'Hearing that...you knew it was different' - former Leeds United defender on special winner against Manchester United
David Wetherall was sitting in the players’ lounge at Elland Road when he suddenly became acutely aware that games against Manchester United are different.
The 50-year-old is one of only five men in the last 30 years to discover what it feels like to score a winning goal for the Whites against their most bitter rivals.
Jermaine Beckford’s famous 2010 FA Cup goal at Old Trafford is the most recent and came more than seven years after Harry Kewell’s header ruined Rio Ferdinand’s return to Elland Road.
Winning goals against ‘that lot’ don’t come around very often.
Wetherall’s first real experience of the rivalry was a 2-0 April 1994 home defeat, Andrey Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs getting the goals for the visitors.
“I wasn’t really aware of it before I went to Leeds – I grew up in Sheffield” he told the YEP.
“But I soon became aware that these games generated a special atmosphere. Once you’ve been involved in one it soon becomes apparent.
“I don’t recall anyone mentioning anything about the atmosphere or the difference of playing against Manchester United before my first one. In those days we used to arrive at the ground really early and actually do some training, some set-piece preparation in the morning and then prepare right through.
“I remember being sat in the players’ lounge and just hearing this noise outside and someone said ‘don’t worry it’s just the Manchester United team coach arriving’.
“Hearing that noise, you kind of knew it was different. The atmosphere around the whole ground tended to be intense.”
What was going on outside was once described by Andy Cole as ‘dog’s abuse’.
“Our team coach would park right by the entrance and we all knew what was coming next,” he told GQ Magazine.
“The Leeds fans would cram around it and shower us with dog’s abuse.”
Cole was part of the first Manchester United side to taste defeat at Elland Road since 1980, when they lost 2-1 in September 1994.
And it was Wetherall, then 23, who set Leeds on their way by connecting with Rod Wallace’s corner to beat Peter Schmeichel.
Martin Tyler described it in commentary as a ‘miskick’ but Wetherall prefers to remember his third career goal a little differently.
“The ball dropped to me following a corner and I wasn’t that far out at all but I tell people I gave Peter Schmeichel the eyes, looked in one corner and put it in the other.
“Some people do tell me it looked like a mis-hit when I hit it into the ground and it bobbled into the corner. I can’t claim I struck it perfectly but sometimes that’s best – if I’m not sure where it’s going then the ’keeper isn’t.
“Either way, it went in.”
Alex Ferguson called it a ‘bad goal’ but, for Wetherall and the Whites, it was anything but.
“At that time I was pretty new in my career, I had not scored that many and scoring in front of the Kop against anybody was a great feeling,” said Wetherall.
“I was a defender, so I didn’t experience it that often.”
Briane Deane made it 2-0, so Eric Cantona’s penalty was no more than a consolation, if even that.
“It was great to score, but the main thing was the result,” said Wetherall.
“We hadn’t beaten Manchester United for a prolonged period before that so it was a good day.”
The following season Leeds beat them again at Elland Road, 3-1 this time, Gary McAllister, Tony Yeboah and Deane getting the goals.
Revenge came in the form of three straight wins for Manchester United, the second of which, a 4-0 drubbing, cost Howard Wilkinson his job.
But on September 27 1997, Wetherall got not only his third taste of victory over the enemy and a clean sheet, but the winning goal to boot.
On a day darkened by the beginning of the Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland saga and violent skirmishes in the city centre and outside the ground, it was a moment of Elland Road beauty.
“Gary Kelly put the ball in – it was a great cross – and I just managed to get ahead of Gary Pallister and get my head on it, steered it into the corner,” he recalled.
“That was a great experience, to be able to do that and then see the game through and get the points.
“As a defender, to keep a clean sheet against anybody in the Premier League was always pleasing but to do that against Manchester United with the players they had made it a very good day all round for me personally and the team as well.”
The only goal of the game, a bullet header that left Schmeichel with no chance, that consigned Gary Neville, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes et al to defeat, it’s one that Whites still cherish.
“When you score against Manchester United it certainly doesn’t do you any harm in terms of your relationship with Leeds fans,” he said.
“When I do talk to Leeds fans, if they remember me playing for Leeds it’s one of the things they remember about my time.
“It was a fantastic experience. Scoring, with the atmosphere for those games, it was special.”
The two sides meet at Elland Road tomorrow and Wetherall will be watching.
“I live in the city still and followed them really, really closely since I left,” he said.
“What happened in the intervening time – going down the leagues – was extremely sad to see and you could feel that in the mood in the city.
“Recent times have been fantastic, not just finally getting promoted back to the Premier League but the style with which they’ve done that, playing the way they do.
“They’re starting to become everyone’s second team and you never thought you’d say that about Leeds with the way some opposition fans view the club. It just shows how attractive they’ve been to watch. It’s great to see they’re safe and will, hopefully, consolidate a top-half finish, which would be a tremendous achievement in their first season back.”
Wetherall has been particularly impressed with right-back Luke Ayling and goalkeeper Illan Meslier as Leeds have gone about the business of entertaining the nation.
He laments that they won’t get to entertain 36,000 at Elland Road on Sunday.
“The disappointing thing is that this game won’t be played in a packed stadium because the atmosphere in those games is something special, very intense,” he said.
Elland Road welcoming committee or not, he believes someone in white is in with a chance of writing their name on the list alongside his this weekend.
“We shouldn’t underestimate how good a team Manchester United are but Leeds have shown they can compete with top teams and, hopefully, it’ll be a cracking game,” said.
“I’m really hopeful Leeds will come out of it on the right side from a results perspective.
“Of course they are in with a chance.”