As we celebrate Leeds United’s championship triumph 20 years ago, Phil Hay spoke to then managing director Bill Fotherby to rekindle his memories of a sensational campaign.
The seeds of Leeds United’s third league championship were sown by the selection of Howard Wilkinson as the eighth successor to Don Revie.
It was, in its own way, as unplanned an appointment as that of Revie 27 years earlier; by no means the obvious choice of manager.
As managing director of Leeds, Bill Fotherby made the overtures and the financial arrangements but the credit for identifying Wilkinson lay elsewhere.
United’s policy in the wake of the sacking of Billy Bremner was to aim high. Fotherby spoke with John Toshack and Howard Kendall but found them unreceptive. Somewhat ambitiously he met Bobby Robson, the long-reigning England manager. “It’s not for me,” Robson told him, “and there’s only one name I’d think about if I was you – Howard Wilkinson.”
The deal was done in October 1988, divorcing Wilkinson from Sheffield Wednesday and beginning the defining period of his managerial career. In Leeds’ 92-year history, the Wilkinson era is bettered only by the honours piled up during 13 years of Revie’s management.
Leeds unveiled a statue of Revie outside Elland Road’s East Stand last weekend, an overdue tribute to the man who gave the club clout and global appeal. Fotherby wonders if they will ever do the same for Wilkinson.
“What he did for Leeds United was quite extraordinary,” Fotherby says. “It’s too easily forgotten.”
The 20th anniversary of Leeds’ last Division One title has served to refresh the memory, locally at least. It was Wilkinson’s finest hour as a manager but not his only lasting contribution; no more significant than the club’s promotion from the second division two years earlier or his visionary accomplishment in establishing the youth academy wich operates at Thorp Arch.
“You got the whole package with Howard,” says Fotherby, now 80 years of age and retired in Harrogate. “We’d been down the route of giving Revie’s boys a chance – Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray, Billy Bremner – but it hadn’t quite worked. Close with Bremner but no cigar.
“I went abroad to speak to Howard Kendall and John Toshack, and I arranged a meeting with Bobby Robson. Bobby had unfinished business with England but he said ‘If you need someone to get you out of the second division, Howard Wilkinson’s your man’.
“Howard was someone with a far-reaching outlook. He got every aspect of the job right. Never mind the league title, he built the reserves up to a very high standard and the development of the kids was phenomenal. We won the FA Youth Cup twice. More than 32,000 people came to Elland Road for the second leg of the final against Manchester United (in 1993). It was success at every turn.
“Some people felt the league title in 1992 came out of nowhere, that Howard made the impossible possible. I don’t think so. Looking back I think it was the triumph of a manager who was building, building, building. Always building.”
It would suit Fotherby to say that on the eve of the 1991-92 season he saw a title-winning year in the offing but the thought did not cross his mind. Leeds had finished fourth after their promotion in 1990 but were far adrift of champions Arsenal and 12 points behind Liverpool. The status quo was well established.
It was, as Fotherby recalls, a slow burn – 11 games unbeaten at the start of the season and striking results against the league big-hitters. Leeds travelled to Old Trafford and drew 1-1 with Manchester United, the club they would later fight to the death. They beat Liverpool at home and held Arsenal convincingly. Each telling scoreline made ears in the Elland Road boardroom prick, surprising Fotherby and chairman Leslie Silver.
“We had no expectation of winning the title when the season started,” Fotherby says. “We had a strong squad, I knew that much, and we’d made good additions to it by spending money but I didn’t have the championship in my mind.
“When I went to Leeds as a director in 1978, they were similar to where they are now – in the second division and not looking like going any higher. I never really thought about titles because I never expected to see one.
“But then things started to happen. We were unbeaten for a long time and we started getting results against the clubs who mattered – beating Liverpool and going to Manchester United and getting a point. Yes, you began to wonder. And when Christmas came around you started to wonder some more.
“I’d compare what happened that year to someone becoming a millionaire. Very few people plan to become millionaires. They find themselves there because of their own skill, their own dedication and their own hard work. It happens naturally. We didn’t aim to win the title that year. The title was earned by the brilliance of the manager and the brilliance of the team. And make no mistake, we won the title. Manchester United didn’t lose it.”
That has long been the bone of contention and a reason why a remarkable season is so readily forgotten or under-appreciated. It is a fine story – the last English manager to win the top-flight title in the last season before the birth of the Premiership – but a story too rarely told. The prize claimed by Wilkinson’s players was once described by The Guardian as the “league title which nobody appeared to want”.
Manchester United were guilty of a loss of nerve, of failing to close out their season from a position of strength, but the statistics do justice to Wilkinson’s players: a total of 82 points, a goal difference of plus 37 and four defeats sustained all season. Not a single one at Elland Road. “We won that league because we were the best team,” Fotherby says. “Manchester United couldn’t live with us. It delights me to say that.”
Fotherby saw history repeating itself when Manchester United lost a pivotal derby against Manchester City two weeks. Eight points to the good last month, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were suddenly in trouble. However this season ends, the Scot has countless honours to reflect on these days. Back in 1992, he was reaching for his first English title and within touching distance of it when Wilkinson beat him at the tape.
“There’s no worse feeling in football,” Fotherby says. “To know a prize is there for the taking and then fall short when it matters. That must have hurt. And he’ll feel exactly the same if Manchester City win the Premier League this season. It’s 1992 all over again.
“But the Manchester derby (on April 30) took me back 20 years. You could feel the title in the balance, right on a knife edge. Someone was going to come out of that game with one hand on the trophy.
“I said to my wife ‘everyone should have that feeling once. Everyone should have the chance to know what it’s like to feel that the title’s yours’. That feeling...it’s better than sex, so much better. It lasts a long, long time. More than 20 years. I still get that tingle when I think back. It never goes away.”
The marvel of United’s triumph was that they crossed the line with a game to spare. Three weeks earlier, Manchester United held the advantage of a single point and a game in hand. Confirmation of Leeds’ title came when Ferguson’s team lost at Liverpool a few hours after Leeds had edged a five-goal derby with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
Fotherby chose not to watch the game at Anfield, travelling back to Wilkinson’s house for dinner instead.
“Howard said ‘it’s Sunday afternoon so why don’t I cook Sunday lunch’,” Fotherby recalls. “We went back to his house and had a good old feast. I think he wanted to reflect on the Sheffield United game and let it all sink in.
“It was a strange moment. You knew you were almost there but you didn’t want to tempt fate. It was like nothing was happening. Howard was his usual self – calm, composed, quite relaxed. How he felt inside I’ve no idea. Suddenly his son came rushing in shouting ‘Dad, Dad, you’ve won the championship!’. I’d like to tell you how I felt at that moment but I can’t.
“Howard smiled with a glint in his eye, totally unshakable. I know Don Revie is the finest manager Leeds have ever had but Howard came a close second. Oh, he came a close second. Till my dying day I’ll never tire of speaking about that season. It’s what you live for in football – winning and winning with style. My God, that team had bags of it.”