Former Leeds United defender Paul Hart recalls his days playing for the club and helping develop some top young talent while coaching for the Whites, too. Leon Wobschall reports.
For Paul Hart, his two associations with Leeds United proved times to savour – even if they did not necessarily finish in the way he would have preferred.
Hart’s five-and-a-year playing career at Elland Road from March 1978 to September 1983 saw him provide solid service in the white jersey, even if his latter spell coincided with the club’s disastrous descent into the second division.
In the coaching sphere, Hart – alongside Eddie Gray – is widely credited for masterminding the development of a stellar crop of young talents at Leeds in the 1990s which yielded two FA Youth Cup wins in the bargain before his controversial exit following a disagreement with George Graham.
Not too many Lancastrians are spoken fondly of by Whites supporters, but Hart, now 62, can justifiably lay claim to being one of a select group of honourable exceptions.
That said, his introduction at Leeds did not exactly go swimmingly. Bought for a fairly substantial £300,000 fee by Jimmy Armfield – who raided his former club Blackpool in March 1978 – Hart was assigned with filling the considerable shoes of Gordon McQueen, who had just made a move across the Pennines to Manchester United amid much rancour.
The big centre-half is that first to admit that the opening to his Whites career wasn’t great. But he stuck at it and was ultimately rewarded.
Hart, son of former Manchester City great Johnny, told the YEP: “It was a massive move for me and at the time, I was close to Leeds’ record signing and I wasn’t an international or anything like that.
“Jimmy tried to sign me and Micky Walsh and ended up with me. He ended up signing me right on the (transfer) deadline, but then left in the summer. I could have also gone to Everton and Wolves as well. But I liked Leeds’ history and the way they played. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, although we probably didn’t reach the levels of success that I thought we should have done.”
He added: “I had big shoes to fill with Gordon leaving and it took me a while to settle in. But once I did, I was fine.
“I remember my debut at Anfield. I signed on the Thursday night on the deadline and a few days later, I was playing in front of 56,000 against Kenny Dalglish and all those lot. I gave a penalty away, I think. I also remember Allan Clarke being magnificent and in the first half, we should have probably been three up. But we ended up losing 1-0.
“Some great players were still there at Leeds back then and it was a privilege to play with them; they were tough men and great footballers. No disrespect to my previous team-mates (at Blackpool), but I was in the same side as Allan Clarke, Paul Madeley, Trevor Cherry and Eddie Gray and it was fantastic for me.
“Peter Lorimer was also there and while Paul Reaney left that summer, he was still there.”
Several greats may have remained at Elland Road from those never-to-be-forgotten Super Leeds days under Don Revie, but a number of others had left for pastures new, with it fair to say that those who remained were not at the height of their powers.
It was a time when Liverpool and not Leeds ruled the roost, although United still had their moments, most notably in the 1978-79 League Cup semi-final with Southampton, with a narrow 3-2 defeat on aggregate after two legs still rankling with many who were involved.
Greater, much greater, dismay followed in the rank-bad early eighties, reaching a nadir in the spring of 1982 when Leeds were consigned to second-tier football for the first time in 18 years.
Hart was on deck for United’s maiden campaign back in the old second division, eventually moving onto Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest for a bargain £57,000 in September 1983. He admits that relegation was a crushing blow that should never have happened for a club of the magnitude of Leeds, although the break-up of that legendary side, allied to the sale of several influential talents and the failure to properly invest firmly sowed the seeds of decline, in his view.
He said: “I wouldn’t like to be rude, but we were an ageing side at that point in the late seventies.
“We did have our moments still. The League Cup semi against Southampton when we were 2-0 up is one I remember. I remember they scored one goal (at the Dell) and we battered them and couldn’t get a goal.
“We ended up losing Tony Currie quite quickly and Frank Gray and didn’t replace them with the quality to push on.
“That was disappointing and our transfers of that time were lacking something; I didn’t know what it was.
“Tony was just brilliant. I remember the goal he scored from the touchline against Arsenal.”
On the nightmare scenario, he added: “Being relegated was horrible and it was black times. All the players felt it.
“The fans at Leeds are fantastic and just want to win.”
After winding down his playing days and embarking on a managerial and coaching career, Hart found his way to Leeds in the early nineties, bringing through the next generation of talent.
Howard Wilkinson and the Leeds hierarchy invested heavily in Thorp Arch and the fruits of their considerable labours paid off with Hart providing a sterling duty of care and nurturing some prodigiously-talented youngsters, with the conveyor belt of talent from the Academy through to the first team being one that was the envy of rivals across the land.
But a falling out with Wilkinson’s successor Graham over the lack of opportunities at first-team level for United’s burgeoning crop of youngsters sadly precipitated Hart’s unfortunate exit.
Hart added: “After thoroughly enjoying playing at Leeds, I obviously went back for another five years coaching in 1992 and enjoyed it even more when I was coaching the kids. It was wonderful.
“We built very quickly and won the FA Youth Cup twice and recruited so well, bringing in the likes of Woodgate, Kewell, Robinson, Smith and McPhail.
“It took time but I thought we laid a good foundation, but unfortunately I don’t think it was built upon, sadly.”