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the square ball week: what leeds united can learn from leslie silver

the square ball week: what leeds united can learn from leslie silver

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It’s difficult to understand it now, but there was a time when a lot of people in Leeds hated Leslie Silver. Or, at least, they thought they hated him.

For some people it was just because of who he was, and who he was born to; Lowfields Road resembled a National Front kennels in the mid-eighties, and the width of a pitch was all that separated the fascists from Leslie Silver’s chair in the boardroom. Silver, a Jew who flew bombing raids that helped defeat fascism in the Second World War, was never going to be popular in that quarter.

The majority were more concerned with what was happening to the football club Leslie Silver was running, and the decisions he was making. Big decisions, unpopular decisions; decisions that had United fans calling for him to be sacked, and the rest of the board with him.

I’m too young to have seen the team Eddie Gray managed myself, but I came of age as a football fan when many of the players from that side were in their prime, and when none of them were wearing our shirt. As I took my self-taught course in Leeds United history, I was frequently bewildered when another star name was mentioned as having passed through Elland Road in the early eighties. Denis Irwin. Terry Phelan. Andy Linighan. Ian Snodin. Tommy Wright. Andy Ritchie. Scott Sellars (who came back). John Sheridan (who didn’t). How had a club with those players at its disposal not made it at least into the First Division?

Plenty of people were asking themselves the same question in 1985. Most Leeds fans answered, ‘just wait, they will’; Leslie Silver answered, ‘they won’t, and we can’t wait’, and he sacked Eddie Gray. Eddie Gray wasn’t some Darko Milanic; he was Eddie Gray, a Leeds legend, a Revie son, genial and beloved. And Leslie Silver sacked him. It was a brave move, and he paid for it with his car windscreen.

It wasn’t a move that led directly to promotion, but the change of tack wasn’t a failure either. Silver and the board turned to the most legendary of Revie’s protégés, Billy Bremner, and to grizzled experience on the pitch as the young wisps of the Gray era were allowed to leave. They could – and in most cases did – fulfil their potential elsewhere; Leeds wanted players with assurance, confidence, and strength of body and mind.

From callow youthfulness to furrowed brows; Davison, Haddock, Rennie, Adams, McDonald, Pearson, Ormsby – they looked as much like a rugby league side as they did a Football League side, but with Sheridan’s perkiness at the heart of it, they got nearer to glory than any Leeds side for years. FA Cup semi-final, heartbreak; play-off final, heartbreak. At least they got the heartbreak part right – that’s how you knew it was Leeds.

Silver’s response to United’s best season in years was to sack its greatest ever player early in the next and prevent him ever rivalling his father-figure as greatest ever boss. This is a move you would have to call counter-intuitive, especially for anyone who wanted an easy life. If you didn’t like the Eddie Gray sacking, wait until Leslie sacks Billy Bremner, and see how you like him then!

While it was Bill Fotherby’s name that was daubed on the underpasses around LS11, it was Silver who most people figured didn’t have a clue what he was doing. Especially when his next move to hire the wrong Howard – Wilkinson, instead of Kendall – a dour Sheffielder to the core, who began his work by removing from Elland Road and all traces of the era that had made the men he replaced legends. Managing Leeds has never been a popularity contest, but Wilko came on like he was trying to beat Brian Clough’s record for being booted straight back out the door.

It is possible that Leslie Silver really didn’t have a clue what he was doing with Leeds United in the eighties. Each managerial change took Leeds forward, but each new plan had required a complete ripping up of the old plan, a zig-zag back to the top. If there was as much luck as judgement in these 180s, Silver’s judgement when hiring Howard Wilkinson was without fault. In Wilkinson he correctly identified a man who did know what to do with Leeds United, and everything he did from then on was designed to help Wilko do it.

Back before money truly took over in football and made household names of the likes of Alan Sugar, Peter Ridsdale, Ken Bates and Massimo Cellino, it was the managers who were the football clubs, even if the directors and chairmen didn’t always see it that way. Don Revie was Mr Leeds United in the eyes of the nation; to some in the boardroom, though, he was an employee above his station.

Wilkinson and Silver didn’t only reinforce the manager-chairman relationship so that the focus was on the dugout, they effectively collapsed the managerial structure so that, along with Bill Fotherby, they ran Leeds United together. One of Wilkinson’s first observations at Leeds, before he was even given the job, was that there was too much fat around the command structure; there were too many people, and too many opinions, in the boardroom. At Wilko’s behest the fat was trimmed to a trio of control. All had different titles and I don’t imagine Fotherby or Silver ever took too many training sessions, but the oneness was key to Leeds United’s success from 1989 onwards. If it was important, then it was agreed between Silver, Fotherby and Wilkinson, and it was done: United.

When you look at videos of Howard Wilkinson from those first few years at Leeds, it’s remarkable how relaxed he is. Leaning on a club bar to talk to the press after the opening home game of the promotion season, he has an easy nightclub charm; speaking to Harry Gration ahead of the crucial Easter clash with Sheffield United, he grins and talks sense, and jokes about Dave Bassett – “You can’t talk football with him, because he doesn’t know a right lot about it.” He doesn’t look like he has a care in the world.

Part of that was Wilko’s own character; he wasn’t cocky, he just knew he was right, and that came across without the smugness of a Clough. But I think part of it was also the confidence of working for and with a chairman like Leslie Silver, who trusted him to do whatever he wanted, because he trusted that in Howard Wilkinson he had picked the right manager.

They planned to work together like that for ten years, and very nearly did. In a way, Silver’s public work at Leeds ended the day he appointed Howard Wilkinson; his reward for making the decision to appoint the best man for the job was never having to appoint anyone else to the job again. The eight years from ’88 onwards were far from smooth – when I interviewed Howard Wilkinson for The Square Ball, he put a lot of the dissonance between the public and private views of much of what went on in that period down to the club not wanting to let on just how skint it was, with transfers and bills personally underwritten by Silver well into the mid-nineties. But Howard Wilkinson never truly looked any less than relaxed until 1996 when, following a harrowing armed robbery at his home, Leslie Silver had made clear his intention to sell the club on.

Leeds United’s first takeover set the tone for the years that followed; it dragged on through the summer and in and out of court into the next season, throwing Wilkinson’s plans into disarray and leaving him at the mercy of new owners who had no truck with any agreements struck way back in 1988. Caspian sacked Howard in 1996; in 1998 Leeds started to see the first fruits of Thorp Arch, one of those pacts made in the old trusting days ten years earlier, and while Peter Ridsdale saw pound signs, Howard Wilkinson had to watch another manager bring his youngsters through. I asked him in that TSB interview if he had known those players were there, at the Academy he had built, and if he had wanted to stay long enough to manage them himself. “That was my dream,” he said.

If Leslie Silver had still been chairman, I think he would have made Howard’s dream come true. I’ve leaned on Ernest Hemingway’s definition of guts before; he called it ‘grace under pressure’, and it describes Leslie Silver perfectly. Silver flew 60 missions for bomber command in WWII; built a multi-million pound paint business up from a thousand pound start; resisted the fascist, hooligan atmosphere that threatened to engulf the football club he supported and then ran; flew in the face of received wisdom to sack two Leeds legends to move the club forward; and staked his personal fortune and reputation on an unwelcome Sheffielder’s vision to take Leeds United back to glory.

If Leslie Silver had still been chairman when Leeds lost 4–0 to Manchester United in 1996, I think he would have known enough about the manager with whom he had made a ten year commitment, and known enough about Kewell, Harte, Smith, Woodgate, Robinson and the others who were proving right the wisdom of the plan he and Howard and Bill had set about putting into practice in October 1988, and backed him through the short term pain out of well-placed belief that the long term plan was worth their faith.

Leeds United would be a different club today, for good or ill; and after the last ten years, it’s hard to see how it could be any more ill than it is today.

Grace under pressure. Leslie Silver had guts; courage in his own convictions, and bravery to trust those he put in charge to do the job they agreed upon. He was also a lovely man who acted always with integrity, agreed now even by those who hated him in days gone by – or who thought they did. One of the best tributes we can pay to a life is that we can learn from how it was lived. Leeds United still have a lot to learn from Leslie Silver.

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