“But for Abramovich, it’s probably all about putting another cup in the cupboard. Bates, Chelsea, Leeds – I can’t see him being bothered about any of that. In his eyes football’s about trophies. And if you’re not winning trophies he’s not a happy man.”
* Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was talking to the Yorkshire Evening Post on behalf of Capital One.
To join the debate ahead of Round 5 of the Capital One Cup, visit: facebook.com/capitaloneuk