What If Cantona And Clough Had Never Left Leeds?

What do Clough and Cantona have in common? Not a lot, on the face of it- but the answer is: they both departed Elland Road the season after Leeds United had won the League. Here we chart the similarities and wonder what might have been...
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What do Clough and Cantona have in common? Not a lot, on the face of it- but the answer is: they both departed Elland Road the season after Leeds United had won the League. Here we chart the similarities and wonder what might have been...
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Where Would Leeds United Be If Cantona And Clough Never Left?

It's supposed to be good therapy to relive an unpleasant event and improve on the experience, which is probably what keeps us coming back. Remember the 2-1 victory over Manchester United at Elland Road in 1994 after the depression of seeing them win 2-0 and all but clinch the championship the season before?

The 1992 Charity Shield was just what the shrink ordered on this front. I know the Charity Shield means nothing, but there was a portent of doom in 1974 when, after a 1-1 draw in normal time, we saw Liverpool take the trophy after keeper David Harvey missed his chance in the penalty shoot-out.

And there was worse. The satisfaction of seeing Billy Bremner stick one on Kevin Keegan (intensely irritating even then) was immediately soured as our sipper was inevitably sent off and subsequently charged with bringing the game into disrepute after first stripping off his shirt and then having another go. Perhaps Keegan accused him of having had a perm too. The upshot was we had to start a transitionary season without our most consistent inspiration - Billy was dished out a record length ban.

It is difficult to remember from the perspective of the 90s just how controversial a move it was for Leeds to appoint Brian Clough as successor to Don Revie when The Don moved on to manage England.

The '92 experience was altogether different. Remember the delirium of Cantona's third goal going in, giving Leeds United a 4-2 lead? Even the fact that Gordon Strachan promptly dragged the ball over his own goal line in trying to effect a clearance couldn't spoil our fun in the sun. We'd scored four goals at Wembley, taken the Charity Shield to underline our credentials as the top team in the land, and our Gallic superhero had taken home the match ball. Surely now it was all going to be all right? We were going to make a storming start to the league campaign, get to another European Cup final, and this time Cantona would see us through to triumph. This time we really would be Champions of Europe.

As we all know, it turned out to be a false dawn. Within months Cantona was gone and, seemingly worst of all to yours truly as a Celtic and Leeds fan, we were unthinkably dumped out of Europe by Glasgow Rangers. But, it did get worse. It was the poorest defence of the championship ever. We failed to win away from home all the season and but for Steve Hodges's equaliser in the home game against QPR and two injury time goals which gave us an unlikely draw on the last day of the season at Coventry, we could even have made a more embarrassing piece of history by becoming he first defending champions to be relegated.

In the end there was an underlying similarity between the two eras of Leeds United as defending champions. In 1974 we had a tense battle to the line with Liverpool. We won the battle but over the next decade they won the war, becoming the dominant team of the era and succeeding where we failed in winning the European Cup. In 1992 we were neck and neck for much of the season with Manchester United. We won out, but we all know what happened next.

Although we've done well in recent years in head-to-heads with them, and must have one of the better records in the league against them, we are still only at the top of the emergent second tier of the Premiership, while Manchester United along with Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea are one of the teams that have a realistic chance of winning it.

So with the benefit of hindsight, what went wrong? In the 70s we went from Champions to the Second Division in eight years. In the 90s we could well have repeated the feat if the board had not acted so decisively in getting rid of Wilkinson.

In both cases the question revolves around a figure who quite the club after a brief stay. What would have happened if Brian Clough had stayed at Elland Road? What would have happened if we hadn't sold Cantona?

If they did half-heartedly sing “Cloughie, Cloughie” to the tune of Amazing Grace, it could never possess the reverence accorded to the lyrics “Revie, Revie”

It is difficult to remember from the perspective of the 90s just how controversial a move it was for Leeds to appoint Brian Clough as successor to Don Revie when The Don moved on to manage England. The only contemporary appointment I can think of that might approach it for supreme unlikeliness is if Ferguson was to leave Man. United and they were to announce that his replacement was Kevin Keegan. (Or how about George Graham to Spurs? - Ed.)

Even then, while Keegan may have had a fairly comical pop at Ferguson on Sky, he's never been critical of the Man. United team in the way that Clough was of us. On Leeds' Match Of The Day video, you see him standing side by side with The Don after we'd beaten Clough's Division Two Champions in '69.

"We've been through the Leeds machine today," he drones in that arrogant tone that made him a Mike Yarwood staple, "and come out fairly well really."

The Don laughs and wonders, a little defensively perhaps, what he means by the "Leeds machine", drawing to his attention that we had a team full of internationals who "can play a bit."

If players like Bremner and Giles were ridiculously under-rated as ball players, then Clough was the leader of their detractors. Neither can have been exactly delighted when he was unveiled as the new boss.

The 1973/74 Championship win was the final peaking of the Revie team, but with so many of them topping 30, it was likely to be downhill from then on. Clough's job was to try and keep the team at the top, while putting in place the next generation who could facilitate a seamless transition to a new Leeds United for the late 70s.

He brought in new players in the right areas. Allan Clarke, always a languorous if elegant player, was beginning to slow up a little too much and Duncan McKenzie, signed from Nottingham Forest, was, clearly intended to be his long-term replacement. Equally, Bremner and Giles, still both playing superbly, were not going to last forever. Clough clearly had this in mind when he brought John McGovern with him from Derby.

Right positions then, but were they the right players? McKenzie missed an open goal in the opening day debacle at stoke, where United lost 3-0. Meanwhile, McGovern was made chief scapegoat at Elland Road three weeks later as the Champions were held to a 1-1 draw by Luton Town, a team previously thought to have been the invention of Eric Morcambe.

The fans had never really forgiven Clough for his earlier criticisms and if they did half-heartedly sing "Cloughie, Cloughie" to the tune of Amazing Grace, it could never possess the reverence accorded to the lyrics "Revie, Revie".

With impotent rage we watched as Eric became the dominant force in Man. United’s ascendancy.

But it is rarely fans who inspire managerial changes, particularly not such swift ones, and when Clough went after only 44 days, he referred in the multitude of post-sacking interviews to "certain players" who were not prepared to play for him.

It was never made clear precisely which players he was talking about, but Billy Bremner, whose filial relationship with The Don had been much commented on, was widely held to have been the ring-leader of the junta which brought the term "player power" into the vocabulary of football.

At the time we all sighed with relief and welcomed Jimmy Armfield to Elland Road. From then on things started to get better, in Armfield's first match Duncan McKenzie scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Arsenal, and we all conveniently forgot that he had been Cloughie's signing, as a prototypical attacking full-back himself in his day.

Armfield was no doubt influential in Frank Gray's emergence from an indifferent winger to a world class full-back, remarkably similar in fact to Gary Kelly's instant transformation of '93.

But behind the scenes McGovern slipped away, unmourned, to join Clough at Nottingham Forest, then in the old Division Two. Probably the last of the big time for both of them, right?

Of course, it worked out a little differently. Bremner and co were the moral Champions of Europe that season after superb displays against Anderlecht and Barcelona, and having had an excellent goal chalked off in controversial circumstances in the final. But it was Bayern Munich who had their name engraved on the trophy, thanks to some typically German finishing. Five years later, it was John McGovern, Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest who were to lift the European Cup.

Clough proved with Forest that he could build a great side with less of a foundation and less resources than he had at his disposal at Leeds. Had he stayed beyond the 44 days, the 1974/75 season would have been more traumatic, the Revie team might have exploded before our eyes, rather than being dismantled slowly over a number of years. But the necessary rebuilding process, which was fitful under Armfield and botched under Adamson would have happened a lot quicker.

It is difficult to imagine Clough succeeding in doing this while taking on opposition of the quality of the Barcelona of Cruyff and Neeskens, so Leeds probably would not have been at the Paris final of '75. They may even have flirted closely with relegation. It might have been the poorest defence of the Championship ever, but with Clough at the helm, it would have built the foundation for a radical new Leeds United. It is certainly uncanny to think that, all those years later, when Leeds won their next championship, Clough was still there at Forest, taking them to Wembley for the second successive season.

Cantona stays at Leeds, the team rebuilds around him and Leeds spend another decade at the top of the league, making swashbuckling forays into Europe.

The 1992/ 93 team had something in common with the previous Championship defenders nearly 20 years before in that one of their greatest assets was also their greatest conundrum. The Wilkinson team was built around Gordon Strachan in the way that Revie’s was built around Billy Bremner. While Strachan had a younger man next to him, in McAllister, it was not an equal partnership of the type that Bremner had with Giles. McAllister always seemed to be more comfortable as a foil to Strachan than he did running the midfield solo after Strach’s departure. It is significant that he went on to be reunited with his old partner at Coventry when he could have gone to a team more likely to win things. Take Strachan out and the team lost its heart, and it motivational core, leave him in and you face increasing problems as the heart ages.

The other key position was where Wilkinson made his other signing of genius centre-forward. Lee Chapman was one of the best value signings ever made, but the team had become too reliant on him. When he was knobble half way through the Championship season, in a challenge by Gary Pallister which went nowhere near the ball, we saw how emasculated the team was without him.

Enter Cantona. League Championship follows. Exit Cantona, League Championship follows him out the door. With impotent rage we watched as Eric became the dominant force in Man. United’s ascendancy. How close we came to strangling Johnny-come-lately football fans who said, “I didn’t know Cantona played for Leeds”. When people said, “Wilkinson didn’t realise what a great player he was”, we screamed back: “There were 30, 000 or more of us at every home game who know how great he was, ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS ASK”. Every time we watched another game-turning piece of brilliance on Match Of The Day, we squirmed inside and said, “”It could have been us.”

And it’s a tempting scenario. Cantona stays at Leeds, the team rebuilds around him and Leeds spend another decade at the top of the league, making swashbuckling forays into Europe. Meanwhile the Reds, lacking creativity with Brian Robson gone and having signed and expensive pig-in-a-poke in Andy Cole, hit a spiral of decline.

But is that really the way it would have been? For all his individual brilliance, Cantona didn’t fit into the way Leeds played. Wilkinson played him initially as a direct replacement for Chapman, which clearly wasn’t a role he was comfortable with. Then, when Chapman recovered, Wilko paired the two of them up front. This gave us full marks for vision and serious problems with pace.

The mistake wasn’t selling Cantona. It was selling him to Man. United.

Cantona was most inspirational in the “hole” position he played for Man United, where he slotted perfectly into the yawning vacuum left by Robson. For Leeds to play in formation would have meant a complete restructuring of the midfield and the signing of a replacement for Chapman to play alongside Wallace. Speed and Batty could probably have played in this formation; McAllister would have had to go. But whether the income from Macca alone could have financed the three key signings necessary in the midfield and up front is another matter. And that is before you even start considering the defensive problems we had at the time, where we were playing Newsome as right-back.

No, the mistake wasn’t selling Cantona. It was selling him to Man United. Even that could have been forgiven if we’d have secured the £5 million or so that he was worth, rather than flogging him off for a bargain basement price.

But even then, given Wilkinson’s subsequently rather shaky record in the transfer market, it is difficult to believe that the money would necessarily have been spent wisely, even if the two biggest howlers of his era (selling Batty and buying Fatty Brolin) were apparently forced on him.

Funny thing is, Cantona wasn’t the only surprising move of the early part of the 1992/93 season. Forest’s inspirational frontman Teddy Sheringham was sold to Spurs by Brian Clough. Without his goals, Forest slid out of the top flight and Clough, after nearly 30 years in top-flight management, ended his career with a relegation. Even he lost it in the end.

Now I wonder what might have happened if Revie had stayed at Leeds…

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