In our final feature to mark the 20th anniversary of Leeds United’s Division One title triumph, Phil Hay caught up with one of the unsung heroes of Howard Wilkinson’s squad.
Born in Islington, Chris Whyte grew up 400 yards from the gates of Highbury. He was Arsenal then, as he is now, and craved nothing more than a career with the club he supported.
They granted his wish in 1978 but it was Whyte’s misfortune to gatecrash their first team during a fallow period in Arsenal’s history. He left on a free transfer in 1986, arriving at West Bromwich Albion after a year in America.
His two seasons at the Hawthorns were creditable, earning him one player-of-the-year award, but he moved on to Leeds United in a £450,000 transfer without investing in a trophy cabinet. In more than a decade as a professional, the defender had failed to accrue a single domestic honour.
“That was the thing about Leeds,” Whyte says. “They weren’t my club but they gave me what no-one else did.
“I grew up in Islington and lived down the road from Highbury. I was Arsenal through and through and I wanted to play for them from a young age. It was a kid’s dream like so many other lads have.
“But at Arsenal I won nothing. At West Brom I won nothing. Then I went to Leeds and won my first major honour, probably the biggest honour there is in English football. It was a big deal to me and it must be a big deal to other people because I’ve still got journalists phoning me about it 20 years later.”
Whyte is no different to any of the players who blossomed under Howard Wilkinson and lifted the Division One title in 1992. He remembers the season like it was yesterday or no further back than last week.
It is a mark of the bond within Wilkinson’s camp that few of them recount their time at Elland Road with mentions of regret or grudges held. Where they differ is in their perception of what Leeds were capable of at the start of the 1991-92 season.
In his softly, softly style, Wilkinson thought the title was achievable. Having finished fourth at the end of their first year back in Division One, Whyte was more conscious of second-season syndrome – of a season which suggested Leeds were punching above their weight.
“It’s too easy to look back now and pretend you felt differently,” Whyte says, “but without sounding negative, I didn’t really look at the title before the season started.
“We’d finished fourth the year before and my main thought was ‘can we go one better and finish in the top three?’ Twenty years later that sounds a bit defeatist because we went on to finish first but it was how I felt about a hard, hard league. Third place and getting into Europe – that would have been a decent year, no?
“But at the same time the right ingredients were there – experience, confidence, talent. Also a manager who was methodical and believed that the way to get the best out of his players was to coach them – to be on the training pitch every day, right in the thick of it all.
“His message to us was always the same – ‘go out and express yourselves’. That’s what we did game after game.”
So when did Whyte know that the title was possible and when did the bug first grip him? By September 28 and Leeds’ 11th successive game without defeat?
“You’re saying that, not me,” he says. “To be honest, I’d completely forgotten we’d done so well at the start of the season. I didn’t realise our form was so good.
“Looking at the results 20 years later you’d think we were obvious contenders straight away but it never feels like that at the time. Think about it – in September you’ve played less than a third of the season. Even at Christmas you’ve got half of it to go.
“But once we got into the second half of the season, you had to wonder. I don’t want to sound cocky but by that stage we’d shown what a good team we were.
“I always expected to win games and if we were ever behind I always expected us to come back. It wasn’t a case of feeling unbeatable, just confident.”
Certain results proved that Wilkinson’s side were fallible or prone to off-days. Whyte was part of the defence which conceded four unanswered goals against Manchester City at the beginning of April, a result which looked fatal in the context of the fight for the championship. David Batty, Wilkinson’s combative midfielder, came close to raising the white flag afterwards, saying the title was “Manchester United’s to lose”.
“Maybe there were times when we thought we were beaten,” Whyte says. “But defeats like that make you realise you weren’t invincible. It reminded us that we had to earn the title. It wouldn’t come automatically.
“I remember that game well because I came away from Maine Road desperate for the next game to come around. You can’t under-estimate what it takes to come back from a defeat like that.
“It’s credit to Howard and the players that we took it on the chin and got over it. We hardly missed a beat from there on.”
The fight with Manchester United culminated on April 26, a pivotal Sunday when Leeds won at Sheffield United and Manchester United gave up the ghost at Liverpool.
Whyte describes Leeds’ 3-2 win at Bramall Lane as “freaky” – played out in strong winds and settled by Brian Gayle’s bizarre own goal.
“I can honestly say I never played in a more crazy game, before or after,” Whyte says. “There were five freaky goals and the wind was so strong. I can still see the litter blowing all over the pitch, crisp packets and so on. To come out of that with a win meant we were probably in business.
“The strange thing about that day was that we didn’t know how it was going to end. Normally you get the result you need and the celebrations start on the pitch. But because Manchester United were playing at Liverpool later on, everything was on hold.
“I went back to a mate’s house and we watched their game on the TV. It’s each to their own but I was amazed when I met up with a few of the other players last year (for a 20th anniversary dinner at Elland Road) to hear some of them say that they didn’t watch it. A few of them said they couldn’t bring themselves to put it on.
“That was back in the days before mobile phones and the internet so if you didn’t have the TV or the radio on you had no idea what was happening. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with that.
“Yeah, it was tense. I was on the edge of my seat. You’re sitting there thinking ‘we might be champions today’ and you can’t quite believe it.
“But it would have been 10 times worse being out of the house with no idea what the situation was. I think it goes to show how players react differently to different situations. It was a bit like torture but I had to see that game.”
Among the class of ’92, Whyte is the archetypal “unsung hero”; an essential cog in Wilkinson’s machine but under-rated and obscured by the finesse of the players who led the attack: the Speeds, the McAllisters and the Strachans.
These days the 50-year-old is a qualified football agent and in the process of establishing his own agency. His championship medal, he says, is under lock and key, tucked away in a friend’s safe.
“It’s nice to look at your honours,” he says, “and I suppose if you’ve got a trophy cabinet or something like that then you’d be able to look at them every day. Something to make you smile.
“But that was the only major medal I won. I didn’t have a trophy cabinet when I went from Arsenal and I didn’t have one when I left West Brom either. It’s a bit difficult to fill a cabinet with one medal but I’m very proud of it. It’s the highlight of my career.
“My allegiance was to Arsenal first and foremost but I’ve got a bit of Leeds in me. Every time I’m back there someone recognises me in the street and stops for a chat. It’s nice to be remembered and I like the fact that people still want to talk about the title 20 years later. Being involved in that was a privilege – a genuine privilege.
“I don’t know if people think of me as a hero, and I’d never call myself that, but it does show that if you go to a club that size and do them proud, people will respect you. Respect is probably the bottom line for a footballer.”