Leeds United – The Last Champions
By Dave Simpson
When the Leeds United players celebrated winning the championship in April 1992, they could not have had an inkling of how momentous the achievement was.
Manchester United, losers at Liverpool that sunny Sunday afternoon, had now gone 25 years without winning the league. Howard Wilkinson’s side, promoted just two seasons ago, could bring back the glory days to Leeds. But Wilkinson would prove to be the last English manager to win the league. In 1992, football changed beyond all recognition.
Twenty years on, The Last Champions looks back at the roots of that success and the amazing cast of characters who came together to fashion the triumph. As in his acclaimed book The Fallen, Dave Simpson’s quest to catch up with the protagonists of the era, from the visionary Sergeant Wilko, top scorer Lee Chapman and unsung heroes like Mike Whitlow and Carl Shutt (not forgetting Eric Cantona, of course), sees him unearth some extraordinary untold stories.
In this exclusive extract, the writer puts the unlikely triumph in context – a triumph that seems ever more remarkable with the passage of time…
“Bulging with promise”
It was a Monday morning in July, and I was ringing a Sheffield branch of a popular travel agents.
“Hello,” I began. “Can I speak to Mr. Shutt?”
“I’m afraid the assistant manager isn’t available at the moment,” replied the female voice at the end of the line. “Can I help? Are you looking to book a holiday?”
I wasn’t looking to book a holiday, but I couldn’t admit, “I’m looking for Carl Shutt. Shutty! Who won the last ever First Division title with Leeds United. The tireless South Yorkshireman who ran his bloody legs off and scored one of the greatest goals in the history of the club when he came on against Stuttgart in the European Cup and ran the full length of the pitch to put it past the keeper with his first touches of the game!”
I’d first skulked around the shop hoping to encounter Shutty and now started ringing them up, which meant I’d gone from being a weirdo stalker to a telephone pest. Why was I doing this?
It started a few weeks earlier, in May. I’d been sat at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground watching my beloved team limp towards another false dawn. Leeds had yet again managed to miss out on promotion to English football’s top flight. Where, as one of the best-supported clubs in England, if not the world, they surely belonged.
As another season bulging with promise had fizzled out like a damp firework, I’d found my thoughts drifting to a similar spring day almost two decades previously. When a Leeds United team assembled by manager Howard Wilkinson had stood – as proud Champions – at the summit of domestic football.
I remembered the glorious day the title had been won. Sunday, 26 April 1992. When Leeds won a bizarre, windy, fluke-ridden noon kick off game at Sheffield United 3-2 while Man. U. went down at Liverpool that afternoon. Thus continuing England’s biggest club’s 25 year wait to win the league. Wilkinson – dubbed “Sergeant Wilko” by fans and players for his dour, military air and inscrutable, almost unknowable persona, which seemed to shroud a bone dry humour – was then doorstepped by the media during his Sunday dinner. It seemed he had been so atypically overcome by emotion – or something stronger – that he could barely manage a word.
In three and a half astonishing seasons, the South Yorkshire former schoolteacher had taken the ailing West Yorkshire giant from the bottom of the old Second Division to the top of the First. The speed of the ascent even outstripping the legendary Leeds United manager Don Revie (who’d taken eight years to achieve the same thing in the 1960s).
The triumph was all the more remarkable because 48-year old Wilko – then seen as the most brilliant young manager in English football – had defeated Sir Alex Ferguson’s more lavishly funded Manchester United to domestic football’s top honour with players often picked up on the cheap. Some of Wilko’s troops – the likes of Scottish internationals Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister – were top, top players (although Strachan himself had been snapped up for a modest fee after being surplus to requirements at none other than Manchester United). But many players followed Wilko from Sheffield Wednesday or had been signed from lowly clubs. He’d even taken two players from non-League football and turned them into League Championship medal winners. Which would be unthinkable – if not impossible – now.
“Cacophony of car horns”
Those Leeds United players weren’t just champions but The Last Champions. The final winners of the Football League before the formation of the Premiership brought wall-to-wall Sky TV, all-seater stadiums, fancy foreign players, multi-million pound transfer deals and wages and billionaire owners. Wilkinson remains the last ever English manager to win the League. With players who for the most part weren’t paid that much more than the people in the stands. It is the last title won by ordinary people. And the end of an era. From almost the moment Wilkinson held up the trophy, English football was in revolution. From then on, battles for the title would be as much about contests between financial muscle as management or tactics. Football would never be the same again.
Looking back, it all felt like some distant, almost mythical era of muddy pitches, cheap tickets and players you could bump into in the city centre. I remembered the amazing, citywide celebrations even before the following week’s game at home against Norwich City. On the way up, four of us had crammed into a tiny car, with our pal Tim hanging out of the window shouting “Campioni! Campioni!” at passers by amid a cacophony of car horns.
The game itself, which Leeds began as Champions and won 1-0, was surreal. It was like a practice match. Even the Norwich players seemed in awe of the occasion, or the achievement. Or the fact that a giant stuffed panda was partying with the players on the pitch. I particularly remembered the subsequent title celebrations.
When everybody including the Mayor turned out to honour the manager and his triumphant players. They stood on a balcony outside the Town Hall as mercurial French centre forward Eric Cantona uttered his comically worded but instantly memorable “Why I love you, I don’t know, but I love you” pronouncement to thousands of cheering supporters. Back then, it felt like the entire population of Leeds had turned the city into a beautiful display of white, yellow, and blue.
For the players, it was the defining moment of their lives. For me, a typical supporter, it was the culmination of almost 20 years supporting the club. It was the proudest, most exhilarating moment I’d ever known following football.
But in May, 2011, Leeds United were back where they were before Wilkinson came to the club. Struggling in the second tier with falling crowds. It had started to feel like had all been a mirage. Like it had been some distant, forgotten dream that never really happened.
The bookshelves rightly bulged with tomes. Including the one made into the film The Damned United – honouring the Revie era triumphs – a Second Division title, two League Championships, two Fairs Cups, the FA Cup, League Cup and the Charity Shield. But Wilkinson had won the Second Division title inside 18 months (to Revie’s three years). He’d also won the Charity Shield alongside the First Division title. His 411 games (more than any other Leeds manager since The Don) also included a League Cup final. Even in the Premiership he notched up two more top five finishes before being unceremoniously sacked in 1996.
By then, he’d set up the Leeds youth academy. It produced a glittering stream of future internationals even though the man who conceived it all was no longer at the club to see them play. For me, and a generation like me – too young to see The Don barking out his orders and players like Billy Bremner or Jack Charlton in their prime – the Wilko years were the “Glory Years”. Title-winners like Strachan, Lee Chapman, Chris “Huggy” Whyte, Shutty and Mel “Zico” Sterland were our heroes. It felt like their story had been written out of history. Or lost in a welter of acrobatic camera angles and tabloid stories about players on £250,000 a week who didn’t fancy getting on the pitch. And managers who could barely control their players and were lucky to make it into a second season.
When he managed Leeds, “Sergeant Wilko” had been an inescapable, dominant presence. Our Great Leader feared and yet strangely loved by players and fans alike. Most of us instinctively thought he was a genius. How else could he have taken good ol’ Shutty from Spalding? Or Micky Whitlow from Witton Albion? Then managed them into picking up the greatest medal in domestic football?
Was it coaching? Tactics? Or Black magic?
Wilko was certainly unlike a normal football manager. Unashamedly futuristic and intellectual – he was a sports graduate who introduced nutrition to players reared on beer and chips years before Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger. He even spoke to Eric Cantona in French. He was also a gruff South Yorkshireman with something very quaint, even awkward about him which I found tremendously endearing. Wilko was like a cross between a mysterious great philosopher and Brian Glover’s disciplinarian PE teacher in Kes.
With none of the social skills of today’s media savvy modern managers with their official websites and sponsored television channels, Wilko would address the faithful via a crackling Tannoy, expounding his thoughts like a footballing Chairman Mao. “Today, we host Notts County, the oldest professional football club in the world.” In those days, before the internet, fans would ring Leeds United’s Clubcall service for that urgent piece of breaking news – like information on Mel Sterland’s ankle injury – to be greeted by the Sergeant, “the official voice of Leeds United.”
One Saturday, after a game, in my days as a young, struggling music journalist, I’d rung Clubcall, as you do, gone out, been beaten up by a band who I’d given a negative review, woke up the next morning covered in bruises, rung the doctor to hear “Hello. This is Howard Wilkinson. The official voice of Leeds United…” The previous call hadn’t been disconnected: Clubcall had been on all night. It was a very expensive phone call. Still, at least I knew if Mel Sterland’s ankle was any better.
‘The Last Champions’ is out now, available from Amazon and all good bookshops