Daniel Chapman | Writing etc

About Howard Wilkinson, Part 1

The Square Ball issue seven includes a fantastic interview with our legendary former manager Howard Wilkinson, by TSB forumite The Flying Pig. To whet your appetites, Moscowhite takes a look back at the Wilkinson era, and remembers how Sergeant Wilko took a broken down football club that was firmly in the doldrums and, with a ten year vision and the backing of an ambitious board, built a modern football club that we could be proud of.

As football has become more and more remote from its fans, an ever more fond nostalgia has grown for the eighties era at Elland Road. The eight years of exile in Division Two were the last time, before the Premier League era, when players and fans enjoyed a relationship of near-equality off the pitch; before wages and hype sent footballers spiralling into a dream-like lifestyle where few fans could hope to follow. Nostalgia has a way of emphasising the good and diminishing the bad, and you could almost feel resentful towards Howard Wilkinson for taking hold of our football club at the end of the eighties and dragging it by the scruff into the modern era. But as Wilkinson, the former schoolteacher, would no doubt point out, it was for our own good; we had to grow up some time. And, as usual, he’d be right.

Leeds United could not have carried on like that forever. It was fun if you were in amongst it, but to those on the outside looking in, Leeds were a wreck. I can only remember one occasion when Leeds United were mentioned in the West Yorkshire school playground where I grew up. “Leeds United?” said some sporty six year old; “They’re rubbish! They’re not even good enough for division three!” No one I knew at school played football; no one I knew cared about Leeds United. Leeds United were bad rubbish, so all the kids played rugby.

We had to move away to snap out of it. Leeds United had to move away from its past, from Gray, Bremner and Hunter in the dugout, from the pictures of the Revie era in the corridors and halls. And I had to move away over the Pennines, where my new school friends were football-crazy – albeit for various teams from Manchester and Liverpool. “Who do you support?” they asked me on the first day. Who knows why, but I said, “Leeds.” “Leeds? Leeds are rubbish!” It was all so familiar, but this time they carried on. “They’ve got a new manager, though. And he’s bought Vinnie Jones. He’s rubbish as well, though. Have you got any stickers?”

I didn’t have any stickers, but I soon did, and a squad poster on the inside of my school desk. There was Vinnie Jones; there was the new manager, Howard Wilkinson. There was David Batty, with a knob drawn on his head by a classmate. Being a nerdy child, I wasn’t about to take my new interest lightly: I resolved to find out everything I could about Leeds United, even if they were rubbish. I bought a scrap book, and began reading Match, Shoot, and the newspaper back pages. It was slow going at first, and for a while the only picture I had for the book was of Howard Wilkinson, and I glued it to the front cover. Soon, though, the book filled up. Wilkinson’s work at Leeds was attracting attention, filling column inches, all recorded in my book. Before long, nobody on either side of the Pennines would dare call the Second Division champions, who soon became the First Division champions, “rubbish.”

Sergeant Wilko was an unusual hero for a young Leeds fan. He wasn’t media-friendly; he didn’t have the laddish charm that gets the newspapermen and the fans onside; often, he seemed to be just plain weird. In a Flying Pizza baseball cap and aGatorade sweatshirt, he’d follow up a nil-nil draw by praising the new Barbara Streisand album and then go home to enjoy a bottle of vintage red wine. Wilko became known for his meandering trains of seemingly irrelevant thought, and the bleedin’-obvious epigrams: “If they hadn’t scored, we would have won,” and “If one team scores, the other team has to score two to win.” But those who laughed at him missed the point that Howard was in on the joke. Straight-faced, humorous, and almost always right; Wilkinson had that little touch of Yorkshire weirdness that made him stand out and seem different, and that made him unmistakably Wilko. Two of my favourite examples are from his 1992 autobiography, Managing To Succeed. In one story, Howard phones up Allan Clarke, then manager of Barnsley, to enquire about signing David Hirst. ‘I rang Allan from Hillsborough and proceed to perform a fairly reasonable impersonation of Peter Shreeves, manager of Tottenham Hotspur at the time … before I could interject he was setting up a mega-bucks deal and asking whether I wanted Spurs’ interest to be relayed to his chairman … I finally managed to break his flow and explain it was Wilki from Wednesday. Thankfully, Allan saw the funny side.’ In another chapter, Howard lays out his vision for revitalising English football, and foresees the early-noughties fashion for government-appointed ‘czars’ – ‘drug czars,’ ‘school czars,’ and so on. Except, this being Sergeant Wilko, he recommends that appointment of ”a football fuehrer.” As ever with Wilkinson, the phrasing is uniquely Wilko, but the idea is ahead of its time.

Leeds are fortunate to have twice been in the thrall of managers who didn’t just manage the team, but who were ahead of their time in the way they took it upon themselves to build up every part of the football club. Don Revie micro-managed everything from the colour of the kit, to the badge on the shirt, to the player’s spouses. Howard Wilkinson gave himself the task of reinvigorating the entire institution; not just the football team, but the stadium, the club, the club’s public image, and even to an extent the image of the fans. It was in many ways an even bolder project than Revie’s. Don had arrived at a club that had been and was nothing, and built it up from scratch; but Howard took over a club that simultaneously enjoyed a glorious and a reviled reputation, and had expectations, both good and bad, it had either to live up to or shake off.

It was a massive job, and Leeds didn’t just need a football manager, they needed a visionary; and it is a testament to Wilkinson that when he outlined his vision for Leeds to Leslie Silver and Bill Fotherby, and told them it would take ten years to deliver, they trusted him enough to agree. Even in 1988, a manager couldn’t look much beyond the end of a three year contract; it was a different sort of manager who planned to still be at a club in ten years time. It is testament to Howard Wilkinson that what he promised to a near-penniless club, that didn’t own its own stadium and was at the bottom of Division Two in 1988, he delivered: in 1998 Leeds had a team capable of challenging for the title; a youth academy that was turning out players of real quality; they owned the stadium which, with the new East Stand, had hosted international games at Euro 96; the ground was full, and the club was running at a profit. As promised in 1988, so it was in 1998. The only change in the plan was that, after 1996, Howard was no longer there.

Having built the team that accomplished the vital first step of winning Division Two, it only took a few additions to go on and win the Football League Championship; and compared to the hard work off the field, those first few seasons of success seemed like the easy part for Wilkinson. The four years of glory from 1989 to 1993 raised expectations, though, and erased the willingness to be patient while Wilkinson built the club up. Coming 5th every season with a team of Pembertons and Beesleys, with the odd McAllister and Yeboah sprinkled on top, probably would have sounded great to a doldrum-weary Leeds fan in 1985; but in 1995, having tasted glory and experienced Cantona and the Nou Camp, it was hard to believe in the promise of better days to follow if we’d just be patient with Newsome and Worthington.

The popular perception these days is that Wilkinson ‘lost it’ after winning the league, but I think that assessment is wrong. The 17th place finish in 1992/93 was a lesson in the limits to loyalty, as Wilkinson gave his double title winning squad their hard-earned chance in Europe rather than rebuilding the team; when Wilko did rebuild, Leeds swiftly improved, finishing 5th in the next two seasons. Even in the drab last season, when Leeds finished 13th, Yeboah was wonderful to watch and Leeds reached a cup final; and while 96/97 started badly, I don’t believe we would have been relegated that year, and Howard had made two of his best signings just before he was sacked: Nigel Martyn and Lee Bowyer. Wilkinson never lost it, because the ‘it’ he was concentrating on was not the first eleven for that current season, but the first eleven for 1998 and beyond. Wilkinson’s target was to arrive in 1998 in the upper half of the Premier League, in profit and with top-class facilities; that was when the players and the money would be available for attempts at league titles to begin again. If that meant we had to rely on Mark Tinkler and Richard Jobson in the meantime, so be it. When Wilkinson was sacked in his eighth year of management, Martyn, Robinson, Kelly, Harte, Radebe, Woodgate, Bowyer, McPhail, Jones, Kewell, and Smith were all at the club; a team that required only two more years and a few additions to form the backbone of the famous ‘babies’ team of David O’Leary.

Howard Wilkinson gave Leeds three fantastic seasons of unforgettable glory in 1989/90, 1990/91 and 1991/92; and the Charity Shield at Wembley and the European glory nights against Stuttgart and Monaco stand with the best memories of Leeds’ modern era. More than that, he gave Leeds United back its sense of justifiable self-worth; no longer living in the past, no longer derided in playgrounds, Leeds were a proper football club again, fit for the modern era. But in many ways, by sacking him in 1996, Leeds denied Howard Wilkinson the chance to deliver personally what he was really working towards for the first eight years of his ten year project. We can only imagine what Wilko might have done with the Thorp Arch ‘babies’ in his first team. Maybe he would have surrounded them with cloggers from Sheffield and won nothing; maybe he would have given them their head, bought prudently and won a second title. We’ll never know the answer; but if it wasn’t for Howard Wilkinson, we’d never have been able to ask the question.


Originally on The Square Ball blog