Leeds United nostalgia: A week in 1990 that had it all - and the goal that gave the fans everything - Leeds Live 24-4-18

Jon Howe takes a look back at a week in 1990, as Sgt Wilko's promotion campaign came to the boil

In 1990 Leeds United had been out of the top flight for eight years.

Today we assess the wreckage of another wasted season with the experience of 14 years away from the top division, but there is context to be applied which outlines the importance of that 1989/90 promotion season and highlights how much pressure was on the squad and management to achieve their goal.

The exalted Revie era was a recent living memory for many who still attended Elland Road in the late 1980s and somehow the glorious plunder that Leeds indulged in during that rancorous and unforgiving but thrilling and life-affirming period still felt attainable, despite the rank mediocrity of the interim years.

In 2018, Leeds fans sit 26 years away from the last time they were top of the pile and the relatively level playing field of the pre-Sky era is a distant utopia that offers only an increasingly fading hope of ever reaching that level again.

Furthermore, the Leeds United board had taken a huge gamble in the summer of 1989; throwing unprecedented ambition and a lorry load of chutzpah at a headstrong exploitation of the ‘never-never’ to arrest Leeds United from an interminable slide into mediocrity. This at a time when you couldn’t sneer at a paltry FFP fine three years later and employ a hundred faceless subordinates to pluck your debts from your mountain of Premier League millions.

Naturally all that pressure accumulated in the last ten days of the season, which started this very week 28 years ago with an Elland Road double-header that tested nerve endings like a polygraph examination, and blew the needle off a Geiger counter with the explosive release of emotions at its draining conclusion.

Leeds fans had enjoyed an outcast notoriety throughout the wilderness years, and the prejudice with which they were met and the formidable cachet they toured the bleak outposts of the Second Division with had combined to build a tribal camaraderie that made Elland Road a fearsome and impregnable place to visit.

Howard Wilkinson’s men had dealt with pressure reasonably well all season, and the recent comprehensive bullying of promotion rivals Sheffield United, which spectacularly halted a mini bad run, meant Leeds fans approached home games with Barnsley and Leicester City in bullish mood.

Leeds were unbeaten at home all season but stood one point above Sheffield United at the top of the table and three above Newcastle United in third. Meanwhile, Barnsley arrived at Elland Road like roasted Oxen piled high for a ceremonial feast, lying in 21st place and desperate for an unlikely win to end their relegation fears.

But if Leeds United - the board, the management, the players and the fans – had felt the pressure before kick-off, they were locking themselves in dark cupboards wishing they had never heard of football 90 minutes later. 31,700 fans were shoehorned into Elland Road on a humid spring evening when perspiration played havoc with the body temperature as the night’s events unfolded.

Chris Fairclough was something of an anomaly in the Leeds dressing room that season; a quiet, studious and focused individual amidst a boisterous melee of machismo and larger-than-life originals. But on the pitch Fairclough was as valiant and lion-hearted as anyone. Having spent 13 minutes off the pitch receiving ten stitches to a head wound, it was Fairclough who threw his body at a Mel Sterland cross just before half-time to plant his freshly bandaged forehead on the ball and put Leeds into a priceless 1-0 lead.

Even a litany of missed chances did little to dampen the mood as Barnsley offered precious little threat until their manager Mel Machin replaced two centre halves with the more adventurous Brendan O’Connell and Owen Archdeacon; even 28 years later, two names to stop Leeds fans in their tracks like the ominous sense of a spectral presence haunting their every move. Inexplicably, both substitutes scored in the space of eight horrifying minutes to reverse the scoreline; the first a result of goalkeeper Mervyn Day making a hash of a routine clearance and the second greeted with shocked silence, but for the piercing sound of seats being thrust downwards in disbelieving fury as shattered fans spontaneously got up to leave, the tell-tale sign of that particular goal conceded being more tragic than most.

The intervening days before the following Saturday’s game with Leicester were a time for cool heads, while everyone about them were losing theirs. Leeds were fluffing their chances and there was no more wriggle room. A football fan’s natural instinct is to fear the worst and Leeds were making that easier than ever.

Wilkinson had worn a positive outlook pre-match, surely masking a nagging sense of dread, and being asked to attack the Kop in the first half was the sure-fire sign of impending horror to many. But in customary fashion Leeds set off like a runaway train, with Mel Sterland drilling home a 13th minute opening goal.

It did little to settle the nerves though as Leeds squandered more chances, and rather than coast to a routine victory, Leeds fans felt the magnetic pull of an inevitable Leicester equaliser. It came midway through the second half when Gary McAllister struck a sweet shot in off the post in front of the Kop and the only sounds this time were pins dropping, cold sweat forming and a collective gulp.

Events suddenly felt desperate but strangely carefree, as Leeds stared third place right in the eyes. But then special players produce in special moments. And that’s exactly what Gordon Strachan did in the 84th minute with one final strength-sapping release of his left foot, sending a shot from 20 yards past goalkeeper Martin Hodge that he later conceded was just a lucky, aimless swing, but that arrowed into the top corner with the apparent, measured precision of the Jackal in a Paris apartment block.

The release of emotional energy could be felt on the moon and the final six minutes passed by in a maelstrom of commotion as partied-out bodies were pulled up from the terrace steps and Leeds fans gasped for air; finally breathing in purity and belief.

This was not just a goal to win a football match but was a goal to make heroes, to validate a season’s work, to vindicate a high stakes flutter and to end a rudderless adolescence and offer us a ticket to jump recklessly into adulthood without a parachute.

In Gordon Strachan, Leeds United had a key signing, a real champion, and an exhausted, ghostly figure, who had truly given everything.

It was a goal that meant everything; and meant that a week later, we had everything.

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