For a split second Simon Grayson almost describes the fixture as a final, only to catch the word at the last syllable, attempt to shove it back in his mouth, and correct himself. He instead refers to the afternoon of January 3, 2010 as “that game”.
“The good thing about it, the reason it is so etched in the memory, is because Leeds hadn’t played Manchester United for so long.”
Grayson is talking between sips of Guinness in a pub just next to Blackburn railway station. It’s the type of establishment which makes you think actually, I’ll just get a coffee if you have a spare half hour to kill before your train.
At lunchtime, the only other customer there is an elderly gentleman short of a full set of teeth in the midst of an impassioned four-pint monologue at a weary barman.
And yet the story Grayson is recalling is actually more outlandish than the tales with which our well-oiled companion is regaling the landlord. Grayson is talking about the day when he took third division Leeds United to the home of their greatest rivals and the reigning champions of England, Manchester United, and knocked them out of the FA Cup in their own back garden.
Born and raised in Yorkshire, Grayson grew up a Leeds United fan, came through the junior ranks and was handed his senior debut by the club’s icon Billy Bremner.
Given his upbringing, he was acutely aware of what a fixture against Manchester United meant to the Whites while they were still toiling away in the third tier for the first and only time in their history.
If that wasn’t enough, Grayson was given a reminder of the size of the challenge which faced him as a manager just a few weeks before the third-round tie. Waiting to pick up his son from Liverpool airport, he just so happened to bump into Brian Flynn, the diminutive Welsh midfielder who played for Leeds between 1977 and 1982.
“I was the last person to score a winning goal for Leeds at Old Trafford,” Flynn told Grayson, referring to his left-footed finish which sealed a 1-0 victory in February 1981.
“It’s quite ironic that I’d seen him a few weeks before the finaaa… before that game came around,” Grayson says.
The Whites came perilously close to never actually making that trip over the Pennines after being given a scare in the previous round by non-league Kettering Town.
The draw had already pitted the winners against Manchester United, only for Kettering to take the lead in the 63rd minute against Leeds, who needed Jermaine Beckford’s 78th-minute equaliser to force a replay.
Leeds had suffered FA Cup humiliation the previous year when they were knocked out by part-time Histon in a game televised to the nation. And supporters feared the worst again when Kettering took the replay to extra-time by drawing 1-1 after 90 minutes at Elland Road.
An upset appeared on the cards until the second half of extra-time, when Leeds struck four times in 11 minutes to emphatically confirm their first clash with Manchester United since February 2004, when Alan Smith scored in a 1-1 draw.
Grayson was far from the only person at the club to understand the importance of the occasion. His assistant, Glynn Snodin, had also played for Leeds, while captain Richard Naylor and midfielder Jonny Howson had grown up supporting the club.
Another local lad, Ben Parker, refused surgery on a problematic hip injury, such was his desperation to play against the team he had rejected as an academy prospect.
He failed in his race to prove his fitness and only went on to aggravate his injuries to such an extent it ultimately cost him his career as a professional footballer.
“I don’t look back and regret it,” Parker recently said in an interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post. “If I did then it would be a different story, but I’m happy with the decision I made.
“I wanted to get back for Man United and we were top of the league. I wanted to contribute.”
The rivalry was not lost on Manchester United either, despite their much loftier status in world football – not only had they won the title the previous season, but they had also reached the Champions League final.
Sir Alex Ferguson had been thwarted in his attempt to win a first title with the Red Devils by Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds in 1992 and responded by signing their mercurial forward Eric Cantona, a transfer which acted as a catalyst to their following two decades of unprecedented success and only fueled the hatred between the two clubs.
On one particular occasion, Ferguson visited Elland Road to take in a clash between Leeds and Crystal Palace only to be showered with a barrage of insults and one cup of Bovril. “The abuse was astonishing,” he wrote in his 2013 autobiography.
Likewise, Gary Neville never hid his dislike of Manchester United’s traditional rivals, while Ryan Giggs named Leeds as his least favourite opponents due to the viscous tension in the stands.
“It would always seem to be on the boil,” he told The Telegraph in 2014.
I don't like Leeds United / they don't like me! ( that's life) However they are being tossed about by impostors! None of us like that!!
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) January 31, 2014
As a result, Ferguson gave Leeds plenty of respect in his team selection, with experienced first-team regulars Neville, Wes Brown, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Anderson all starting. Giggs, Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia were later summoned from the bench.
Leeds, meanwhile, were missing first-choice goalkeeper Shane Higgs through injury and had to do without the suspended Leigh Bromby at right-back, meaning the somewhat erratic duo of Casper Ankergren and Jason Crowe came into the side.
Andy Hughes, a right-footed central midfielder, was by now filling in as an auxiliary left-back, while Robert Snodgrass was still working his way back to full fitness and had to settle for a place on the bench.
When the whistle for kick-off was blown, Manchester United’s starting XI cost in the region of £80million. A generous estimate would be that the XI chosen by Grayson cost closer to £1million.
“Really you go into those games wanting to just make sure you give a good account of yourself,” Grayson says. “The last thing you need to do is to come away getting beaten by four, five, six and let it affect confidence for the bigger picture, which was to get promoted.
“There was confidence we could go there and do well, but you were playing Manchester United, the Premier League champions.”
It did not take long for it to become apparent that Leeds were doing more than well. Backed on by 9,000 supporters in the away end, the visitors were clearly not just going to sit back and hope to scrape a result.
Neville, vociferously booed every time he touched the ball, was struggling to cope with the physicality and athleticism of Johnson, and Beckford – who was reported to be potentially playing his last game for the club amid interest from Newcastle – had a couple of early sights at goal.
But the Red Devils also looked dangerous as Rooney, in the midst of a 34-goal season, showed glimpses of his class.
“We had a group of players who could look after themselves and could mix it,” Grayson, talking through the game, reflects. “That’s what we brought to the table.
“It wasn’t one of those games where Casper was in goal and was having to pull off absolute worldie saves and getting man of the match. We were quite comfortable.”
In the 18th minute, the hosts fired a free-kick in their own half towards the ever-languid Berbatov, who brought the ball down with a typically velvet touch only to be hustled immediately off it by the rabid Naylor.
After the ball broke loose, Howson came away with possession 40 yards from his own goal on the right-hand side of the pitch, took two touches to steady himself and launched his own long pass towards the most dangerous section of the pitch: behind Brown, and in front of Beckford.
It’s curious watching it back now, wondering at what moment Brown knew he was in trouble and Beckford’s instincts kicked in.
The first touch, awkward and messy, was the complete opposite of Berbatov’s, taking him away from goal. But Tomasz Kuszczak failed to make his mind up whether to come forward or stay back until it was too late, with Brown still Wile E. Coyote to Beckford’s Road Runner.
“The only time I could really enjoy it was when the goal went in,” Grayson says. “When you see Jermaine going through and he clips it past Kuszczak, you’re just thinking, ‘hopefully it has enough pace on the ball to go over.’
“It didn’t go in 100mph, it went in quite slowly.”
As recently as 2007, Beckford had been working as an RAC man. Fast forward three years and he was scoring his 20th goal of the season at Old Trafford.
“Obviously I enjoyed that moment. And then it’s like, ‘God, we’ve got another 78 minutes left.’”
The onslaught was soon to come, but Leeds continued to show the attacking enterprise to continue troubling their illustrious opponents. Shortly after the opener, Luciano Becchio put a free header over the bar.
At the back, their defence was tested by an international forward line but displayed remarkable resilience, including a heroic goal-line clearance from Crowe, to ensure Leeds went into the break still leading 1-0.
“We knew with that group of players they would put their heart and soul into it, they would put their bodies on the line,” Grayson says.
“Any time I had Richard Naylor and Paddy Kisnorbo playing together I knew those two would run through a brick wall for me, for the shirt, for the supporters. And the other lads around them were real genuine, honest lads who would give everything to try to do well.”
The message at half-time was simple: go and do the same things you’ve just done, it’s just still another normal game.
“I think I did say to them, ‘If this result stays the same, you lads will go down in folklore.’”
If Leeds were the ones boxing clever in the first half, the two sides went blow for blow in the second as the rivalry of old began to manifest itself on the pitch.
Brown was lucky to avoid a second yellow, and Naylor soon went into the book for happily booting Rooney into the air after the England star dared to dribble past him.
Ankergren was now being tested much more regularly but managed to repel anything which Naylor and Kisnorbo couldn’t block as they threw themselves full-blooded towards any challenge, tackle or shot.
With Giggs and Owen now called from the bench, the latter fluffed the hosts’ most promising opening when he scuffed a shot harmlessly wide from 12 yards out.
At the other end of the pitch, Beckford kept Neville, Brown and co. on their toes, and Leeds called for the cavalry of their own as Snodgrass stepped off the bench to curl a magnificent free-kick off the bar with 10 minutes to go.
“Even going into injury-time you’re thinking they could still win the game because of what they had available.”
Five minutes were added on, and Ankergren again saved smartly from Rooney, who also flashed a volley high and wide. But despite the weight of pressure, history and logic against them, Leeds remained calm.
One of the abiding memories remains of awkward passes being targeted in the channel behind Hughes, who continued to make a mockery of the supporters’ nervousness in his understanding with Ankergren by nonchalantly heading the ball back to the safety of his goalkeeper.
“As soon as that whistle went it was relief and obviously huge enjoyment,” Grayson says. “I don’t think it was until we were back in the dressing room after the game when we realised what we’d actually done, not just individually but collectively as a team.”
Come the end of the game, Kisnorbo, his head bandaged, was grinning through a mouthful of blood streaming from his nose.
“Those sort of players got what Leeds and the supporters are all about. They weren’t the most talented players, there have been far more talented players than them lads to have played for Leeds, but they’re still held in quite high regard because of their never say die attitude and how they worked for the shirt, and that’s what the supporters related to.
“One of my overriding memories of the game was going out to do my press. You have to go out of the tunnel and Paul Dews, who’s a big Leeds fan and was the head of media, was walking dead fast.
“Nine thousand Leeds fans were still in the ground. They had seen me come out and started singing. I said to Dewsy, ‘Slow down, this doesn’t happen often.
“We’ve got to reflect, not just as Leeds employees but as Leeds fans, that we can relate to what they are thinking and feeling. Let’s just soak it in. There’s going to be days fans are booing us, never mind singing our name.’
“That was a nice moment.”
There were more nice moments for Grayson to come, who still had to go share a glass of wine with Ferguson, as is traditional: “There seemed to be a lot more of my staff that were in the office afterwards than usual. You never saw them at Hereford.”
When asked by one of the most celebrated managers of all time whether he would prefer a glass or red or white, Grayson replied: “I don’t have anything to do with red, I’ll have a glass of white.”
“It was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but I meant it.”
In his thick Glaswegian accent, Ferguson then asked: “Simon, ye ken pressure?”
“What does that mean?”
“In Scotland it means, ‘Do you understand what pressure is?’”
“Obviously. Especially now I’m three or four years into my managing career.”
“No. Pressure is to get promotion because I’ve got money on you to go up.”
“Well, then you’d better lend me some players.”
Grayson has crossed paths with Ferguson on a few occasions since that and has nothing but kind words for his former adversary.
“He was gutted after the game because he doesn’t like losing any time. He didn’t like losing to one of the biggest rivals Manchester United have got. But he was really sincere and humble and he accepted on the day we were better than them.”
As if that day wasn’t dramatic enough for Leeds fans, they went on to take Tottenham to a reply in the fourth round after a thrilling 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane was secured by a nerveless 96th-minute penalty from Beckford.
But their cup heroics came at a cost as their league form suffered badly. The Whites almost managed to throw away automatic promotion, only to seal second place thanks to an anxiety-inducing comeback from a goal down with 10 men to beat Bristol Rovers on the final day of the season, with Beckford again the hero with a late goal before eventually departing for Everton.
Grayson retains a great affection for Beckford, who he went on to sign as manager of Huddersfield Town and Preston North End. And he remains in regular contact with many prominent members of that squad.
“That’s the one big thing I look back on. We had a great team of players but also a group of individuals and the respect we had for each other.
“I still keep in contact with a lot of them. All these lads keep in touch texting me. You don’t really get that happen too often.
“It will be interesting if they did a reunion. I think a 10-year reunion would be ideal. In fact I might just do that myself at home.”
By Rob Conlon