Walking the tightrope

What can Howard Wilkinson do to turn around Leeds' fortunes after such a disappointing season? Don Watson has a suggestion

Perhaps it was symbolic that Aston Villa were the opposition. There had, in our first season back in the top division, been indications to the broader audience that Leeds had at last produced a team capable of superseding all those flickering monochrome memories of the Whites of the Sixties and rose-tinted visions of the smiley-badge Seventies. But it was the performance away to Aston Villa in November ’91, televised live on ITV, that showed the world, well  the country anyway, just what a force the new order really was.

Villa were one of the teams of the time and we just took them to pieces. In the last three seasons, I’ve often spooled my Champions video on to that game or the 6-1 demolition of the equally well-placed Sheffield Wednesday and repeated the age-old Leeds supporter’s mantra, “Where did it all go wrong?” The answer always comes to me as  Dorigo passes the ball to Speed who in turn swoops a far-post cross towards the head of Chapman. “Ahhh,” delights the commentator, “they just instinctively know where one another are.” With a sense of symmetry, it was against Aston Villa, once more, that we showed the depths to which the team has now sunk.
In the current team it strikes me, no-one really knows where anybody else is. In the single moment of attacking football that was produced by a Leeds player other than Andy Gray in the whole of the Coca Cup Final, it was all too clear to see. McAllister ran straight down the middle of the park, seemingly for the lack of any realistic passing options, and finally laid it off to that great-prospect-turned-perennial-under-achiever, Gary Speed, whose far post cross into yawning emptiness betrayed the fact that he hadn’t noticed that Brian Deane was on the subs bench. Either that, or he still thinks Chapman is around (“Really? I’ll swear I saw him only a few weeks back.”)
In the first League game following the humiliation, the most one-sided final I remember seeing at Wembley since Super Mac’s Newcastle laid down and died at the feet of Keegan’s Liverpool, Wilkinson berated us in his programme notes for the lack of loyalty we displayed by booing him off the pitch. The man’s arrogance is astounding. We’ve been loyal, Howard, and now we’ve had enough.
Howard may have sold our most gifted player, John Sheridan, almost immediately after becoming manager, but supporters’ unease was quelled by the arrival of Strachan, McAllister and Dorigo. We had our doubts about the signings of Lee Chapman and Rod Wallace, but we were to be proved wrong. And then Howard lost it. It happens. Charlie Nicholas lost it when he went to Arsenal, Andy Cole lost it after his shin splints operation. Everyone knows when Howard lost it. According to our mythology, he stormed into the treatment room, flung a passport at his target and told him to “F**k off back to France”. Since then his tactical decisions have been about as comprehensible as his post match interviews. Howard admitted later that he didn’t know how good a player E**c  C*****a was. If he had, he told us, he would never have sold him. Does he think that made us feel any better? There were approximately 30,000 people he could have asked at any home game if he’d wanted to know how good Cantona was.
Howard talks about loyalty. Loyalty was what we displayed then. Look at the reaction Keegan faced when he sold Cole, and he was proved right in the end. Every week our manager’s decisions look more and more incomprehensible and it’s taken four years before he had to face the boos. I call that loyal enough. Of course he is not the only one to blame. The problem was that the spine of the team collapsed at the same time. Lukic lost it after a freak rebound at Ibrox cost us a place in the Champions League. Alan Hansen always talks about the effect it has knowing that your keeper is not going to let the ball into the net. What we saw at Leeds was the effect it has when you know that not only is he likely to fumble a shot, he’s also prone to kicking clearances straight to the feet of an onrushing forward (the change in the back pass law didn’t help, given that Chris Whyte’s game was based entirely on sweeping it back to Lukic). And Chapman lost it when Cantona left. It would be nice to think that it was because Eric had made off with our hearts, although we all know the other rumours.
That was when Howard needed to sort it out. He nearly solved the Chapman issue, but in that fateful moment when Duncan Ferguson decided that his heart belonged to the Huns, after a sale had been agreed, it slipped away. Away from the stadium of bigotry he would never have head-butted the younger McStay and might have settled down all the sooner to being the reincarnation of Joe Jordan. So Howard did what we’d been dreading for some time, and signed Brian Deane. I mean we like Deano, his heart’s in the right place, it’s just he dribbles like an overgrown five-year-old, kicking the ball five yards ahead and clattering after it in a cataclysm of limbs. Mark Beeney seems like a nice bloke, but he isn’t David Seaman, is he? But it’s in the centre back positions that we’ve really been crucified.
“When you pay peanuts you get monkeys,” said Patrik Andersson as he failed to agree personal terms and waltzed off to Blackburn instead. And monkeys is what we got. We used to say that Weatherall would be OK when he filled out. He’s filled out and he still hasn’t learned to actually put a tackle in. Richard Jobson has emulated David O’Leary in using the club as a halfway house to retirement, arriving and asking, “What do I do to sign off sick around here?” Carlton Palmer arrived promising to play in central defence, but appeared to forget this when he was actually on the pitch. The one central defender of any promise we’ve secured is Lucas Radebe, who seems to have come along more or less by accident to keep Phil Masinga company.
If we had a central defence, Howard wouldn’t have to argue with Tomas Brolin about tracking back. As Lineker said to the increasingly tedious Hansen, “You don’t buy Ruud Gullit to play percentages.” OK so if we’d bought Neil Ruddock or Gareth Southgate or Alan Stubbs we wouldn’t have been able to afford Tomas Brolin. We could have lived with that. Noel Whelan had his moments, even before he left. I know two million’s a lot of money, but Everton offered three and a half for Deane and suckers like that aren’t born every minute.
The rest of them are just bored. McAllister, Dorigo, Yeboah and Kelly are fed up with relying on duffers like Beesley to prevent all their good work going to waste, Nigel Worthington does not belong in the midfield of a Premiership team in 1996 and Speed just wants out. They couldn’t even raise themselves from their torpor for a cup final. I’ve never booed Leeds off the pitch before, but then I’ve never paid thirty eight quid for a display that even lacked fighting spirit. Howard Wilkinson says he’s never walked away from a problem… It hurts me to say it, but he has become part of the problem. Walk away Howard, be brave enough to be part of the solution.

From WSC 111 May 1996. What was happening this month