Leeds United: My Whites playing days - Hodge INTERVIEW

Steve Hodge.
Steve Hodge.
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Former England midfielder Steve Hodge scored some vital goals when Leeds United won the title in 1992. He looks back at that amazing season with Leon Wobschall.

THE all-singing and dancing Sky Sports-led Premiership charabang has been part of the footballing fabric since 1992, with its yearly winners feted like kings.

Such is the yearly hype and hullabaloo that a good deal of modern-day bandwagon-jumping fans – old enough to know better really – have conveniently forgotten that the beautiful game actually did exist pre-Sky.

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Rewinding the clock to 1991-92, a time when Saint and Greavesie and Elton Welsby dominated the TV screens, you still had Spion Kops and the football was often strong-arm rather than scintillating, isn’t such an arduous exercise for Leeds United punters, given that the Whites lifted the biggest prize of all, the old First Division championship.

And under the guidance of the last English manager to win football’s top-flight crown, Howard Wilkinson, to boot.

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United’s title-winning heroes of 1991-92 recently met up in at Elland Road when the club celebrated the twentieth anniversary of that famous triumph with a reunion dinner, with ex-midfielder Steve Hodge among that number.

In many ways, Nottingham-born Hodge encapsulated the qualities in that legendary side hewn by Wilkinson. A talented player of genuine talent who had passed the top-flight road test over several seasons, while also being a manager’s dream and a solid citizen. The class of 1991-92 had a few of those....

Hodge, who arrived at Elland Road in a £900,000 deal in the summer of 1991, actually only made a dozen starts in that championship campaign and is mainly remembered for some telling cameos off the bench, a goal on his home debut against Sheffield Wednesday being a case in point. But he contributed fully.

Despite the Whites’ triumph, the hackneyed story will always go for some that it was their great trans-Pennine rivals Manchester United who lost it, as opposed to Leeds winning it, with the Old Trafford silverware procession which directly followed it giving rise to the theory.

For the record, the Red Devils took just four points in their final five games, compared to Leeds’ lucky 13 – losing three on the spin along the way.

But while the choke was on Alex Ferguson and the red half of Manchester, who back then hadn’t lifted the big one since 1967, you have still got the actually cross the line and win, which as anyone should recognise is the greatest skill and the quintessence of sport.

Hodge, who partied on that fateful Sunday afternoon when Fergie’s troops ensured the title went east on the M62 after a fateful loss at Liverpool on April 26, 1992, said: “We aren’t so much recognised as being the last team to win the old first division, because of the hype of the Premier League now. But as a former player looking back, it was such a fine feat.

“From being in what is now the Championship to top-flight league champions in two seasons was a massive achievement. People back then weren’t really aware we did that much.

“Manchester United did bottle it at the end of the season in some ways, but ours was a real underrated achievement at that time. When Blackburn won the league (in 1994-95), they won it on the back of millions from Jack Walker.

“Bill Fotherby and Leslie Silver spent a bit, but nothing like that. Pound for pound, ours was a superb achievement.”

United’s vital statistics of 1991-92 would measure up to any top-flight champion. A haul of 82 points and just four defeats, all coming away from home with Elland Road the proverbial fortress.

An ever-present goalkeeper, resolute and organised defence, midfield which has had few peers before our since and a devastating little-and-large forward combo. Throw in a late-season fire-starter to illuminate the run-in – step forward one Eric Cantona – and some solid squad players and it was every inch a title-winning mix.

Hodge, now working as an academy coach at first love Nottingham Forest, recalled: “I joined after Leeds finished fourth the year before. Howard signed me, Tony Dorigo and Rod Wallace and squad-wise, you knew we had what you would call 16 first-team players and others to call upon like Jon Newsome. It was a group of really good professionals who knew their jobs and we all just thought: ‘Let’s have a good start and see where it takes us.’

“I remember Jon Lukic saying to me midway through the season: ‘Let’s see where we are with six games to go.’ He’d done it with Arsenal before so he knew the ropes and felt if we were in contention then, we’d have a chance.

“We’ve all seen teams over the years who have tailed off with 10 games or eight to go. But if it’s a two-horse race – and it was – with six games to go, you’ve hope.

“We did feel we were always chasing Manchester United’s tails and you did feel if we had a bad day (towards the end), we could be out of it. I remember when we get smashed 4-0 at Manchester City, we’d hardly had a bad day before that and were very consistent. But in the final weeks of the season, everything turned on its head and after Man City, we won four of our last five games and drew the other.

“We all twigged with four games to go, they (Manchester United) had got some tough games to go and had to go to Anfield two games from the end. There was always hope....

“Looking back, we had a strong start, consistent middle and good end. At the back end, Eric Cantona came in and gave us inspiration then like in the Chelsea game at home, when we won 3-0.

“I know all the talk was of Man United not winning a league since 1967, but you could look at it that way for both teams, Leeds hadn’t won it since 1974.

“I obviously knew the fierce rivalry between both and both were desperate. So we were under the same sort of pressure.”

Hodge’s chief contributions arrived as a sub by way of some decisive late goals, with breaking the famous-four revered midfield quartet of Strachan-Batty-McAllister-Speed at times a herculean task.

But the international midfielder did steal his piece of the limelight en route to a haul of seven goals, including a brace in a thrilling 4-3 home success over Sheffield United and the only goal in a stand-out home win over Liverpool on September 21, 1991.

On his personal highs, Hodge, who turned 49 recently, recalls: “I was always a midfield goalscorer, so to get the winning goal against Liverpool – a big, big club – was great for me. On my full home debut as well.

“I’m probably best remembered for that goal when we beat them for the first time in 18 years. I can be anywhere in the country and Leeds fans will come up to me and remember that goal!

Unlucky

“I didn’t start that many games, but I was unlucky that I came across a young Gary Speed, who was playing really well where I played. I then got a calf strain early in the season and couldn’t get in the team and when I did I had to make an impact to stay in. It was a tough midfield to get into in the first place.

“Looking back, I think a lot of players did peak in that season. It was a strong team and the manager made it that way. I came from a Forest background where it was off-the-cuff stuff and not really set-pieces.

“To come to Leeds was a total culture shock for me really as they put so much on set pieces and it did pick us up quite a few points against big physical teams such as Wimbledon and Arsenal and Crystal Palace. Those sort of teams were really strong on set-pieces and the manager did a really good job on countering that.

“Probably the league was won on those four or five points when won on set-plays.

“There were no outstanding one-off individuals who carried us over the line. Obviously, Gordon was the captain and a great player, but every player at certain points made a good contribution.

“The players in general were humble people, from another era when there weren’t multi-million pounds flying around and they were all keen to achieve. When you have a good group around you, you are hard to stop sometimes.

“In terms of games, I’ll always remember us going to Sheffield Wednesday and smashing them 6-1, a real statement in the title race.

“Winning at home to Chelsea as well when Cantona scored his great goal at the Geldard End. There were a few, to be fair!

“It was a shame what happened the following season, it was a combination of things (why). Eric left early on and the backpass rule changed and that didn’t really suit the way Leeds played.

“Before John Lukic used to roll the ball out and we’d get high up the pitch. One or two players lost form, others got too old.

“But winning the title was right up there along with playing for my country.

“I was eight or nine was Leeds had last won the league and then seen the likes of Everton and Liverpool dominate in the 80s.

“I was also nearly 30 when we won it and it was a real bonus towards the back end of my career, a real pleasant surprise.”

Leeds United goalscorer, Samuel Saiz. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

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