Sneer and loathing: a day with Leeds and Manchester United fans | Soccer

There was a deluge in Leeds on Sunday. From the stands of Elland Road any number of objects rained down: coins, bottles, lighters, fireworks, in one instance even a golf ball. They came down at moments of maximum excitement and disappointment, of tension and frustration. Frequently, they were aimed at the players of Manchester United.

The 19-year-old forward Anthony Elanga was hit by what appeared to be a coin after celebrating Manchester United’s third goal in the 70th minute. He dropped to his haunches, before being cajoled back into play by his teammates. He went on to score the decisive goal in the match and ran straight over to the corner of the ground where he had been assaulted to celebrate.

Manchester United’s Anthony Elanga on his knees after being struck by a missile.
A steward retrieves a golf ball which was thrown on to the pitch.
Anthony Elanga scores the fourth Manchester United goal.
Elanga points to his badge as he celebrates the 4-2 win.

This was the odd thing about the resumption of the Roses derby. It was another prominent fixture that featured precisely the kind of behaviour no one would condone and yet pretty much everyone at the ground lent into its tribal atmosphere. It exemplified all the problems English football is experiencing regarding disorder, but anyone at Elland Road would find it hard to argue the occasion was anything other than exhilarating.

Perhaps the feeling would have been different had another deluge not intervened, the rain hammering down all day in Leeds. There were no groups drinking outside the city centre bars, although police did report “a few incidents” before the game. There were no Manchester United fans walking down to the ground by the side of the A643 (to be fair there was one, Jordan, doing the Siuuu in puddles to annoy his friends and relatives who, like him, were from Leeds).

Even at the stadium, the rain acted as its own security cordon to dispel any fractiousness. One hour before kick-off, on one side of Elland Road there was Billy’s bar and a crowd in the stairwell; on the other The Old Peacock and an even bigger gathering in the Covid-secure terracing. Both crowds were loud, crude and hostile to even the idea of Manchester United support. They seemed to be waiting for the away fans to arrive. But they were also not about to get soaked. There was one man, a thickset middle-aged fellow called Steve who was standing in the Peacock car park in a woollen jumper and jeans, conducting the crowd in a sing-along.

Leeds fans arrive before the Premier League match at Elland Road against old rivals Manchester United.

“It’s been 16 years in the making, we’ve got to show up for it,” said Steve of the event and his determination to mark it (the 16 years refers to Leeds’ absence from the top flight). Like other Leeds fans, when asked about the nature of the rivalry, he couldn’t put a finger on a moment in time, but acknowledged Manchester United’s history for taking Leeds players, from Gordon McQueen to Rio Ferdinand and Eric Cantona in between. There was a more general dissatisfaction too. “It’s the arrogance,” he said. “They just take who they like, drop £30m and that’s it.”

Reg is 54 and was standing on the edge of the car park with his family eating a burger in the rain. He drew attention to the unique circumstances in which the game was taking place. “It’s louder than I’ve ever known it and I remember the 70s and the 80s,” he said of the Elland Road atmosphere. “It’s that year we missed out, there’s so much energy.” Not only had Leeds dropped out of the Premier League in 2004, they returned in 2020 when Covid forced matches behind closed doors. This season is about making up for time lost on two fronts.

While the home crowds waited under awnings and sang horrible things about Manchester United’s players and support, the away fans were being smuggled into the stadium by the back door. They, too, were in assertive spirits, with this correspondent mistaken by one bus-load for a Leeds fan and given the finger by dozens of young men for more than a minute. But the two groups of fans never came into contact, just as the police had planned it.

Mounted police outside Elland Road before Sunday’s match.

This was the second crucial factor that meant the match bubbled up without ever quite boiling over into fighting: an enormous police presence. It wasn’t always visible, as different units were moved around the city “like chess pieces”, as one officer put it. It was largely friendly, with the kind of cheery, jocular interventions that are seen as the model for building trust and relationships with fans. On Monday, West Yorkshire police confirmed they had made nine arrests for “offences including public order, throwing of missiles and breach of banning order”. Leeds have said any home fan found to have thrown an object on to the pitch would be banned for life from the club’s fixtures.

Rumours around the ground speculated at 900 officers on duty. It seemed an exaggeration but it did appear that police had been brought in from elsewhere in the country. Any questions on the extent of resources deployed were batted away, however, with the force saying: “We don’t disclose the number of officers involved in large public order operations for operational reasons.”

There was no doubt though that dozens of officers played a central role in segregating fans in the ground during the raucous duration of the match and dozens more formed cordons in the surrounding streets to make sure rival supporters were kept apart afterwards. All the while, up among the murky clouds, a helicopter guided proceedings.

The players clash after Elanga was fouled by Junior Firpo.
Harry Maguire celebrates in front of the Leeds fans after scoring the opening goal.
A smoke bomb is let off by Manchester United fans after their first goal.
Delirious Leeds fans after a goal.
Leeds fans celebrate as their side score twice in two minutes.

The day ended with the away support driven back into town in a phalanx of buses, afforded the sort of siren-wailing security detail usually the preserve of world leaders. They were buzzed back up the road where a cordon of police blocked off the back entrance to the station and fans were smuggled inside like so many boyband members going back to their hotel.

At the front of the station a stream of wailing wagons deposited officers who then proceeded to the platforms, shepherding passengers on board the TransPennine express train. “The majority of fans on both sides behaved appropriately throughout the match and there was no significant disorder,” police said.

But that was not the final action As those same police left the station and went back into their vans, an officer was asked if that was it for the day. “Oh no,” he said. Where next then? “Anywhere, wherever they tell us.”

A Leeds fan flanked by police after the defeat.

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