Leeds United nostalgia: Bremner’s exit paved way for ‘modern’ era under Wilkinson

Howard Wilkinson.
Howard Wilkinson.
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By 1988, Billy Bremner was virtually the last remaining link between Leeds United and the era of Don Revie.

Eddie Gray had gone, replaced by Bremner as manager in 1985, and in the third full season of Bremner’s reign the board at Leeds reached the conclusion that another tie would have to be cut.

The late, great Bremner goes down as one of United’s most unlucky coaches, so close to an FA Cup final and promotion from Division Two in the spring of 1987. Some who played for him and some who worked with him believed the Scot would have gone on to big things in management had Charlton Athletic not edged a nerve-wracking play-off final that year.

Speaking in ‘Bremner: The Complete Biography’, former midfielder John Sheridan said: “If we’d gone up, Billy could have established us in the first division. I am sure Billy would have been given the money to bring in what he needed had we gone up.”

Instead, Leeds continued to tread water in Division Two and the following year the club finished eight points short of the play-offs. Bremner, who appeared to be in the last-chance saloon, raised himself for another push but the start of the 1988-89 season was deeply worrying.

The first five league games yielded one win at home to Barnsley and included a 4-0 thrashing at Portsmouth. Bremner’s case was not helped by the fact that two of his signings, Vince Hilaire and Noel Blake, had come from Fratton Park that summer.

A home loss to Chelsea followed, resulting in crowd trouble and convincing United’s directors that the time had come to think again.

After so much promise, Leeds were trapped in the bottom half of the table. Bremner took his side to Peterborough United for the first leg of a League Cup tie on September 27, earning a 2-1 win, but the following day he learned his fate.

The board were left to reflect on the fact that three former players – three stalwarts of the Revie days – had tried their hand at managing Leeds without success. From Allan Clarke to Bremner and from 1980 to 1988, no lasting progress had been made.

“We wanted to move on in a new direction,” said managing director Bill Fotherby. “We felt the club needed a bit more than Billy.”

The club’s supporters wanted more full stop and as three more league defeats followed, the last a 1-0 loss at home to Watford, a protest involving 2000 fans took place behind Elland Road’s West Stand. Amid damage to cars and rising anger, Leeds were provoked into action and quickly secured the appointment of Howard Wilkinson from Sheffield Wednesday.

Wilkinson was a clean break from Revie’s squad and United’s new manager attempted to move the club on further by removing photos of that golden age from Elland Road. He wanted a fresh start and a shift to a more modern mindset of coaching and preparation.

“The club is like an old Savile Row suit, frayed at the edges,” Wilkinson famously said. “Like a Rolls Royce in a breakers yard.”

Scepticism abounded in Leeds, and apathy too, and Wilkinson’s first game – the second leg of their cup clash with Peterborough – found less than 9,000 interested enough to attend.

Little did they know of the revolution which would bring the crowds flooding back.