Looking back, it all felt like some distant, almost mythical era of muddy pitches, cheap tickets and players you could bump into in the city centre. I remembered the amazing, citywide celebrations even before the following week’s game at home against Norwich City. On the way up, four of us had crammed into a tiny car, with our pal Tim hanging out of the window shouting “Campioni! Campioni!” at passers by amid a cacophony of car horns. The game itself, which Leeds United began as Champions and won 1-0, was surreal, like a practice match – even the Norwich players seemed in awe of the occasion, or the achievement, or the fact that a giant stuffed panda was partying with the players on the pitch. I particularly remembered the subsequent title celebrations, when everybody including the Mayor turned out to honour the manager and his triumphant players, who stood on a balcony outside the Town Hall as mercurial French centre forward Eric Cantona uttered his comically worded but instantly memorable “Why I love you, I don’t know, but I love you” pronouncement to thousands of cheering supporters. Back then, it felt like the entire population of Leeds had turned the city into a beautiful display of white, yellow, and blue.
For the players, it was the defining moment of their lives. For me, a typical supporter, it was the culmination of almost 20 years supporting the club and the proudest, most exhilarating moment I’d ever known following football.
But in May, 2011, Leeds United were back where they were before Wilkinson came to the club, struggling in the second tier with falling crowds, and it had started to feel like it had all been a mirage, like it was all some distant, forgotten dream that never really happened.
Back then, it felt like the entire population of Leeds had turned the city into a beautiful display of white, yellow, and blue.
The bookshelves rightly bulged with tomes – including the one made into the film The Damned United – honouring the Revie era triumphs – a Second Division title, two League Championships, two Fairs Cups, the FA Cup, League Cup and the Charity Shield. But Wilkinson had won the Second Division title inside 18 months (to Revie’s three years), and had also won the Charity Shield alongside the First Division title. His 411 games (more than any other Leeds manager since The Don) also included a League Cup final and even in the Premiership he notched up two more top five finishes before he was unceremoniously sacked in 1996. By then, he’d set up the Leeds youth academy, which produced a glittering stream of future internationals even though the man who conceived it all was no longer at the club to see them play. For me, and a generation like me - too young to see The Don barking out his orders and players like Billy Bremner or Jack Charlton in their prime - the Wilko years were the “Glory Years”. Title-winners like Strachan, Lee Chapman, Chris “Huggy” Whyte, Shutty and Mel “Zico” Sterland were our heroes. It felt like their story had been written out of history, or lost in a welter of acrobatic camera angles and tabloid stories about players on £250,000 a week who didn’t fancy getting on the pitch, and managers who could barely control their players and were lucky to make it into a second season.
When he managed Leeds, “Sergeant Wilko” had been an inescapable, dominant presence, our Great Leader feared and yet strangely loved by players and fans alike. Most of us instinctively thought he was a genius. How else could he have taken good ol’ Shutty from Spalding or Micky Whitlow from Witton Albion and managed them into picking up the greatest medal in domestic football? Coaching? Tactics? Or Black magic?
Wilko was certainly unlike a normal football manager. Unashamedly futuristic and intellectual – he was a sports graduate who introduced nutrition to players reared on beer and chips years before Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, and spoke to Eric Cantona in French – he was also a gruff South Yorkshireman with something very quaint, even awkward about him which I found tremendously endearing. He was like a cross between a mysterious great philosopher and Brian Glover’s disciplinarian PE teacher in Kes. With none of the social skills of today’s media savvy modern managers with their official websites and sponsored television channels, Wilko would address the faithful via a crackling Tannoy, expounding his thoughts like a footballing Chairman Mao. “Today, we host Notts County, the oldest professional football club in the world.” In those days, before the internet, fans would ring Leeds United’s Clubcall service for that urgent piece of breaking news like information on Mel Sterland’s ankle injury – to be greeted by the Sergeant, “the official voice of Leeds United.” One Saturday, after a game, in my days as a young, struggling music journalist, I’d rung Clubcall, as you do, gone out, been beaten up by a band who I’d given a negative review, woke up the next morning covered in bruises, rung the doctor to hear “Hello. This is Howard Wilkinson. The official voice of Leeds United…” The previous call hadn’t been disconnected: Clubcall had been on all night. It was a very expensive phone call. Still, at least I knew if Mel Sterland’s ankle was any better.
For me, and a generation like me - too young to see The Don barking out his orders and players like Billy Bremner or Jack Charlton in their prime - the Wilko years were the “Glory Years”.
But with the passing years, you couldn’t help wondering whether the Sergeant had really been a genius at all – or a good manager who got lucky.
It didn’t help, of course, that it had all gone badly wrong. Within months of those glorious celebrations, Cantona was sold – amid rumours of extra-curricular physicals including players wives; LUFC were humiliated home and away in the European Cup by Rangers and the players we chanted “Sergeant Wilko’s barmy army” at made such a hash of defending the title that they failed to win a single game away from home the following season. In fact, they were almost relegated, which would have made them the first defending Champions to go down since Manchester City in 1938. Even the group of friends I went to games with dissipated and would never attend a match together again - one of them going so far as to leave the country – although I’m not sure these facts are related.
But even at the time, the Sergeant and his loyal soldiers never received the credit they deserved. In particular, there was a notion that Leeds hadn’t won the title, but Manchester United lost it, which isn’t born out by events. Yes, Ferguson’s players wobbled in the run in – losing three games in a row to Leeds’s one – but Leeds won the title with a week to go, taking 13 points from the last five games to their rivals’ four and finishing four points clear. That season, they lost just four games, weren’t beaten in the League by any of the top clubs – including Manchester United, or Liverpool or Arsenal – and scored more goals (74) than anyone except the Gunners, keeping 20 clean sheets and not losing a single game at Elland Road.
It’s also been said that Cantona won the title for Leeds, before departing for Manchester United where he enabled Ferguson to dominate English football in the Nineties. His impact at Manchester is undeniable – and his arrival at Elland Road towards the end of the title season certainly cemented a mood that something incredible was happening – but at Leeds he started just six games and scored three goals. Wonderful as those goals were – especially the one at home against Chelsea, when he audaciously flicked the ball from foot to foot like a ballet dancer before blasting it into the top corner - none of them were match winners. Cantona wasn’t involved in the two most notable performances of the 1991-2 season, the 4-1 and 6-1 away demolitions of Aston Villa and Wilkinson’s old club (then high flying) Sheffield Wednesday respectively. No. Even without the gifted Frenchman, Wilkinson had created a momentum over three seasons and assembled teams that, by 1991-92, were unstoppable, even unplayable. I remember how the two centre halves – Chrises Whyte and Fairclough – would marshal the half way line where the rest of the team bar the goalie would set up camp in the opposition’s half, steamrollering them into submission. More often than not, a Sterland cross would meet Chapman’s head, or a Tony Dorigo centre would be guided goalward by Gary Speed – and the game would be over as a contest inside 20 minutes. It’s been called long ball football. It wasn’t. It was brutally, efficiently, beautifully direct.
Whatever happened later, Wilkinson surely created worthy Champions – a perfectly balanced side of superfit footballing cybermen with brains. At the back, goalkeeper John Lukic was solid and unspectacular but when needed could pull off astonishing moments like the double save from Ian Rush and Michael Walters to keep a clean sheet at Anfield in the run-in. The two full backs – Sterland and Dorigo - were blessed with oodles of pace and the ability to pass a ball and read the game, and formed a Maginot line of a defence with Whyte and Fairclough, centre halves who could play the ball. Central to the success was the Sergeant’s preferred midfield of Strachan, McAllister, Speed and David Batty, an almost perfect combination of brawn, talent and youth (Batts and Speedo) with two statesmanlike footballing Rolls Royces. Up front, big Lee Chapman and elfin Rod Wallace were a devastating striking partnership, a little and large. Six foot three Chapman hauled 16 goals in 38 games, while his nimble attacking partner was capable of exquisite chips and running at defences. Chapman was a well-travelled goalscorer but under Wilkinson (first at Sheffield Wednesday and then at Leeds) he was a goal machine. Less heralded – but just as vital – were the squad players who stepped up to the breach when the first choice X1 were unavailable – the Steve Hodges, John McClellands, Jon Newsomes, Shuttys and Whitsies who all played crucial roles for Wilkinson by somehow playing out of their skins in game after game against the top sides in the country.
As I sat in my shiny blue, outrageously expensive seat at Elland Road in May 2011 – a far cry from the overcrowded stands and cheapish admission prices of the Wilko era - I started to not just pine for those days but become more and more fascinated by how Wilko had assembled or produced players with some special quality that made them Champions, and wondered what became of those players we idolized so much.
Strachan and McAllister (who went on to win trophies at Liverpool, but not another Championship) were high profile pundits and had varying success in management. Chapman had spent the intervening years on more front pages than back ones. Chris Kamara – who laid on the vital cross for Chapman to head the goal that secure promotion – and was still featuring in ’92 – was a popular Sky Sports reporter/presenter. Cantona - who’d delivered Wilkinson’s denouement in almost Shakespearean manner when he scored the final goal in a 4-0 hammering by Man. U at Elland Road on 7 September 1996 - had enjoyed a film career and become Director of Football at New York Cosmos. But most of them – even once high profile players like David Batty - seemed to have disappeared. I kept hearing dark rumours that some of those players – who missed out on the Premiership windfall, and the huge sums now paid to footballers not fit to lace their boots - had fallen on hard times. I was curious about other key figures in the Sergeant’s mission, like commercial director/wheeler and dealer Bill Fotherby, an Arthur Daley-type character who once claimed to be signing Diego Maradona for LUFC and who is still the subject of unflattering graffiti near the ground.
So, I set myself the task of finding them, suspecting that Sergeant Wilko’s troops not only held the stories of the rise and fall, but that they were themselves sitting on a piece of social history: a period of enormous transformation in English football seen through the eyes of those on the ground – or, rather, on the pitch.
Which is why, on that balmy July Monday morning, I was ringing a travel agent after reading on an internet messageboard that’s where Shutty worked. I knew none of them were getting any younger and that memories might be already fading.
Wherever they all were, I needed to find them. While there was still time.
Dave Simpson's book The Last Champions is published by Bantam Press. Buy it here
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