Noel Whelan: The Class of ’92 had never come up against a team like Leeds
Ask any Leeds United fan to name the Class of ’92 and they’re likely to give you a very different answer than Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs or any other of those scummers from Stretford.
Scholes, Giggs and co may have gone on to enjoy trophy-laden careers with Leeds’ fierce rivals from over the Pennines, but fans of the West Yorkshire club will never let you forget that when the two sides met in the 1993 FA Youth Cup final, there was only one winner.
Younger supporters only recently introduced to the Premier League may not quite understand the deep-rooted hatred between Leeds United and Manchester United. This is no a flash-in-the-pan rivalry; it dates back to Yorkshire’s 15th-century battle against Lancashire in the War of the Roses.
When the hatred continues over that length of time, you know it’s serious. As Gary Neville once put it to Sky Sports: “The rivalry between Liverpool and United is huge, but the Leeds-Manchester United rivalry is almost like a deep hatred.
“There’s a little bit of respect between Liverpool and Manchester. But with Leeds, it just felt like there was a real nastiness – like they would come on the pitch if they could, it was that type of feeling.”
Youth Cup collision
Neville himself was part of the Manchester United team that met Leeds in 1993 Youth Cup final, with the Red Devils going into the game as reigning champions of the competition.
Alongside him that night were younger brother Phil, David Beckham, Scholes and Robbie Savage. Of the latter, the following description was printed in Leeds fanzine The Square Ball: “I don’t exactly know who that blonde-bobbed centre-forward was trying to impersonate, but if he was aiming to be a complete wanker he was spot on.”
In episode 10 or series two of GIANT, the award-winning Spotify Originals podcast produced by MUNDIAL, we’re taken to Leeds to hear two unique stories about the city’s football club, the first of which being that two-legged final against Manchester United.
Noel Whelan was among the youngsters lining up for Leeds across the two games and was one of the few who went on to establish themselves in the Premier League, where he played for 10 years across spells with his hometown club, Coventry City and Middlesbrough.
“When we were going through the stages of the FA Youth Cup, we knew there was going to be a collision course at some point,” Whelan says. “We knew that they had a great side; every time we won one of our legs, we could see that they were winning their legs.”
Leeds’ senior side had become the last champions of the old First Division, only to put up a dismal defence of their title in the first season of the Premier League. To make matters worse, Manchester United, inspired by a certain Eric Cantona, won the league for the first time in 26 years. This only added to the pressure on Whelan and his young team-mates.
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“We knew the rivalry was there. We just knew it,” he says. “You couldn’t take away the fact. When you watched the first team – and we were ball boys – that tension with both sets of fans, that tension on the field with the two sets of players.
“You knew that Leeds Untied fans were expecting us to do one over on Manchester United. We knew that it was going to be a big event. I didn’t realise it was going to be as big as it was with the crowds, but it turned into some kind of magical affair over two legs.”
In the first leg, the unfancied Leeds travelled to Manchester and came away from Old Trafford with an eye-catching 2-0 win in the first-ever televised Youth Cup final, with Whelan grabbing the second goal on 62 minutes after Jamie Forrester’s first-half opener. Just over 30,000 fans were in attendance that night.
“You could see them streaming in. We didn’t realise it was going to be 30,000 people in there! Everyone’s nervous, pumped-up energy, apprehensive. It’s a big game. The first leg away from home. Can we go and produce and get something?
“Then there’s added pressure when you walk out; you can hear Man United fans singing, you can hear Leeds United singing in the corner. It’s not like going to a normal game as a 16, 17, 18-year-old, the spotlight is on you with cameras, with the audience, with that intensity of atmosphere inside Old Trafford at the time.
“It was some experience, I’ve got to say.”
Back at Elland Road
Three days later, Leeds United welcomed Manchester United to Elland Road for what was their biggest crowd of the season, with 31,047 fans making the journey to LS11. For Whelan, a boyhood Leeds supporter, it was his first time playing in front of his crowd.
Despite the first-leg result, Sky focused on Manchester United in the build-up. Comparisons to the Busby Babes were made, Duncan Edwards’ name was mentioned, and the team leading 2-0 were largely ignored.
“I remember sitting in the changing rooms, tapping my boots on the floor, and all I could hear was the singing, the noise, the stands above us…even now, I get tingles just thinking about it,” Whelan says. “That build-up, hearing the studs, walking out through the tunnel, and then it was just like, ‘Wow!'”
Of the adoration of their opposition, Whelan adds: “It was all about, ‘They’ve let themselves slip. Leeds played pretty well the other night, but they’ll be itching to get back out, as if they’d had an off day. They didn’t have an off day, we made them have an off day. There’s a difference.
“I was thinking, ‘Right, okay. Let’s do the same again, lads, but even harder. Challenge even harder, run even faster, jump even higher.”
Once again, Leeds were too strong. Forrester opened the scoring with a stunning overhead kick after 12 minutes. Scholes briefly equalised on the night from the penalty spot before Matthew Smithard restored Leeds’ lead less than a minute later. Leeds ran out 4-1 winners on aggregate; Whelan had been involved in all four goals across the two games.
“That’s what we were about. Straight from the off, set a precedent: this is what you’re up against tonight.”
He adds: “Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Savage up front – they are people that have gone on and played over a thousand games in the Premier League between them. But they’d never come up against a team like us.
“We hit them hard with tackles, we worked them harder than they could work us. You couldn’t out-run us, you couldn’t out-fight us. I just didn’t think Man Utd were ready for us. They had very nice players, but when it came to mixing it – I think one time during the game I looked behind us and there were three of them sprawled on the floor.
“They didn’t like it. We were in their faces and we stopped them from playing.”
We’ll leave the final word to Whelan about what that night meant to him, and still means to him now: “We brought something to that City for one night and one night only, which was weird. It’s a strange feeling that you’ve brought someone else joy that you don’t even know. But I guess that’s what sport is all about.”
Listen now to Stories From Elland Road to hear more from Noel Whelan, plus a heart-warming tale told by our mates Ruth Saxton and Daniel Chapman from The Square Ball. If you don’t support them already, it might even make you have a soft spot for Leeds United – albeit that’s the last thing their fans want.