As part of a week-long celebration of Leeds United’s last Division One title Phil Hay caught up with full-back Mel Sterland, for whom the success proved a crowning glory
In his younger years, Gareth Southgate was asked by a matchday programme editor to make one wish. “Apart from world peace,” he replied, “an injury-free career.”
His was the prayer of footballers the world over. Ability is nothing without opportunity but even less without good health, as Mel Sterland found out. “One minute football’s your whole life,” he says, “Then the next minute it’s...”
Well, gone. And in Sterland’s case, gone at the age of 30. For several of the players who brought the league championship to Leeds United in 1992, that moment in the sun was the pinnacle of their careers. For Sterland it was both the pinnacle and the end, 20 years ago.
An ankle injury suffered during the Division One run-in was the negative legacy of a glorious season. After repeated bouts of surgery, Sterland retired in 1994. “To be finished at 30 was hard to take,” he says, “but you could say I went out at the top. I can’t think of a better way to go.
“Whenever I’m asked about regrets in football, I always list my achievements: capped by England and capped by the under-21s. A Scottish title at Rangers and an English title at Leeds. Seriously, I can live with all that.”
If Sterland is forced to think about parallel universes – the idea of what might have been had four operations not failed to repair his ankle – he can as easily tell the story of how a transfer to Elland Road almost passed him by.
The right-back was courted by QPR in 1989 after a year in Scotland with Rangers. He travelled to see Trevor Francis, then QPR’s manager, to discuss a move but had Howard Wilkinson in his ear, selling the merits of joining Leeds. “Don’t do anything silly,” Wilkinson told him. “Keep your options open and come and speak to me.”
Sterland had evolved as an aggressive right-back under Wilkinson’s wing at Sheffield Wednesday, and he found the Leeds manager in persuasive mood.
“I was that close to joining QPR that I’d been to see Trevor Francis,” Sterland says, “but Howard got in touch and got his teeth into me. He said ‘meet me on the M1 and we’ll get a deal done’.
“My wife wasn’t keen on living in London but you know how it goes in football – you go where the job takes you. But the thing I remember about Howard was how ambitious he sounded – ‘we’re going to win promotion (from Division Two) and then we’re going to win the title.’
“Part of me thought ‘yeah, if you say so’ but I knew him well and I knew he was as down-to-earth and level-headed as managers come. He wouldn’t have said that for effect. Maybe the first division title came sooner than he expected, I don’t know. But he did expect it.”
Sterland was a fixture in Wilkinson’s line-up during the 1991-92 season, firmly in favour until he damaged an ankle during a valuable 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on March 7. He watched the remaining 10 games on crutches, with Jon Newsome used in his stead.
It was only at that late stage of the season that Sterland remembers the squad at Elland Road reluctantly discussing the title. “For a long time it was never spoken about,” Sterland says. “Not because we were scared of it or worried about getting ahead of ourselves but because we weren’t really sure if we were really in contention.
“It’s nice being in the running after 10 games or in the mix at Christmas but there’s so much more football to play at that stage. The wheels can come off at any time.
“Our squad was like a little family and Gordon Strachan (United’s captain) used to arrange regular dinners for the players and wives. It was his way of keeping the camp happy and making everyone feel valued and included. He was brilliant at that, a natural leader. But we didn’t talk about the title, not until the last seven or eight games – not until we could see the finishing line.”
Opinion is divided over who among Wilkinson’s players was the driving force behind their run to the title. The death of Gary Speed last November prompted tribute after tribute to his individual contribution but Speed was a skilful cog in a machine without weakness. A collectively excellent side shared the credit evenly.
But, as he was in 1992, Sterland is adamant that Strachan’s influence was without comparison. “He was unbelievable in every sense,” Sterland said. “An unbelievable player, an unbelievable influence and a great guy.
“People often ask me who was the star of that team and let’s face it, you could pick about seven or eight different names. For me it’s always Gordon Strachan. Howard believed in him and Strachan fed off that. All the players fed off Howard’s confidence.
“I sometimes think the title came early because we’d only been in the first division for a year but we never felt like we were out of our depth or kidding people with our position in the league. Wilkinson made us think that we were there on merit. You’re there on merit in September and you’re there on merit at Christmas. Then suddenly it’s March and the press are talking about points differences and games in hand.
“That’s when the excitement builds. The b***** for me was that I was injured, hobbling about on crutches while us and Manchester United went at it. You hear players saying that they don’t like watching games when they should be playing. I can tell you it’s hard as hell when you’re going for a trophy.”
Without Sterland to call upon, Wilkinson’s team held their nerve while Manchester United’s abandoned them in the closing weeks, winning the league with a game to spare. More than 150,000 people turned out to watch the club parade the Division One trophy through the streets of Leeds on an open-topped bus, with Wilkinson admitting: “Memories like these can’t be bought. There’ll never be another day like this.”
In 20 years there never has been. United’s current manager, Neil Warnock, admitted as much when he spoke recently of giving the younger generation in Leeds the chance to experience what so many in the city witnessed in 1992. The years since have been barren in the main and desperate at their worst.
“I won’t ever forget those celebrations,” Sterland says. “You had people up trees and hanging from lampposts. The streets were packed. Young kids, old men – it felt like the whole city came out to see us that day.
“In some ways we were amazed, but that’s how much a title means. I’m a good example of why you have to make the most of moments like that. They happen rarely and with me it never happened again.
“If I’d played for another 10 years then it might still have been the highlight of my career, but I was pretty much finished from that point on. Obviously I didn’t know it at the time but I had four operations and never recovered. My ankle was a mess.
“I struggled with that at the time but I’m not bitter now. More than anything, I’m grateful to have had the chance to know what it feels like to lift the title. Not many English players get that. We celebrated like mad and I think I was drunk for a week!”
Thirty miles away in Manchester, a post-mortem was already underway. The attitude in that part of the world was that the final Division One table, showing Manchester United four points adrift of Leeds, told a story of spectacular failure rather than one of exceptional success. “Leeds United didn’t win the title,” it was erroneously claimed. “Manchester United lost it.”
“I heard all that,” Sterland recalls, “but I didn’t take much notice. We were too busy celebrating.
“They (Manchester United) were hurting, understandably so, but to claim that we didn’t deserve the title? Rubbish.
“I don’t think it bothered any of our players and it didn’t bother me. I just thought ‘it’s there in black and white: Leeds United, Division One champions 1991-92’. It still there in black and white now. That’s the thing about medals and titles – no-one can ever take them away from you, not in a million years.”