Leeds United’s promotion in 1990 was not achieved with the minimum of fuss.
Right up to the last week of the season, when Vinnie Jones broke Andy Williams’ jaw and Bobby Davison picked up an injury, the club found ways of making life difficult.
Much earlier in the campaign, in the third week of October, Howard Wilkinson’s side were on the verge of climbing to the top of Division Two. They led Portsmouth 3-1 with a matter of minutes to play at Fratton Park and were preparing to move into first place at the end of a misty Tuesday night on the south coast.
A weak Portsmouth side were there for the taking. Without a win in 11 games, they offered little resistance to a Leeds side who had not been beaten in a league fixture since Newcastle United and Micky Quinn picked them apart on the first weekend of the term.
For the best part of 90 minutes, Wilkinson’s players were free of complacency and able to turn the screw on Portsmouth. The first half finished goalless but soon after half-time, Davison sniffed out a chance near the penalty spot and lashed the ball past Alan Knight.
Pompey’s goalkeeper was beaten again in the 55th minute when his defence made hard work of clearing a corner. Two attempted clearances sent the ball to the edge of the area where Mike Whitlow produced a sharp finish into the bottom corner of the net.
Leeds were beginning to play with a swagger and Portsmouth clung on desperately. Alan Ball’s side pulled a goal back when midfielder Martin Kuhl dispatched a penalty following strong claims of handball but United continued to press. Once Gordon Strachan teed up Mel Sterland for a clinical, long-range shot 20 minutes from time, the entire stadium assumed that the contest was over.
Unusually by Wilkinson’s standards, his players adopted the same mindset and allowed two precious points to go begging at the death. Two late goals from Guy Whittingham – enough to snatch a 3-3 draw for Portsmouth – contrasted sharply: the first a lovely curling shot beyond the reach of Mervyn Day and the second a highly contentious tap-in after Day and Sterland played their way into trouble.
Facing up to Whittingham’s initial strike and trying to defend a 3-2 advantage, Leeds made the mistake of working the kick-off deep into their own half. A backpass from Sterland fell just short of Day and Whittingham dived in with a full-blooded tackle, knocking the ball from Day’s grasp and rolling it to within two yards of United’s goalline. The striker was first to the rebound and stroked it into an empty net as Leeds appealed in vain for a foul.
The setback was frustrating but quickly dealt with. Leeds immediately pieced together a four-match winning streak, summoning the conviction which underpinned most of their season. Even so, Wilkinson’s side were back on the south coast seven months later, in need of a result from their final game at Bournemouth to seal promotion and the title. His players delivered, despite Jones injuring Williams during a pre-match game of rounders and Davison lacking the fitness to complete more than a few minutes.
Many years later, Wilkinson recalled the true demands of a promotion campaign.
“I spoke to Gordon Strachan about it some years later and we both said the same – it was only at the final whistle (at Bournemouth) that it really dawned on you how long and hard the season had been,” Wilkinson said. “In a good way you’re deflated and relieved it’s all over.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that promotion is easy. It’s a major achievement and something to be very, very proud of.”