Leeds United’s trip to South Africa in summer 1995, a year after signing Philemon Masinga and Lucas Radebe, a year before the post-apartheid nation hosted and won the African Cup of Nations, has faded from club history, partly because we lost both games, partly because, as a caption on the Pride of Yorkshire 1995/96 Volume 1 video puts it, ‘The South Africans are pretty mean. We lost, and they won’t let us show the TV pictures.’
So there isn’t much footage. There were photos, and some of these were included in the club magazine as confusing posters, Tony Yeboah and Gary McAllister in action against unfamiliar players in weird kits who turned out to be representing Mamelodi Sundowns and Benfica in games that, in pre-internet times, not many knew had been played. Some people found out later, watching a behind-the-scenes video report on that Pride of Yorkshire VHS cassette, introduced with these words: ‘Whites in South Africa — we follow the lads to the dark continent.’ Oh, great. Fortunately there’s no more of that, just the usual lazy mix of dusty streets in Soweto with downtempo flute music, and Nigel Worthington dismissing the Sundowns’ wingers as fast, a virtue that never seemed to interest him. “When you’re playing in these sorts of countries you expect that type of player. But for all their pace and trickery, they don’t really go around people or attack people in the way they should do.” He’s saying this after the game against Sundowns, when one report describes Leeds being ‘tormented down both flanks’. But Nigel says, “We coped quite well overall.”
That’s the football, though, and the real value in this footage is the opportunity to follow a very relaxed Howard Wilkinson on his busman’s holiday, aviator shades fixed to his face as the coach speeds from the hotel to training, singing along to Chris Rea on the radio: ‘Fool if you think it’s over.’
Sergeant Wilko has the same energy here as that viral TikTok of the fellow on his skateboard vibing to Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, and it’s absolutely magnificent. As is his reaction when the players can’t find their own shoes in the big crate they’ve all been chucked into. “Oh, no!” he groans. “Right, everyone back on the bus!” When the shoes are sorted out, of course they’re practising set-pieces.
He’s enjoying the reception being given to his reserve striker, the returning Mamelodi Sundowns and international football legend, Phil Masinga. Vuvuzelas, dancing, chanting: ‘Phil! Phil! Waltzing Masinga!’ “It was the sort of welcome that I’ve seen the likes of Pele and Maradona get.” Wilkinson is oscillating between building his striker up alongside Pele, and knocking him down like he’s Carl Shutt. “We might find another South African gem out here,” he says at the sponsors’ press conference. “Or we might find our first South African gem out here.” In the team meeting before the opening match against the Sundowns, Wilkinson puts him on the spot about their stadium. “What’s the capacity, Phil? 60,000? And I’m told it’s gonna be full? Right? Therefore,” he says, turning to the rest of the players, “the team, discretion being the better part of valour, will be Phil Masinga and fucking ten others.” He made Masinga captain for the night and took him off in the second half, presumably to get an ovation. Not, I imagine, so that Leeds could lose 1-0 to a last minute goal, but that’s what they did. The referee had not joined in the fun, disallowing an offside Masinga goal in the first minute.
Wilko had been relaxed before the game, leaning back in a chair on the sidelines and chuckling as the camera appears. “Hello Jon,” he says, as if an old friend has come down the pub, “he’s there again, look.” He’s delighted to see Leeds fans in the stadium, striding across the pitch all smiles to meet them. “They’ve come in today haven’t they, from Leeds?” asks Wilko. “It’s the same guys that were in Malaysia,” on the last summer tour, says Gary McAllister. Noel Whelan comes over to a see woman he knows. “Y’alright?” he says. When the players are lining up for presentation to the crowd, Bill Fotherby shakes hands with each one as if he’s a dignitary being introduced to them for the first time, and definitely doesn’t pay their wages and wasn’t on the plane over with them. Everyone’s having a lovely time.
After the first game is lost, they’re all off to a mall, and while the players admire a size 21 basketball shoe and Fotherby examines belts, Wilko is in the background claiming he’s just seen a navy blue handbag like this one three shops over at a better price. He doesn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for this shopping trip, unlike Tony Yeboah, who was buying fistfuls of perfume at duty free before the flight out.
Wilko has more energy when he leaves the players behind and takes a trip out to Soweto, finding a gaggle of tiny kids pushing a big tyre around in the street and switching into kindly PE teacher mode. “Where do you live?” he asks, still behind his aviators. “Have you been to school today? I bet that’s your brother. What’s his name?” The kids all get sweets from Wilko’s guide. “Woah!” says Wilko, “Eh?” Further along there’s a street soccer game, players flicking their tatty ball over stray bricks and concrete blocks with the kind of skill and close control Nigel Worthington would dismiss as ineffective. “So it’s the street cup final?” asks Wilko. “Who’s the best player?” Everybody’s hand goes up and the kids realise they have to make an impression if they’re going to win a contract in the Premier League. “I’m the best defender!” one says, crafty like, as if he’s heard about Richard Jobson failing his medical. “Does the worst player go in goal?” asks Wilko.
He has a lesson to share. “Everybody thought Sundowns would lose,” Wilko tells them. “But because they tried hard, they beat us. If you try hard enough, you can do anything.” The scene changes before we hear any of the kids asking if the result hadn’t more to do with Nigel Worthington’s chronic lack of pace. Howard’s off to see the house where Nelson Mandela used to live. “I’ve seen bigger houses,” he says, peering through the fence at a broken down cottage. “It’s a bit different to where Winston Churchill grew up.”
Clambering down from a high view point over Johannesburg, Wilkinson stumbles across a pile of clothes and belongings scattered at the edge of their path, right where the cameraman just happens to be standing ready to film him coming along, and I’m not saying it’s staged but Howard is doing that walk as if somebody just told him to walk, on three, now. “Somebody got mugged,” says his guide. “Somebody got mugged, look,” says Wilko, pointing. “Somebody got mugged,” repeats the guide. Wilko’s in to investigate, picking up and unzipping a small washbag. I can’t be absolutely certain, but after pulling out what really seems to be a scrunched up bunch of women’s underpants, he quickly zips it up, tosses it on the ground, and wipes his hands on his shorts. “A good day was had by all!” he announces as he walks away, the sort of thing people say when they don’t really know what to say but are expected to say something. Meanwhile the camera zooms in on the washbag, a striped shirt and an orange handkerchief, that all look to have been pulled from a blue sports bag.
Back to teaching. Wilkinson is with the squad again for a training session with a local team, putting his arms around their goalkeepers and introducing them to John Lukic. “Leeds United, Arsenal. Alright? He’s going to look after you.”
Well, yes and no. We cut to John midway through a lecture to one young goalie. Presumably this custodian has made a bit of a showbiz attempt. “It’s not necessary to dive,” Lukic tells him, walking forward with a finger out for emphasis, his thick wedge of brown hair rustling in the breeze. “When you watch a golfer, when you watch any good sportsman, the only thing that you’ll see in a good sportsman is, you’ll say ‘Christ'” — pointing to his temple then away again — “‘That looks easy.’ Yeah? Now the easier it looks, the better the sportsman. Do you understand? Yeah? Think what I said to you.” There’s a long pause as John lets his words sink in. Then he drops the ball and kicks it into the goalie’s hands. “Don’t snatch the ball!” says John, not easing up one bit. “Don’t snatch it! Let the ball hit your hands! Don’t let your hands hit the ball!” He’s not wrong but Christ he’s a bit intense.
Finally it’s back to the stadium to play Benfica in the 3rd/4th play-off the sponsors hoped would be the final, until their Portuguese guests lost as well, to Kaizer Chiefs. In the dressing room, the formation has been drawn on a flattened cardboard box that is hanging over the edge of a cupboard from three bits of masking tape. We’re playing 4-3-2-1, the good old Christmas tree. “Brian Deane’s position on the corners: important,” says Wilko. “Full-backs, get yourselves on the ball. Nigel, Gary Kelly, get on the ball. As much as you can, get on the ball. Not necessarily off Mark Beeney all the time, but get on the ball.”
McAllister is very relaxed as he introduces the players to the South African Minister for Sport. “This is Tony Yeboah,” he says, introducing Tony Yeboah. “Gary Speed,” he says, as the Minister shakes hands with Gary Kelly. “Lee Chapman,” but it’s Mark Tinkler. “David Wetherall,” and that is David Wetherall. “Eusebio.” Ah, now, Gary, you know that’s Rod Wallace. “Terry Butcher.” “Ah, Butcher himself?” asks the Minister, as he grasps the hand being offered. “Butcher, yep,” says John Pemberton.
At half-time, after Mick Hennigan hands out the cold towels (not a euphemism), it seems like the pre-game plan is working too well. “Attacking wise, if you see it, play it,” Wilko tells the players, referring back to his cardboard box. “There’s times when you knock it out to the full-back, you have so many touches, that when it comes to the full-back, the midfielder’s on his way. One touch, play it! And sometimes at full-back it’s the same, Gary Kelly especially, you go one, two, three,” Wilko miming a limp across the dressing room, “Four. If there’s nowt on on one touch, and there’s a little ball there to Tinks, say, ‘There y’are Tinks,’ and now there might be summat on. Cos if there’s nowt on early, it’s hardly likely there’s gonna be owt on late!” I get the feeling Nigel Worthington’s been hearing that line since 1984.
But it doesn’t work. David Wetherall is sent off for a second yellow, getting called ‘Bad boy Wetherall’ when the news reaches the English press, and because it’s 0-0 after ninety minutes it’s straight to penalties and an earnest debate about the order. “What are you asking for?” in the line-up, McAllister asks Speed, adding, “Four is the one.” Wilko asks McAllister, “Do you wanna go four?” McAllister replies as if he wasn’t suggesting that, but if you’re twisting his arm, then alright, go on then. “I’ll go four,” with a shrug, “Four is the one that wins it,” explaining it to Speed, then as if he’s given his ulterior motive away, “Generally.” Right, so Macca is going four and ‘generally’ just might be the hero. What about Pembo? “Do you wanna go one?” Wilko asks him. “I’ll go one, I don’t mind,” he replies. “I wanna get off to a good start,” Wilko tells him, and Pembo puffs out his chest. “I’ll go one then,” and you can see why Wilko loves him. He could have asked Pembo to take all of them and go in goal as well, and he would have said, “I’ll do that, I don’t mind.”
Pembo does get them off to a good start, but Macca is not the hero. Whoever took them, the first five were all scored by both teams, and the reports say there was then a ‘long delay’, presumably to sort the rest of the order. Noel Whelan hit the sixth against the bar, then Benfica scored and won 6-5.
Back to England, and a Wallace Arnold coach, with the soothing homecoming sounds of long wave radio Atlantic 252. “We’re here again on Wednesday,” says someone as they pull away from the airport. Eh? “We’re going again on Wednesday.” It’s a quick turnaround before they’re off to Germany to play Bayer Leverkusen. That’s what qualifying for the UEFA Cup gets you: friendlies away in Europe to prepare. There’s no behind the scenes footage, but the club magazine catches a few words from the manager about the rigours of a Wilkinson pre-season, while they’re up at Weetwood playing fields. “Lady Di pays a fortune for this kind of thing!” he’s yelling at his exhausted players as they slump to the ground after a half-hour bout of bleep test sprints. “Some players’ wives, and managers’ wives, pay a personal trainer for this!” ⬢
(This post is part of TSB’s Pre-Season Week 2021. Click here to read more pre-season stories)