Starting our journey back to the spring of 1992, when Leeds United were crowned champions of England, Don Warters, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s chief football writer of the day, gives his own memories.
The hard years of the 1980s were very strange for me. I mean, they were difficult for anyone who supported Leeds United but I first reported on the club for the Telegraph and Argus in Bradford in 1965. I moved to the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1970. Top-division football was all I knew. Top-four finishes were what I was used to writing about.
In those days it was never a question of whether Leeds would qualify for Europe. It was always a question of which European competition they’d qualify for. Back then, the papers were the only place where you got the news about football and on evenings when the club were playing abroad, fans would jam the switchboard asking ‘what’s the score, what’s the score?’ Eventually we had to put a notice in the YEP asking people to stop phoning.
Relegation was a shock to say the least and the barren period in the old second division went on and on and on. But despite that, I wouldn’t say the title success in 1992 came as a surprise to me. I don’t think you could class it as unexpected. Howard Wilkinson had been building ever since he became manager and the reason he was able to sign Gordon Strachan in 1989 was because he sold Strachan a vision. He told Strachan that Leeds were going places – and he meant it.
Howard was not the most flamboyant of characters but he was a really deep thinker when it came to football; a polite man who was different to a lot of managers. He was well-educated and he had the ability to talk and make sense, if you know what I mean.
You didn’t get the usual stuff from him. Howard liked to explain what he was doing and explain why he was doing it. If he had quite a severe exterior then I’d say that was because he was self-assured, albeit with a subtle sense of humour. He knew what he wanted and how he was going to work and the players liked that.
For several years Strachan had a column in the Evening Post which I wrote for him. It was hugely popular and he always had something interesting to say for himself. That was where he first revealed that his preferred breakfast was a mixture of porridge and bananas (bearing in mind that this was before nutrition was a big deal). The story went everywhere, as his column so often did.
A former editor of the YEP once joked with him that when he finished playing he should become a journalist. Strachan was kind enough to tell him that the writing was all mine! But we got to know each other very well and it’s funny because David Meek, who covered Manchester United for the Manchester Evening News, warned me when the transfer went through that I might have difficulty with him. I can honestly say that we got on like a house on fire. Strachan had everything in his game, apart from height.
What you learned from him was that Wilkinson was a meticulous coach. Training was severe and the sessions were very long. Howard devoted so much time to practicing every type of set-piece, repeating it all over and over.
Strachan, whose career was revitalised at Leeds because he was going nowhere at Old Trafford, regularly said that in terms of attention to detail, Wilkinson was second to none. I really do give huge credit to Howard for that season.
What you learned from him was that Wilkinson was a meticulous coach. Training was severe and the sessions were very long. Howard devoted so much time to practicing every type of set-piece, repeating it all over and over.Don Warters
But the team was excellent too. Even before the season started, before it took shape, you’d have said that Leeds were a very good first division side. It had something of everything - a lot of flair and a lot of solid players too.
That famous midfield four were all internationals and they all chipped in with goals. Even David Batty got a couple and Batty hardly ever scored. The full-backs, Mel Sterland and Tony Dorigo, were a bit unsung but terrific all the same and up front you had Lee Chapman, a great finisher especially with his head.
Crucially, they got off to a decent start and after the turn of the year, when there was maybe just the sign of a little wobble coming, Howard signed Eric Cantona. Eric didn’t play a massive amount before the end of the season (in general I recall Leeds being unchanged so often) but he brought something different to Elland Road and he brought something extra. Sometimes even when things are going well you need a little boost at the right time.
Over in Manchester, it all went wrong. A lot was made of how Manchester United took defeat in the title race and Leeds weren’t awash with praise from that direction but while there was no real love lost between the teams, I’m not sure the same feeling existed between the clubs. In any case, in Leeds we were fixated on having won the title. To hell with everybody else!
The irony of it all is that Leeds lost to Manchester United in both cup competitions in the space of about a week in January.
What it meant was that towards the end of the season Manchester United were having to juggle fixtures.
Leeds had the points and Manchester United had games in hand but I always feel that in the last couple of months, points on the board are worth much more. So it proved in the end. A bizarre Brian Gayle own goal earned Leeds a win at Sheffield United in April and meant the title was virtually theirs. Everyone was quite happy to see Manchester United going to Liverpool later that day. We knew they’d get no favours at Anfield.
The celebrations that followed were obviously fantastic. I’d had the pleasure of drinking out of the FA Cup in 1972 but winning the title in 1992 ranks as highly as anything I reported on, including the Don Revie era. That’s partly because of the way Howard’s team did it, holding on under all that pressure, but also because their success ended a long period of disappointment; a long period of disappointment which I didn’t see coming.
All I ever saw with Howard was a very calm demeanour. How he was feeling inside on the day it all happened I don’t know but he deserved to take huge personal satisfaction from it.
I still cast my mind back to a press conference in the 1980s where a few of us journalists got chatting to a couple of Leeds’ directors afterwards. The club were stuck in the second division and they asked us, just to test the water I think, who we thought might be a good fit at Elland Road. Straight away two of the reporters said ‘Howard Wilkinson. He gets teams out of this league.’
The story goes that he was recommended to Leeds by Bobby Robson but maybe that sowed the seed as well. One way or the other, it was the right choice at the right time for Leeds United.