When Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United reached the first division in 1990, managing director Bill Fotherby was given the seemingly impossible task of signing the best young midfielder in the country.
Tracked down to a golf course near Leicester, Fotherby managed to convince Gary McAllister to sign on the spot, despite his previous insistence that he would join Leeds after appearing in the World Cup in Italy.
Even the calm and collected Wilkinson was taken aback by the signing, swearing down the phone at Fotherby in disbelief.
McAllister will go down as one member of the finest midfield quartets Leeds have ever had, along with captain Gordon Strachan, David Batty and the late Gary Speed.
The Scot was recruited after Vinnie Jones’ departure and added a touch of finesse and class to the midfield unit.
That foursome were highly influential in the title-winning season of 1991-92 and McAllister alone contributed with significant goals away at West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur as Leeds pipped Manchester United to the championship.
McAllister continued to improve after that, eventually becoming club captain before his departure to Coventry City.
Before that, it would be fair to say he was carrying the team in Wilkinson’s later years.
He led the team out for what would be Wilkinson’s last major moment at Leeds, the Coca-Cola Cup Final encounter with Aston Villa but could do little to prevent a disheartening 3-0 loss at Wembley.
Despite accusations of chasing money in his move to Coventry, McAllister clearly regarded Leeds warmly and it was no surprise to team-mate Tony Dorigo that McAllister returned to the club as manager in early 2008.
“Gary knows what makes the club, the supporters and the city tick,” said Dorigo. “The value of that should not be under-estimated.
“Leeds remained very close to Gary’s heart.
“I could always tell without Gary having to say it that his heart was very much still at Leeds – even when he was with other clubs.”
McAllister would turn around Leeds’ season which had threatened to peter out after the departure of assistant manager Gus Poyet to Spurs and Dennis Wise’s sudden exit to Newcastle.
Leeds’ form improved and after coming back from two goals down to win the play-off semi-final against Carlisle, McAllister would manage Leeds at Wembley against Doncaster.
Sadly that game didn’t go well for Leeds and after James Hayter’s goal sent Doncaster to the Championship McAllister’s tenure began to unravel.
The introduction of Fabian Delph to the Leeds first-team was a key aspect of McAllister’s next season at the club and he can take great credit for setting Delph on a path towards Premier League achievement with Aston Villa.
But by December, after less than a year in charge, McAllister was struggling. Defensive frailties had become an issue and after a run of five straight losses – including a humiliating FA Cup defeat away to non-league side Histon – McAllister was sacked by then chairman Ken Bates.
Despite this, McAllister as a player was clearly the final piece in the jigsaw for Wilkinson.
And without him Leeds would probably not have claimed their famous league title – the last to be won by an English manager.