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.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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