Leeds United v Millwall Rivalry & History

Leeds United v MillwallSome football rivalries occur from geographical proximity, some from years of vying for success with each other and some are from religious or political divides. The Leeds United and Millwall rivalry however, has developed because of sheer dislike between the two sets of diehard fans, which has grown over decades. This can often lead to fireworks, with no shortage of incidents on the pitch either.

Map of Millwall & Leeds Stadiums

Map of Millwall & Leeds Stadiums

Leeds United & Millwall: Distant Rivals

Normally when you speak about derbies, there’s a reason that the two teams are considered to be rivals. More often than not the explanation is proximity, with two clubs in the same city disliking each other for reasons of geography and local pride. Occasionally it can be success that causes two teams to view the other as a rival, such as Liverpool and Manchester United being the bitterest of enemies at the same time as being the two most successful clubs in English football. When it comes to Leeds and Millwall’s mutual dislike, however, the reasoning behind it is a lot harder to explain.

After all, the two clubs are not only not located in the same city but aren’t even in the same halves of the country. Millwall are based in London, whilst Leeds are to be found one hundred and seventy miles away in the city that they are named after. Why, then, is there such an intense hatred between two clubs that haven’t even faced each other all that many times until more recent years? It’s certainly not an historic thing, given that Millwall was formed in 1885 and Leeds didn’t come about until 1919. Can it really be that there’s an enmity between them simply because the rest of the country hates them both?

The Story of The Rivalry

As mentioned in the introduction, the two clubs were formed thirty-four years apart and barely even played in the same league for most of their existence. Even when the two clubs entered the Football League ahead of the 1920-1921 season they were in separate divisions. Understanding the rivalry isn’t easy, then, meaning that the first place to start is with a quick look at how each club came about in the first place.

Millwall’s Foundation

Formed in 1885 on the Isle of Dogs in East London, Millwall were founding members of the Southern League in 1894. They remained in that division for more than twenty years, picking up two titles along the way. In 1910 the club moved to a new home in New Cross, which saw them cross the river Thames to the South for the first time. The club began life with the name of Millwall Rovers and was a team for the workers of J. T. Morton’s, a canning and preserve factory.

They dropped the ‘Rovers’ in 1889 and replaced it with ‘Athletic’, though that didn’t last either. When the club was invited to join the Football League in 1920 they became part of the new Third Division, with the Southern League losing its status as a result. In the early years there wasn’t much to report, but in the 1925-1926 season they notched up eleven clean sheets in a row, which remains a joint record in the Football League.

The Formation of Leeds United

If Millwall’s progress into the Football League was via the so-called school of hard-knocks, the journey of Leeds United was far more privileged. It started with the disbanding of Leeds City Football Club by the Football League, reportedly as a result of illegal payments being made during the First World War. Leeds United was formed as a replacement, playing its games in the former club’s Elland Road home and immediately being invited to join the Midland League to replace Leeds City’s reserve team. Their move into the Football League took place just a year after the club was created, moving straight into the Second Division.

Success isn’t something that came easily to Millwall, but the opposite was true of Leeds. They won the Second Division in 1920 and moved up to the First Division as a result, though they only lasted a couple of seasons in the top-flight. They continued to yo-yo between the two leagues in the years that followed, chopping and changing managers in order to try to establish themselves as a top-flight force. That wouldn’t happen until the appointment of a former manager by the name of Don Revie as manager in 1961. He would go on to win two First Division titles, the League Cup and FA Cup once apiece and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup twice. He won more as manager than Millwall have managed in their history.

Meetings Few and Far Between

Perhaps one of the most curious things about the Leeds and Millwall rivalry is that it is a relatively modern phenomenon. There’s no question that Leeds is the most successful club of the two, given that Millwall only spent two season in the top-flight prior to the 1990s whilst Leeds actually won the thing. Whether the more recent emerging of the rivalry is a far reflection of the status of both clubs or not, the reality is that they simply didn’t play each other enough for the two clubs to truly hate each other in the more formative years of their existences.

Between 1931 and 2003 the two sides played against each other on twelve occasions, with few of them being particularly noteworthy. The first time that they went head-to-head for any reason wasn’t until Leeds were relegated from the First Division to the Second ahead of the 1930-1931 season, putting them in the same tier as Millwall. Perhaps the first match was part of the reason for the dislike, given that Millwall went to Elland Road and won 1-0, firing the Yorkshire club up enough to win the return leg 3-2 a week later. The two sides met twice more before the 1950s came about, but they remained in different tiers of English football throughout the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s. Even then it wasn’t until the middle of the 1980s that they went up against each other in the same league again.

Leeds Drop Out of the Top-Flight

As mentioned before, Leeds United is the more successful club in terms of both honours won and time spent in the top-flight. Between 1956 and 1982 they missed out on just four First Division campaigns, for example. When the First Division became the Premier League in 1992, Leeds were one of the founder teams of the new division, having won the league the year before the change. They were lucky to survive the drop in that inaugural season, finishing seventeenth, but they soon returned to winning ways and remained in the new division until they were relegated at the end of the 2003-2004 campaign.

That saw them enter the same tier of the Football League as Millwall for sixteen years, though at that stage there still wasn’t all that much hatred between them. Things could have been so much different had Leeds won the Championship Play-Off final that they played against Watford in 2006, given that Millwall had been relegated to League One in the same campaign. Instead, Leeds found themselves relegated at the end of following season, joining the Lions in the third-tier of English football once more. Many people consider the move of the two clubs back into the same division to be the lighting of the touch-paper that has seen the sides at loggerheads ever since, with one match in particular sparking tension.

The First Violent Clashes

Though it’s likely that the two sets of fans were never overly keen on each other, there’s little form the history of the clubs to suggest that that was for any reason other than the manner in which two football clubs' supporters don’t get on when they go head-to-head. Certainly no one saw the violent clashes coming that occurred on the twenty-seventh of October 2007 after the sides had played a game at Elland Road. Millwall supporters were due to be transported on buses from the ground to Leeds Railway station after the game, only to smash the windows of said buses. Leeds supporters, meanwhile, were waiting at the Billy Bremner statue outside of the stadium for their own buses but began to attack the Millwall fans instead.

Leeds had won the game 4-2, which might well have put their supporters in a buoyant mood and left Millwall’s fans feeling rather downtrodden. Whatever the reason, the two sets of fans clashed to the point that mounted police had to charge on them to keep them apart and ensure the safe transport of supporters back to train station. The random and unexpected violent scenes led to the Metropolitan Police adding more units when the two clubs play at The Den in London, with West Yorkshire Police doing the same thing when the match is held at Elland Road. There has also been a conscious decision to see marches kick-off earlier in the day.

The Move Into The Championship

During the 2000s, both clubs enjoyed a fair degree of success on the pitch, coming close to gaining promotion on more than one occasion. Hopes of those that wished to see them play in different divisions in order to avoid the possibility of violent clashes were dashed when Leeds United finished second in League One at the end of the 2009-2010 season and gained automatic promotion, only to see Millwall finish third and make it into the Championship via a Play-Off final win over Swindon. The move into the second-tier of the English Football League didn’t do much to quell the ever-growing anger and resentment between the two sets of supporters, however.

Indeed, four Millwall fans did their utmost to stoke the atmosphere during a match at The Den in April of 2011. The supporters had taken Turkish flags into the ground with them and waved them during the match, which was seen as a deliberate decision to mock the death of Leeds United supporters in Turkey before a UEFA Cup match against Galatasaray in 2000. Millwall won the match 3-2, but the worst result was the furthering of hostilities between two sets of fans who hardly needed a reason to clash off the pitch. Millwall supporters were again behind something in poor taste in March of 2014 when they sang songs about the infamous Jimmy Saville, who was from Leeds.

Everybody Hates Them……

Though many have tried to figure out why it is that the two clubs dislike each other so much, few satisfying reasons have been discovered over the years. For some, though, it comes down to the fact that the two clubs’ sets of supporters revel in the fact that the rest of the country ‘hates’ them. Part of the reason so many fans of English sides dislike Leeds so much is because of the manner in which Don Revie had his side playing during the 1960s and 1970s. They earned the reputation of being a ‘dirty’ side thanks to his more cynical style of football, often asking his players to be brutes in the challenge. That’s a reputation that stuck with the club over the years and was embraced by supporters.

As for Millwall, one of the club’s most famous songs that fans like to sing goes to the tune of Rod Stewart’s ‘(We Are) Sailing’ and features the lyrics ‘No one likes us, no one likes us, no one likes us, we don’t care’. Those same fans have worked hard to make people hate them, with the taking of the Turkish flag to the game against Leeds just one small example of how. They once threw a hand grenade onto the pitch during a cup game against Ipswich Town, for example, or ripped up chairs and threw them onto the pitch when playing at Luton Town in the 1980s. The two teams have been hated by other clubs’ supporters over the years, perhaps leading to a sense of competition between them regarding the notion of which side is the most hated.


Reading things about hand grenades thrown onto the pitch and chairs being ripped up means that you’re unlikely to be overly surprised about the idea of both sides having their share of football hooligans over the years, but it’s still worth pointing out that the clashes between the two groups will often have been orchestrated by the worst elements of the fanbase and might help to explain another reason behind the enmity. In the 1970s and 1980s, when football was far less sanitised as a sport than it is today, the two clubs had feared and fearsome hooligan crews that were considered to be the scourge of football.

For Leeds United, the Leeds United Service Crew was the name of the group of individuals who would travel up and down the country looking for a fight. Named after the public trains that took supporters to football matches, it quickly became one of the most notorious sets of hooligans in the country. One of the crew’s chief rivals was the Millwall Bushwackers, which led to The Den being closed and Millwall issued with fines because of fan behavior on more than one occasion. That former Manchester United hooligan Colin Blaney named them as one of the top four worst ‘firms’ when he wrote his autobiography probably tells you everything that you need to know.

Famous Clashes

As indicated throughout the article, the two clubs haven’t met as many times as their reputation of being fierce rivals might suggest. Nevertheless, they’ve gone up against each other on enough occasions to have created some matches worth writing about. Here’s a look at a few of them:

The First Ever Meeting in 1931

A match that took place in 1931 might not jump out at many people as being one of the most obvious ones to write about, but it was one that stuck out in Leeds’ season for all of the wrong reasons. The two teams went head-to-head at Elland Road on the seventh of September when both sides were in the Second Division together.

Around nine thousand fans were in attendance, but the majority of the left disappointed when Millwall winger Jimmy Poxton scored the only goal of the game to give the away side the win. Leeds finished the season second, gaining promotion, but the campaign was marred by the fact that they only lost four games at home and one of them was to the side that would go on to become one of their fiercest rivals.

The 2008-09 Promotion Play-Off

When it comes to matches of importance, nothing quite does the trick like a play-off. They give teams the opportunity to move from one division into the one above, which means that if they can do so at the expense of their rivals then it’s all the sweeter. Imagine the delight of both the Millwall and Leeds fans, then, when they realised that their League One finishing positions meant that they would be going up against each other in the League One semi-final play-offs at the end of the 2008-2009 season. The first leg took place at The Den, with Neil Harris scoring the only goal in the seventy-first minute. It caused a pitch invasion, leading to the Leeds goalkeeper having a run-in with a fan who was later arrested on suspicion of assault.

The second-leg at Elland Road was a highly charged affair, seeing the largest fixture outside of the Premier League that season. Leeds were dominant, earning a penalty but seeing it saved by Millwall’s David Forde. They did make the breakthrough just after half-time, but Jimmy Abdou equalised with just over fifteen minutes remaining and Leeds couldn’t get back into the game, resulting in the Lions making it into the Play-Off final. In the end they went on to lose 3-2 to Scunthorpe United, but they were promoted via the play-offs the following season, following Leeds who gained automatic promotion for finishing second. Even so, the Play-Off between the two was a chance to get one over on their rival that gave Millwall the bragging rights.

The High Scoring Match: January 20th 2018

The two teams were in the Championship together in the 2017-2018 season, thanks in part to Millwall’s promotion back to it at the end of the previous campaign. The Lions had won 1-0 in the match at The Dell in September of 2017, adding a touch more spice to proceedings when they met up at Elland Road towards the end of January. It was already a highly charged affair before goals from Aiden O’Brien and Lee Gregory put Millwall 2-0 up at half-time. The score wasn’t the worst thing for the home side, however, given that Liam Cooper was sent off for a late challenge on Millwall’s George Saville. It was Leeds’ third red card in as many games, meaning that they were down to ten for the best part of an hour.

The Peacocks responded well after the interval, with Pierre-Michel Lasogga scoring almost as soon as the game resumed. The home fans went crazy when the Kemar Roofe smashed in from close range just before the hour mark. If that wasn’t enough, Lasogga then put them 3-2 up with half an hour to play. That wasn’t the end of the excitement, however, and Tom Elliot smashed home an equaliser from close range with just three minutes left to play. Leeds got caught up in the excitement of the game and made an attempt to snatch a winner, only for Millwall to hit them on the counter and take all three points thanks to Jed Wallace’s injury-time winner. It was the highest scoring game in the fixture to date, giving the Lions their third double over the home team in the history of their games against each.

Noteworthy Players

Given the fact that the two teams have been in existence for many decades, it’s no surprise that they’ve both had some interesting players amongst their ranks over the years. There’s no point in looking at them all, but there are two who stand out as being worthy of a mention:

Tony Cascarino

He might have an Italian name, but Tony Cascarino was born in Kent and signed for Millwall from Gillingham in 1987. He would go on to play for teams including Aston Villa, Celtic and Chelsea before moving abroad and playing for Marseille and Nancy. Well before that, however, he scored a hat-trick for the Lions against Leeds in his first season. He followed that up with another goal the following year and then one more in 1988. That gave him a total of five goals in one of the most explosive fixtures in football, which was a record ahead of the 2018-2019 season.

Alan Dunne

Alan Dunne was born in Dublin but joined the Millwall youth system early on in his career. He signed a professional contract in 2000 during his career he was sent off ten times, which was a record. He remained at the club for fifteen years before signing for Leyton Orient, but it was his work in the matches against Leeds United that will keep him in the memory of Millwall supporters for years. He came on against the Whites as a substitute at the end of a 1-1 draw between the two teams at Elland Road in 2004, making fifteen more appearances including his final one in 2015. As with Cascarino, his sixteen performances in the fixture was a record number before the 2018-2019 campaign.