When Ian Rush joined Leeds United in 1996, it was accepted by both him and the club that he was joining them on the way down. Rush was a veteran at 34 and no longer the striker who terrorised defenders in the red of Liverpool.
Manchester City were keen on him and Sunderland made an approach too but the offer from Leeds had an additional incentive: the promise of a first role in management. Rush intended to learn from Howard Wilkinson and then succeed him but a few weeks into the 1996-97 season, Wilkinson was sacked. The succession plan went with him.
Rush left Anfield 20 years ago this week, signing a two-year contract at Elland Road. Much as his departure from Liverpool was a wrench, he admitted many years later that the interest from United and their vision for him made him feel at home.
“What made the offer so appealing was that I would understudy Howard with a view to succeeding him as manager within two to three years,” Rush wrote in his autobiography.
“Having got over the emotion of the actual leaving, I felt strangely detached from Anfield and a loyalty to Leeds.”
Despite his age, expectations of Rush were still high. His record at Liverpool went before him and Wilkinson might have planned to use him regularly had the campaign not gone awry so quickly. A bad first month,leading to a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Manchester United, cost Wilkinson his job in early September.
If Wilkinson had Rush in the thick of his tactical plans, his replacement George Graham did not. Graham’s formations were barely able to accommodate Rush and the Scot had no intention of priming the 34-year-old for the manager’s job. The striker found himself playing game after game as a midfielder-cum-winger, “doing a favour” as Graham asked him to.
“It quickly became apparent that I didn’t figure in his plans,” Rush said. “He took me to one side soon after taking over and asked me to do him a favour. Would I play wide on the right in midfield? Just for one match.
“I was skipper at the time and it was only for one match. Four months later I was still playing wide on the right and still not scoring the goals I was signed for.”
Rush was and still is Liverpool’s record goalscorer. At Leeds he found the net three times, once in a 2-0 win over Chelsea and a brace against Leicester City in January 1997. Among Graham’s players, Rush was not alone in struggling to find the net.
The club produced a pitiful tally of 28 strikes during that campaign, the lowest in the Premiership, but Graham’s focus on defensive solidity saw to it that the club were able to finish 11th.
Rush finished his only season at Leeds with 42 appearances and as Graham began changing his squad, implementing plans for the £2million signing of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, he was never likely to add to them.
Rush had appeared in a Thursday-night reserve game at Halifax Town when, the following day, a call from former Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish invited him to move to Newcastle United.
Leeds were more than willing to make that deal happen and having arrived with a grand plan for the future, Rush was equally happy to escape. “I hoped for a break and here it is,” he said.
“This is a great chance to show I can still look sharp and score goals in the Premiership.”
It did not work out that way for him at St James’s Park either.