Someone must have been telling lies about Jari Litmanen, for without having done anything wrong he was yelled at by Mick Hennigan one fine morning. “Pack your suitcase,” shouted Mad Dog. “You’re shite!”
Well, that might not be exactly how it happened, but details are scarce. The record that does survive – the Reserve Team 1990/91 Statistics section of the Leeds United Handbook Volume Three – gives us these facts: on 19th March 1991, in a reserve team match away to Manchester City, Leeds’ no 7 shirt was worn by Jari Litmanen. Dylan Kerr scored in a 1-0 win and Litmanen’s name does not appear again.
The conclusion drawn is that Chief Scout Ian MacFarlane brought the future Ajax legend to Leeds for an unsuccessful trial in March 1991, when Litmanen was still a young player unknown outside his native Finland. Eventually he signed for Ajax, and it is fair to say he was moderately successful: at the Ajax Museum in Amsterdam, only Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Jari Litmanen are honoured with video installations of their best moments. But it seems that when he came under the gaze of Messrs Wilkinson and Hennigan, Litmanen was not deemed good enough and ordered back to Finland. Another theory is that he actually was deemed good enough, but that Wilko had put too much time and effort into convincing John Pearson to cut his mullet off to risk the disharmony that Litmanen’s hair would cause in the dressing room. But we’re in the realms of speculation here.
This tantalising vision of Litmanen in a Leeds shirt is the most mouth-watering tip of a trialist iceberg that drifts through the Wilkinson era. If the reserve team records are to be believed, Ian MacFarlane did his job well by bringing in a steady stream of talented players in for an appearance or two in the reserves, but those players just didn’t make the Wilko grade; he also brought in Frank Strandli, who did. Here, as far as I can tell, is a complete rundown of our near-misses of the early nineties:
1989/90 – only surnames are given for this season, so some assumptions have to be made; but Latapy is likely to be Trinidadian Russell, a future legend in Scottish football; Ramos must be Tab, who played at Italia ‘90 for the USA; and Sorloth is probably Goran, who scored 15 goals in 55 games for Norway.
1990/91 – there was Litmanen, of course; also Australian international centre-back Ned Zelic, who went on to Dortmund and QPR; Johnny Vilstrupp, who pitched up at Luton with “the hardest shot in Denmark”; Bulgarian international Nikolay Iliev; and Dariusz Kubicki, a full back who later played for Aston Villa and Sunderland, and won 46 caps for Poland.
1991/92 – we stuck with what we had, save for loan appearances from Tony Agana, brought in from the exotic surroundings of Sheffield United reserves when Chappy broke his wrist. Oh, and Eric Cantona, but we gave him a shot in the first team before he turned out shite and retired from serious football in winter 1992.
1992/93 – Yuri Nikiferov, a centre back capped 55 times for Russia; Vujadin Stanojkovic, a Yugoslav full back who went on to win 21 caps; and Kazimierz Wegrzyn, another defender, capped 20 times by Poland. After rejecting these three I imagine Wilkinson issued clear instructions to MacFarlane: find some players whose names I can pronounce.
1993/94 – ‘Sami’ is a pronounceable name, and lining up at no 5 against Bolton reserves in October 93 was another Finn, named Sami Hyypia. With Pemberton and Newsome at the club, it seems we couldn’t make room for the future Liverpool defender, and Ian MacFarlane left Leeds shortly afterwards. I imagine that without Wilkinson and Hennigan to overrule him, MacFarlane himself went on to a fine career playing Championship Manager ‘93.
From The Square Ball magazine 2009/10 issue two.