History

Chelsea vs Leeds – anatomy of a rivalry

Following this morning's fixture announcement, we look in detail at our long rivalry with Leeds United, which will be rekindled in the 2020/21 season following the Yorkshire club's promotion from the Championship. 

A generation of Chelsea supporters have never seen us play league football against The Whites, so here club historian Rick Glanvill has provided a timeline of how a mutual dislike has evolved over more than 50 years...
 

From cities separated by 200 miles of motorway, Chelsea and Leeds forged their enmity in the mid-Sixties, when the north-south divide, vividly played out in newspapers comment, small screen documentaries, and socially aware films, seemed a chasm.

Much of it was lazy stereotyping, but Leeds were in fact largely comprised of northerners, while the bulk of Chelsea’s squad were southerners. More to the point, the Whites team relaxed by playing bingo together, while the Blues were the playboys of the West End’s nightspots. The contrast was perfect fodder for football pages too.

At the peak of their enmity, The Times’ Geoffrey Green wrote: ‘When Leeds win it is a matter of statistics, when they are beaten it is news, and when Chelsea do it to them it is good news for all those who live within the bright purlieus of the King’s Road.’

This was a contempt bred by familiarity, with all-or-nothing knockout matches and league clashes that were meaningful in the title chase. The macho culture in the two camps meant ferocity became the essence of most encounters. Capable of moments of beauty, they were not averse to leaving a scar. Goalscoring opportunities could be rare and often the product of mistakes as opposed to brilliance. All of this toe-to-toe malevolence famously reached its peak in the 1970 FA Cup final games, and lingered for years despite going our separate ways.

In the 16 years since Leeds suffered the drop, there has been only one meeting, and in May 2010, 44 clubs separated the Premier League champions from the League One runners-up.

Yet absence has not made hearts grow fonder. The historic rivalry still endures in vestige form with old chants at the other’s expense regularly sung at Stamford Bridge and Elland Road. If you would care to know why, read on.


Tue 30 April 1963 - Chelsea 2 Leeds 2 (Division Two)
Sat 23 Jan 1965 - Leeds 2 Chelsea 2 (Division One)

The story really begins with a quest for the same honours in two divisions and at the other’s expense. In late 1963 the pair – Tommy Docherty’s Chelsea and a Leeds team stewarded by Don Revie – met as Division Two promotion hopefuls. The Blues were second and the Whites fourth, needing to win. The game went this way and that before settling on a draw that eventually meant the Londoners returned to the top-flight, while Leeds’ elevation was postponed (only for a year, as it turned out).

Both were great teams and widely hailed as outstanding additions to Division One. Now reunited at the same level, they resumed a chase for the same honours that would last half a decade – the crucible of venomous rivalry.

They met as the top tier’s top two teams in winter 1965. Freezing conditions prompted both sets of players to change their studs to leather ones with nails in, and many hobbled away from a rough-and-tumble score draw with blood on their ripped socks.

The final table of 1964/65 would show the battling duo as the finest teams in the league behind champions Manchester United. Yet John Hollins remembered walking off the Elland Road pitch thinking how 'dirty' Leeds were and that he couldn't 'wait till we get you back to our place.’

Sat 12 Feb 1966 - Chelsea 1 Leeds 0 (FA Cup round four)
Sat 29 Apr 1967 - Chelsea 1 Leeds 0 (FA Cup semi-final)

The best teams in the country invariably end up playing each other more regularly because they meet in knockout competitions in front of big crowds. And no one likes those who repeatedly ends their aspirations.

The first of what was to be six cup encounters over five years came in round four of the FA Cup in front of a shade below 60,000 at the Bridge. An early Bobby Tambling goal settled the tie, but in bookings it finished 1-1: John Boyle for the hosts and fellow Scot Billy Bremner for the visitors. Like John Giles, Bremner was a talented midfielder who was happy to serve up some retribution too. By now, Chelsea had left-back Eddie McCreadie and Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris. No one was going to back down.

The following season it was the FA Cup semi-final draw that brought the teams together at Villa Park. Again the Blues were 1-0 victors, though a sprinkling of controversy added spice to the rivalry. A late Peter Lorimer free-kick seemed certain to salvage Leeds’ Wembley bid, until referee Ken Burns ruled it had been taken too quickly, and disallowed the equaliser. Revie was probably still angry about that decision three years later to the day, when the epic rivalry would reach its climax in this competition.

Sat 20 Sep 1969 - Leeds 2 Chelsea 0 (Division One)
Wed 24 Sep 1969 - Leeds 1 Chelsea 1 (League Cup round three)
Mon 6 Oct 1969 - Chelsea 2 Leeds 0 (League Cup round three replay)

An intense three clashes over just 17 days included the third and fourth knock-out meetings between the pair in just four seasons. By now Dave Sexton had succeeded Docherty, and as studious a tactician he was, this son of a prizefighter knew the importance of steel in defence.

With new men John Dempsey and David Webb at their heart the Blues had taken three points from a possible four off Leeds the previous season. ‘They proved that these days they are nobody’s pushover,’ one reporter enthused. Games between the two were marked by fraying tempers, the whistle constantly blowing, and names going in books. Lorimer would later remark that Chelsea ‘kicked everything above grass’.

And as if regular clashes in the FA Cup were not enough, along came the League Cup. The drawn first game was described as the ‘Almighty clash of brute force,’ with injuries on both sides. Chelsea won the replay at the Bridge conclusively. ‘More heartening for football,’ reckoned The Mirror’s Ken Jones, ‘was the fact that this match was empty of the malice shown in previous meetings between these teams this season.’

Sat 11 Apr 1970 - Chelsea 2 Leeds 2 (FA Cup final)
Wed 29 Apr 1970 - Chelsea 2 Leeds 1 (FA Cup final replay)

Don Revie had publicly avowed the FA Cup was the league champions’ number one priority, ‘in order to wipe out the embarrassing memory of our flop in the final four years ago.’ The Leeds boss also said before the season started that teams from the South were too soft to succeed. He looked prophetic when the Yorkshiremen won 5-2 at the Bridge towards the close of the league season.

Usually, though, Chelsea were wise to their bullying tactics and habit of surrounding referees to force a decision in their favour. ‘They didn’t intimidate us,’ Peter Osgood was fond of saying. ‘That’s why they hated us.’ There was, he said in his autobiography, ‘Ossie’, ‘no other club on the planet we would enjoy beating so much.’

The two clubs would collide again in the much-anticipated 1970 FA Cup final, producing a record British television audience eager to see how the animosity and clash of cultures would manifest itself in the only live game of the English season.

The brutality of the final at Wembley and replay at Old Trafford is legendary. Referees have reviewed the leniency of man in black Hugh Jennings and puzzled why he did not produce a handful of red cards. There were snide follow-throughs, studs-up challenges, and even the odd chase and kick up the backside.

‘At times,’ Hugh McIlvanney famously reported, ‘it appeared that Mr Jennings would give a free-kick only on production of a death certificate.’ An error-strewn 2-2 at the national stadium was followed by an incredibly dramatic night at Old Trafford.

Leeds took the lead and managed to hobble the heroic Peter Bonetti. But once Charlie Cooke had fed Osgood’s diving header, the Yorkshire grit seemed to crumble. Dave Webb’s header won Chelsea’s first FA Cup and was another dagger to the heart of Revie and co. With 28.49 million watching in the UK and countless others viewing worldwide it was a night neither club could ever forget, engraving the animosity onto football’s family silver.

28 Apr 1984 - Chelsea 5 Leeds 0 (Division Two)

Time had passed and the memories of 1970 stayed strong. But the titans of the epic clash almost exactly 14 years earlier were now in the second tier and this was not an even contest. Chelsea thrashed the mid-table Yorkshiremen 5-0 to set up a promotion party, with Paul Canoville, a boyhood fan of the visitors, adding the fifth and prompting a pitch invasion. Leeds’ sole contribution came from their embarrassed fans, who trashed the north end’s new electric scoreboard.

Sat 13 Dec 1997 - Chelsea 0 Leeds 0 (Premier League)
Wed 8 April 1998 - Leeds 3 Chelsea 1 (Premier League)

‘When two tribes go to war,’ Frankie Goes To Hollywood once observed, ‘a point is all that you can score.’ So it proved in December 1997, when former Blue George Graham saw two of his Leeds players sent-off by Graham Poll, then blunted it out to secure a 0-0 draw.

By the time the midweek reverse fixture at Elland Road came around the Blues were distracted by the prospect of a Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup final, with a semi-final second leg to come. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was in venomous form, and the hosts led 3-1 soon after the break. Despite that loss, Gianluca Vialli’s Blues finished a creditable fourth – one above the Whites – and beat Stuttgart in the European final.

Wed 5 May 1999 - Chelsea 1 Leeds 0 (Premier League)

Hasselbaink’s presence in the royal blue ranks added another grievance to the heritage of this fixture, with Leeds fans keen to allege their former favourite had quit solely for personal gain. (The striker actually arrived a few months after this game via Atletico Madrid – no player has transferred directly from Elland Road to Stamford Bridge.)

This was effectively a play-off for the Champions League, with fourth-placed Leeds needing to chip away some of the five-point advantage held by Gianluca Vialli’s team. Gustavo Poyet scored the only goal and third place was ours.

‘It didn’t take a rocket scientist to pick out which three teams would be up there,’ Leeds boss David O’Leary conceded in the aftermath, ‘but we’ve won the “other” league.’ For Chelsea a first ever qualifying round place was 44 years overdue: the Football League forced the Ted Drake’s champions not to enter the inaugural competition in 1955

Sat 15 May 2004 - Chelsea 1 Leeds 0 (Premier League)

Chelsea’s fanbase had been robbed of the morbid pleasure of ‘putting Leeds down’ by a 4-1 defeat for the old enemy at Bolton, and this was an oddly passionless affair. Jesper Gronkjær met Glen Johnson’s cross with a header that proved the winner.

The result would make this a sliding-doors moment in the clubs’ relationship. The concluding game of Roman Abramovich’s first season as Chelsea owner was Claudio Ranieri’s last as coach, and the pride of Yorkshire bade farewell to the big time with talk of more than £103m debt ringing in their ears. ‘If it wasn’t for the Russian you’d be us,’ chanted their defiant supporters at the Bridge.

Since 1997 Leeds had gambled tens of millions on ‘living the dream’. That was now to give way to ‘doing a Leeds’: shorthand for spiralling down the league after relegation.

Chelsea, meanwhile, brought in Jose Mourinho as coach and won back-to-back Premier League titles.

Wed 19 Dec 2012 - Leeds 1 Chelsea 5 (League Cup round five)

Like an old flame from a troubled relationship Leeds, swinging between Championship and League One, popped up in the latter stages of the League Cup eight years ago.

Since the heyday of the wild affair Ken Bates, the Blues’ former chairman, had taken over at Elland Road, providing a sideshow to the main event. The old songs were sung, the atmosphere was spicy, but the hatred had gone. Leading 1-0 at half-time, the Whites were sunk with a five-goal cannonade after the break. It felt like a throwback to an age that had passed… until now.

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