April brings the 25th anniversary of Leeds United’s last top-flight title and with it the chance to talk and reminisce with the players and staff who made it happen.
They are fairly far flung and living different lives – coaches and pundits, restaurant owners and travel agents – but 1992 is 1992 and for most of them it might as well be yesterday.
Even Gordon Strachan, who started out in an interview last year by saying he “never remembered much about football”, needed only a little cajoling before dipping into stories as far back as 1983, the year which took the European Cup Winners’ Cup to Aberdeen. Careers can be a blur but the peaks of them stand out. As Strachan said of that volley against Leicester City in 1990: “When the football memories start to fade away, that one will be the last to go.”
That Leeds squad, Howard Wilkinson’s squad, talk a lot about Strachan, a player who was going on 35 in an era when playing at 35 took immense personal discipline. It takes personal discipline today but Strachan conditioned himself for a first division winners’ medal without scientific help, modern recovery techniques or any form of squad rotation. If anything, he swayed the other way and slogged his body as far as it would go.
“There was no point in anyone saying ‘take it a bit easy today or give this session a miss’,” he said. “If I’m training at 70 per cent or 80 per cent, what happens when Liverpool or Manchester United turn up and ask you to give 100 per cent? You can’t just turn it on.”
Strachan was singular like that and Leeds have never had another footballer quite like him. They have had better players and more successful players but no-one with the same blend of attitude, personality and dedication at such an advanced stage of their footballing life. Last week I spoke with Lee Chapman for an article which will run in a YEP supplement commemorating the 1992 title season in two months’ time. “The driving force,” Chapman called Strachan. “A guy who took everything on his shoulders.” Strachan’s timely volley against Leicester, in Chapman’s view, could only have been scored by him. “None of the rest of us were going to come up with anything. We were down and out. That was Gordon.”
It was why Wilkinson invested personally and financially in Strachan, an asset who Manchester United sold for £300,000 in 1988. Alex Ferguson described it as “good business for Manchester United over a 32-year-old whose contract was due to expire at the end of the season” and later wrote that the idea of him inadvertently helping Leeds pip his own team to the title four years later was “simplistic nonsense.” Ferguson did, however, concede that it was “a coming together neither Leeds United nor the player ever regretted.”
At a much lower level, the value of know-how explains why in the midst of piecing together his own squad at Leeds – a mixture of untried, untested or unfulfilled individuals – Garry Monk signed a 36-year-old goalkeeper with his best days behind him and a 31-year-old playmaker who had taken himself out of the Premier League firing line by moving quietly to Qatar in 2014. Neither transfer was comparable to the purchase of Strachan but the recruitment of Rob Green and Pablo Hernandez followed a similar train of thought – that on days when talent or flair was constrained by anxiety, their maturity would lend a hand.
It went that way on Tuesday night in what might prove to be a telling win over Bristol City. When Monk said that Leeds were under pressure after back-to-back defeats, he was not talking about those results in isolation. Clubs lose successive fixtures often enough. Leeds lost four on the bounce on the way to promotion from League One in 2010. And the “added pressure” of playing at Elland Road did not tally with the third best home record in the Championship. The tension on Tuesday came from the realisation of how much damage an extended slump could do to United’s season. Which tells you that Monk and his players know exactly what they’re gunning for now. “I’ve not got the calculator out,” Monk insisted again at full-time. But no doubt he has it in his top drawer.
What he needed against Bristol City, and what he got, was guidance from players who have been through this before. Hernandez ran the show before half-time, passing and dictating the game nervelessly. Green’s performance was his best in seven months with Leeds, and his fingertip save from Milan Djuric the sort of reaction which reminded you why England used to call on him.
It was hard not be pleased for a keeper who can feature in a defence as tight as Monk’s but still have people asking if he is going over the hill and causing a problem. Hernandez’s touch is easy to appreciate and his authority in the first half on Tuesday was as effective as his assist for Chris Wood’s goal. Green’s influence is more subtle and less pronounced but something in his display said he had seen nights like Tuesday before. Something in his display should reassure Monk’s greener players that they are not heading into the Championship run-in blind. Hernandez set up the win and Green’s concentration banked it. There are 68 years between the pair and in what remains of the season, Leeds might count on all of them.