The Last Champions

Leeds United’s title win of 1992 was the last of its kind in many ways.

November 1992. Éric Cantona joins Manchester United from Leeds United for £1.2m. In the previous season, the last of the old First Division, Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds had beaten Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to the title, the arrival of tempestuous France striker Cantona in February supposedly being the catalyst for Leeds’ triumph. They clinched the honour when Manchester United lost 2-0 to Liverpool, after which Ferguson told the ITV cameras that “Leeds haven’t won the league. Manchester United have lost it.” The following season, Cantona became the creative centre of Ferguson’s United as they ended their 26-year run without a title. The narrative formed that Ferguson succeeded in handling Cantona, the difference between winning the league and losing it, where Wilkinson ultimately failed – the first of many managers seen off by Ferguson as his side dominated the new Premier League.

But is this fair? In his new book, The Last Champions: Leeds United and the Year That Football Changed Forever (published by Bantam Press), Dave Simpson busts the Cantona myth – he only scored three goals for Leeds in 1991-92, none of which changed matches – and breaks the mould in exploring team-building. The current fashion in football writing is to examine how managers built dynasties: Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid shows how Herbert Chapman won consecutive titles at Huddersfield Town and Arsenal, how Helenio Herrera made Internazionale into Italy’s leading club and how Valery Lobanovsky brought long-term success to Dynamo Kyiv, whilst Graham Hunter’s book on Barcelona praises the structural planning that made them the world’s most technically advanced club. Conversely, Simpson asks how Wilkinson achieved his singular success and why it has been so neglected within the history of English football, and even within that of Leeds United.

This was Leeds’ third (and, as it remains, last) championship. The previous two were won by Don Revie in 1969 and 1974, after which he became England manager and was replaced, infamously, by nemesis Brian Clough, whose 44-day reign was dramatised in David Peace’s dark, paranoid novel The Damned United. Revie turned Leeds from Second Division also-rans into a domestic and European force, changing their kit from blue and yellow to white to channel the spirit of Real Madrid, his club’s insularity infuriating Clough and others but proving central to their decade-long challenge for major honours.

Leeds’ long decline began in the mid-Seventies; the board appointed several former members of Revie’s team as managers in unsuccessful efforts to recapture the past. In 1982, under Revie favourite Allan Clarke, Leeds were relegated; he was replaced by another, Eddie Gray, and then Billy Bremner, neither of whom could return them to the First Division. Finally, in October 1988, with Leeds fighting demotion to the Third Division, Bremner was sacked. As we learn here, managing director Bill Fotherby, having already made an audacious effort to sign Diego Maradona, tried to persuade Bobby Robson to quit England for Leeds – Robson declined but recommended Sheffield Wednesday manager Howard Wilkinson, who agreed to step down a division, convinced that he could revitalise the former champions.

Wilkinson, a pragmatic and intelligent disciplinarian, succeeded where Clough failed in removing all Revie mementoes; he reorganised the board, demanding influence over all aspects of the club. Breaking up cliques, introducing harder training and dropping several players, ‘Sergeant Wilko’ quickly turned Leeds around, winning the Second Division in 1990 and finishing fourth in 1991 before his unexpected and unrepeated victory the season after.

Wilkinson signed a certain type of player to get Leeds out of the Second Division and another on promotion, making notorious ‘enforcer’ Vinnie Jones central to his midfield before replacing him with playmaker Gary McAllister. Jones was the first of Wilkinson’s buys to be dumped: a constant theme throughout, with so many interviews with ex-players closing with melancholic reflections on the brusque manner of their exits. (In this, there’s continuity with Simpson’s previous book, The Fallen, where he attempted to trace everyone who’d been in The Fall with the group’s only constant member, Mark E. Smith, who said that running it was like managing a football team: “sometimes you’ve got to replace the centre-forward”.)

In a manner seldom attempted, let alone achieved since, Wilkinson turned uncapped and unheralded players into champions: none of his first-choice centre-forwards, central defenders or his goalkeeper were internationals. In summer 1991, backed by millionaire socialist chairman Leslie Silver, Wilkinson spent heavily on England stars Steve Hodge, who never quite established himself, and Tony Dorigo, who did, as well as quick forward Rod Wallace (unlucky never to be capped) from Southampton for a club record £1.6m.

We don’t learn too much about Wilkinson’s tactics, which were dismissed as crudely direct, somewhat unfairly: he used goalkeeper John Lukic and overlapping full-backs Mel Sterland and Dorigo to get the ball into the box quickly and often, usually aiming for target man Lee Chapman, but also constructed a midfield of great power and guile, allowing Leeds to dictate play far more than basic long-ball sides. He was adaptable, using 22 players throughout the season (during Aston Villa’s similarly unanticipated title win of 1980-81, Ron Saunders picked just 14). In his greatest single tactical move, he responded to winger Speed’s injury before the Aston Villa game by introducing an extra defender, using Chris Fairclough to mark Villa’s main threat, England winger Tony Daley, out of the match. Leeds dominated, and won 4-1.

Clearly written by a fan, Simpson has most affection for those players taken from non-League clubs, with Carl Shutt, who began with Spalding United and who frequently scored crucial goals after coming off the bench, emerging as his favourite. Touchingly, Shutt and Simpson seem to have limitless time for each other, with ‘Shutty’, who was ‘always one of us’ and who now works as a travel agent, accompanying Simpson to Morrison’s to continue their interview after his digital recorder runs out of battery.

This is less true of Cantona, Shutt’s polar opposite, to whom Simpson manages to pose a single question about Leeds at a press conference where the footballer-turned-actor appears alongside Pelé in Manchester. Perhaps predictably, Cantona remains enigmatic, providing little insight into his inability to fit into the club’s culture. (Sadly, neither he nor Simpson recall that after Cantona expressed his love of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, Leeds fans flooded Cantona’s house with Sylvester Stallone videos.)

Too many of Wilkinson’s squad peaked in 1992, and changes besides Rupert Murdoch’s £304m television deal triggered their decline. The new back-pass rule prevented Wilkinson from using Lukic as a playmaker; his inability to handle the shift of power from managers to players resulted in the loss of Cantona, around whom he might have rebuilt, far earlier than necessary. It was this loss, and Leeds’ failure to win an away match in the inaugural Premier League season or progress in the new Champions League, that overshadowed Wilkinson’s reputation. He recovered to secure two more top-five finishes and reached two League Cup finals, but this was not enough to escape from Revie’s shadow.

The academy that Wilkinson created produced a stunning array of talent, including England internationals Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, James Milner and Aaron Lennon, but he couldn’t stay in the job long enough to see them into the side, he and his club failing to adapt to the new culture, being sacked in September 1996 after a 4-0 loss to Manchester United. Retaining players such as Jon Newsome on £400 per week was no longer possible – soon Leeds were shelling out £20,000 per week – and the board’s attempts to float Leeds on the stock market were as disastrous as the expensive signing of Sweden star Tomas Brolin, who soon fell out with Wilkinson, leaving an overweight shadow of the player who lit up the 1994 World Cup (and whose name, strangely, doesn’t feature in Simpson’s book).

Certainly, Ferguson coped far better with the sweeping changes to football culture, building a dynasty and controlling the memory of his 1991-92 failure: The Last Champions is a welcome reclamation of Wilkinson’s success, however transient it proved to be. Perhaps the narratives produced in the dominance of a small clique of hyper-rich clubs with superstar players provide intrigue for global television audiences, with their ceaseless stories of revenge, but the triumphs of teams like Wilkinson’s offered interest for fans of provincial teams without stars, suggesting that well-organised units could succeed without the kind of money that later came into English football from Sky TV and then the US, Russia and the Middle East. As Simpson so wistfully explains, we shall probably never see their like again.

 

Wilkinson turned uncapped and unheralded players into champions. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Manchester attack: Theresa May condemns "warped and twisted" terrorist

The Prime Minister said the police were treating the explosion at the Manchester Arena as "an appalling terrorist attack".

At least 22 people are dead and around 59 have been injured, including children, after an explosion at a concert arena in Manchester that is being treated as a terrorist attack.

Police believe the attack was carried out by a single suicide bomber, who also died. However, the police have also announced the arrest of a 23-year-old man in South Manchester in connection with the attack.

Speaking before the announcement, chief constable Ian Hopkins said: "We have been treating this as a terrorist attack." The attacker was named by papers late on Tuesday as Salman Abedi, a British man of Libyan heritage. The source for this is US, rather than British, intelligence.

The victims were young concertgoers and their parents. Victims include the 18 year old Georgina Callander and the eight year old Saffie Rose Roussos.

The Prime Minister Theresa May earlier said that the country's "thoughts and prayers" were with those affected by the attack. 

She said: "It is now beyond doubt that the people of Manchester and of this country have fallen victim to a callous terrorist attack, an attack that targeted some of the youngest people in our society with cold calculation.

"This was among the worst terrorist incidents we have ever experienced in the United Kingdom, and although it is not the first time Manchester has suffered in this way, it is the worst attack the city has experienced and the worst ever to hit the north of England."

The blast occurred as an Ariana Grande concert was finishing at Manchester Arena on Monday night. According to May, the terrorist deliberately detonated his device as fans were leaving "to cause maximum carnage". 

May said the country will struggle to understand the "warped and twisted mind" that saw "a room packed with young children" as "an opportunity for carnage". 

"This attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice deliberately targeting innocent and defenceless children," she said. "Young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives."

She thanked the emergency services "on behalf of the country" for their "utmost professionalism" and urged anyone with information about the attack to contact the police. 

"The general election campaign has been suspended. I will chair another meeting of Cobra later today."

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Ending her statement, she said: 

"At terrible moments like these it is customary for leaders politicians and others to condemn the perpetrators and declare that the terrorists will not win. But the fact we have been here before and we need to say this again does not make it any less true. For as so often while we experienced the worst of humanity in Manchester last night, we also saw the best.

"The cowardice of the attacker met the bravery of the emergency services and the people of Manchester. The attempt to divide us met countless acts of kindness that brought people together and in the days ahead those must be the things we remember. The images we hold in our minds should not be those of senseless slaughter, but the ordinary men and women who put their own concerns for safety aside and rushed to help."

Emergency services, including hundreds of police, worked overnight to recover the victims and secure the area, while families desperately searched for their children. The dead included children and teenagers. The injured are being treated at eight hospitals in Greater Manchester, and some are in critical condition. 

The so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, although this has not been independently verified, and the organisation has been slow to respond. 

Theresa May chaired a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning and another in the afternoon. She said police believed they knew the identity of the perpretator, and were working "at speed" to establish whether he was part of a larger network. She met Manchester's chief constable, the Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and members of the emergency services. A flat in a Manchester suburb has been raided. 

There were reports overnight of strangers offering their homes to concertgoers, and taxis taking people away from the scene of the explosion for free.

As the news broke, Grande, who had left the stage moments before the attack, tweeted that she felt "broken". 

Manchester's newly elected metro mayor, Andy Burnham, called the explosion "an evil act" and said: "After our darkest of nights Manchester is waking up to the most difficult of dawns."

He thanked the emergency services and the people of Manchester, and said "it will be business as usual as far as possible in our great city". 

Extra police, including armed officers, have been deployed on the streets of the city, and the area around the Manchester Arena remains cordoned off. Victoria Station is closed. 

The main political parties suspended campaigning for the general election for at least 24 hours after the news broke. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I am horrified by the horrendous events in Manchester last night. My thoughts are with families and friends of those who have died and been injured.

“Today the whole country will grieve for the people who have lost their lives."

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “My thoughts are with the victims, their families and all those who have been affected by this barbaric attack in Manchester."

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, a city which suffered a terrorist attack two months ago, tweeted that: "London stands with Manchester."

The attack happened while many Brits were sleeping, but international leaders have already been offering their condolences. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, tweeted that: "Canadians are shocked by the news of the horrific attack in Manchester." The Parliament of Australia paused for a minute's silence in remembrance of the dead. 

 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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