Twenty years ago on Saturday Leeds United kicked off their last title-winning campaign but it was actually winning promotion to the top-flight which was the big one for Bill Fotherby.
And the former Whites chairman would now like to see the Elland Road club go back to the future in a bid to return to English football’s big time as the YEP’s Wendy Walker reports
Bill Fotherby arrived back in the country from his summer break this week to news of demonstrations at Elland Road aimed at Leeds United chairman Ken Bates.
Fans’ unrest is not something alien to him. “I got sick of seeing some of the bums in the windows of the coaches in the car park,” he says, referring to his days as Leeds United chief. But on this occasion at least, Fotherby knows exactly where the supporters are coming from.
Leeds have been too long outside the top-flight – since the summer of 2004 to be exact – following their spectacular rise and fall in the doomed Peter Ridsdale era.
The striking similarities to 1989, when the Whites were facing their eighth campaign outside of English football’s top tier, cannot be ignored.
And while tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the start of United’s last, glorious championship-winning campaign, Fotherby rolls the clock back to two years earlier when he picks out the pivotal moment in his 20-year tenure at Elland Road. It was the moment Leeds decided to take a calculated gamble to get back into the big-time – and he is now urging Bates to do the same.
“The most important thing was winning promotion to the top division,” he says. “We had been languishing in the second division for too long and you can do nothing there.
“You have to get into the top division to get any kind of sponsorship really – that’s where all the money was then and that’s where it is today. It opens doors for you to negotiate with the big boys and that was the important thing.
“Like anything else, it’s all about money. If you’ve got money you’ve got a chance but you have to spend it in order to make it. So we gambled.”
That gamble saw Fotherby splash out almost £3m – big money 22 years ago – following the appointment of Howard Wilkinson as manager in October 1988.
Vinnie Jones arrived from Wimbledon in a £650,000 deal, Newcastle United’s John Hendrie commanded a £600,000 fee and Chris Fairclough was talked into a half-a-million pound move from Spurs.
It was hard persuading players of that calibre to join a second division side, but Fotherby simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Howard Wilkinson gave me a list of players he wanted and the top one was Fairclough,” he recalls. “I went down to London to see Terry Venables, I had a chat and he said ‘you won’t be able to sign him Bill, the deadline’s at 5pm and his wife is expecting a baby at any time’.
“I said ‘just find out where he is’, he did and I went to see Chris. I gave him the sales pitch and he said ‘I’d love to sign for you Mr Fotherby but my wife’s having a baby’. I said ‘people in Leeds have babies too you know’ and that was that.”
Cash was also splashed on John McClelland (£150,000, from Watford), Andy Williams (£175,000, from Rotherham) and Carl Shutt (£50,000, from Bristol City), while striker Lee Chapman was added in January 1990 for £400,000.
But the key transfer was Gordon Strachan, in a £300,000 deal, in March 1989. Crossing to the wrong side of the Pennines to sign a player from the arch enemy wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it proved a wise move and Fotherby feels Leeds could do worse than retrace their steps today.
“Gordon Strachan was the only player I can remember of quality that never had an agent,” he said. “He did the negotiations himself.
“He later wrote in his column in the Evening Post ‘after negotiations with Bill Fotherby, managing director of Leeds United, I came out buying a box and 10 season tickets off him!’.
“But what a great signing he was. If you are going to spend money, you have to pick the right men and he was the right man.”
“I feel certain I could help get Leeds United promotion now,” he adds. “I know that is a big statement to make, but I know how to do it.
“I would have got on the phone to Alex Ferguson months ago and enquired about Paul Scholes. And he has stopped playing now, so you wouldn’t even have to pay a fee.
“I would offer him £1m, £2m – whatever it took. Everyone has a price and I feel confident I could get him. I would say ‘one season, £2m, get me promotion’.
“Money makes money.
“If Leeds get into the Premier League it would make a massive difference, £60m plus TV appearance money for a start. It’s a hell of a lot and then there are the parachute payments if you do go back down again.
“I would take the gamble, I wouldn’t hesitate.”
The gamble paid off for Fotherby, with Chapman’s winning goal at Bournemouth on May 5, 1990 sealing a 1-0 win and with it promotion back to the top-flight.
United then confounded the critics to finish fourth in 1990-91. And if that surprised some, football was stunned 12 months later when they became the last side to win the old Division One title.
Defenders David Wetherall and Jon Newsome had been added from Sheffield Wednesday that summer, along with full-back Tony Dorigo from Chelsea, midfielder Steve Hodge from Nottingham Forest and winger Rod Wallace, who brought brother Ray along for company from Southampton. Decent signings, but hardly superstars.
No-one expected United to be crowned champions when they kicked-off with a 1-0 victory over Forest on August 20. No-one outside of Leeds that is...
Fotherby, who this summer sold his controlling stake in non-league club Harrogate Town but remains chairman, said: “I am the biggest optimist ever and I had convinced people it was going to happen. That’s why we had so much success, I got everybody believing. I didn’t doubt it for a second – though I would never let on if I did!
“I thought it was our destiny to win it and I am a great believer in destiny. I’d convinced myself everything was happening for us.”
Leeds led the way all through November but surrendered top spot in the middle of a run of four draws in December, the last a 1-1 verdict against title-rivals Manchester United at Elland Road.
But they went back top on the back of a 3-1 victory at West Ham on New Year’s Day, combined with a surprise 4-1 defeat to QPR for Ferguson’s men.
Wilkinson then strengthened his hand with the signing of Eric Cantona from French club Nimes.
Cantona struck his first Leeds goal in a 2-0 victory over Luton in March as they again went top in a cat and mouse chase to the finish.
The decisive moment came at Easter when Forest won at Old Trafford and Leeds beat Coventry 2-0 at Elland Road. The Whites had the edge and when Ferguson’s men then lost their game in hand against West Ham, Leeds’ destiny was in their own hands with just two games left to play.
They needed just one – on the 90s version of Grand Slam Sunday.
Leeds’ match at Sheffield United was being televised live, before the Liverpool v Manchester United showdown at Anfield later that afternoon. Wilko’s men duly delivered in a nerve-wracking 3-2 victory at Bramall Lane and when Ian Rush set Liverpool on their way to a 2-0 victory, it triggered celebrations in both cities.
“We went back to Howard’s place after our game, he cooked the lamb and we drank a couple of bottles of wine,” recalls Fotherby. “We just sat there in anticipation – Howard didn’t want anybody to watch the game. His son eventually ran in and said Manchester United had been beaten and the celebrations began. Your feet don’t touch the ground.
“When you have been involved and are close to a club when they do win it is something very special, and once you have tasted the wine you want the bottle, you want to go on having the success.
“I remember at the start of the following season I went to Geneva (for the European Cup draw). It was like a huge auditorium we were in and I am walking down these steps trying to find my seat. Right on the front row it said Bill Fotherby, Leeds United. David Dein, Martin Edwards and Peter Robinson, of Liverpool, were sat in the row behind and Leeds were right at the bloody front! They then put clips up on the big screen of our goals from the previous season.
“I was trembling with excitement. I was so proud of Leeds and so proud of the supporters, who could be difficult at times. I was always in front of tribunals because of them and the FA was always threatening to close us down. I was sick of seeing some of the bums in the windows of coaches in the car park but you have to take all that rubbish, it’s part and parcel of it.
“I talked a lot of rubbish they thought at the time, but I made promises and it came to fruition. And that season they were great.”
While that all seems like yesterday for Fotherby, it looks a million miles away for United’s disgruntled supporters today and it might be wise to look in the opposite direction if you’re passing a coach at Elland Road – just in case.
But the ebullient former chairman, who also served the club as commercial director after joining in 1979, believes a return to the glory days could be within touching distance.
Though he is adamant it will take more than free transfers and loan signings who are as hit and miss as second-hand cars.
“Supporters have to believe you are going for success and at the moment they don’t believe hence the demonstrations last Saturday,” he said. “People don’t believe Leeds are actually trying to win promotion when they need to believe the board’s actually going for it.
“The fans need excitement creating and that’s not been done at the moment.
“Leeds shouldn’t still be in the position they are in, but signing second-hand players – and I don’t mean to be cruel – just isn’t reliable.
“They will fill a position but they are not going to be consistent enough to give the fans what they want.
“You need that little bit of quality that makes the difference between the ordinary and champions, that bit of spark, that bit of genius, and unfortunately Leeds are lacking that at the moment.
“We took a £3m gamble. I was handed an open chequebook to do all the negotiations with top players. There is no question I would like to see them do it again – just go for it.
“They have got the crowd and they are in a great position (financially) with what Ken Bates has done – he has done a marvellous job.
“But sometimes it needs a little push and a bit of a gamble. I would take it, but Ken Bates will do it his way.”
Bates’ way thus far has been to get Leeds back on a firm financial footing after they collapsed under the weight of more than £100m of debt following the catastrophic Ridsdale reign.
United “lived the dream” as the former chairman infamously put it, but two relegations later and post administration and numerous boardroom battles, only the most blinkered of supporters would argue a sojourn into the Champions League was actually worth the final price.
While Fotherby’s gamble paid off, Ridsdale’s failed spectacularly as Leeds bought players on credit they simply couldn’t afford.
But Fotherby isn’t suggesting for one moment they commit hari-kari again.
“The most disappointing thing for me is the success of the Howard Wilkinson, Leslie Silver and Bill Fotherby era is never recognised,” he said. “People only talk about the Don Revie and the Ridsdale eras when we built the club up from the dregs to the top only for it to be subsequently destroyed.
“I was managing director for 10 years and I would never have put Leeds in that position.
“You have got to know what you are doing, that’s the first thing, and you have got to get the right men in.
“The fans don’t care where the money is coming from and some of the transfers I did...I used to do deals like Wigfalls (a former department store in Leeds) where I would make monthly payments, it was unbelievable.
“You could borrow as much as you liked but you have got to remember you have to pay it back. And you are not paying two or three per cent interest, you are paying 12 or 13.
“But it was all about getting players in and winning football matches and we were very successful with it.
“Talk is cheap but you have to make things happen and I did that.
“Not bad for a lad from Hunslet without a real education. To go on and own my own business and become chairman of Leeds United and win the league was unbelievable.”