Do you want to win? asked Howard Wilkinson of his United squad, which they answered emphatically 25 years ago today, by winning the Football League Division 1 Championship. Phil Hay reports.
“Do you want to win?” Howard Wilkinson asks in a new documentary by the same name, a feature-length film which details the rise of Leeds United in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The premiere of it took place on Monday, the showpiece of the Leeds International Festival.
As Wilkinson says in response to that question, a question he asked of his players at Elland Road, the answer was never “no”. But what he really wanted to know was how much and at what cost. Who in his dressing room shared the will or the bloody-minded resolve to deliver what Bill Fotherby, the director who tempted Wilkinson to Leeds, describes at the end of the documentary as “a miracle”? One-and-a-half hours of absorbing footage leaves you in no doubt: everyone.
Promotion in 1990 and the first division title in 1992 mattered to his squad and not because of the way in which winners’ medals massage a footballer’s ego. The players’ appreciation of each other, their appreciation of Wilkinson and the supporters’ affinity with all concerned feels as fresh as it must have done 25 years ago. Vinnie Jones, the midfielder sacrificed by Wilkinson midway through the story, jokes several times about Gary McAllister’s arrival bringing the curtain down on him, smiling throughout and pleased with hindsight that Wilkinson was brave enough to do what was necessary. Gordon Strachan talks about the countless Leeds fans who have asked him for selfies over the years. “When I think about it, I should have asked for selfies with them,” he says, wishing that he’d kept a visual record of the many people who take him back a quarter of a century.
Wilkinson famously removed almost every trace of Don Revie from Elland Road after his appointment in 1988, telling his players that they had not earned the right to walk in those shadows. The photographs and trinkets, as Jones points out, “were always going back up” but Wilkinson knew where Leeds were starting from when he quit Sheffield Wednesday and prompted his perplexed wife to ask “what are you doing?” He would not rush now to draw comparisons with Revie but it is telling that Don Warters, the YEP football writer who covered the tenures of both managers, ranks 1992 “as highly as anything I reported on, including the Revie era.”
In other parts of the country 1991-92 was seen as a straight shoot-out between Leeds and Manchester United. Closer to home, those who were there understood that Wilkinson was in a bubble, oblivious to everything except his own job and the wider strategy agreed with Fotherby and chairman Leslie Silver. When I interviewed Wilkinson in Sheffield last month, he described how the title crept up on him, two years into what he thought was a five-year plan.
“I wanted to be in a position to compete within five years and ultimately we got there in two but there was more to my thinking than that,” he said. “We had the impending Premier League and I foresaw the need for a greater focus on youth development. That meant we needed a new training ground – not that we didn’t need one anyway – and it needed to be big enough to accommodate an academy.” All of that on his mind in the middle of a title tilt? “I wasn’t fixated on the title, or not in the way you might think.”
The progress which won it was organic, rather than telegraphed. Wilkinson spent money and spent it skilfully without spending to excess. The quality of his recruitment, allied with his stringent, effective coaching methods, caught the first division by surprise. There was rival interest in Strachan when Leeds bought him in 1989 but to quote Wilkinson: “When I first met Gordon, I sensed he thought he was in a state of semi-retirement. He came to us at the age of 31 but he still tells me that he actually got fitter from then on.” Gary McAllister cost £1m, one of the first players to join United for a seven-figure fee. “Gary once said that when he came to Leeds, he knew how to play,” Wilkinson recalled. “What he learned at Leeds was how to win. And trust me, there’s a difference.”
In simple terms, the legacy of 1991-92 was Leeds’ name on the board; in black and white, Division One champions. Without that season two generations of supporters would have no sense of what winning the title means. No-one in Leeds below the age of 50 would have a clear recollection of the packed streets, the swathes of flags and players and coaching staff looking down on them “like Evita”, as Wilkinson put it.
The club were in severe trouble when he took over, competitively weak and struggling to appease their own supporters. Strachan thinks of his transfer to Elland Road as the only time in his career when he signed for a club on the promise that he would help to drag them out of the gutter. Wilkinson wanted Jones to “sort out the dressing room” and was not interested in what others thought of him taking on a volatile personality. They rubbed along nicely and when Jones reacted to Wilkinson dropping him by putting a shotgun to his manager’s head, muttering the words ‘make my day punk’, Wilkinson could only laugh.
Football has changed and financed has changed but there is a lesson to be taken from the 1991-92 season.
With cohesion between the board and their manager, mutual respect between a manager and his players and a dressing room where a player like Jones reacts to the threat of McAllister’s arrival by driving the Scot around Leeds in his limousine and showing him the sights, anything is possible. Wilkinson wanted Leeds to temporarily forget about Revie but 25 years on from his own triumph, and 14 years on from United’s last season in the Premier League, Do You Want to Win? should be compulsory viewing at Elland Road and Thorp Arch.
This is what it takes at a club like Leeds. This is the definition of special. And if you make it there, they will love you for it.