A MODERN FOOTBALL RIVALRY

06/02/19

From Howson, Snodgrass, Johnson and Becchio (remember him?), to Spygate, Timmy Krul and taking top spot, City have spent a decade getting under the skin of Leeds United. Here's Zoe Whitford's ACN debut, on a modern footballing rivalry.

There are some relationships that are destined to happen; a lifelong entanglement based on history, family, proximity. And there are others that come at you as if from nowhere, with no clear explanation as to why they've happened. They end as suddenly as they begin, without warning, but their impact lingers, never quite forgotten.

Norwich City slammed into Leeds United in 2009 after decades of casual indifference. For City fans, the pain of the 2-1 defeat at Elland Road in May 1995 still niggles. It did, after all, confine Norwich to Division One and - although no one knew it then - a decade of rebuilding and rediscovery. However, for the Yorkshire side, it barely registered. It was simply a win and the bonus of additional inflicted sadness.

All this time knowing each other, spending time with each other, but never having much to do with each other, and then suddenly, the Leeds and Norwich paths crossed. In 2009/10, City were freshly relegated to League One, tails between their legs. Leeds were the scary bigger boys of the division, massively intimidating until you realised they were having their third consecutive stab at completing Year 11. After nine games of the season, Leeds were top of the league, unbeaten and with 25 points. Norwich were 14th, on ten points, only just beginning to find their way.

When the two sides met at Elland Road in October 2009, Leeds still hadn't lost, but Norwich had won three in a row and had just moved into the top six. The game was tough, competitive, and ultimately decided by an unfortunate goalkeeping error. By the time the return fixture came around in March, roles had been reversed. City were top, won another tough game, and ended the season as Champions, nine points clear.

Without Leeds' early pace, Norwich would have had no target to aim for. Conversely, would Leeds' threat have fallen away completely were it not for Norwich's emergence as if from nowhere and the competitive edge between the two?

And so, the two sides were weaving their entwined branches up the football league trellis together, simultaneously enjoying success and trying to outdo each other. Norwich, a club too small and inconveniently located to have bothered Leeds in the past, were suddenly a great annoyance. The very idea of City's goal music, 'one song', and a beefy talisman appeared to offend Leeds fans to their core, their favourite word to describe their closest competitors was 'tinpot'.

The injustice of it all deepened when half of the team who had taken three goes to pass their League One exams were suddenly and with little warning playing for Norwich in the Premier League. City and United were no longer on the same page, two successive promotions had set Norwich soaring, but they hadn't forgotten their biggest battles from a year before. Snodgrass, Howson, Johnson, and then - apparently for the sake of it - Becchio, all made the move to Norfolk. Three of the four won the Barry Butler trophy in consecutive years. The two sides may no longer have been in direct competition, but they were still inextricably linked.

The games between Leeds and Norwich since 2009 have all carried something a little special, they've had an edge. Jerome and Bellusci, Howson's non-celebration, the thrilling and calamitous (in equal measure) 3-3 draw. The grating impact that City seem to have on Leeds was probably best displayed in the travelling supporters' somewhat failed attempts to make Wes Hoolahan's farewell all about them.

Here we are, in 2019, almost a decade after this newfound rivalry began, and suddenly the stakes are higher than they're ever been. The goal music has been surpassed by Spygate and Snitchgate as the most pressing divide between the clubs. There always has to be something.

Both teams are at the top of the Championship, playing the best football in the division under two of the most innovative coaches in the league. Once more Leeds had the fast start, setting a target for Norwich, and once more City have rallied, chasing down that target with the spirit and fearless determination of ten years ago.

The differences between the two clubs, from the outside, could not be more stark. They are Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins, one with classic short man syndrome, determined to punch above their weight, the other a hive of insecurity inside a giant and instantly recognisable body, terrified their best work is already behind them. But together, somehow, it is a relationship that works. The two thrive on a combination of mutual dislike and grudging respect.

It seems unlikely that this curious rivalry will continue forever. Leeds and Norwich will part ways as quickly as they converged. But that won't make the relationship any less significant, any less affecting, any less special. The two clubs get under each other's skin, they inspire each other to be better, they produce great games.

Perhaps their last hurrah will be another joint promotion, a decade after the first; pushing, shoving and irking each other over the finish line.

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