Howard Wilkinson just celebrated his 70th birthday, and I’m glad. At least, I assume he celebrated. I hope he did. The story goes that he didn’t let winning the league title with Leeds United interrupt his Sunday dinner; but then there’s the footage of him that afternoon downing a glass of champagne with his kids to toast the success. Then again, he also went to play a round of golf with Harry Gration a day or two later, so that week probably doesn’t count as a debauch.
However he marked the occasion himself, seventy years of Sergeant Wilko should be cause for us all to celebrate. Of all Leeds United’s managers, only Don Revie was more deserving of a long and happy life after Elland Road; the Don’s time, however, was cut short by the cruelty of motor neurone disease before he had even turned 62. He was a young man still; and Howard, although almost a decade older than that now, thankfully seems as young as he ever did.
Which is to say that he never seemed all that young at all. Nobody is ever surprised when they find out that Wilko was a teacher in his younger days; he always had that air of experience and authority and, well, old age. How much of it was a front is hard to judge. In the first couple of seasons at Leeds, especially when we were still in the Second Division, Howard seemed to revel in the stare from the local TV cameras; never more at home than when twinkling his way through one of Gration’s pally pre-match chats, dishing out a bon mot, and a mot juste, and other French words that make jokes sound more sophisticated than is usual for a dour South Yorkshireman.
The FA Commission won’t know what hits them, and that’s the beauty of having Wilko there in his 70th year, whatever Gary Lineker thinks. The FA tried to pretend Don Revie didn’t exist after he jumped from the England squad before he was pushed, but Howard has always been the rebel within; and the smartest guy in the room. For knowledge and experience among the commission members, I would only rate Dario Gradi as Wilko’s equal; and for achievement, Wilkinson far outshines him. The FA want to know what’s wrong with football in England. Wilko had the answers thirty years ago. They also want to know how to fix it. Wilko could have told them that thirty years ago, too.
Which made Lineker’s comments – about most of the commission, apart from his mate Glenn Hoddle, being “utterly pointless” – all the more insulting. Thorp Arch at its peak was a working demonstration that Howard Wilkinson knows how to develop schoolkids into superstars, which is all The FA wants for its England team. And he hasn’t stopped there; St George’s Park, The FA’s new centre of excellence, opened last year to a blueprint laid down by Wilko a decade earlier. Sheffield Wednesday were saved from extinction by a board that had Wilko at its helm, Howard standing personally toe-to-toe with Wednesday fans, debating the club’s future and fighting for its survival. Lineker has watched the Premier League change from the comfort of his Match of the Day sofa, so one can probably understand his surprise when they guy who won the league in 1992 is suddenly back on his radar, working for the good of the game at the top level. Wilkinson, meanwhile, hasn’t just watched the game change; he’s been down on the grass, changing it.
It’s more than twenty years since Leeds won the First Division under Howard Wilkinson, and that means I’m twenty years older than I was when he played that round of golf with Harry Gration. There’s not really an upside to getting older, but rather than be a reminder of the ageing process, having someone like Sergeant Wilko getting older with you is a solace. He’s bloody good at it, like he is at most things. Here’s hoping he keeps being good at it for a long time to come.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 04