Ordinary Champions

by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman,

Among the things that Leeds United’s champions of 1992 did last, and did best, was to make themselves unforgettable as a 1-11. It was all soon lost to squad numbers, but in 1991/92 there was no problem: Lukic, Sterland, Dorigo, Batty, Fairclough, Whyte, Strachan, Wallace, Chapman, McAllister, Speed. In that order. All the time. Every one of them played in at least thirty games in the forty-two game season; five of them played forty times or more. They were a team like none I’ve seen before or since, and sometimes even now I’ll list their names over to myself under my breath, just to remember them all, remember how good they were. But then the pedantic part of my brain will chuck its chip in. “Fair enough,” it’ll say. “But what have you got against Steve Hodge?”

Wayne of The Beaten Generation and I had this debate a couple of months ago. We were working on a centre-spread for The Square Ball, and wanted it to celebrate that peerless first team. We couldn’t, though, I argued, ignore Steve Hodge’s seven goals, not least the vital ones against Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool. And on the subject of vital goals, what about Jon Newsome? His last day contribution at Bramall Lane is as iconic as any moment of that season, even if he only started seven games. Then there’s Cantona, of course – people would only have moaned if we left him off, making Eric the centre of attention, as per. Common sense carried that day, and our 1-11 acquired an enviable subs bench. The case was not won, though, for Tony Agana, but I didn’t press that one too hard because I feared Wayne might finally crack.

The same conundrum gives Dave Simpson’s book, The Last Champions, its structure. While some of the key names from that first eleven are missing from this collection of interviews and remembrances, that only highlights the job Howard Wilkinson did in uniting his squad of players behind the eleven on the pitch. Billy Bremner’s rule for life – Side Before Self, Every Time – has perhaps never had a better embodiment than Mike Whitlow, replaced by Wilkinson with Tony Dorigo, but uncomplaining: “He was better than me, simple. Total respect. Howard wanted to replace a hard-working player with a quality player … I couldn’t have dreamed about it really. Howard helped me win two titles.”

This is one of the key aspects of 1991/92 that The Last Champions captures perfectly. Players like Whitlow and Hodge and John McClelland and Carl Shutt couldn’t always get in the first eleven, but they were behind the eleven in the white shirts all the way. Success for Leeds United would be success for them, so success for Leeds United became the all-consuming obsession of everyone at the club.

It warmed me to my toes to read Carl Shutt say that when Eric Cantona came back in later years to play at Elland Road, “I twatted him. I remember his face, startled. It gave me great pleasure. There’s nothing worse than when you’re working your balls off to get into that team and you get someone like that.” In those four sentences, Shutt removes all doubt about exactly why Cantona was sold. Eric wasn’t a Leeds player, and he certainly wasn’t a Wilkinson player. Wilko transformed our club by taking down the photos of the Revie greats, and then finding players who had the same hunger, if not quite the talent, as those giants. Strachan, Jones, Fairclough, Sterland and Chapman all dropped a division to come to Elland Road, but came only so they could fight all the way back to the top again; as Vinnie Jones says in The Last Champions, “All right, Leeds United were in the Second Division, but now I could really be someone.” The willingness to fight for the right to play is what made even the reserve players popular on the early nineties terraces. When Whitlow arrived at Leeds, after being rejected by Bolton and drifting into non-league, he says, “I didn’t want anybody to say I was rubbish ever again.” He left Leeds as a double champion.

Not all the players gave themselves so totally to the cause. One of the most striking aspects of The Last Champions is the profile that Dave Simpson assembles, through deft selection of details, of David Batty. Obviously, the reclusive Batty was never going to agree to an interview for the book. And yet Batts is everywhere in the text. “Amazing kid,” says Mel Sterland. “Strange kid, but a lovely kid. Didn’t like football.” “He was in Leeds’ youth team, and scared all our kids,” remembers Mick Hennigan, of first encountering Batty while coaching Sheffield Wednesday youngsters. Asked how he put together the title winning midfield, Wilkinson begins, “There was a lunatic at the club called Batty…”

Reading The Last Champions is like what watching Batty used to be like: unless you deliberately decided to focus on the little no.4, you never actually did see him play. You just became gradually aware of this presence, this force, that was doing everything. Batts doesn’t speak in the book and players said he never spoke on the pitch, either. He just did his job, and then trudged off the pitch to the approval – or more often, the disapproval – of his father, described here as ‘the Caligula of Elland Road,’ and so distracting to Batty that he was eventually banned from matches. ‘Mercurial’ is the word that always gets tossed in Eric Cantona’s direction, but the unfootballerish eccentricities, the take-it-or-leave it attitude towards the game, and the exceptional talent for it, were all David Batty’s long before we’d ever heard of Cantona. It’s no wonder they got on so well.

While Batty is at the back of every thought in The Last Champions, it’s Howard Wilkinson at the front. The story of “the last title won by ordinary people” – people like Batts – is the story of how Wilko made it happen. Each interview with an ex-player or ex-colleague touches on the same points: when Howard came and got them (Sterland remembers: “He said, ‘Come to Leeds United. We’re gonna win the league.’ I went, fucking hell, Howard!”), how brilliant he was with them (Jones: “Wilko brought the Crazy Gang and the Culture Club together”), and how much they owe him (McClelland said to Wilkinson when his contract ended, “Thanks very much for getting me a championship medal.”). Even the players who didn’t always see eye to eye with their often unforgiving manager, like Kamara or Hodge, always curb their criticism by acknowledging that, well, Leeds won the league that year, so he must have known what he was doing.

Knowing what he was doing was the key for Wilkinson. Simpson opens the book with an interview with the man himself, and the insight is valuable. Wilkinson didn’t take the Leeds job on as a coaching exercise: it was as a practical demonstration of his theories of how a football club should be. He was unforgiving in his assessment of the club in 1988, and he was clear about where it would be in 1998 if LUFC did things his way. And he was right.

It wasn’t just about changing the players on the pitch. Simpson calls the Wilko era “a piece of social history,” and it’s true. Football was changing rapidly as the Premier League and gentrification loomed, and Wilkinson had to find a way of integrating a club that he described as, “a sort of beaten-up old picture of the Revie days with this frame around out of bad behaviour,” into the post-Italia ’90 landscape. The changes had to be everywhere: the pictures on the walls, which Howard took down; the East Stand, which Howard helped design; the club badge, which Howard also designed. He kicked people out of the boardroom who didn’t contribute, he kicked players out of the dressing room who didn’t conform, and he kicked fans out who clung to the far-right misery of the eighties. It wasn’t just about creating a new team, it was about creating a new culture: Leeds United, at the bottom of Division Two, needed a new identity. Wilkinson wanted Leeds to be ready for the Premier League; in the end, we entered it as Champions.

It’s unthinkable now, and that’s why we need Dave Simpson’s book to make us think about it. About a football manager going to a new club and telling them he’s going to be there for the next ten years. Much is made of the precarious careers of football managers nowadays, but it wasn’t much better in 1988, and to commit to a ten year plan was, basically, incredibly ballsy; both Wilko proposing it, and Leslie Silver agreeing to it. It was also incredibly wise. This is what Arsenal committed to when they brought in – and kept – Arsene Wenger, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that they offered the job to Wilkinson when George Graham left. Simpson’s interview with Leslie Silver brims with admiration for Howard, who Silver says, “Rebuilt the charisma of Leeds United. For me, he’s better than Ferguson.” Silver hired the best and trusted him, and, “From that day on, it was a pleasure being a chairman of a football club.”

Pleasure isn’t a word often associated with Howard Wilkinson, but that’s what it was. A pleasure to be the chairman, a pleasure to be a player, a pleasure to be a fan. A quarter of a million people came out on to the streets of Leeds to salute Wilkinson’s champions; when have a quarter of a million Loiners celebrated anything together since? And as The Last Champions makes plain, we really were, at that time, together. Players like Shutt and Whitlow – even the stars, like Batty and Speed – were not so very different from the fans, not only in earnings – even then they earned more – but in outlook. They had a love for Leeds United and a desire for success that had been instilled in them, and in us, by Howard Wilkinson. They were ordinary people who, under the guidance of Howard Wilkinson, learned to love Leeds United. Under Wilko’s guidance they gave us, the ordinary fans, a Leeds United we could love.

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From The Square Ball magazine 2012/13 issue two.