Big John, John

Inside Gordon Strachan’s Mind at the Makita Tournament, 1992

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
Gordon Strachan is wearing a check suit, a loud tie, and his ginger hair is in a long mullet, he looks great

The Makita Tournament was supposed to be perfect preparation for Leeds United’s return to Europe, thirteen years after Universita Craiova dumped them out of the UEFA Cup. A couple of pre-season games over a summer weekend at Elland Road, against an exciting new level of continental opposition, plus Nottingham Forest. In 1992, different leagues meant more different styles than the convergent soccer we see in 2021, so taking on Stuttgart from the Bundesliga and Sampdoria from Serie A meant seeing new players, in new formations, employing different tactics, swearing in different languages.

It didn’t really help anybody when Leeds were then drawn with Stuttgart in the European Cup. The expansive learning exercise turned paranoid as both teams were caught between discovering new things from another league and giving too much away to a direct opponent six weeks before playing for real.

“If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em,” Howard Wilkinson tells ITV’s touchline reporter after the game, as he tries to get a post-match assessment about why on earth Gary Speed had just played against Stuttgart as a sweeper. If Wilko was trying to put one over on the visitors from Germany, his enigmatic grin was giving his hand away.

“The boss is trying a new system,” captain Gordon Strachan says to John Helm. “He’s going to try and play three at the back, four in the middle of the park, and three up front. Two of those guys being wide, and that today will be Scott Sellars and Rod Wallace. I think if you watch Sellars and Wallace during the game, you’ll notice that they have got a free role to come off the wings and go in causing as much problems inside the park as possible.”

Lee Chapman was in between them; either side of Speed at the back were Chris Whyte and Jon Newsome. Across the middle were Tony Dorigo, Steve Hodge, Gary McAllister and David Rocastle, the £2m record signing from Arsenal, bought on the assumption that Strachan’s back injury would restrict his minutes from now on. Today Strachan was in the commentary box with Helm while he recovered from an operation trying to sort it, and the commentary box and TV cameras had all moved over behind the demolished Lowfields Stand, making the game look all wrong. Kop right, South Stand left, and we can see the dugouts? It’s not right. Strachan was in ITV’s studio with Ian St John just before kick-off, in the south-west corner. The cranes towering over the new East Stand’s construction had inspired St John to pull up some old footage of him doing a bungee jump for some reason.

“Well listen, you’ve got to nip up along with John Helm,” St John tells Strachan when that ordeal is over, “to co-commentate on the game, along with John Helm. So, John Helm, Gordon Strachan, join us after the break, Leeds and Stuttgart.” Everybody stares at the camera for a few seconds, as if it’s dawning on them why the new Premier League broadcasting rights have gone to BSkyB. “Actually we’re not taking a break Gordon,” says Ian, putting a hand on his arm to stop him leaving, “but we are going straight up there,” he adds, with the director yelling in his ear, “So you get round there.” Gordon is supposed to get going, but he just sits still looking blank. “Get those running shoes on, now, quickly,” St John pleads. Strachan is sitting, smiling, sweetly, not moving. “John Helm!” tries St John at last. “Are you there John?”

John Helm is there, finally, a professional speaking, and finally Strachan is joining him, about ten minutes into the game, after getting around the ground and up the scaffolding to the temporary gantry. “Now I know I’ve got a back injury,” Strachan declares. “I felt like Indiana Jones trying to get up here.” “I hope you haven’t got a reccurrence as a result,” Helm tells him. “Wouldn’t want ITV getting the blame for that.”

Strachan’s presence is the most interesting part of a dull game, won 2-1 by two quick second half Leeds goals, from Wallace and Rocastle, after Stuttgart led at half-time by a goal caused by a combination of the new formation and Speed’s inexperience at the back. Caught upfield when Wallace had a chance, Speed was under Stuttgart’s high clearance and couldn’t catch Fritz Walter.

“Incredible football,” says Strachan. “We are down at one end at one moment, looking like we’re going to go 1-0 up. The ball is just booted clear really. And I think the central defenders need to look at themselves there, they lost concentration. They were actually watching how well Leeds were playing down at the other end. They were probably thinking to themselves, ooh, we’re playing very well today, and not really having a look about.”

Strachan could see it going wrong in the first half. “We didn’t have good possession there John. We were playing the ball about at the back, but we didn’t have somebody about twenty yards further back to give us a bit of depth, we were a bit square there trying to play the ball about at the back. Gary Speed was actually fifteen yards in front of Chris Whyte, he left Chris Whyte on his own. We just seem to have lost a bit of shape just now. Scott Sellars is in the middle of the park, Rod Wallace in there, we’ve lost that bit of width that we really need just now.

“You might see a different shape tomorrow as well [in the second Makita game]. The manager is going to try out different things for the season. He knows it’s a very important season and he’s got to try a lot of things before the season starts.”

Perhaps Strachan has more insight from talking to the boss, because Mel Sterland, interviewed at half-time, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. He’s not been around pre-season training, busy trying to recover from an ankle operation, and shrugging in his turquoise and pink shellsuit he can’t disguise his surprise. “To see Gary Speed playing in defence,” he says, shaking his startled head, “It’s shocked me. But it’s a game when we can try things out, and that’s what the manager’s doing today.”

Nobody seems sure how far to believe Wilkinson, who also hinted to Ian St John that this was a bit of a ruse, or how seriously this formation might be used in the Premier League. Wilkinson was never the 4-4-2 disciple that is often assumed. His Sheffield Wednesday team played three at the back, with attacking wing-backs, and something like that brought Leeds the title, David Batty dropping between Chris Fairclough and Chris Whyte while Mel Sterland or Tony Dorigo bombed forward down the wings. Now Sterland’s injury and the permanent signing of Eric Cantona after his loan have introduced new elements for Wilko to think about. 3-4-3 might have confused Stuttgart, and confused Speed, but that might not have been the only intention. “It seemed like a good game to try it,” says Wilkinson afterwards.

There was a big rule change to cope with, too. Denmark’s victory at Euro ’92 was the last hurrah for teams passing back to the boredom of their goalkeeper’s hands, as the new law now said they had to kick it away. Understanding and interpretation were already hot issues.

“I think some of the fans are confused about it, John,” Strachan says after Stuttgart’s goalkeeper picks up a headed pass. “There was a big roar went up when he headed it back, and I think some of the fans don’t understand that you can head the ball back.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” says Helm. “And I think it’s putting referees under a lot of pressure as well, who also have to interpret whether it’s a deliberate pass or not.”

Most people were anticipating mistakes, and they got them when the season started, from pretty much every goalkeeper and centre-back at every club. What’s telling about Strachan’s commentary, though, is that he’s already spotted the bigger impact on Leeds United. The style of play Wilkinson has coached them in since 1988 is under threat. After John Lukic controls one back-pass before booting it away, Helm asks what the feeling is about the new rule.

“Well, it definitely kept the game flowing there,” says Strachan. “In a normal match situation, the ball may have been passed back to John. John picks the ball up, wastes five or six seconds, tells his team-mates to get up to the halfway line, then plays it up there. And we hit Chappy and there’s only about twenty or thirty yards to play in. When that happened there, the game was still spread out. John had to bring the ball down. I think in the Sampdoria [versus Forest] game earlier today, just at the end of the second half, there was a great move, starting with the goalkeeper.” Heaven forfend.

Those twenty or thirty yards to play in had been key to United’s rise. Wilkinson had used the time while the ball was in his keeper’s hands to compress the pitch, to get his skilful attacking players up around the opponent’s penalty area, and to get his defenders on the halfway line, setting an offside trap to keep the other team back. Now, Lukic was going to be forced to keep the ball in play, meaning Leeds couldn’t get up the pitch ahead of the ball with their offside trap, so the opposition were going to be spending more time in United’s half, putting more pressure on the centre-backs. Perhaps this was another reason for trying Speed back there and making three.

“Gary is so talented, it’s what will happen in his career,” says Strachan. “He will be used all over the place. He’s blossomed so much in the three-and-a-half years I’ve been here. He can play anywhere on the park. He’s absolutely priceless to us. Very athletic and very brave. And, you know, somebody like him that can play anywhere, you would think that they might get a bit big-headed, but he is such a level headed lad, he’s always willing to listen to any advice given to him.”

He’s also grown his hair out into a mullet. “Oh, yes, he’s very much the model now, Gary. No doubt he’s been spending a lot more time in front of the mirror than he did last year.” He just misses connecting with a cross from Hodge to the back post. “Maybe if he gets his hair cut, John, he might see the ball a bit earlier.”

Strachan, at least, recognises the difference between doing and talking. Helm asks how his own pre-season is going. “I’m sitting great up here,” he says. “I’ve not made a mistake all day.” Helm manages to gently tease some gossip out of his sideman, so with not much interest in the football, for the rest of this blog here are some highlights of Gordon Strachan’s thinking as confessed to John Helm in summer ’92. Like about Batty playing right-back for England at the European Championships:

“Yes, it has been mentioned in a training a few times, John.”
“Does he like it?”
“I think just to play for his country he was delighted. But it’s definitely not David’s best position.”

On Gary McAllister’s condition after playing at the Euros with Scotland; according to Helm, “He looks leaner, fitter, hungrier, everything is Gary McAllister at the moment.”

“Funny you say leaner, about Gary McAllister. He actually put on about seven pounds in weight in the summer. And he’s quite delighted about that because the boys have been ribbing him about his physique, and I’m sure that’s going to help him out as well, this season.”

Lee Chapman’s form:

“I honestly think Lee Chapman is now playing better football than any time in his career, and he’s also a better athlete now. He’s worked so hard at training in the last three years. He’s been unbelievable.”

John Lukic’s ability in goal:

“Big John is always ready for everything, there was no chance of that shot going in. Big John’s got everything worked out when he’s playing, big John. I’m convinced we have got the number one goalkeeper in the league here.”

And about the new kit Big John is wearing, with a yellow flash across the chest:

“John’s commented on it, but obviously I can’t comment on the telly about that. It looks like Big John has been hit by lightning.”

There are troubling signs when Lukic has to deal with a free-kick coming through the defensive wall:

“That’s not like our wall, John. The ball went right through the wall, and it’s something we pride ourselves on, that we’ve got a very brave wall.”

Although when Stuart Pearce is involved with free-kicks:

“When Leeds play against Stuart Pearce, the manager gives incentives for the wall to stop him scoring goals. And there’s never been an incentive big enough to get me to go in the wall.”

There’s more to come from Batty:

“Yeah, always, David has been exceptional for the last few years, but I always think he can do more. I think when you watch him in training, he can hit the ball at goals, he can pass the ball fifty, sixty yards. We’ve definitely not seen the best of David Batty.”

And new signing David Rocastle:

“It’s not easy, especially with the price tag David’s got on his head. People expect a lot from him. And today especially, it’s looked hard for him, sometimes I thought he looked a bit tired. But that’s due to nervousness sometimes, when you get a bit nervous you lose a bit of your fitness. Nervous tension, John, and you start to lose a bit, but since he just scored that goal he looks a bit better. Dave is a wonderful player. I’ve always admired him, when he played for Arsenal against us at Manchester United. I know Alex Ferguson loved him as well, as a player. And we are all delighted that we’ve got David. He’s got plenty of time on his side to become a real class player. He is a good player just now, he can really fulfil his promise here under Howard Wilkinson.”

When Hodge and then Wallace both hit the bar in one attack:

“At least we know the crossbar works well, John.”

And about Howard Wilkinson’s admiration for German football:

“He says The Germans are organised so well,” says Helm, “They’re like the Peggy Spencer dance formation team.”
“That sounds like one of the boss’s quotes, yes.”
“Well, I know what he meant.”
“I’m glad you did.”

In case you’re as confused as Gordon, here’s a bit about Peggy Spencer:

Strachan is keen on the German style, too, but in particular their captain Guido Buchwald, nominally a defender.

“That face looks like it’s seen a few battles, John. I love watching Buchwald, John. I think I love watching people with the attitude that he’s got to the game. He’s up and down that park, he wants to win the game even though it’s a friendly, or it’s meant to be a friendly. But he really wants to win this game. Great example to the rest of his team. There’s no doubt who’s the boss of this side, John,” he adds, when Buchwald is in attack trying to get an equaliser. “I think the big fella just plays where he wants to play.”

“I’m sure you would love to play against him?” asks Helm.

“Oh, I dream of it every day, John.”

And he enjoys watching Eric Cantona, on as a late substitute, when he traps a pass and nutmegs a defender.

“Pleasure to watch that, John. Absolutely magnificent footwork from a man who is about six foot three. Strength, balance, skill, everything involved there.”

And lastly, back to the midfielders’ waist lines, and the new Admiral kit:

“Am I mistaken,” asks Helm, “or has David Batty put on the odd pound as well?”

“I think it’s just the strip, John.” ⬢

(This post is part of TSB’s Pre-Season Week 2021. Click here to read more pre-season stories)


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