Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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the square ball week: winning

the square ball week: winning

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When we started planning our film and book, Do You Want To Win?, about how Leeds United won the Football League First Division championship in 1991/92, we had to ask ourselves an unexpected question.

How will we end the story?

With glorious victory, of course. It seemed obvious to us, Leeds fans who had been impressionable youngsters when we watched Gordon Strachan lift the trophy, cheered heroes like Gary Speed, David Batty and Gary McAllister, had thought days like those would come around on the regular. They didn’t; which, thanks to the distorting effect history has upon football, made the glory of May 1992 burn brighter in our memories with each passing, trophyless season.

Football stories are strange, though, and the league title win of 1992 is one of the strangest to tell. For a start, there’s the matter of dating the glory to May 1992. That’s when Strachan and the club were presented with the trophy, but that’s not when the league title was won. The league title was won — well. That’s the question.

Gordon Strachan, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

Gordon Strachan, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

A few years earlier, in May 1989, the league title had been won in a moment, in front of a nation glued to its television sets. The clock in the corner of their screens had just ticked past ninety minutes of the last game of the season, Liverpool vs Arsenal. At that moment, Arsenal were winning 1-0, but that wasn’t enough for them; it would put them level on points with Liverpool at the top of the table, but two goals behind on goal difference. Arsenal had to score again to change everything; 2-0 would level the points, 76-76, and goal difference, 37-37. That would force the winners of the league title to be decided on goals scored, and give the honour to Arsenal.

The clock kept ticking, for 77 seconds, until Arsenal’s Alan Smith chipped the ball over the Liverpool defence; Michael Thomas controlled it, and then he was through on goal. “Thomas!” called ITV’s commentator Brian Moore, drawing the public closer to their screens. “Charging through the midfield!” By the time he’d said that, Thomas was on the penalty spot, getting ready to shoot. “Thomas!” shouted Moore, “It’s up for grabs now!”

On the ‘ow’ of ‘now’, the ball hit the back of the net. Everything changed in that moment. “Thomas! Right at the end!”

Football stories didn’t always end like that, but when they did? It was incredible. Three years later, as the contest for the 1991/92 league title became a test of nerve between Leeds United and Manchester United, ITV’s executives were hoping incredible would happen again. The two teams had, if anything, an even greater rivalry than Liverpool and Arsenal, and although they didn’t play each other after January, ITV felt it had the resources to bring something special to the public, using the power of television.

They offered a million pounds to the Football League, £600,000 of it to be split between the two clubs, on condition their final matches — Leeds United vs Norwich City, Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur — would be played on a Sunday, so that ITV could offer viewers a simulcast, flicking from game to game to follow the drama. It would be the last time ITV could show live top-flight football, before the Premier League and BSkyB arrived in the summer to take over, and they were determined to have one last hurrah. By showing both games, they could ensure that no Thomasian moment of finality would escape their cameras, and could make that promise to viewers and advertisers alike.

In the closing weeks of the season, those ITV executives must have dreaded the idea of decisive drama in a game they weren’t covering. As it was, their dream finish was denied them, but as they pored over the footage of the previous games, looking for the magic moment, they had the same question we had: where was it?

ITV did, in fact, show the decisive goal. Sort of. There were two, again at Anfield, as Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-0; that result meant that Leeds United were champions. That was the maths moment. Although, technically, the scoreline didn’t affect the league table until after full-time, so, without the drama of a goal like Thomas’, was the referee’s whistle the moment?

For many, there had been no need to wait for the maths. Earlier in the day Leeds United had beaten Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, meaning that even if Manchester United won at Anfield later, the relatively simple task of beating Norwich City was all that lay between Leeds and the title. Leeds’ players, staff, fans; the public at large; even, deep down, Manchester United’s players, staff and fans, knew instinctively that the league belonged to Leeds once the Sheffield United game was won.

Gary Speed, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

Gary Speed, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

Was there a moment in that game? There were lots of moments in that game, but none you could build a Hollywood ending around. Nerves were stretched as tight as guitar strings, and a harsh, swirling wind blew through them, a constant thrum, pierced as they snapped one by one. Leeds’ defence couldn’t deal with Sheffield United’s windswept corner kicks; Alan Cork scored from one. Quick-thinking by Gordon Strachan made an equaliser; he embraced the chaos by taking an instant free-kick, causing panic in Sheffield United’s defence; their keeper, Mel Rees, ran from his line and swept through his defender, Paul Beesley, and Leeds’ attacker, Rod Wallace. The ball span towards Gary Speed, and Brian Gayle, trying to clear, booted the ball hard at him; it deflected off Speed and across goal and hit Wallace, just getting up from Rees’ tackle, and he claimed the goal as the ball bounced off him and over the line.

Was that the moment? It was only an equaliser, but it injured Mel Rees so much that he struggled to stand through the second half, although he kept kicking the ball clear, collapsing every time. Leeds’ players took aim, but it was a precise Gary McAllister free-kick that beat him, and reached Jon Newsome at the back post, who headed the ball into the goal. That might have been a worthy winner, of the game and the league; McAllister used the conditions to send the ball on a great sweeping journey, and cameras caught the various moments of realisation on the players’ faces as Newsome concentrated on scoring. But it wasn’t to be.

Lee Chapman made the score 2-2; a Leeds player, but he couldn’t resist scoring when inside the six-yard box, and on this occasion he scored for Sheffield United. McAllister left, and Eric Cantona came on, and was soon chasing the ball downfield, him and Wallace putting pressure on Gayle. Rees came to collect, but Gayle had been protecting his keeper’s injured leg all through the second half; he might also have remembered the way his keeper had clattered him in the first half, and not wanted it to happen again. Whatever he was thinking, he thought he should head the ball, and so he did. The ball bounced once before it went into the deserted net; this was the decisive goal, but as the ball crossed the line, there wasn’t a footballer within ten yards of it. The moment?

It was more comic than dramatic. It had been set up by a week of plot twists that, if they’d been compressed into one ninety minute session between two teams, would have been gripping. As it was, this part of the story was better told by the results than by the games. At the start of the 20th of April, Manchester United were two points clear at the top of the table, with a game in hand over Leeds in second place. Manchester United had to play three times in the next six days, but their manager, Alex Ferguson, had been confident that the quality in his large, expensive, experienced squad would be enough to beat mid-table Nottingham Forest and bottom of the league West Ham United; he thought the Liverpool players were more worried about his side than his side was about theirs.

At home to Nottingham Forest, they lost 2-1; later that day, Leeds United beat Coventry City at home. In midweek, Manchester United went to West Ham, and moments after Mark Hughes’ volley was saved by West Ham goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko, Kenny Brown scored past Peter Schmeichel. The moment? Manchester United lost 1-0; games played were now level, and Leeds United were top of the league, with one point, a better goal difference, more goals scored.

One week had altered the direction of the league title, but it hadn’t come about by chance. It had come about because, three weeks earlier, Leeds United had lost 4-0 to Manchester City, and to all outside observers, lost their chance to win the league. Manchester United were a point ahead, with seven games left to play; Leeds only had five.

That Saturday did not contain the moment that Leeds United won the league. But perhaps the Sunday that followed did. After the defeat at Manchester City, Howard Wilkinson told his players to go home, and not talk to anybody from the press. They would do all the talking necessary, among themselves, on Monday.

John Lukic, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

John Lukic, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

Some might have expected a lecture, a stern rebuke for losing the league title with such an undignified result. Rather than prepare a rollocking, Wilkinson, and his assistant Mick Hennigan, spent their Sunday in search of their players’ qualities. Since his time at Sheffield Wednesday in the mid-1980s, Wilkinson had employed an analyst, to watch his teams’ matches and mark down, with paper and pencil, every thing his players did. They didn’t have a computer to crunch it, but Wilkinson and Hennigan did have the data, and they spent the day going through it, seeking the best of their squad. Which players had performed best? What formation had been most effective? Which instructions had yielded the best results?

The need to cover an injury to key striker Lee Chapman had brought Eric Cantona to the club, but after Chapman’s recovery, the maverick forward had continued to be a solution to injuries to defenders Tony Dorigo and Mel Sterland. The team had changed week by week to accommodate Cantona, and the players, most of whom Wilkinson and Hennigan had been training for at least two years, and in some cases ten years, had lost sight of their natural roles.

It had been part of the philosophy since the day Wilkinson had arrived at Leeds, in October 1988. The players had taken the team down to third from bottom of the Second Division, but Wilkinson didn’t try to solve the problem by changing the players. Instead he picked eleven and played them in every game for months, and trained them every day for months, until their jobs on the pitch became second nature, and playing football became easy.

Leeds United had to get back to that. “Removing doubt,” was the phrase Wilkinson used when he explained it to us in an interview. He couldn’t teach the players anything new, less than a month from the end of the First Division season; besides, the players had been good enough to be top of the league all season, so what did they really need to learn? What Wilkinson had to do was remove what stood between them and their best performances. He had to play them in their best positions, remind them of their most effective style of play, and tell them to get on with playing football as well as they knew how.

Wilkinson named the side for the rest of the season. John Lukic would be in goal. Trusted right-back Mel Sterland was injured, so Jon Newsome would deputise. Tony Dorigo would play left-back, Chris Fairclough and Chris Whyte would be the central defenders. In midfield would be Gordon Strachan, David Batty, Gary McAllister and Gary Speed. In attack, Rod Wallace and Lee Chapman. The only changes would be to cover injuries, and for one game against Liverpool, where one change would make the team more defensive. Eric Cantona, the latecomer, would be used as a late substitute in games as required, when his fresh eccentricity would cause problems for the opposition.

The aim was to win every game. Howard Wilkinson thought Alex Ferguson’s confidence in the depth of Manchester United’s squad was misplaced. With doubt removed from Leeds’ players, Manchester United were the more nervous of the two contenders, and Wilkinson calculated they would drop points over their coming matches. If Leeds kept winning their games, Manchester United’s trip to Anfield might become crucial; and the pressure, there, would be more than Manchester United’s players could bear.

If there was a moment that won the league, it was that Sunday afternoon, when Howard Wilkinson responded to defeat by looking into the performances and characters of the players who had taken Leeds United so far already, and told them he trusted them to finish the job. But, of course, that’s not a moment.

Chris Fairclough, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

Chris Fairclough, Leeds United • illustration by Joe Gamble

That’s the story of Do You Want To Win?; it’s the story of the resurrection of Leeds United, that began when Howard Wilkinson was hired by chairman Leslie Silver and managing director Bill Fotherby, in October 1988. It’s a story about character and trust and gradual improvement over time; about seeing the best in people, in the players and in the fans, who had a reputation for hooliganism that had the club threatened with closure. It’s a story about people who wanted to do a simple thing, that would have a big impact — transform a Football League club, in a city where there is only one, and you can transform the city with it — and about the people who joined them to help.

It’s a story about hard work, and only rarely does that sort of work pay off in glamour. The ending lacked a Hollywood moment, and as the Premier League took over, it was deliberately forgotten by new broadcasters and a new league that had no interest in anything other than glamour. But it’s a good story, and while it might have gone out of fashion, good stories never go out of style. Neither, in the end, does winning.

••

Originally published in The City Talking: Sport

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Do You Want To Win?, a 364 page hardback book and DVD, are available to order here now. You can watch the trailer below.

Do You Want To Win? book


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