Manchester United and Leeds United fans won’t thank me for saying it, but they do have a lot in common. Both are historically successful bastions of football in the north west of England. Each have enjoyed lengthy periods as the best team in the country. Of course, they also share a deep-seated hatred.
But amongst all this, they have also shared a number of players. Some were iconic superstars of their sport, part of the fabric of both clubs. Others fell through the cracks, becoming a postscript at one or both of the English football giants. Here are just six of the men who have turned out in both the white and the red of the two Uniteds. Note: this is not an exhaustive list, so don’t feel the need to ask where Rio Ferdinand or Denis Irwin is.
The Irish midfielder was on the books when the 1958 Munich Air Disaster tragically claimed the lives of a generation of Manchester United players and staff, along with journalists and crew members. He would debut for the Red Devils the following year, going on to make 115 appearances for the club.
Giles lifted the FA Cup at Old Trafford, but his greatest exploits came in the white of Leeds. A central figure in Don Revie’s salad days, Giles won every domestic trophy at Elland Road. But for a 2-0 loss to Gerd Muller and Bayern Munich, he would be a European champion too.
No fan of football through the 1970s and 1980s will forget the striker’s gap-toothed grin. A formidable presence up top, Jordan was never afraid to put his head in where it hurt. Considered one of Scotland’s greatest national team players, he made an impact at our two subject clubs too.
A league winner at Elland Road, he was also part of that side that came perilously close to lifting the European Cup alongside Giles. There were no trophies to be had at United, with an FA Cup runner-up medal being the closest he got. But the uncompromising Jordan is still well-remembered by Reds of a certain vintage.
‘King Eric’ moving from Elland Road to Old Trafford in 1992 was not the only factor in Man United definitely overtaking their Yorkshire rivals. But the fact that they have won 13 league titles to Leeds’ 0 in the three decades since cannot be a total coincidence.
Sir Alex Ferguson, architect of those triumphs, certainly believes Cantona was crucial in tipping the balance. Not that Leeds didn’t benefit from the Frenchman’s inspiration too. He lifted the First Division title with them in 1991-92. His achievements in Manchester have come to define him, but it's worth remembering the pivotal part he played at Leeds too.
Timing is everything and America-born, England-bred goalkeeper Paul Rachubka looked to have nailed it. Long-time custodian Peter Schmeichel retired the year before the youngster made his professional debut. Manager Ferguson was scrambling to replace him, with Mark Bosnich proving to be a misguided first attempt. But the opportunity came too soon for Rachubka, who made just three total appearances before leaving for Charlton Athletic.
After six clubs and nine years, Rachubka came to Elland Road. As with many of his other moves, he ended up being used as sporadic back-up while spending most of his time out on loan. Rachubka managed just six league games for Leeds before a permanent move to Oldham Athletic.
One of the spikiest moves between the two clubs, and we’re not talking about his jagged bleach-blonde locks. The forward was a beloved icon roared on to moments of brilliance by fans in the Don Revie Stand. But when Leeds were relegated in 2004, ‘Smudge’ moved to hated rivals Man United.
Furious Leeds fans cited an interview in which a young Smith had claimed he would never play for the Red Devils. But as The Sportsman reported here, Smith was faced with a situation in which the fee Leeds received for him would save the club from administration. He also waived a percentage payment he was due from any transfer.
Leeds fans never forgave him, especially when he helped United lift the 2006-07 Premier League title. But Smith’s heart was in the right place.
We are brought bang up to date by the rapid Wales winger who is technically still a Leeds United player. On-loan at a flourishing Fulham, James signed for Leeds in the summer of 2021. It was a move that was meant to arrive much sooner, as documented in "Take Us Home", a documentary about the club. But that deal collapsed at the last minute, and Man United swooped in to sign him in 2019.
James made a promising start to life at Old Trafford, scoring three in his first four games. He would not score a fourth goal for the club for seven months. James never quite recovered from the perception that he was all-speed with no end product, and after two patchy seasons in red he belatedly made his move to Leeds.
Four goals in 35 games did little to assuage concerns that he offered too little in terms of tangible output and James was offloaded to Fulham on loan this term.
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