the square ball week: lost outside the tunnelBack
Recently I had the great pleasure of talking about some things with Howard Wilkinson; of which we’ll talk more another time.
Among the things we talked about were the somewhat forgotten circumstances of Wilkinson’s first season as Leeds United manager, 1988/89. No, not the Second Division title one; the one before when Wilkinson took over from Billy Bremner in October, when Leeds United were 21st in Division Two.
That season doesn’t get talked about much now, except to say that it happened, with the following highlights: Gordon Strachan, Chris Fairclough and Carl Shutt were signed just before the March transfer deadline, and the next season they helped Leeds get promoted. Oh, and Mark Aizlewood flicked Vs at the Leeds Kop, while captain of Leeds, an honour he was stripped of by Wilkinson within ten seconds.
But more happened that season than simple groundwork for the promotion push in 1989/90. Wilkinson’s arrival at Leeds was the start of a ten-match unbeaten run that pushed Leeds into the top half of the table, a run put together through sheer hard work and practice; until the eighth game, when he dropped David Batty, Wilkinson named the same starting eleven in every game, believing that consistency and concentration on a small group of players was the quickest way to get Leeds away from the bottom of the table.
It achieved more than that. The club sold another £10,000 of season tickets; the souvenir shop took £4,500 in one day, and £23,000 in a week, breaking its previous record by £8,000. In February, Leeds beat Leicester City, and crept up to sixth place, a play-off spot; and some wondered if a miracle might be about to happen.
If not a miracle, then a marketing opportunity. Bill Fotherby, the club’s commercial director, sprang into action, plastering the city with posters as part of a ‘Big Push For Promotion’ advertising campaign. Photos of match action from Elland Road appeared across Leeds, telling fans that this was, “The Glory Year — We’re Going Places.”
Howard Wilkinson laughed when I reminded him of that. “Yes, well, you need all sorts in a team,” he said. “And in a football club you need a lot of teams. And a lot of those teams will not be on the pitch, they’re off the pitch. And they all need to be singing from the same hymn sheet. And while everyone likes to play down expectations, because it’s a nice place to be, Leeds is a one club city — one club cities are unique. Given Leeds’ history under Don Revie, history was being revived. It wasn’t that long ago anyway. And the expectation, we can’t have it both ways. If we are performing and creating expectation, we have to accept that’s part of the deal. If you don’t want that, well, go and manage Bury.”
Of course, once the adverts went up, United’s next games were draw-draw-lose-lose and the side were soon back in twelfth, Wilkinson telling the YEP at the time that, “I have said for a long time that talk of us getting promotion was almost irresponsible.” The big statement signings followed at the end of March, but if anything the destabilising effect of three new players made the play-offs even less likely; Shutt scored a debut hat-trick against Bournemouth, but Leeds lost four out of seven games, and faded out to tenth. Attendances faded with them; 33,325 came to watch the 3-3 draw with Bradford City when play-off fever was at its highest; just 13,280 were there in May to see Aizlewood’s shame.
All of which is to implore you, dear reader, not to be too distraught should Leeds follow defeat to Huddersfield last weekend with defeats to Cardiff and Bristol City over the next few days. Because if you let this hurt you, this could hurt forever.
Garry Monk’s Leeds United are in a stronger position than Wilkinson’s 88/89 side, true. United only actually occupied a play-off spot for about a week that season, and while Wilkinson was still trying to work out where John Sheridan went weekends, and whether David Batty was as mad as he appeared, Monk’s side is less inherited and more built.
But the similarities are there in that neither side was expected, under their new managers, to necessarily be so close to promotion in their first few months; simply being away from the bottom would be a good start, ready for next year. And the similarities are there in the giddy excitement that sprang like lambs once Leeds appeared in the top six, and now in the Monk era in the morale-boosting reinforcements, two wingers and a Jansson, signed for a play-off push.
Leeds right now are seven points inside the play-off positions, a gap that should be secure, but a defeat for us and a win for Norwich would make that four points; nerves are not far. And while Norwich play Nottingham ‘McCormack’s Disarray’ Forest this weekend, need I remind anybody that we’re facing Neil bastard bloody effing Warnock. And Cardiff, or whoever it is. Cardiff against humanity, with that wanker in charge.
Infuriatingly, just as Chris Wood has been nominated for player of the month, Neil Warnock has been nominated for manager of the month, after winning four and losing three in 2017 so far. The last defeat was against Norwich; “I can’t fault the effort,” was Warnock’s post-match analysis of that one, while he’s already talking about promotion next season, if he can get the financial backing he wants. “I don’t need anywhere near the sort of money [paid for Rhodes]. Half that figure will do me,” says Warnock.
Despite them wanting to knock each others’ blocks off a few weeks ago, Warnock has even got Sol Bamba playing at his best, and even in midfield — with strict instructions not to try passing. Bamba, of course, will be welcomed back to Elland Road, but the sight of a team without passers being yelled at by a moron will raise too many spectres to make Saturday afternoon enjoyable for those of us who lived through Warnock’s prehistory at Leeds.
And he’ll beat us, I have no doubt; it’s what happens, it’s what always happens. It needed be completely derailing but it will be annoying, especially as Garry Monk can’t afford to scrap on the touchline with arrogant pricks twice in a week; we’ll just have to switch off the post-match interviews at the first “Realleh” and let this one go. And then, Bristol City, and either two defeats and a win, or three defeats in a row; and who ever got promoted after three wins in a row in February?
Actually, loads of teams, probably. Nothing is gone this season, not yet, and United are still in the phase of having to open the East Stand upper to get everybody on board the bandwagon. The faster a bandwagon goes, the more disastrous the crash when it comes off the rails, but football’s like a train set; you put the engine and the carriages back on the tracks, and send them off into the tunnel again. There’s always a light at the end of it, and sometimes it’s promotion. And sometimes it’s Neil Warnock, his teeth glistening in the dark.
If we don’t get it this time, don’t worry. There’s always next year.