Born in Australia and signed from their bitter rivals Chelsea, Tony Dorigo was an unlikely hero in the eyes of Leeds United supporters in his first season with the club, when for all the star names of their annus mirabilis, it was he who was named the fans’ player of the year. He spoke to Phil Hay.
Wherever he went, Tony Dorigo had a knack of winning the crowd. He was supporters’ player of the year at his first club Aston Villa, the recipient of the same prize at his second club Chelsea and top of the public vote again at the end of his only season in Serie A with Torino.
Dorigo has the various trinkets somewhere – “they mostly come out whenever I move house” – but none carried so much weight as the fans’ player of the year trophy which came his way at Leeds United in 1992. “That team was so good it could have been any of us,” Dorigo says, “but I seemed to pick up those awards everywhere I went. I don’t know why but it felt like all I had to do was sign for a club, turn up and run around. Whether I deserved them I’ve no idea.”
Howard Wilkinson thought so, or believed that the left-back’s influence at Chelsea made him good value at a cost of of £1.3m when Wilkinson tweaked United’s squad in the summer of 1991. Only Rod Wallace, at £1.6m from Southampton, came at a higher price. Dorigo was itching for a fresh start and a break from Chelsea; tired of what he saw as “a shambles” at Stamford Bridge.
“Chelsea as they were then were never going to win anything,” he says. “There were too many problems, too many issues. I’d tried to leave a couple of years earlier but by that summer I’d made it clear I wouldn’t be signing another contract under any circumstances.
“My thinking was simple; I wanted to win things. I wanted to join a club where that was possible. It was possible at Leeds. At Chelsea, no.” Rangers wanted Dorigo to move north to Glasgow – “the phone calls from them wouldn’t bloody stop” – but Wilkinson was more direct in his approach. “The first time he called he said ‘I don’t want to mess about here. I want to sign you and I want it done quick. Come and speak to me as soon as you can.”
It is fascinating, given Leeds’ brilliant but unexpected streak to the Division One title in 1992, to wonder what Wilkinson told prospective signings and what he promised them in the year ahead.
Did he see the title coming? “To be honest, for a while we only spoke about golf,” Dorigo laughs. “It was quite weird but he knew it was a hobby of mine. I sat there as Howard talked his way through two or three imaginary golf holes, explaining how he’d play around lakes, bunkers and all that. Part of me was thinking ‘where is this going?’ but in the end it developed into a discussion about what he needed for his team to get better and how his team would play.
“He might not come across as a great salesman but he was damn good at selling the club to me. He wasn’t telling me we’d win the title but he said we’d have a right good go that season. I liked that. You weren’t used to hearing that at Chelsea.”
Chelsea had a more than adequate squad and players who built lasting reputations at Stamford Bridge – Dennis Wise, Graeme Le Saux, Steve Clarke – but Dorigo noticed an immediate difference in United’s dressing room. His descriptions of Chelsea in 1991 make them sound flaky. “That’s putting it mildly,” Dorigo says. “It was chaos. I was pretty tired of it.
He might not come across as a great salesman but he was damn good at selling the club to me. He wasn’t telling me we’d win the title but he said we’d have a right good go that season. I liked that.Tony Dorigo
“You couldn’t say the talent at Leeds wasn’t on a completely different level because Chelsea had good players. Genuinely they did. What hit me was the attitude; the mental attitude and the energy and enthusiasm at Leeds. After a couple of days you realised that no-one got away with anything in that dressing room. You worked hard, you pulled your weight or else. I mean, the last thing you wanted was (Gordon) Strachan and that red mop of hair going mad in front of you!
“That was the probably the first thing Howard got right. The balance of the dressing was perfect. There were never any cracks and as I already knew, that’s quite rare.”
Dorigo was Wilkinson’s left-back of choice from the very start of the season, a slight but rugged defender with a direct style which suited Gary Speed. Dorgio played in all but four league games and steadfastly limited himself to spectacular goals: a bullet of a free-kick in a 6-1 rout of Sheffield Wednesday, a top-corner finish in a 2-2 draw at Norwich City and a half-volley from 20 yards at home to Manchester City, on a day which belonged to David Batty.
Dorigo affectionately describes his strike against City as a “worldie” but remembers how it was put in the shade by Batty’s goal later in the game, the midfielder’s first for Leeds in almost four years. “Batty was one of those players who never, ever scored,” Dorigo says. “A great midfielder with no goals in his game.” As Batty’s drought went on, the crowd took to urging the youngster to shoot from all distances.
“When that goal went in the reaction was like an earthquake. It was so powerful. They’d told me that the fans at Leeds love nothing more than one of their own and that proved it. The bloody roof came off! I was laughing to myself, thinking ‘my worldie’s taking a back seat then...’”
Manchester City were beaten 3-0 on a warm September afternoon, as many sides were beaten at Elland Road. Leeds claimed the title without a single home defeat and their form was so good that Dorigo’s memories stray towards crucial results away from Elland Road. “We hammered Sheffield Wednesday 6-1 and there were big wins at Southampton and Aston Villa,” he says. “We drew at Old Trafford and at Anfield and we got a point at Arsenal. That was what kept us on track. We were strong at home, that never wavered, but away from home in crucial games we hardly gave up anything.”
The recurring theme among all of Wilkinson’s squad is a recollection of how little stress the run-in and the neck-and-neck race with Manchester United caused them.
“We tried to look at games in small blocks,” Dorigo says. “From X number of games we’d hope for X number of points, nothing more than that. On the first day I wasn’t thinking about where we’d be by game 42 and on the day when it finally happened, the day we won the title, it felt a bit like arriving there without realising it was coming. I’ve heard a few of the other players describe it as a surreal moment and that’s how it was for me. You couldn’t quite believe you were on the verge.”
The environment for Leeds’ decisive win, a 3-2 victory over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, was almost fitting.
“It’s the windiest game I’ve ever played in,” Dorigo says. “There were little typhoons all over the pitch and I couldn’t get away from crisp packets blowing around my feet. It felt a bit like someone, somewhere was trying to stop us but by then I didn’t think anyone would stop us. I was confident.”
As news of Manchester United’s defeat to Liverpool at Anfield filtered through a few hours later, confirming Leeds as champions, Dorigo dragged a suitcase into his bedroom. “Me and Batty were supposed to be flying out to Russia with England that night,” he said. “Half of me was trying to celebrate but half of me knew I should be getting packed and ready to fly.
“Then the phone rang. It was the manager (Wilkinson), who won’t mind me saying he was slurring his words slightly! He said ‘forget about England. Stay here, enjoy the moment, take it in.’ So I did.
“And as proud as I was to play for England, I’ve never regretted that decision.” As history shows, miss one title bash at Leeds United and you might wait 20 years for another.