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the square ball week: high maintenance

the square ball week: high maintenance


With ten minutes of a resounding 4-0 win over Stoke City remaining, one of Howard Wilkinson’s first significant victories as Leeds United manager, the board went up for a substitution. David Batty was coming on.

Batty had been dropped for the previous game at Birmingham City, earning the distinction of becoming the first player dropped by Wilkinson. In his first seven games he had stuck with the same starting eleven, deciding that the change in form Leeds required would be best achieved by working with the same group of players in training day after day, including double sessions, including Sundays. It had worked. The league table wasn’t showing much improvement, but Leeds were unbeaten under Wilkinson.

That eleven had included Batty; but patience with the youngster’s attitude in training, where he longed for the easy going sessions of Billy Bremner, had worn thin. At Birmingham, Wilkinson’s new £175,000 signing from Rotherham, Andy Williams, had taken Batty’s place on the right of midfield.

Although Andy Williams was injured in that 0-0 draw, for the next match Wilkinson preferred another new signing, Mike Whitlow, rather than bringing Batty back. Only when Leeds had successfully demolished Stoke City was Batty allowed back onto the pitch, to see if he could show, in the last ten minutes, an improved attitude; although, as Wilkinson was to learn over the coming seasons, Batty on the pitch was a very different character to Batty on the training ground.

The player Wilkinson was taking off was John Sheridan. He’d scored a penalty, played well, and couldn’t believe what was happening. His teammates had to persuade him to leave the pitch; once he did, he walked straight down the tunnel.

“We were 4-0 up against Stoke and I felt it beneficial in the long term interests of Leeds United to make the substitution,” Wilkinson told Don Warters of the Yorkshire Evening Post. “You could say it was a long term substitution.

“There is no player at any football club too big or too good to be substituted. If anyone thinks that he is then I would suggest he has a serious rethink. I have made my point and as far as I am concerned the incident is forgotten.”

That Wilkinson was being questioned about a substitution spoke to how new he was in the job, and how secure John Sheridan’s status was at Elland Road. Or had been.

Sheridan was loved by fans who didn’t have much else to love. It was little wonder that, when he started to turn on in midfield in the middle of the 1980s, his audacious volleys and free-kicks and his conjuror’s flicks and vision made him stand out, and made fans love him. Then there was the relationship off the field, where Sheridan’s revels fitted right in with a fanbase who, starved of good football for five years, had turned en masse to to drink. Sheridan was the lad’s lad, and part of the passion was projection; if he can act like that, but play like that, then there’s hope for us all.

There was no hope for Sheridan under Wilkinson. It didn’t help that on Wilkinson’s first day, after meeting the press at lunchtime, he took the players out onto the Fullerton Park training pitches for what was their second session of the day. Sheridan hadn’t even been there for the first, due to a long standing indulgence of Bremner’s that gave Sheridan his Mondays for a lie in, and Wilkinson will have taken a dim view of hearing that the star player of this club, that was third from bottom of Division Two, was at home, sleeping off a session. Some star player. Some club.

Sheridan was an emblem of a problem Wilkinson saw throughout the club; people taking it easy, trading on glories that, if they’d earned, they’d earned long ago. The cars parked outside told Wilkinson that these players were among the highest paid in Division Two, playing for one of the most famous clubs in the world, and he judged that was blunting their ambitions to play i Division One. They had decent money, adulation, and they’d rubbed shoulders with Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter every day. Where was the incentive to try to do better?

Taking down the photos of the club’s glory years were one shock tactic Wilkinson tried. Substituting Sheridan was another. He made an effort with this obviously talented midfielder, but when Sheridan was found drunk in a derelict shop on Briggate late one night, and told the police he’d “Do what he wanted”, a point of no return was being reached.

It’s often assumed that Gordon Strachan was John Sheridan’s replacement, but Strachan had been a Leeds player for a couple of weeks by the time Sheridan was dragged before the magistrate. He did replace him in one sense; Sheridan had, for a long time, been Second Division Leeds United’s ideal of a First Division footballer. Strachan actually was a First Division footballer, who had won the FA Cup, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, had played at the World Cup, and he was very different to John Sheridan. Suddenly John Sheridan, all lager and late nights, wasn’t top dog anymore. Gordon Strachan, bananas and seaweed pills, was a different breed altogether.

Sheridan’s true replacement was Vinnie Jones, who signed in the summer a few weeks before Sheridan left. Wilkinson must have recognised that if Sheridan was departing, and he surely was, the fans would need a new hero, and while Strachan was likely to bring goals and glory, he wasn’t someone the lads on the terraces would identify with. Wilkinson needed his hero, and an influence on younger players like Gary Speed, and he got it in Strachan; but he needed to give the fans their hero, and other young players like David Batty someone to look up, and he got that from Jones.

Jones was difficult, or at least he should have been. Wilkinson has a reputation for not being able to cope with ‘big-name’ players: Cantona, Rocastle, Brolin, even Sheridan himself. But there was no more famous footballer in the country than Vinnie Jones in 1989, except maybe Paul Gascoigne, and Wilkinson brought him down a division to Division Two, and took him up a level in his standard of football. And he never had any trouble, because he had correctly identified that, at that time, Vinnie Jones needed something more than celebrity, he needed someone who believed in him as a footballer and a leader. And Wilkinson was willing to be that someone.

It can’t have been easy, but while I was talking to Howard Wilkinson for our new film about the 1988-92 years, called Do You Want To Win?, he drew a graph with his hands in the air, in this case to explain the joy of working with Chris Fairclough. Fairclough was ‘low maintenance, high performance’, he said, and that’s the player football managers dream of. If a player was ‘high maintenance, low performance’, then that’s easy, he’s straight out the door. ‘High maintenance, high performance’ — well, there you have decisions to make, and work to do.

Worthwhile work, in David Batty’s case. He’d been in thrall to Sheridan on and off the pitch, and delighted by Bremner’s encouragement to just be himself; Wilkinson and Strachan, authority figures, were never going to get through to such a stubborn individual. Vinnie Jones, though, was instant role model, and he was also fiercely loyal to Wilkinson for the faith shown in him, and to Strachan for the trust he showed, and gradually that had an effect on Batty. He never conformed, but the maintenance required lowered, while the performances improved and improved.

The work didn’t pay off with Sheridan. Wilkinson might have wanted, with a substitution, to show Sheridan that he wasn’t bigger than the club, but as Shez is still revered more than a quarter of a century later, in retrospect it looks like he came close. Ultimately, though, that was worth more to the fans than to Sheridan. Sheridan suffered a disastrous move to Nottingham Forest, then returned to Division Two with Sheffield Wednesday; he won the League Cup on his way back up, and the adoration of the fans, but he didn’t win the First Division. Leeds United fans, though, had the benefit of seeing Sheridan play and then of supporting a team that won the league; we had it all, but Sheridan didn’t.

It’s a lesson that Pontus Jansson might do well to learn, and learn quickly. Football clubs are resilient in ways that players are not; they survive and go on, while players, not realising how good they have it, fall by the wayside. Garry Monk has not often been compared to Howard Wilkinson, but his Monkish pronouncements about dropping Jansson for the game against Brighton because of “principles” were cryptic enough to have come from Wilko himself. And they were inspired by a very Wilkinson thought process. No matter how good a player is, if he is high maintenance, then there will always be a question in the manager’s mind. And if performances slip too low, or maintenance creeps too high, then that might mean a decision.

The fans might not like it, and the player certainly won’t. But it’s happened before, and the fans and club have survived.


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Read more about Do You Want To Win? and pre-order here; and watch the trailer below.