Flashback 1991: Arsenal v Leeds United

Chris Fairclough.
Chris Fairclough.
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Turn back the clock to Leeds United’s with Division One clash Arsenal at Highbury in March 1991.

By the middle of March 1991, Howard Wilkinson was sick of the sight of Arsenal.

Beaten by the Gunners in an FA Cup tie which required no fewer than three replays, a 2-0 defeat at Highbury four weeks later caused Leeds United’s manager to ask whether his club’s Division One season had lost its thread.

United were accused of “lacking drive” by their manager after two goals from Kevin Campbell settled a low-key game in north London.

The fixture did nothing for the reputation of either club but it served to keep Arsenal at the summit of the league, narrowly in front of Liverpool.

Scathing

Wilkinson rarely uttered such scathing criticism of his players as he did after full-time at Highbury, but a month in which Leeds exited the FA and Rumbelows cups and suffered defeats at Southampton and Arsenal gave him time for troubled reflection. Even by his honest standards, his reaction was outspoken.

“We’re in real danger of disappearing down the pan,” he said. “Our performance today left so much to be desired.

“It’s a long, long way from the standard I’ve come to expect from the players and a long way from the standards they’ve set themselves. We looked tired and we looked as though we lacked the will to win the game or get anything from it.

“However you want to measure the performance, we didn’t compete well enough in any department, whether it was in skill, organisation, running, closing down or passing.”

Leeds held fourth position at the final whistle – a veritable achievement in a season which followed their promotion from Division Two – but the mood around the club was depressed. Though it took 76 minutes for Arsenal to crack United’s defence and fashion their victory, the final result did not surprise Wilkinson in the slightest.

“We’ve lost our drive,” he said. “Whether people say that’s in the midfield or whatever, I tend to think it’s happened collectively.”

ITV chose to televise the game, but their investment was poorly rewarded. Leeds looked devoid of ideas from the outset and Arsenal’s deliberate marking of Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister stifled the creativity of Wilkinson’s midfield.

Arsenal posed a limited threat in return, threatening a goal briefly in the first minute when Alan Smith drilled a shot over John Lukic’s crossbar, but the bulk of possession was theirs and the pressure on Leeds was always likely to tell.

With 76 minutes played, Smith picked out Campbell with a cleverly-weighted pass and the striker composed himself before whipping a shot through the legs of Lukic.

United looked beaten as they restarted the game and Chris Fairclough compounded a forgettable afternoon when his under-hit back pass gave Campbell a gift of a goal four minutes from time.

Wilkinson had resigned himself to defeat by then and the United boss was already contemplating a pivotal clash with third-placed Crystal Palace at Elland Road six days later.

United: Lukic, Sterland, Whitlow, Batty, Fairclough, Whyte, Strachan, Davison (Shutt 59), Chapman, McAllister, Speed.

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