The new era beginning with the Premier League in summer 1992 was supposed to be a confident flex by the biggest clubs in England, but as August waned, they were tip-toeing towards their new riches, as hesitant as a goalkeeper gripped by fear of the new backpass rule.
The future was now, but what were they supposed to do with it? The positive answers were coming from Norwich and Coventry, leading the table in the early weeks, while Manchester United and their new big money striker, Dion Dublin, were rock bottom. With them in the bottom three were Tottenham Hotspur, struggling to adapt not only to the whole new ball game but to life without Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne. Chief executive Terry Venables and head coach Doug Livermore had spent £3.5m on Darren Anderton, Neil Ruddock, Jason Cundy and Dean Austin. From three games they had two goals and two points.
Leeds United had the momentum of champions. On the eve of the season they won the Charity Shield by beating Liverpool, then they got going in the league by beating Wimbledon at Elland Road and drawing 1-1 at Aston Villa, the performance hailed as among their best since Howard Wilkinson took charge in 1988, if not the result.
Then they went to Ayresome Park.
“I had a feeling this morning, and again before the match, that something wasn’t quite right,” said Wilkinson. “Perhaps it was something they ate.”
Middlesbrough had joined in with the gatecrashing revolt underway in the new league by beating the champions 4-1, overrunning the country’s best midfield and making a mockery of a once mean defence. A gallery of ghosts taunted Leeds: Tommy Wright, let go from Elland Road in 1986, scored one and made more; John Hendrie, quickly discarded from United’s promotion team, scored the fourth.
“We were well turned over by a better team,” said Wilkinson. “They headed better, tackled better, passed better, finished better. You name it, we didn’t do it, you name it, they did do it. All credit to them.” It was much too soon to draw conclusions about the season ahead, he added. He would make the players watch the video first, and fast, because they had to play Spurs on Tuesday night.
Wilkinson had options to change things. New signings David Rocastle and Scott Sellars were ready and waiting. Gordon Strachan was on the bench, back superhumanly early from an operation on his back, with Steve Hodge sitting next to him, a now perennially frustrated former Spurs and England player. But if Wilkinson had one virtue it was trust. “You do get one of these displays now and again,” he mused in Middlesbrough. “If I knew why it was they occurred, I would do something about it.” His solution before, and his solution now, was to send the same players out for the next game and try again.
Within half an hour Wilko’s instincts were proven right, although there might have been a little frustration for him in that. There was no new data, nothing to indicate a reason or cause, but where on Saturday they’d been 2-0 down, on Tuesday night Leeds were 2-0 up, and desperate for more. When Spurs restarted after Leeds’ second, they couldn’t even play out of their own half before they were tackled and Leeds were attacking; Strachan was sprinting from the bench to get the ball back into play. Tottenham held out for five minutes before United had their third.
One feature of the new rule preventing goalkeepers from picking up passes was how it functioned as a signpost of nerves. United were putting Spurs under pressure from the start, but it was only when Erik Thorstvedt sliced a pass behind himself and out for a corner that the Kop at his back sensed blood. That corner should have produced the first goal, when the ball landed at Chris Whyte’s feet, but he was too surprised to finish before Spurs scrambled clear. From another corner Eric Cantona tried an overhead kick from the edge of the box. Spurs were looking like a team who might let one of those in.
The first they did concede, just before twenty minutes were up, came from open play and came from a back pass problem. Cantona flicked the ball to David Batty in midfield, got it back, then had it taken off him as approached the penalty area, a tackle sending the ball wide of Thorstvedt’s goal. Trying to prevent a corner, the goalie’s heavy first touch gave the ball to Rod Wallace, who shot into the empty goal from a very narrow angle.
Seven minutes later it was 2-0, Gary Speed booting a dropping ball over his head as he himself dropped to the ground, Chapman and Cantona trading looping headers on the edge of the penalty area, the ball finally coming down in front of Cantona, who bounced his volley across Thorstvedt into the far corner. Then the hunt for the third began, satisfied in five minutes, when Jon Newsome and Gary McAllister took the ball from Spurs and Batty chipped a cross to the front post, where Cantona did a decent impression of Chapman to head in.
The three goal advantage didn’t mean a reduction in the tempo that Leeds had been steadily increasing since October 1988, but there was something new in their play that hadn’t been there before. It wasn’t just the way Cantona was floating around Chapman while Wallace tormented the wings, but the way Batty was playing further forward with McAllister, the way Speed’s hair was long. Under Wilkinson Leeds always had belligerence, bending teams to their will with free-kicks and fitness, but now there was arrogance, expressed through frequent backheels and new kinds of risks, starting even before they’d taken the lead. That was, perhaps, the prerogative of champions. But it was also an easy way of giving the ball away, and Leeds were fortunate they were only giving it to Spurs.
Tottenham began the second half as if meaning to fight their way back into the game, their players squaring up to McAllister. Then Wallace dribbled to the byline and crossed, Chapman’s header was deflected, and Cantona was unmarked to volley in his hat-trick. The Spurs renaissance was undone within two minutes by their own terrible defending, and Leeds kept pressing for more, Cantona putting McAllister through their offside trap, McAllister doing the same for Wallace, Thorstvedt desperately trying to protect his goal. Spurs hopes of attacking the other way fell apart as Leeds kept catching them offside, sometimes only one yard inside their half, and when Gordon Durie did try breaking forward, Chris Fairclough put a stop to that with a crunching tackle. Fairclough could be found in attack as often as in defence, now, a sign of how easy Leeds were having it.
The fifth and final goal came in the 66th minute, Batty pouncing on Ruddock’s loose control and chipping the ball first time over Edinburgh to the edge of the area, tempting Thorstvedt out of goal, where the ball bounced and span away from him, to Cantona. He laid it off square to Chapman and stuck his arms in the air to celebrate, before Chapman stuck the ball into the empty net.
The last half hour was uneventful save for Leeds’ half-chances and some very late madness when Thorstvedt picked up a backpass on the edge of his own six yard box. That meant an indirect free-kick, although McAllister was trying his own interpretation of the rules, first kicking the ball into the net while the referee debated the situation with the Spurs players, and running off celebrating as if the goal should count; then, while arguments went on about how to put a wall ten yards away from a free-kick six yards from goal, he kept hissing at Cantona, trying to convince him to lay the ball off so he could shoot before Spurs were ready. Eventually Cantona and McAllister tried that after the ref’s whistle, and the ball was scrambled clear. The referee’s elastic sense of distance was then felt on the edge of the penalty area at the other end, where Durie furiously paced out eight yards between Spurs’ free-kick and Leeds’ wall, and was ignored. Wallace blocked their shot and Cantona was hacked down on the break, the referee stepping in before he could add to his hat-trick by taking violent revenge.
Wilkinson’s post-match reflections suggested he’d mellowed since Middlesbrough. “In the last four seasons we have come back like this every time we have been beaten,” he said. “There was not much wrong on Saturday, and the same players deserved the chance to rectify matters.”
While Spurs went straight out and, for the third time that summer, signed Teddy Sheringham — actually completing the deal this time, for £2.1m — the back pages were more concerned with Eric Cantona’s hat-trick. “I am pleased for Eric,” said Wilkinson. “He has come to terms with English football. He has got a lot to offer.” He also had to go to Paris. The very next night France were playing a friendly against Brazil, which they won 2-0, Cantona getting there in time but only to sit, unused, on the bench. He was straight back on Thursday to get ready for Leeds’ game with Liverpool on Saturday. After all that, Cantona decided, France manager Gerard Houllier would have to do without him for their World Cup qualifier in Bulgaria in two weeks’ time. Leeds had reasserted themselves, confident about the future, but Houllier said, “Eric told me he didn’t feel mentally ready to play for France.” ⬢