With Chelsea and Leeds receiving police orders before tonight’s League Cup clash, one ponders why clubs from different ends of the country, with such contrasting fortunes, could have so much beef.
Outside their respective supporter bases, Chelsea and Leeds are not the most popular clubs with neutrals in England.
The anti-social tendencies of their managers notwithstanding (more on their personal gripes later), the dastardly duo are seen to represent contrasting but equally unappetising ends of the English football spectrum.
Chelsea, say their detractors, are nouveau-riche pretenders who have bought and bullied their way to success in the style of their oligarch owner, with the class to match.
Leeds, meanwhile, are a throwback to the bad old days, as drunken fans attack opposition players on the pitch while all manner of unsavoury chanting draws the usual shock and horror from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.
It is those bad old days that provide the backdrop to what is an unlikely rivalry in modern terms.
To those unfamiliar with English football culture, there is a long-standing sentiment that London teams and their fans are “flash cockneys” (ignoring the fact that only West Ham and Leyton Orient can lay claim to being actual Cockney sides); similarly, anyone north of the Watford Gap is gritty, no-nonsense and probably wears a flatcap to bed.
The 1960s and 70s saw Chelsea and Leeds – then among the leading lights in English football – contest some rather scrappy encounters, such as the infamous 1970 FA Cup final, when players brushed off headbutts and leg-breaking challenges as the referee largely let them get on with it.
Not especially unusual for its time, but bearing in mind that the days of free love and bell-bottomed trousers also coincided with a nascent hooligan movement, of which Chelsea and Leeds were at the forefront.
By the late 70s and 80s, recession-hit Britain (yikes!) was awash with competing firms with punkish names and rap-sheets that would make your average despot-backing Middle Eastern militia blush. Chelsea’s Headhunters and Leeds’ Service Crew were two of the most notorious and, having fallen on hard times in football terms, there was but fighting to pique the interest.
A late 90s revival for both clubs peaked in the early part of the new millennium, as a star-studded Chelsea and an exciting but profligate Leeds competed for European places. But football was a safer place by now and the off-pitch shenanigans were largely kept under wrap.
So why the fear over tonight’s clash? Well it’s the first time the pair have faced since 2004, when Chelsea’s 1-0 win helped the near-bankrupt Leeds on their way to the Championship.
And, in case you’ve had your head in a bowl of gravy this past 12 months, ‘naughtiness’ in the stands has made a bit of a comeback, although said misbehaviour seems to be limited to a lunatic fringe keen to ape the apes from which they once evolved (and apparently devolved back to), often with a mobile phone app over fists or a chant.
This meaty background prompted West Yorkshire Police to cover their backs.
“We want both sets of fans to get behind their teams and enjoy the football,” said Chief Superintendent Paul Money, the police commander for the match. “We want the focus of the day to be the action on the pitch and for it not to be overshadowed by violence or disorder.
“I will also ask the managers of both teams to speak to the players and ask them to avoid doing anything which may antagonise supporters of the opposition team.”
Which neatly brings ED to the aforementioned bosses.
It is unlikely that any of the players involved in tonight’s clash will have any grievances with their opponents. They play in different divisions, are unlikely to have come up against each other in senior club football, and hardly any of them are local (even to the UK, in Chelsea’s case).
Rafael Benitez and Neil Warnock, however, do have history.
The Spaniard and the Yorkshireman are different but analogous characters.
Different in that Benitez is reserved and awkward, making his historic attempts at psychological warfare a touch cringeworthy at times; Warnock, meanwhile, has a tendency to adopt the pose of an attack dog, all snarling insults and thinly-veiled threats.
But they share some similarities, both in their relatively charming face-to-face dealings with press and fans – Benitez is warm and kind, Warnock affable and hospitable – and in their respective reputations with fans of clubs they have not managed, which are mostly negative.
This combination of stubbornness and openness saw the pair cross swords famously and spectacularly in 2007. Having been wronged by another load of Cockneys as West Ham illegally fielded Carlos Tevez en route to Premier League survival, then Sheffield United boss Warnock flipped his lid over Benitez’s decision to field a weakened team against Fulham with a Champions League match against Milan in mind.
Fulham beat Liverpool that day, and Sheffield United were ultimately relegated. Warnock said he would never forgive Benitez, who responded to the repeated barbs about his weakened team by threatening legal action through his lawyers.
Messy, unsavoury and played out through legal channels – a very modern take on a very old-fashioned rivalry.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "(Nat Brown) got called a monkey by some of the (Barrow) fans behind the goal. He said to the ref 'he's called me a monkey' and that's not acceptable. It's disappointing for me that we've got monkey chants and all that. I heard it when I was coming out with Nat Brown. It seems to be happening everywhere. It's up to Browny - he said leave it but the ref [David Webb] wants to report it because it's not acceptable. We're in 2012 - what's all that about?" – Macclesfield manager Steve King reacts with similar bewilderment to most at the latest, tiresome race row.
FOREIGN VIEW: Napoli are docked points while a former player is banned for three years and current skipper Paolo Cannavaro for six months over another Serie A betting scam. Meanwhile, Atalanta are forced to backtrack after coming under fire for criticising, disciplining and threatening player Guglielmo Stendardo, who missed a Coppa Italia match to sit final exams for his Law degree. Yup, all’s well in Italy.
COMING UP: The aforementioned Capital One Cup tie between Leeds and Chelsea kicks off at Elland Road at 7.45pm, while there will be live scoring from the respective cup competitions in Germany and Italy all afternoon and evening.