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the square ball week: remember this way

the square ball week: remember this way


For the last few months, while I’ve been making a film and writing a book about Leeds United’s rise under Howard Wilkinson, the inside of my head has looked a lot like the years 1988 to 1992.

I’ve been living a strange double life; watching Jansson, Wood, Berardi and the rest at Elland Road, then returning to match reports and video footage of Vinnie Jones, Lee Chapman, Mel Sterland and the rest. Garry Monk talks; Howard Wilkinson speaks. Alfonso Pedraza signs; Gordon Strachan plays. And scores, and have you ever seen a better goal?

Over the last couple of weeks, though, 2017 keeps trying to drag me from my 1992 reverie, into an ugly and hostile 1993. There’s the kits; all blue and all yellow cross-dressing into yellow, blue and white combinations that resemble Admiral’s attempts to unclash their flagship club as they struggled away from Elland Road. There are those struggles, or rather Leicester’s struggles, as the half-hearted comparisons between their title-winning side and the Leeds title-winning side it feels like football would rather forget have given way to much more eager comparisons between Leicester’s failure to defend their Championship, and Wilko’s champions’ failure to defend theirs. Then there’s Zlatan Ibracantonavic over there, who everybody wants to liken to you know who, as if anybody cares.

The one I’ve been most distracted by has been the revived talk of the 1992/93 season due to Claudio Ranieri’s failure to repeat a miracle at Leicester City, because it has been forcing me to confront a season and a prevailing set of attitudes I’ve been steadfastly trying to avoid. The film we’ve been making and the book I’ve been writing — both called Do You Want To Win? — also concern a miracle, although Leeds United, if only through the sheer weight of their name, were never 5000-1 to win anything. But taking them from 21st in the Second Division to winners of the First, as Howard Wilkinson did in fewer than four seasons, belongs in that category.

And it deserves to be treated as such. By design, Do You Want To Win? ends in May 1992, with the Football League Championship trophy in Leeds United’s cabinet. That’s the end of the story we want to tell, because that’s the end of the story of the miracle; and when you’ve just shown someone a miracle, why follow it with earthly matters?

And yet so many people do choose the option of the earthly bump that it feels almost radical not to be carrying the story on beyond that glorious summer when Leeds United were best team in the country, and Leeds the best city. Ah, but he sold Cantona, they say of one of only two managers who have won any major honour at Leeds. Ah, but Chapman was too old, they say, ignoring that he wasn’t too old when he scored twelve goals in half a season, or 31 the season after that, or twenty the season after that. Ah, but they couldn’t handle the backpass rule, they say of defenders, one of whom, Chris Whyte, missed two league games in two seasons, and one who scored a goal against Coventry City that restored confidence to an ailing title attempt. There was no rule about backpasses in the seasons that Leeds United won two championships. So why talk about it?

Because, I suppose, there’s something fascinating and failure and fragility. Leeds United under Howard Wilkinson were strong and powerful; during a fourteen match unbeaten run at the end of 1990, they scored 21 of thirty goals in the first half; they were simply running out onto the pitch and destroying team. And they were achieving it through hard work, practice, fitness training and dedication. And where’s the fun in that?

Far better the scurrilous gossip that still, despite every denial, surrounds the sale of Cantona; the suggestions of ‘madness’ touching the dour, monotic, old-fashioned Wilkinson, to explain the sudden collapse from first to seventeenth. 1992/93 is a tale of struggle, arguments, failure, acrimony and woe. And that’s much more fun.

There’s a story to be told about that season, and because I love stories I’d love to tell it one day, although I suspect it would disappoint some people who have become wedded over the years to the scurrilous and febrile version; the truth is always more mundane. Was Cantona sold after adulterous scandals? It was more likely because he consistently failed to perform in away matches, Wilkinson couldn’t stand a passenger, and as his career had been a bombsite before he came to Leeds there was every chance he’d blow up again soon, so Leeds might as get their money back and let him blow at Old Trafford.

Did Fairclough and Whyte struggle with the backpass rule? Chris Fairclough was regarded as one of the best footballing defenders in the country, and was still playing as sweeper and occassional midfielder in the Premier League for Bolton five years later; Chris Whyte had played indoor soccer in America and had surprisingly good close control. The rule change caught defenders and goalkeepers out at every club, all over the world, but at Leeds the bigger handicap seemed to be the failure to replace the injured Mel Sterland at right-back. Dorigo was a brilliant outlet on the left, but on the right Jon Newsome was a converted centre-half without the touch or speed of thought; that led to destabilising experiments with three at the back, the signing of David Kerslake from Swindon, and even the use of Ray Wallace. In the summer, Wilkinson converted young winger Gary Kelly to right-back and he became one of the best in the world, and suddenly Chris Fairclough looked like a defender again.

Was Lee Chapman too old? Yes, but he scored nineteen goals anyway, and at the end of the season he was replaced by Brian Deane. Were David Rocastle and Scott Sellars the wrong signings? In retrospect yes, but Wilkinson was permanently and correctly paranoid about losing Strachan to age and injury, and couldn’t have expected him to keep Rocastle so thoroughly at bay, playing 37 more games aged 35; as for Sellars, he could never resist a cheap utility player. Should Lukic have been replaced? Perhaps, but in his first two seasons he’d been one of the best goalkeepers in the league, and he continued to be a major part of a team that finished fifth twice and thirteenth once, until Crystal Palace could finally be persuaded to part with Nigel Martyn — because Leeds finally had the resources to buy him.

Which last point is largely the story of the post-title years, as much as it’s the story of the pre-title years. In that miraculous first period Wilkinson, with Leslie Silver, Bill Fotherby and Peter Gilman, used a combination of personally underwritten overdrafts, canny extraction of funds from sponsors, and sheer grafting to pay to put together a team that could get into the First Division and, once there, begin to generate the funds that would be required to replace it. Those funds eventually began to come through in 1993/94, after the new East Stand was opened and began to generate cash, cash that was diverted to the building of an Academy rather than to finance another title challenge. The big money finally arrived when Fotherby negotiated his last big sponsorship deal with Puma and Packard Ball — worth a combined £19million, which bought Martyn, Lee Bowyer and Lee Sharpe — then sold the club altogether to Caspian, which eventually brought the club trouble.

The First Division title was almost an accident in the middle of that process. It was never aimed for the way promotion from the Second Division was aimed for and won. Those years after 1996, with the Academy fully funded and beginning to produce, international sponsors providing millions to spend on the team, and Elland Road full to capacity with fans backing their club; those were the years when the trophies were supposed to start coming. And they very nearly did, if only someone hadn’t tried to accelerate a smooth running machine to a speed beyond the limits of its design.

The First Division, then, is a story of a group of players and a manager who, with the momentum of an unforgettably tense promotion season hurtling them forward, decided not to halt their progress, but to see how far they could go, how good they could be, how much they could achieve. Carl Shutt, who was playing non-league football for Spalding when he was 23, was being chased for his signature by Liverpool in 1991, and won a First Division championship medal in 1992. Why would you want to spoil a story that romantic by dwelling on what came next?

Well, in Shutt’s case a certain goal at the Nou Camp came next, and if ever I do write or film the story of 1992/93, that moment will be pivotal. That season was, if you look, full of forgotten glories — all football seasons are — and of events and interpretations that might upend some of the received wisdom that plagues its memory.

But the same is true of the years 1988 to 1992. People forget what a miraculous sporting story that was, because they refuse to forget what came after. Do You Want To Win? will forget; deliberately, defiantly, passionately. Because there are some things more important to remember.


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