The midfield quartet of Gary McAllister, Gary Speed, Gordon Strachan and David Batty was as key to the title success of 1991-92 as anything. Phil Hay spoke to McAllister about what made it so special.
The names trip off the tongue. “Gary Speed. No-one better at those, back-post headers. David Batty. Probably the most underrated midfielder of his kind. And Gordon Strachan. Well, an absolute one-off. Most definitely the best player I played with.”
Gary McAllister, the elegant footballer whose finesse defied his tall, slender frame, would draw reciprocal credit from all of them. Strachan mentioned him in dispatches last year, describing McAllister as someone “you appreciated the first time you saw him and every time after that.”
Leeds United’s last title-winning squad speak wistfully of each other but less effusively about themselves. “I wasn’t too bad,” McAllister says.
The story of Howard Wilkinson’s midfield quartet, the singular chain of Speed, Batty, Strachan and McAllister, is a sub-plot in the story of Leeds’ Championship year.
“A rare chemistry” was Wilkinson’s analysis of it and to speak to the players themselves is to understand the connection.
Batty, who always said what he saw, once claimed that the Leeds squad of 1991-92 “wouldn’t stand a chance” in modern football. McAllister thinks Wilkinson’s midfield would have coped in any era. “The biggest compliment is probably to say that we’d have been good enough to play at the highest level today or at any time since,” he says. “I’ve never doubted that.”
Wilkinson’s midfield was box-office, a blend of fire and ice between a keen centre-forward and a watertight defence but still only part of the bigger picture. McAllister qualifies his comments about Batty, Speed and Strachan by picking out other key influences in that season.
“We weren’t a four-man team,” he says. “Far from it. It’s important to remember that. We were aided and abetted by a great back-four. We had Chappie (Lee Chapman) up front and he was seriously prolific. On the eye he maybe wasn’t the most pleasing striker but by hook or by crook he got on the end of everything. You don’t get many strikers like him any more.
“By working the wings and playing the way that midfield did, we played to Lee’s strengths.” Chapman finished the season with a broken wrist and 20 goals.
But seriously, what a player. On the basis of his England caps he’s probably the most underrated midfielder of his kind. He was so effective. Everyone I know who played with him says you only appreciated his ability to read a game and dominate a game when you had him alongside you. You didn’t intimidate Batts. Nobody could. It was pointless trying.Gary McAllister on David Batty
His influence up front was symptomatic of the ability of individual players to inspire. No-one who speaks of 1992 does so without mentioning Strachan, the club’s ginger-haired captain. McAllister knew Strachan long before he joined Leeds in 1990: a Scotland team-mate and, in his earlier years, a youngster at Motherwell when Strachan was rearranging the natural order of Scottish football with Aberdeen in the 1980s.
“I first came across him when he and that fantastic Aberdeen team were taking the mantle of top dogs in Scotland,” McAllister says. “He loved going through to Glasgow and doing over the Old Firm. He loved putting the cat amongst the pigeons. It turned him on. That was Gordon.
“I knew he was a good player, that went without saying, but I only found out how good when I started playing with him at Leeds. At the back end of my career I had an emerging Steven Gerrard with me at Liverpool and I could see the level he was heading for but Gordon was at the top of his game in ‘92. He’s most definitely the best player I played with.”
There were stories of Strachan using seaweed among other things to preserve and maintain his aging body through the first division season. “It wasn’t an urban myth,” McAllister said. “I mean, he wasn’t going to Whitby and dragging it out of the sea! He was taking seaweed tablets and he was big on bananas, porridge and all that stuff. It was off his own back.
“As it happened, Howard was very big on monitoring what we ate and running tests on us. He was ahead of his time in that sense. But Gordon was already in that mindset.”
Did McAllister ever dabble in seaweed supplements? “No, I was never tempted by that but Gordon was an example to all of us. He was going on 35 when we won the title and if you look at what happened to that midfield, I was almost 40 when I retired. Garry Speed was the same. Even Batts, who people say didn’t really like football, played on until he was past 35. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
Batty, the homegrown pitbull and water-carrier who rarely scored but had the Elland Road crowd in his pocket, was always the most reluctant icon of 1992. Speed, who died at the tragically young age of 42 in 2011, was a veritable pin-up and Strachan and McAllister are prominently involved in professional football today. Batty, who politely declined the YEP’s request for an interview for this supplement, stays off the radar and in his own bubble.
“He was wonderfully simple in his make-up,” McAllister says. “There were no airs or graces and football was a job to him, or so it seemed. I don’t see much of him at reunions or gatherings of ex-players. I remember some of the lads who played with him at Blackburn telling me that for all their celebrations of the ‘95 title, Batts was basically ‘ungettable’.
“But seriously, what a player. On the basis of his England caps he’s probably the most underrated midfielder of his kind. He was so effective. Everyone I know who played with him says you only appreciated his ability to read a game and dominate a game when you had him alongside you. You didn’t intimidate Batts. Nobody could. It was pointless trying.”
Speed, in that era, had none of that edge, although McAllister saw in him a transparent desire to morph from a flying winger into a central midfielder. “I guess you can control things more in the middle,” McAllister says. “When you’re out wide, you’re waiting for people to give the ball to you. I think I knew that he’d finish up as a central midfielder long-term. He had that class.
“The picture of him I always have in my head is of him arriving at the back post with a towering header. It was a joy to see and there was no-one better.” Speed, like Batty, was a former youth-team player who held Wilkinson’s implicit trust. “There’s something really energising about playing with homegrown players,” McAllister says. “You’ve got to have the right balance but we had it at Leeds.”
McAllister is unlike a large number of Wilkinson’s squad, many of whom saw their careers peak in 1992. He is the most decorated of them, his honours swelled by an ageless spell with Liverpool in which he won UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup medals. He cannot deny, though, that the title at Elland Road eclipses everything else. “If you speak to the greatest players – the guys with more medals than they can count – they’ll all tell you that championships count for most,” he says.
“You can get lucky in cups. Four or five good draws and you’re well down the line. But a full season, against 21 clubs as it was back then, is the true test or skill sets, of endurance and consistency. The treble at Liverpool (in 2001) might never be repeated but would Liverpool swap that for the title? I think maybe they would. It has to be said that to break the hold of the big boys back then, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, was amazing. You can’t pretend that Howard did it with a big budget.”
By the final month of the season, it was Leeds or Manchester United. McAllister, as others at Leeds did, could sense ambition bordering on desperation at Old Trafford as the bottom fell out of Manchester United’s season.
“You got the sense that all wasn’t well with them,” McAllister says. “There were players missing when you expected them to play, things like that. Who knows how it really was over there but that was when Howard came into his own.
“There was never any panicking or shouting or bawling. Howard just seemed to be saying that what will be will be.” On the night when Manchester United lost 1-0 at West Ham United, tossing the initiative over the Pennies, McAllister was judging a karaoke contest in Seacroft.
“It was a Leeds’ supporters club do and there were loads of whites there. When the result came through, there was quite a reaction. For the first time I thought ‘this is on.’”
Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s manager, was famously quoted on the day the title was decided as saying the Leeds had failed to win the title. Manchester United had lost it. “Oh, we won it,” McAllister says. “Make no mistake about that. I didn’t buy that quote but it wasn’t surprising to hear it either. No-one from that side of the Pennines was going to give us any credit.
“Look at the numbers: games won, points gained, goals scored, goals conceded. They stand up against any Premier League season and that was our year.” A framed medal and shirt in McAllister’s house reminds him of that every day.