RENOWNED as strict disciplinarians during their time at the managerial coalface they may have been, but ask Carlton Palmer and that was where the similarities ended between former Leeds United bosses Howard Wilkinson and George Graham.
For Palmer, whose three-year stint at Elland Road in the mid-nineties is chronicled in his highly-readable and brutally honest autobiography entitled It Is What It Is, public perceptions were rather misleading when it came to the former. But most definitely not with the latter.
Listen to those in the national media back in the day and Wilkinson, a former school teacher, was depicted as a slightly aloof character seemingly lacking in warmth and charisma and plainly someone who did not suffer fools and demanded the highest of standards from his players.
Palmer is quick to vouch for Wilkinson’s abhorence for slackness of any description, but is equally emphatic in his desire to dispel the myth that his ex-boss was a humourous ‘cold fish’ too.
To him, Wilkinson was a honest and loyal Yorkshireman with a rich sense of humour and engaging company. Their friendship endures to this day, although the same can probably not be said about Palmer and Graham.
Indeed, it was Wilkinson’s persuasive qualities which tempted Palmer to reject the overtures of a man who proved very much a father figure in a footballing sense in Ron Atkinson when Sheffield Wednesday agreed to let him leave in the summer of 1994.
Most may have automatically expected Palmer to head back to his native Midlands and link up with Atkinson, his former mentor at Hillsborough and first club West Brom, at Aston Villa after a fee was agreed.
But they reckoned without the canny salesman qualities of ‘Sgt Wilko’ who beat a rival club to the punch to land his man not for the first time.
Speaking to the YEP, Palmer, who made exactly 100 league appearances for Leeds after joining in a £2.6m deal, said: “I had just had a house built in Sheffield and my kids were settled in school, so it made sense. I had agreed to go to Aston Villa, but Ron was at the World Cup and Howard had upped the offer to Sheffield Wednesday.
“My guy at the time said: ‘Just speak to him out of courtesy’. I went to speak to Howard and just really liked him as a bloke. I don’t sign for clubs, but people. People said that I wouldn’t have gone to Sheffield Wednesday as they were going to get relegated. I signed for Ron Atkinson and at Southampton, I signed for Dave Jones. I went to Leeds United because of Howard Wilkinson.
“I had a good time there and I know it upset the Sheffield Wednesday supporters, but it was a good fit.
“Howard is a very matter-of-fact bloke and I like black and white and I can’t deal with grey areas. He said to me: ‘You need to move back to centre-back and need to play in one position to make your position with the England team.’
“He said all the right things and was true to his word. With everything, I learned an awful lot from him and he’s a very good friend of mine personally now.
“Howard is just the same as Big Ron. He likes a laugh and a joke. But what he has got is a public and private persona. You only get to see that private persona if you are in his counsel. He is a very funny guy. He dresses the same as Ron and loves his clobber and is always immaculate. They are very similar in personalities which you wouldn’t believe.
“The one thing I learned from Howard is that you don’t play to the tune. You be the way you are and be true to yourself. I took something from all the managers I worked under, but I learned a lot from Howard in terms of discipline.
“He’s the only manager to this day – including Ron, who I love to bits – who has come in and told me that if I did well, he would give me a new contract.
“He is the only one to this day, in all the years of playing football and doing well, of doing that and saying: ‘this is what I have said and what I will do.’ I have got a lot of time for Howard.”
A regular in the Leeds side under Wilkinson, Palmer’s card was soon marked following the arrival of his replacement Graham in the autumn of 1996 and his experiences with another tough-taskmaster and no-nonsense figure could not have been more contrasting,
It was the beginning of the end for Palmer’s time at Leeds and just as Wilkinson quickly made his mark in the late eighties in terms of his squad make-over with some big characters dispensed with, so Graham did the same.
Not that Palmer was given free rein to chose his next destination when Graham made it clear he could leave in the summer of 1997. Quite the opposite, with the Scot pretty streetwise in that respect.
Palmer said: “George’s mentality was this. His words to me were: ‘you are a good player, but you are not going to embarrass me.’ He told me Joe Royle was in for me to go to Everton and Harry (Redknapp) was in for me to go to West Ham. But he said: ‘you are not going somewhere in the Premier League to embarrass me.’
“You can go to Southampton – who were seven points adrift at the bottom of the league – or the Championship.’ I knew what it was about.
“He believed that if he knocked the big characters, then everybody else would fall into tune. But we were coming to an end of era of that type of manager. You can’t bully the players any more now because they are on too much money.”
“It Is What It is”: Carlton Palmer with Steven Jacobi, Vertical Editions £17.99.