the square ball week: do you want to win?Back
I can’t remember what Howard Wilkinson was saying, and that was part of the problem. I could hardly hear him. Couldn’t concentrate.
He was speaking loud enough, a familiar halting score of polished southern Yorkshire, and the microphones were picking him up. But I could see through the window behind him that late afternoon had become late evening, the only way I had of judging time, and that had left him lit by film lights, on a sofa the far side of a large coffee table, obscured by a cloud of unreality taking shape between us.
To Howard it must have all been rather normal. Some people come to his house to film an interview, he sits where they ask him to, he answers their questions, goes back about his business. He might even have been enjoying it, as we took up most of his afternoon. He’d said he thought we only wanted fifteen minutes, although our email had asked for an hour, and we ended up talking for more than an hour-and-a-half, and I heard later — from John Helm, of all people — that this is not uncommon of Wilkinson. He’ll complain that you’re about to take up too much of his day, then hours later, when you’re exhausted by the extent and detail of the conversation, he’ll complain that you haven’t asked him enough questions.
To me, though, it was not normal, and feeling not-normal was what threatened to overwhelm me, making it hard for me to concentrate on what I was doing, which was interviewing Howard Wilkinson for a film and book about 1988-92 at Leeds United, both called Do You Want To Win? As I sat in his living room, asked questions, and listened to the answers, the decor faded away, my colleagues and their cameras faded away, and all that was left was Howard Wilkinson, illuminated like a buddha in the darkness, talking about how Leeds United won the First Division championship in 1992. And I felt, for a few moments, as if I was watching an interview on television.
They say not to meet your heroes, but already that day I’d been in the home team changing rooms at Elland Road, talking to Eddie Gray, then Gary McAllister, and listening as they talked to each other. I’d sat on a bench with a laptop, watching with McAllister highlights of Leeds United vs Leicester in 1990. He’d wanted to see his goal for Leicester again, and I think he’s still quite contrarily pleased with that strike — “Mervyn Day was in goal that day, I don’t think he’s seen it,” he said, and I could imagine him saying the same thing to Mervyn in training every day. His main exclamation as we watched, though, was Mel Sterland’s often forgotten opening goal — “That’s some strike, that is” — and, of course, for Strachan’s winner. Watching that, and the celebrations, he just grinned. Seeing Leeds fans happy seemed to make McAllister happy, even if he’d been invested, that day, in trying to make them unhappy.
It was only with Wilkinson that I felt so strangely out of body, to the extent that I had to remind myself that I couldn’t just sit and watch him talk, as if he really was on a television I happened to be watching. I had to remember that Wilkinson was answering my questions, and that I’d better keep thinking of some, lest he begin to feel we were wasting his time. A lot goes through your mind when you’re interviewing somebody. You have to keep an overall view of all your questions, and keep the interviewee engaged and interested in answering them. You have to listen to what the interviewee is saying, in case you need to clarify anything, and for cues and clues towards other questions you might not have thought of in advance. You’re simultaneously concentrating on what they’re saying and deciding what you’re going to say next, and questions, asked and unasked, and answers grow around you like a fast growing maze of hedgerows. Added to that, in this case, was the fact it was Howard bloody Wilkinson.
How much was to do with fan feelings can be questioned. While interviewing Hayden Evans, who was the agent to most of the Second and First Division title winning squads — David Batty, Gary Speed, and so on — he told me about how he was once summoned to Wilkinson’s office at Elland Road, with his clients Bobby Davison and Ian Baird, where the three were read the riot act over an incident at a local casino. Evans can still quote Wilkinson’s words to this day, and left the room feeling that he’d let himself down, he’d let Howard Wilkinson down, and he’d let Leeds United down. Then he remembered that he didn’t even work for Leeds United, let alone Howard Wilkinson. What’s more, at the time, Ian Baird was playing for Middlesbrough. And yet they’d all answered the summons, accepted the lecture, and left the room feeling genuine remorse, determined not to be called back there again, and grateful that Wilkinson had convinced the casino not to take things further.
You feared Wilkinson, but you respected him, because you knew he was on your side; and you didn’t want to let him down. You wanted to do your best for him, whether you worked for him or not. That, I’d argue, is a definition of charisma, embodied by a person often accused of not having any.
That was certainly contributing to my moments of surreality in Wilkinson’s company; he has an aura that puts you on your best behaviour. Another part was the basic fact that, when I was nine years old and started making my first Leeds United scrapbook, I began by gluing a picture of Howard Wilkinson to the cover. I’ve still got it, and it’s still there, more than a quarter of a century later, which made meeting the fellow in the photograph feel weird.
Wilkinson might seem a weird choice of cover star, but needs must in them days. Part of it will have been a child’s organising logic: Wilkinson was the manager, so that must make him the most important, so he should go on the cover. But then, there wasn’t much choice. Leeds weren’t on television, so I’d never seen them play; and as a Division Two side, there wasn’t much about them in newspapers or magazines. I didn’t really know much about them, and a photo of Howard Wilkinson was all I had to start with. That, and a squad poster from Shoot, that I’d blu-tacked inside my desk at school — yes, we had wooden desks with lids, kids. Somebody drew a knob on David Batty’s head. These were my two starting points.
I wasn’t living in Leeds at this time, so I was developing my fandom from afar. That was one of two conditions that, in retrospect, were necessary for me to begin down a road towards, in 2017, co-editing The Square Ball, and making a film and writing a book about Wilkinson’s first years at Leeds, that were my first years as a fan.
The first condition was that my family moved away from Leeds. The privatisation of the electricity industry forced the move upon us, and the relocation grant pushed me into a place — Cheshire — very different from the north Leeds suburbs where I’d spent my first nine years. There, in the mid-eighties, nobody in the playground had talked about Leeds United. Few kids even played football. I only remember one conversation about Leeds United from those days: someone said they were “shit” — one of the first times I could have heard that word — but that “Bradford are worse”. That was the sum total of my football knowledge as a kid in Leeds in the eighties.
Cheshire was different. The kids there were spoilt for choice: both Manchester clubs and both Liverpool clubs were represented in my new playground, and even Stockport and Crewe, the last of which I eventually went to watch, a local option in protest at all the big red and blue clubs around me that weren’t Leeds United. By then, I was a Leeds fan, by contrary default. Did I like football? they all demanded of the new kid. “Yes,” I lied — I could worry about the details later. Who did I support? I mean, I was from Yorkshire, and to them, I might as well have been from Mars. I could have literally said anything. So I said, “Leeds.”
I wonder what life would have been like if I’d said something different. And I wonder what life would have been like if, a few months earlier, Leslie Silver and Bill Fotherby hadn’t decided that Leeds United had to become a rival to the north-west reds and blues again. In 1988, when the deal to show football on ITV was renegotiated, there had been the loudest murmurings yet of a breakaway ‘Super League’ of perhaps as few as six top clubs. If there was to be a future for Leeds United, Silver and Fotherby had to make sure the club was in a position to get on the breakaway side of any repeat attempt when the deal was next due for negotiation, in 1991.
To that end, they’d hired Howard Wilkinson, and found the money to support his plan to get Leeds United back to the top, fast. That it worked, and how it worked, is the subject of Do You Want To Win?, the film and the book.
But it’s also the reason why, by the time I was twelve, I had several thick scrapbooks full of cuttings from newspapers and magazines, walls covered in posters of Speed and Batty, why I had videos to watch of goal after goal, and could look forward to the European Championships on television, to watching McAllister, Cantona, Dorigo and Batty, while arguing that Lukic, Chapman, Fairclough and Wallace should be there.
And kids in Leeds could do the same. We were all given a tremendous gift by Howard Wilkinson: a football club we could support. 1988 wasn’t like now, with a constant televised Premier League offering kids Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea or worse to pick for their new replica kit; not in every playground in Leeds, but in many, there had been a simple absence of football, because the local team simply weren’t worth watching, and in an era of intermittent but highly publicised football-related violence and disaster, the local stadium wasn’t worth the risk of visiting.
In three-and-a-half years Wilkinson had transformed Leeds United from a club whose captain stuck two fingers up at the Kop and risked a smack if he walked the wrong way down Boar Lane, to a club whose captain was one of the best players in the country — and, after rewatching some of his performances lately, I’d argue one of the best players in Europe — who everyone wanted to meet, so they could say they’d shaken the hand that had lifted the First Division trophy for Leeds.
It’s no wonder, then, that I was a little overwhelmed at times while I was talking to Mr Wilkinson.
I interviewed Gordon Strachan at his home, too, although that was a rather more relaxed affair. You can still see why Wilkinson wanted Strachan to be the captain of his club. They describe the same systems — of beliefs, of standards, of tactics — but if Wilkinson is a dense user’s manual, Strachan is a friendly idiot’s guide. Putting the two together, you can then see why Vinnie Jones and Mick Hennigan were vital to the effort, too; they would come round and show you how it was done.
I’d taken a great sense of achievement from the fact that, on at least four separate occasions, I’d made Howard Wilkinson laugh. At something I’d said! That felt great. Strachan was less of a challenge. Remembering those days, for Strachan, is a pleasure, a point he kept making. “Some people think footballers don’t like meeting fans,” he said. “I’m the opposite. I love it.” It reminds Strachan of some of his happiest days, “And hopefully, by meeting me, that reminds someone of their days, too.”
It’s an incredibly generous attitude. It’s also necessary, given what’s there to be forgotten. Wilkinson told me that he’d spoken on the phone to a journalist the day before, who had read him a list of all his achievements at Leeds. “I’d forgotten how much we did,” said Wilkinson. “I haven’t thought about so much of it, in such a long time.” People do forget, I agreed, about things like the northern area final of the Zenith Data Systems Cup in 1991. Wilkinson stopped in his tracks. “Now,” he said. “Even the journalist didn’t mention that one. There’s more than I even realised!”
This is not necessarily a symptom of ageing, just that all these things were so long ago, and while the ZDS Cup will have been the highlight of my week back then — I can still remember, my mum was doing a night course, so I was on my own in a darkened classroom at my sister’s school, trying to get commentary on our game against Everton on a portable radio — for the people involved, looking back, it will just be a small part of a picture of years spent with the same people, with football matches in between. If I mention a free-kick by Sterland, it’s up against many hundreds more seen in training, that I never saw.
Gordon Strachan was the same as Wilkinson. “Did we?” he said, when I asked about reaching the semi-final of the Rumbelows Cup in 1990/91. “I wouldn’t have a clue. We lost?” I nodded. “I don’t remember anything about that. Who did we play?” Manchester United, I said. He gave a burst of slightly pained, self-deprecating laughter: his former club, his former manager, Leeds’ arch rivals, a cup tie away from Wembley, and he’d forgotten all about it.
In the first leg, I reminded him, Lee Chapman had played with thirty stitches in his face after falling on the running track at Tottenham — and that brought it all back. Not the occasion, not the match, not the result written down in Rothman’s, but seeing Chappy’s face. “Oh, that was horrific,” said Strachan. “I’ve seen some bad injuries, but that was one of the worst. Yep, I remember it all now.”
Those memories were what we’d hoped to access for the film and the book. As Strachan described it, “You reminding me about that is great, because when you say it, I can replay that in my head. Or I can replay some laugh that Vinnie’s done, or a laugh Mel Sterland’s done.” That stuff is, to an extent, all theirs, though. The only way we could truly unlock and share in the memories of those days would be to make everyone involved live through them again, day by day, almost in real-time, and nobody really has time for that. Gordon Strachan is busy managing Scotland; Howard Wilkinson is chairman of the League Managers’ Association, as he was when it was formed, in 1991.
But we can get hold of some of those memories, and put them in a book or on a screen, and then see what happens. It’s an old theory, that no artwork is complete until it exists in the mind of a viewer, and part of the work of Do You Want To Win? will be done in the minds of the people who watch it and read it. The players and staff who were involved, who might remember things afresh, or remember things differently. The fans who were there, who will remember their own experiences from the time, and find out new things about the people who gave them those memories in the first place.
And then the new generation, who didn’t live through 1988-92, who maybe haven’t appreciated how it happened, or what it meant. To a lot of people it’s hard to explain what that veteran Liverpool midfielder with the bald head, the former manager of Middlesbrough and Celtic, and some old bloke with a desk job at the FA, did for us, and did for Leeds, in 1992.
Do You Want To Win? is an attempt to bring some of that meaning back. The memories of that era belong to Leeds people and Leeds United fans, old and new. We wanted to bring some of those memories home, where they belong.
Read more about Do You Want To Win? and pre-order here; and watch the trailer below.