The love lost between Leeds United and Manchester United in the post-war era did not stop the protagonists maintaining mutual respect.
Eddie Gray spoke at George Best’s funeral, joking that God had been “a bit unfair” in handing Best his talent. Whenever he is asked to single out the greatest footballer he played against, Gray comes up with the same name: Bobby Charlton.
Charlton turns 80 today amid much reflection on his domestic and international career and the life of a man who survived the Munich air disaster but in the years between Leeds’ return to Division One in 1964 and the end of Charlton’s era at Manchester United in 1973, the Elland Road club were almost impervious, losing three times in 23 games. Leeds reserved his penultimate visit to Elland Road for a thrashing like few others Charlton experienced.
Mick Jones made the headlines on February 19, 1972 with his first league hat-trick and one of only four ever scored in meetings between the clubs. For no apparent reason, and to his eternal regret, Jones left Elland Road after a 5-1 win without the match ball. “It annoys me that I didn’t take it with me,” he says. “That hat-trick was a real highlight of my career and the match ball is your reward for it. I can only assume we were all so tied up in the result that I forgot all about it. If anyone comes across it they can send it to me!”
History shows that an ageing Charlton and a Manchester United side including Best and Brian Kidd caught Leeds in the midst of a sublime purple patch. Leeds, whose defence was still built around Charlton’s brother Jack, were a whisker away from a league and FA Cup double in 1972 and the second half of the season showcased Don Revie’s squad at their best. Five goals against Manchester United were followed two weeks later by the iconic, humiliating 7-0 thrashing of Southampton at Elland Road. Brian Glanville’s Sunday Times report of Manchester United’s defeat gave a prescient warning of what was awaiting Southampton: “The spectacle was almost that of the matador toying with a weary bull.”
“That was us at our peak,” says Jones. “I’m not sure we every played better than we did in that period of ’72. A few weeks after the Southampton game we scored six against Forest so any side, even a good Manchester United side, were going to find it difficult.
“They never had anything other than a strong team but we didn’t lose very often to them and I had a knack of scoring against them. In that game (in 1972) everything fell for me. My goals weren’t special or spectacular, more like scrappy close-range finishes, but they all count and we made them all count.”
Manchester United had been clear at the top of the First Division before Christmas but lost their way under Frank O’Farrell after the turn of the year. Their loss at Elland Road was a sixth league defeat back-to-back, yet it was slow in coming. Leeds attacked repeatedly in the first half but were denied a goal by two Alex Stepney saves and a goalline clearance. O’Farrell’s players reached half-time ruffled but unscathed.
Two minutes into the second half, the dam burst. Allan Clarke and Eddie Gray tied the visiting defence in knots and when Gray’s shot came back off a post, Jones stabbed the ball in. Seven minutes later, Johnny Giles emerged from a challenge on Charlton with possession and fed Peter Lorimer whose cross was knocked home with the slightest of touches by Allan Clarke.
“People always talk about the Southampton result in terms of the performance, and I suppose it was more dominant overall, but the Manchester United win was just as impressive,” Jones says. Francis Burns made a game of it on 57 minutes by converting Charlton’s free-kick but Jones, who was returning from a bout of flu, struck again with a header and completed his hat-trick when Lorimer’s shot presented another tap-in. Lorimer’s fierce left-footed finish 14 minutes from time thrilled a crowd who delighted in Manchester United’s destruction.
The rivalry between the clubs had grown over the years, from the brutal FA Cup semi-final in 1965 which the Yorkshire Post likened to “a pack of dogs snapping and snarling over a bone”. “They were always fierce games,” Jones says, “but we had a lot of fierce rivalries in those days. You respected good players, and like many others I thought Bobby was right up there, but you weren’t intimidated by them.
“To put five past Manchester United was a special day. To get a hat-trick made it a very special day for me, personally. You don’t forget a game like that and in amongst all the things we achieved at Leeds, it still stands out.”
No player has scored more times for Leeds against Manchester United than Jones. No player has scored more times for Manchester United against Leeds than Charlton. The story went that at the end of a abject drubbing, Charlton left the pitch at Elland Road in tears, horribly frustrated by the outcome.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case,” Jones says. “We played together for England and I found him to be a very emotional guy. It mattered to him and in his shoes I’d probably have found a result like that quite difficult to take.” O’Farrell cut a shocked figure afterwards. “There was no indication of that happening at half-time,” he said. “The goals killed us and made them.”
Charlton took revenge of sorts the following year when, with his Manchester United career drawing to a close and retirement planned, the Old Trafford club claimed a 1-0 win at Elland Road through a late goal from Trevor Anderson, killing Leeds’ chances of claiming the title.
On Revie’s insistence, United captain Billy Bremner presented Charlton with a clock beforehand to mark the World Cup winner’s last outing away at Leeds.
“Bobby has been the greatest ambassador the English game has ever had,” Revie said.
“We couldn’t let his last appearance pass without a presentation.”