Leeds United - The Last English Champions - Chaos Theory NTZR.co.uk

Howard Wilkinson arrived at Leeds with a ten-year plan. Within four, they were champions

Howard Wilkinson is not the man he seems to be. The only living English manager to have won the league title is often characterised as glum and pedantic. It is true that the hunger for learning that nourished his teaching career when he dropped down from playing with Brighton into the semi-professional game made him appear stilted, while his fondness for impenetrable pronouncements – for example “Zinedine Zidane could be a champion sumo wrestler, he can run like a crab or a gazelle” – left him vulnerable to ridicule. His thoughtfulness and tendency to weigh every word fed into his dour public image yet his players remember a tinder-dry sense of humour and his pragmatism.

Wilkinson’s fitness regime and the sacrifices it entailed enforced changes to his teams’ diet while his rigorous drilling of set-pieces and his belief in the importance of the second ball, especially the knockdowns and flick-ons from goalkicks and upfield punts, ensured the media dumped him into the long-ball school. But that was only part of his make-up, not all of it. He dressed like a dandy, with a fondness for blazers or pale suits, and co-ordinated ties and silk handkerchiefs. Wilkinson was well-read, liked good wine, malt whisky and Havana cigars, very much a Mercedes man. When Leeds United appointed him in October 1988 just after the start of their seventh consecutive Second Division season, it was a conscious break with the past. 

For eight years the club had been managed by a succession of its greatest players: Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner. Each had tried in different ways, with severe financial constraints, to resurrect the glory days in which they had served under Don Revie, a golden 10-year period from 1964 when they had made the club and city globally famous by winning promotion, two titles, two Fairs Cups, the FA and League Cups and, most notoriously, earning 11 runners-up places in domestic and European competition.

The Leeds board of directors had repeatedly gambled on alchemy, believing a Revie disciple would find that winning formula. By 1988, a year after Bremner had taken Leeds into extra-time of both the FA Cup semi-final and a play-off final replay, the chairman, Leslie Silver, had accepted that the long tail of the Revie era was finally over. Drastic and expensive action was required. Somewhat incongruously, Bill Fotherby, managing director of a club that was 18th in Division Two, telephoned his counterpart at Sheffield Wednesday, then 12th in Division One. Even more incongruously, he was granted permission to talk to their manager.

Fotherby’s flamboyant gambits to raise Leeds United’s profile would eventually become tiresome but at first many admired his cheek rather than seething at his bluster. It did establish him as a character in his own right, though, as the club’s showman and dealmaker by contrast with Silver’s reserve. “He could sell sand to Arabs,” said Wilkinson with an indulgent smile. More importantly, he sold Wilkinson the idea of Leeds United as a progressive, ambitious project.

Wilkinson was not the first choice. Fotherby said that they originally approached the England manager Bobby Robson and put out feelers to Howard Kendall, then managing Athletic Bilbao. Robson turned them down but recommended the Sheffield Wednesday manager and a Leeds director fed in the rumour that Wilkinson was unhappy at Hillsborough because his board would not remove his budgetary restrictions. He had taken Notts County into the First Division and kept them up for two years before joining his boyhood club Wednesday in 1983. Promotion at the first attempt was followed in his third year with a fifth-place finish and an FA Cup semi-final.

Wednesday dropped to 13th and 11th in his final two full seasons. Players can smell a lack of ambition at a club and the better ones invariably leave. Wilkinson was powerless to prevent it. He could not match the wages offered by other clubs for those he wanted to sign or persuade to stay. “Wednesday became known,” he wrote, “as the big city club with the small town mentality.” Disillusionment was one motivating factor as was his club’s willingness to let him to speak to Leeds. Fotherby and Silver still had to convince him, however, and they did this in typical fashion: Fotherby spoke to him; Silver listened to him.  

Once Fotherby had given him the spiel, he agreed to meet Silver at his paint factory south west of Leeds where Wilkinson outlined three models for a promotion push. At County, he had no money to spend but coached intensively and, he conceded, had the good fortune to enable a miracle. With Wednesday he employed very modest outlays to enhance his squad when and where possible, ran the players’ socks off on notorious Monday cross-country runs through the Derwent Valley, proved the worth of his efficient style and system with results and established a structure to which each player was committed.

He had proved he could do both, he pointed out, but there were no guarantees and, one suspects, no point for him in leaving a top-flight club for one fourth from bottom of the Second Division if the policy was to rely on a healthy slice of luck either way. Finally he outlined his preferred option, a more ambitious strategy of investment in transfer fees, salaries and long-term planning, presenting them with a 10-year blueprint on restructuring Leeds United and turning it into a club that would sustain itself among the elite by producing its own players to star in a rebuilt ground. Silver took notes throughout and pledged his support to this third way. Fotherby was detailed with raising the money through commercial deals, pushing through his plans for corporate hospitality and merchandising. Wilkinson signed the contract. 

He almost ruined the whole long-term project by beginning with a run of only two defeats in his first 22 games with Bremner’s squad that pushed them into play-off contention. Going up with that team would have satisfied Wilkinson’s competitive instincts but would have left them wholly ill prepared for the First Division. A tailing off in the spring spared him from premature, almost accidental promotion. In March he paid £300,000 for the 32-year-old Gordon Strachan from Manchester United and £500,000 for the quick, stylish centre-half Chris Fairclough from Tottenham, both taking the step down because they were convinced by the club’s ambition.

“Leeds were standing still, I was standing still,” says Strachan. “When I met Bill and Howard I thought: ‘OK. They’ve asked me to do something here.’ I was given a responsibility to get the team promoted, a leader to get the team into the top league and it was great for me because I’d really been missing that for a couple of years. I believed them because I could tell they also had a real sense of responsibility. Leeds were in a dire way. It really was a last throw of the dice financially. They would have been in trouble if it didn’t work.”

Further signings followed in the summer, bringing in Mel Sterland, an attacking right-back with a breezy directness to his play and character, Scottish winger John Hendrie and the pantomime villain of English football, Vinnie Jones from Wimbledon. Above all, though, Wilkinson imported an overriding credo during pre-season, now he had the players to implement it. In short, his right-hand man, Mick Henningan, told the author Dave Simpson, it could be summed up thus: “At Leeds it was about creating chaos, especially in the penalty box. That was the theory underpinning it all.”

From a position of strength at the top of the table in January he bought Lee Chapman and Chris Kamara who were both in the side when they walloped third-placed Sheffield United on Easter Monday. Despite a late wobble, Strachan’s glorious injury-time winner in their penultimate match against Leicester and Chapman’s goal in the final game at Bournemouth clinched promotion on an afternoon of larceny, looting and affray by some of the thousands of ticketless Leeds fans who had made the journey to join the ‘party’.

While The Sunday Telegraph chronicled Bournemouth’s 18-hour ordeal exhaustively, its correspondent, Christopher Davies, focused his match report on the distaste he felt for the club and for Wilkinson, giving them no leeway for anxiety or the difficulty of playing on a rock-hard pitch. “Leeds will not be welcome visitors in the First Division,“ he wrote, “both for the way they play and for the loutish manner in which some of their followers behave ... The baddies won and the goodies lost.” 

How wrong he was. For some, like the captain Strachan, it could have been a case of “mission accomplished” and, although he stresses promotion gave him a greater sense of satisfaction and pride than winning the title two years later, at the age of 33, astonishingly, he simply got fitter and better. Leeds first season back in the First Division for eight years was the most enjoyable of all Wilkinson’s time at the club because they played a vibrant attacking style, pulled off some surprising victories and, compared with the seasons either side of it, there was none of the tension generated when winning something is tantalisingly close. They upgraded again in the summer of 1990, spending £1 million each on the elegant Gary McAllister, whose transfer signposted a change of approach when he replaced Jones in the team, and for the goalkeeper John Lukic from Arsenal who returned to the club after seven years away.

Chris Whyte, another former Arsenal player, joined Fairclough at the heart of the defence bringing robustness and an occasional Bambi foray to a complementary partnership.  So much for being unwelcome visitors, Leeds finished fourth, quietening their critics with their swift, forward passing and audacious commitment to blitzing opposition in the first 15 minutes of games at Elland Road when they delighted their raucous, intimidating crowd by attacking with the fervour of a swarm of wasps. The supporters named David Batty, now capped by England, player of the year but he was only one quarter of an exquisitely balanced midfield with Gary Speed on the left, McAllister alongside him and Strachan on the right. It combined each of the qualities needed for a title-winning side: dynamism, grace, grit and guile. At the age of 34 Strachan was elected Footballer of the Year and there was no mention of goodies and baddies now, only the Leeds captain’s intelligence, drive and craft. 

Wilkinson failed with bids for Peter Beardsley and Dean Saunders at the end of the season but settled for the twins Rod and Ray Wallace, England internationals Steve Hodge and Tony Dorigo plus two of his old Wednesday trainees, Jon Newsome and David Wetherall. The six cost £4.1m but having sold 20,000 season tickets and signed up to join the breakaway Premier League in a year’s time, with crowds now regularly hitting capacity and a new TV deal inflated by the resurgence in interest imminent, Leeds were happy to keep upping the ante.

No one outside and barely a handful inside West Yorkshire were talking about Leeds as possible title contenders in August 1991. Even in the Elland Road boardroom, the ambition was sober, to aim for one of the two Uefa Cup places that came with second- or third-place. To the public Wilkinson was comically banal. “We want, if we can,” he said, “to finish with more points than last year.” But on the pre-season trip to Tokyo to play Botafogo, he told the squad to “aim for the stars … get around 84 points this season and you’ll be unlucky if you’re not champions”. They lost 1-0 at the Tokyo Dome yet the contrast between that match and a visit to play Port Vale in Division Two only 18 months earlier made a deep impression on them, vividly illustrating how far they had come. It also demonstrated Wilkinson’s analytical approach – they were only in Japan for a few days so they stuck to UK time throughout, training at 1am, relaxing at the Hard Rock café at 4am. He was similarly methodical back home, plotting the fixtures on a wall chart in his office, ascribing each individual game and cluster of fixtures a value according to his expectation of the points to be won. He saw it as a systematic path to the title and, for 10 unbeaten matches at the start of the 1991-92 season, it accurately charted their rise.

As well as using the break as an opportunity to enhance his squad, that summer Wilkinson also decided upon a tactical switch. Contrary to popular misconception Batty, a Leeds-born Tasmanian Devil who always symbolised the spirit of the supporter, the kind of fearless and ardent player with whom fans identify and like to think they would be if they had the talent, was not always a defensive midfielder. He had started under Bremner out wide and in the promotion season had enjoyed a free role, allowing Jones to do the shielding work. His hyperactivity and short attention span meant he was allowed special dispensation during training not to partake in all the arduous set-piece drills and in Leeds first season back in Division One Wilkinson had continued to utilise his energy to partner McAllister.

Although Batty was tasked with being the aggressive ball-winner of the two, McAllister was also trusted to play deep at times to allow Batty to roam forward. Now Wilkinson wanted Batty to change his game and become what he called “the forward sweeper”, sitting just in front of the back four. “He was like a Hoover,” said Wilkinson. “He could smell where danger was and he’d be in there, picking up the ball.”

At first Batty hated the discipline demanded by the role of “fielding the flak” and felt mentally but not at all physically tired after games. He was soon reconciled to it. It brought fluidity further forward, too: with Batty sitting Leeds could play a diamond in midfield, an orthodox 4-4-2 and, using Wallace’s versatility and jet-heeled, dribbling thrust, 4-3-3 with the new signing either wide left or wide right and Speed or Strachan tucking in with McAllister.

Hodge, a goalscoring midfielder adept at third-man runs, had to change his game to judge where flick-ons would land and time his runs into the box rather than driving forward from halfway through the inside-forward channels because the forward ball, invariably, would not be played to feet in central areas. He became a valuable squad member but he was never happy at Elland Road. Hodge preferred the wages at Leeds but a man steeped in the Nottingham Forest tradition could not stomach the style or Wilkinson’s needling when he was injured. 

By the end of the season the roles would be reversed with Manchester United, but Leeds began by playing catch-up when their visit to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace on opening day was postponed three days before kick-off because building work had overrun. Having won a hastily arranged friendly with Aldershot on the Saturday, they started instead on Tuesday night with a 1-0 home victory over Forest settled by a McAllister half-volley that somehow burrowed beneath Mark Crossley’s dive.

Chris Woods, the Wednesday keeper, made five sensational saves in Leeds’ next match and Wilkinson needed Hodge, a second-half substitute, to steal in at the back-post four minutes from time to score with a volley to scrape a point. It took them until the third game, a 4-0 midweek away victory at Southampton when Speed thundered in a rising right-foot half-volley by the penalty spot and a 25m left-foot zinger to accompany Strachan’s two penalties, for their potential to be recognised. Ian Branfoot, the toxically unpopular Southampton manager, was the first to proclaim them the best team in England and likely champions. They travelled to Old Trafford to play the league leaders Manchester United three days later. The home side, beginning their 25th season since their last title, had strengthened further after finishing five points behind Leeds in sixth in 1990-91, adding Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel, and it was the latter who was caught out by Speed’s perfectly arced cross as he ran at full steam down the left wing. Out came the goalkeeper to catch, misjudged the flight and stranded himself leaving Chapman to steer in a header at the far post after seven minutes. It was the first goal Schmeichel had conceded in English football and inspired Alex Ferguson afterwards to embark on an entertaining, diversionary, bullshit excuse, talking about the different air currents in Denmark and England.

Leeds held their lead for 78 minutes until Bryan Robson snapped on to Lukic’s parried save to level. “The atmosphere matched the temperature, which was boiling hot,” wrote Wilkinson. “In the thick of it was Batty who displayed no sign of nerves. He has an ice-cold temperament for even the biggest of matches.  “Batty was everywhere - tackling, heading, hustling, passing and generally setting the tempo of the game. It was as if Bryan Robson was pulling the rest of the team along with him through sheer willpower. He snatched the late equaliser but Batty stood his ground and, as a result, so did the rest of the team.” 

When Arsenal, the champions, held a 2-0 lead at Elland Road into the final 25 minutes it seemed that the chasm between promise and achievement was still yawning. George Graham’s side were mutating from the one that won two titles built on the miserliness of his painstakingly drilled-defence and the flair of David Rocastle, Paul Merson and Anders Limpar to the efficiency of the team that won cups in 1993 and 1994. Leeds had not played well but Arsenal too soon abandoned the quest for more goals and dropped ever deeper. Strachan grabbed a goal back with an insouciant Panenka penalty before Chapman equalised at the death with a cute right-foot finish to turn in McAllister’s header. When up against it Leeds remembered Wilkinson’s mantra, raining crosses into the penalty area until Arsenal, even that formidable Arsenal defence, cracked.

The two major signings made an immediate impact. Dorigo’s graceful acceleration up the left wing, which matched the galloping Sterland on the right, left opponents with no respite. The blistering speed of Rod Wallace and Dorigo was especially incisive away from home, allowing Leeds to strike on the counter but the team’s composure and control during 1-0 victories over Chelsea and Liverpool – their first for 17 years – were evidence of an evolution just as crucial as the injection of pace.  After 10 unbeaten games they lost the rearranged match against Palace, going down to a last-minute Mark Bright header, just one of many miserable midweek masochistic tours deep into south London suburbia under Wilkinson, but rallied afterwards to take 22 out of a possible 24 points from the next eight games.

At the end of October, during that run, they beat their bogey team Oldham 1-0 at home and the victory, by virtue of Manchester United’s first defeat of the season at Hillsborough after draws with Liverpool and Arsenal in the preceding weeks, enabled Leeds to return to the top of the table for the first time since 1974. 

They made their live TV debut for the season at Aston Villa in November and won 4-1, Wilkinson cleverly using a flexible defence to switch between 5-3-2 and 4-4-2 to neuter Villa’s Tony Daley and Dwight Yorke. All four goals came from crosses and the afternoon was the perfect distillation of their style – ‘chaos in the box’ created by clever set-piece routines, the use of the flick-on to create gaps for the attacking side to invade between defenders and Strachan’s off-the-cuff brilliance.

They were better still in their next away outing in font of the ITV cameras in the new year, a 6-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday, again in the yellow away kit but significantly, this time, completed in the absence of the injured Batty and Strachan. Spurred on by a sense of injustice after a brazen dive from Gordon Watson had conned the referee into awarding a penalty, Leeds shredded a side that would go on to finish third, terrorising them left, right and centre with a bombardment of shots and crosses.      

Before that, Leeds’ four successive draws in December were exploited by Manchester United to move back into first place. At the turn of the year three matches against the league leaders, who had been playing with such brio that they convinced the media and their supporters that their day had come, were portrayed as season-defining for Leeds. The trio began with a draw in the league at Elland Road, Sterland scoring the equaliser from the penalty spot with 11 minutes to go, a point that left Manchester United on top by two points and with two games in hand. Leeds were drawn at home against them in both cups and deservedly lost in the Rumbelows Cup as Manchester United rallied from being thrashed by QPR on New Year’s Day. They were much better in the FA Cup tie though Strachan’s sciatica, which had now become chronic, flared up and he missed a 1-0 defeat in which Chapman shattered his wrist when he fell heavily at the back post while craning his neck to head a difficult chance into the side-netting. Three days earlier he had scored his hat-trick at Hillsborough; now his anguish at the pain and the shape of his arm, nauseatingly fractured in two places and bent so badly he feared the physio would pull his hand off if he tried to straighten it, suggested the team’s attacking fulcrum would be out for months. 

First Wilkinson improvised with Speed at centre-forward for a couple of games then used the loan market to sign Eric Cantona, a 25-year-old France forward from Nimes. Cantona had announced his retirement in December following a French Federation hearing convened to impose his eighth disciplinary suspension in five years. He had been persuaded by Michel Platini to try again in England and Wilkinson offered him a deal while he was ostensibly on trial with a procrastinating Sheffield Wednesday.     

Such is the Cantona mystique that what he stood for is more significant than what he did. Manchester United see him as a kind of divine figure with shamanic gifts, who healed their club. In a sense they are right, he was a transformative signing who had the skill and certainty to allay their neuroses after two-and-a-half decades without winning the league. To Leeds United’s title-winning side, made up of tough, seasoned professionals, he was an embellishment whose goals, charisma and radiant smile, like a man emerging from an exorcism, were his main contributions. When he left for Old Trafford, he was cast out as a Judas. For 28 years Leeds fans have loved to hate him but they would have loved to carry on loving him more.

Cantona had not played for more than two months when he made his debut as a substitute in February during Leeds second league defeat of the season, a 2-0 setback at Oldham where the biting wind compounded the misery. After starting the draw with Everton, he returned to the bench when Chapman returned after six weeks out with a cast on his wrist to lead the line against Luton. Both scored and Chapman was ever-present until the end of the season although his wrist did not fully heal for another four months. The victory was vital because Manchester United had now played their games in hand and only had a two-point lead. Strachan missed a penalty in a 0-0 draw with Aston Villa that would have put Leeds back in first place and, later in March, Sterland, who had been having cortisone injections to mask the pain of a bad ankle tendon injury, broke down and was ruled out for the season. In fact he would make only three more appearances before he had to retire at 32 and Leeds lost their most exuberant player. The game was never as uncomplicated when the man the supporters christened ‘Zico’ left. Speed was moved to right-back in the interim, then Newsome, a centre-half, played there in a 4-1 midweek defeat by QPR who inflicted on them the same Ray Wilkins masterclass that had done for Manchester United on January 1. 

Three weeks later, after grinding out draws with Arsenal and West Ham, Manchester City beat Leeds 4-0 at Maine Road when their offside trap stuttered and they were caught chasing the game. “We are not feeling suicidal,” said Wilkinson. “It’s a question of getting back to work on Monday and making sure that one mistake doesn’t lead to another.” They were now a point behind Manchester United with five to play while the leaders also had a game in hand. Emlyn Hughes, the former Liverpool captain used the opportunity to revive the old ‘Dirty Leeds’ nonsense in an incendiary newspaper column, raking up ancient history distorted by acid contempt, to explain “why I want to see Leeds torn apart”. Don Revie, dead for three years, was resurrected for the sake of maligning him one more time. 

Talk of ‘bottling it’ or Leeds cracking from the strain was the dominant theme of newspaper analysis. But those three matches against Manchester United did prove decisive as they saddled the victors with five more matches to add to their additional four in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Wilkinson called a meeting for the Monday morning and Hodge, usually a critic of his manager, recalled a “Churchillian moment … He gave us a speech asking how we would feel if our fathers, our mothers, our daughters and our brothers entered a race and after four-fifths of the race thought they would jack it in,” he wrote. “We needed to keep going right to the end.”

Wilkinson remembers thinking: “We have five games left. The target is we win four out of five and get a point at Liverpool. If we can make Man Utd’s game at Liverpool [their penultimate fixture] an important game, I don’t see Liverpool giving them a result that afternoon.”

Wilkinson resorted to core principles with his selection, told Cantona he would be used as an impact substitute rather than a starter and he came on to score a wonderful, slalom, keepie-uppie goal against Chelsea in a victory that restored Leeds’ equilibrium. Over the Pennines Manchester United were held in the derby and could only manage a point at Luton. The Leeds manager’s old-fashioned caution about Liverpool made him set the team up defensively for the trip to Anfield, sacrificing Strachan, whose back pain rendered him almost lame some days.

Wilkinson was delighted with a point yet Lukic had been called on to make so many saves that his heart must have been in his mouth by the end. Ever the rationalist, he said that the title race had still not reached the stage where desperate measures were called for to chase impractical targets. He was right, too, because before Leeds won at Coventry on the evening of Easter Monday, Manchester United lost their first game in hand against Nottingham Forest. Strachan, by now conspicuously in severe discomfort, soldiered on until they had put the game beyond Coventry’s reach and returned Leeds to the top of the table. Two days later Manchester United lost at West Ham and Leeds’ title fate was back in their hands, a point clear with two games each left. 

Leeds United’s Sunday trip to Sheffield United was brought forward to lunchtime to allow ITV to broadcast both it and Manchester United’s visit to Anfield. Denied the anaesthetic of any time in the pub before the early kick-off, it’s a wonder everyone survived the tension of a stressful, chaotic and often farcical 3-2 away victory. When Brian Gayle headed the deciding own goal it was the prelude to the best day any Leeds supporter between the ages of 50 and about 35 can probably remember. Later that afternoon Liverpool beat Manchester United, Howard Wilkinson finished his Sunday lunch, finally accepted that Leeds were champions and stuck on a silly hat to pose for the photographers with a glass of champagne. Although the manager had made an ostentatious show of not watching the events at Anfield because the result was beyond his control, Batty, McAllister and Cantona tuned in at Chapman’s house with an ITV camera picking up their words and facial reactions.

McAllister is supposed to have been unaware that Ferguson was still hooked up to an earpiece after his interview and could hear the midfielder’s colourful objections to the Manchester United manager’s sourness at losing the title. It was excusable in the situation, however Ferguson’s initial choked, colourless tribute to Wilkinson and his players fed into the myth that Manchester United had lost it rather than Leeds deserving to win it. Victory over Norwich in the final game after four days of partying established the winning margin as four points and Leeds could also point to more victories, goals and fewer defeats. Since 29 December Leeds had earned 36 points from 19 matches, Manchester United 30 from 21. Never had the lyrics of It’s Not Where You Start been more appropriate. 

The begrudging attitude of Ferguson and some of the journalists who yearned for the better story of Manchester United’s drought ending did not take the gloss off it. The city centre was rammed on the Sunday morning after the last game to greet the players’ parade with 250,000 people, far more than had ever turned out to receive Revie’s team. Wilkinson's courage and organisational zeal made it all possible as well as the shrewd recruitment funded by Silver and Fotherby which had financed their rise. Three full seasons into a 10-year plan and Leeds had won their first league title for 18 years.

Wilkinson’s dry diffidence was nowhere to be seen that day as he saluted the supporters. He even laughed along with the players when Cantona stole the show, coerced by Sterland into reluctantly taking the microphone. “Why I love you?” he asked. “I don’t know why, but I love you.” There were no hearts left for him to melt in Leeds on that May morning. Five months later he was gone: Leeds’ tonic became Manchester United’s talisman.

In 1992-93, Leeds finished 17th, failing to win an away game all season. “I can’t hide from the fact that we couldn’t carry the mantle of champions with distinction,” wrote Batty. It is not the destiny of every team to be a dynasty and in any case Leeds had already enjoyed one of those. This was an unforgettable encore, the culmination of three years of progress so phenomenal even the hard-boiled Wilkinson was fond of calling it a “miracle”. It cannot be diminished by what came next.   

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