Midfielder Mark Tinkler struggled to make the breakthrough at Leeds United due to injury and a title-winning midfield. But he tells Leon Wobschall how he loved the club and city.
MARK TINKLER saw Leeds United’s shining light at close quarters as he wound down his own professional career north of the border – and while defences were on their guard against a tricky winger called Robert Snodgrass, he was wary for a different reason.
Snodgrass is widely regarded as one of the biggest pranksters in the United dressing room, just as he was when a whippersnipper at Livingston when former Elland Road midfielder Tinkler was often on the receiving end.
And when asked about being the subject of a Whites’ nostalgia feature recently, Tinkler initially thought it bore all the hallmarks of a classic Snodgrass-style entrapment, with the Scot clearly as proficient as a wind-up merchant as he is at bewitching opponents on the pitch.
Tinkler spent just one brief yet enriching season alongside Snodgrass at the Almondvale Stadium in 2007-08 before hanging up his boots professionally and after playing for several non-league clubs in his native north-east, the 37-year-old is now on the coaching ladder at Middlesbrough FC, working under esteemed Academy boss Dave Parnaby.
Current Boro first-team coach is Mark Proctor, the man who signed him while manager at Livi’ and expect both him and Tinkler to have a bit of pre-match jesting with Snoddy when Leeds head to the Riverside Stadium in three weeks time.
Bishop Auckland-born Tinkler, said: “It will be great to see Snoddy again. I remember Mark put me in midfield with Snoddy and Graeme Dorrans at Livingston and we had a hell of a season. Snoddy’s a really good player who worked his socks off and seeing games on telly, I can see how well he’s done there at Leeds.
“He’s a good lad as well and full of jokes all the time and always larking about, I should know... But he’s loves his football and I’m over the moon he’s done well.
“Currently I work at Middlesbrough FC and run the under-16s and have been there four years now.
“I’ve known Dave for a long time and he was my PE teacher at school and Middlesbrough is a top-class academy to work for and the standard of players he’s have brought through in the last 10 years is really good.
“As a coach, I’m learning all the time and it’s a great place to be at.”
Like many of his contemporaries from United’s famous 1993 FA Youth Cup winning line-up, Tinkler’s star shone only intermittently at first-team level at Elland Road and along with others such as Jamie Forrester, Kevin Sharp and Andy Couzens, he played out most of his career in the lower leagues, with only Noel Whelan establishing himself as a Premiership star.
Given that United’s first-choice midfield in the early nineties were Messrs Speed, Strachan, Batty and McAllister, the County Durham lad probably felt he had the most herculean task of all to become a first-team regular – the footballing version of scaling Mount Everest – with Tinkler’s main role in his time at Elland Road being to provide cover for that decorated quartet.
What he needed was a lucky break or two, but he got was a break of a different kind while he shattered his ankle playing for United’s reserves against arch-rivals Manchester United in the first half of the 1993-94 campaign, which severely hampered his progress.
All told, Tinkler featured just 25 times for the Whites before making the short move to near-neighbours York City in a £75,000 move following a successful loan spell with the Minstermen in 1997.
After a productive time at Bootham Crescent, Tinkler subsequently moved to Southend United - where he was reunited with his old York boss Alan Little.
Tinkler then moved back to the north east for a memorable seven-year stint at Hartlepool United, which saw him sample play-off and promotion campaigns and the respect of his professional peers who voted him into the PFA Division Three Team of the Year in 2003-04.
But his time as a young man in West Yorkshire making his first wide-eyed steps in professional football remains something he’ll forever treasure, with Tinkler still regarding Leeds as a home from home.
He said: “I loved the club, the city and the people there and it became my second home.
“The club was fantastic and we had a really good youth club and at that age, it was the best time of your life at a club like Leeds.
“I had a fantastic six years. We went onto win the Youth Cup and five or six of us played in the European Championships with England Under-18s and I remember making my debut at 18.
“I made some great friends. I speak to Noel (Whelan) every now and then and Jamie Forrester and Sharpy and we see each other at the Masters.
“I speak to Jamie more than any of them because we shared a flat in Horsforth and kept in touch ever since.
“Looking back, unfortunately the following year after I made my first-team debut, I broke my ankle and was out for six months, which held me back a little.
“When I came back from injury, I couldn’t get to the standard I was at before and I remember having pins and screws put in.
“I’ve never been the quickest, but just couldn’t get back to how I was playing before.
“It was hard enough as in the middle, there was Strachs, Speedo, Batts, McAllister and while others such as (David) Rocastle, Hodgy (Steve Hodge) and Scott Sellars then came in and most were international footballers.
“We had a few good young players at the time and whether we were given a fair crack at the whip, I don’t know.
“We were put in for the odd game here or there, but never really had a good run.
“It’s difficult to establish yourself when you are playing just one or two games here and there, without a good nine or 10 games.
“Eventually, Howard left and George came in and he had his own ideas and that was basically it for me.
“As a player you want to play at the highest level for as long as you can.
“But injuries and manager’s opinions change things and you have to accept them. That’s part and parcel of football, you have to move on.
“But looking back, I’ve nothing but great memories. I’m a Sunderland fan, but Leeds are the second team I look for after the Sunderland result!
An impressive presence at centre-back in the youth cup winning line-up of 1993, Tinkler made his debut wearing David Batty’s no.4 shirt against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane – a 2-1 loss on April 6, 1993.
That entire 1992-93 season was the proverbial After-the-Lord-Mayor’s Show campaign for the Whites, memorable only for one vintage night at the Nou Camp and a travel sickness ailment which resulted in Howard Wilkinson’s reigning champions not winning once on the road in the Premier League all year.
Given that, it’s not rocket science to deduce that Tinkler’s bow wasn’t the most memorable and prominent one in his United scrapbook, with the highlight of his debut season coming on more fertile territory at Elland Road that spring.
Tinkler added: “I remember my debut and my dad was down to watch the game, but my home debut on the Saturday was better because we beat Blackburn 5-2 and Strach got a hat-trick and me and Jamie (Forrester) played. I remember that more fondly because we lost at Sheffield United.
“Beating Man United at Old Trafford in the FA Youth Cup and then playing them at Leeds in front of 30,000 was also fantastic and you could understand the rivalry then, even.”
While Tinkler’s previously mentioned reserve appointment with the arch enemy in 1993-94 went onto have ramifications for the midfielder’s career, he also remembers it for another reason. Namely scuppering his dreams of facing the club he idolised as a boy – Sunderland.
It was the one that got away for the north-easterner, tantalising promised by Howard Wilkinson that he could line up against the Wearsiders in a Carling Cup second-round clash in October 1993, only for the injury fates to intervene days before that marquee occasion for the Tinkler family, all of whom are avid Sunderland supporters.
He added: “I’ll always remember the time when we were playing Sunderland in the cup the following week and Howard Wilkinson pulled us to one side and said: ‘You’ve got a chance of playing against Sunderland.’
“Then I broke my ankle in a reserve match at Manchester United and was out for six months, which was disappointing although thankfully I did play against them (Sunderland) for Hartlepool and York in cup games against them.
“But I can’t complain whatsoever, really.
“My ambition as a kid was to be a professional footballer and did that for 18 years – doing something I loved for my living. I had great times at Hartlepool and in seven seasons, we were in the play-offs four times and had two promotions and it was the most successful time in the club’s history. I can look back with pride on my career.”