This week’s signing of young defender Scott Wootton has reminded us all that the transfer history between the two Uniteds of Leeds and Manchester is notable mainly for its scarcity – understandably so, considering the bitterness of the rivalry between the two clubs. A mutual antipathy still festers among the fans on either side despite the rarity of actual meetings of the respective Reds and Whites on the field of play. Anyone who has witnessed the poisonous atmosphere which prevails at such meetings will appreciate the difficulties which can arise for players who have sought to serve both clubs. Accusations of betrayal are far more common than warm welcomes back when a player swaps one shirt for the other.
Revisionists who count their history from the founding of the Premier League might not appreciate that, in the comparatively few direct deals between Elland Road and Old Trafford, Leeds have come out not at all badly. Two transfers in particular can be said to have sparked the Whites’ greatest historical successes, but the focus in more recent years has been on the move of a certain iconic Frenchman, and the kick-start that appeared to give to Man United, a club that had starved for title success for over a quarter of a century.
The fact remains, however, that Leeds can thank the management at Old Trafford for their generosity – or misjudgement – in two different eras, firstly when John Giles (pictured above) made the move to Elland Road in the sixties, sparking the Glory Years of Don Revie’s reign, a transfer later described by Revie as “robbery with violence”. Gordon Strachan then arrived in LS11 to complete the renaissance of Leeds under Howard Wilkinson in the late 80’s and early 90’s, cementing their position as the Last Real Champions by finishing the pre-Sky era at the pinnacle of the domestic game.
Enfant terrible Eric Cantona did much to redress the balance of transfer success between the two clubs, but there are strong grounds for suspecting that Man U’s era of domination would have happened anyway, so favourable were the conditions for a global franchise in the Murdoch-funded Premier League. Giles and Strachan, then, stand out as the two most influential transfers between the two clubs, and there are also a few memorable if slightly lesser transfers worthy of mention: Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen left Leeds for Man U in the 70’s, but found limited success, as did Arthur Graham a few years later; while Brian Greenhoff and Danny Pugh were journeyman additions to the Leeds squad from the also-rans of the Man U gene pool. The less said about Lee Sharpe, “Plug” Ferdinand and Alan Smith, the better.
It’s asking a lot of youngster Wootton to turn his career at Elland Road into anything like the glorious impact of a Strachan or a Giles, but there are grounds for supposing that he may have a significant contribution to make and maybe – just maybe – cause the fans of Man U to regret his departure. Already there are wistful noises emanating from the hotbeds of support in Milton Keynes and Torquay. One fan remarked that Wootton might have developed into “another Johnny Evans” – surely a case of being damned by faint praise. Another stated that if Wootton was to be denied his chance at Old Trafford, he might as well play for a proper club, which seems quite a generous attitude in the circumstances. Leeds fans don’t appear to hold the boy’s past against him – he seems to be regarded as a prospect rich in potential, and after all he’s made a career choice of which we can all heartily approve.
Above all, we have to respect Brian McDermott’s increasingly acute eye for a player, especially of the young, there-to-be-coached-and-improved variety. Like it or not, Man U deal in an entirely different transfer sphere to Leeds, and it’s much more difficult for a rough diamond to be polished up for the first team there, when so many crown jewels are bought in every season. They are bound to lose the odd star-to-be, and on this occasion we at Leeds may just be the beneficiaries of this kind of overspill. We can certainly hope so, and hope also that this latest cross-Pennine import enjoys a long and successful career at Elland Road, returning frequently to Old Trafford to haunt those who have seen fit to let him go this week. With our vivid memories of Gilesy and Wee Gordon, we’re certainly entitled to such a dream.