Promotion in 1990 was not a new experience for Howard Wilkinson.
Leeds United 1
Dean Court, Saturday May 5, 1990
Twice before, with Notts County and Sheffield Wednesday, he had driven clubs out of the division he inherited them in, but Leeds United's promotion from the second division gave him the warmest of glows.
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"I was young and fresh at Notts County," he said, "and at Sheffield I knew I had only a short time to get them up or I would be cut.
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"I decided to enjoy my time at Leeds whatever happened in the end – to be able to recall every match, and I can. Of the three successes, this is the sweetest."
The demands of the 46 games through which Leeds beat a path into England's first division were aptly summed up by their talismanic captain, Gordon Strachan, after a 1-0 win at Bournemouth brought not only promotion to Elland Road but also the Division Two title.
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Strachan was euphoric, but patently exhausted. "The pressure's been stored up over 46 games and I feel like a balloon deflating," he wrote in his YEP column. "At the final whistle there was a great sense of relief that it was finally over."
Oddly, Leeds had arranged for a friendly against Italian club Genoa to be staged at Elland Road three days after their game on the south coast, a commitment that Wilkinson's squad could have done without.
Strachan joked that he would send one of his sons to play in his place.
Yet he, like the players around him, could not hide his
satisfaction. "I've picked up about 12 or 13 medals in my career but I can honestly say that none has been harder to win than this Division
Two championship medal," Strachan said. "We deserved to win the title and we were the best team in the division."
Wilkinson's players led the second division comfortably with much of the season played but felt the league closing in around Easter as their results worsened. The table became so tight that Leeds travelled to Bournemouth with the assumption that a win would be necessary to ensure their automatic promotion. The title was an afterthought.
The weather on the south coast was glorious but the atmosphere malevolent. Word of serious trouble in Bournemouth – which was swamped by thousands of travelling supporters – the night before United's final fixture filtered through to the players, and memories of the chaos have endured as strongly as memories of the match itself. Bournemouth as a town has never forgotten the damage caused; United's Tuesday-night visit in 2007 was an exercise in rigid policing.
Strachan pulled no punches when asked about the violence.
"We, the players, want to make one thing clear," he said, "the lads at Elland Road have won this championship not for the troublemakers but for the genuine, well-behaved supporters who have backed us in the right manner.
"Unfortunately, there are a few hundred morons – and that is what they are, morons – who tarnish the name of the club with their actions. If those people think the championship is theirs then they should think again. And they can call me what they like for that."
Strachan had been a shining light in United's long season but no less crucial was Wilkinson's 400,000 signing of Lee Chapman from Nottingham Forest midway through the term. The transfer was inspired and Chapman's 12th goal in 21 matches sealed a professional win at Dean Court.
Chapman's performance was destined to be pivotal from the moment doubts surfaced over the fitness of Bobby Davison. He was United's main source of goals after Davison suffered a knee injury on the eve of the match which should have prevented his selection. In a peak of risky psychology, Wilkinson opted to conceal Davison's problem and name him in United's starting line-up, protecting the striker's most likely replacement, Carl Shutt.
"Carl wasn't used to that sort of occasion," Wilkinson said, "so I kept the pressure off him by making sure he didn't know he was playing until 3.05pm." Davison completed the opening minutes at Dean Court, a charade only he, Wilkinson, Gordon Strachan and Chris Kamara knew about. Shutt took to the field as a substitute and contributed as Wilkinson intended, supporting Chapman who settled the game with a powerful header from Kamara's cross in the 49th minute.
It soon became clear that Newcastle – the club whose proximity most worried Wilkinson before kick-off – were destined for a heavy defeat at Middlesbrough, making Leeds' promotion inevitable. But Wilkinson's players were reluctant to forego the title with Sheffield United also heading for 85 points, and their defence of Chapman's goal sealed the title on goal difference. Jim Beglin, United's left-back, played through 90 minutes despite being knocked unconscious. More significant than the championship was the end of Leeds' eight-year meander beneath the first division. Managing director Bill Fotherby spoke openly of the financial implications of promotion, saying: "I've no doubt that we'll earn 2m as a result of commercial activities next season. We're back among the elite."
Wilkinson was promised funds to strengthen, but insisted: "The players have done us proud. They deserve the chance to play in the first division and they'll get it."
The following Tuesday, he and his team collected their trophy and a winners' cheque of 45,000, prior to their friendly with Genoa and, as Fotherby promised, they did not look back.
United: Day, Sterland, Beglin, Jones, Fairclough, Haddock, Strachan, Kamara, Chapman, Davison (Shutt 6 (Batty 87)), Speed.