Leeds was at a cultural crossroads in the mid-1990s. The Development Corporation were putting up new buildings as part of regenerating the riverside, but when it came to burying a time capsule to show future generations what life was like in 1994, gossip said they’d baulked at including the day’s newspapers. The headlines were dominated by the ‘cash for questions’ affair engulfing the Conservative government, and they didn’t want to upset the Minister for Environment at the sealing up ceremony. So October 1994 was represented by objects including a letter from Leeds City Council, a Leeds United scarf, and a Cindy Crawford fitness video. Make of that what you will, future Leodensians.
Channel 4 had wanted to film in the city but at the last moment The Word’s camera crew were refused entry to a pool where 400 nudists were taking part in an international swimming gala. A Channel 4 ‘insider’ complained: “We’ve wasted a huge amount of money going all the way to Yorkshire for nothing. We had also hoped to persuade [presenter] Dani Behr to don a bikini or even go topless. We had promised to observe personal privacy — we could have done pictures without willies.”
There was more success that weekend at Guiseley. Because Leeds United weren’t playing until Monday night, there was a bumper crowd at Nethermoor to see the Lions ease past Durham City into the first round proper of the FA Cup, two Geoff Horsfield goals helping their 6-0 win. In midfield was Vince Brockie, a mid-1980s hopeful at Billy Bremner’s Leeds United. Howard Wilkinson had allowed him to join Bremner at Doncaster Rovers, while Wilko got on with building a team fit for the Premier League.
Sort of. Leeds had won the First Division but the Premier League was different, and the general cultural awkwardness of 1994 was shared at Elland Road. Youngster Noel Whelan had hit scoring form, but Leeds had only won once in six weeks, and reports said they were scouting Dortmund’s 29-year-old striker Karl-Heinz Riedle ahead of a ‘£2.5m swoop’. Gary McAllister had just signed a new five-year deal to secure his quality alongside Gary Speed, but David Batty had gone to Blackburn, and the midfield in Wilkinson’s forward-looking 4-3-3 formation was completed by Nigel Worthington, the oldest of old boys from Wilko’s days at Sheffield Wednesday.
It was like there was a bug in Wilko’s succession planning. How had Leeds ended up with Worthington in midfield? They’d spent £2m on David Rocastle to replace Gordon Strachan, and another £900,000 on Scott Sellars. Both had now gone, and Rocastle was swapped for David White, who was more suited to the front three, when he was fit. Worthington would work all day for Wilkinson, but with his 33rd birthday a week away, he could only do it very slowly.
Oh, for the days when honest young grafters could be picked out of non-league or the youth team and would wait patiently, eagerly, to help. But Simon Grayson, a slight but stylish midfielder signed on the same day as Gary Speed, whose route to Leeds’ first team was blocked by McAllister, was now captain of Leicester’s promotion side, from right-back; and Mike Whitlow, Wilkinson’s first signing in a joint deal with Neil Parsley from Witton Albion, was doing his usual business of playing anywhere anyone asked him to, plugging a hole in Leicester’s central defence. Whitlow and Parsley, as it goes, were the signings that pushed Vince Brockie further down the pecking order and out of the club. Bill Fotherby might be lapping up the reports on Riedle, but I wonder if Wilkinson would have preferred to have all those eager lads back.
Leicester, though, were struggling to adapt to the Premier League, and Whitlow was no centre-half. Tony Dorigo crossed to Brian Deane and his knockdowns to Whelan and Rod Wallace put Leicester in a panic, and that was the game, over and over. A Wallace volley just went over the bar. A Wallace shot was just tipped onto the post, bouncing back into danger but calmly put behind by Whitlow. Speed made a clever run but couldn’t finish. Another Wallace shot was deflected wide. From a lucky deflection off Grayson’s heel, Speed took the ball and shot just wide. McAllister, taking his time twisting and turning with the ball, crossed for Wallace, whose header across goal was smashed against the bar by Whelan, the keeper stopping an own goal in the aftermath then letting a Worthington shot go wide.
Where Whitlow and Grayson, with Nicky Mohan and Neil Lewis ahead of goalkeeper Gavin Ward, were giving their all to keep their team in the game and the division, Leeds United’s defence was an example of how easily status can be given away. Without a holding midfielder, centre-back Carlton Palmer made it his mission to stride out of defence with the ball, and, ten minutes into the second half, to crumple in a heap under pressure from Julian Joachim and leave a huge gap behind him next to David Wetherall. Gary Speed, not for the first time in the match, had seen the danger Palmer was creating, but he couldn’t get back in time: Mark Draper got his pass right, and Mark Blake got the ball past John Lukic.
That was 1-1, and persistence paid off in the end for Leeds: ten minutes later, another Dorigo cross, and another header, but Noel Whelan this time, in off the bar, over the line before Wallace made sure. Leeds got through the rest of the match without too much trouble.
With Palmer at the back, Worthington in midfield and a striker from the Bundesliga just a hopeful fantasy, that five year contract for McAllister was United’s one hope for a brighter future in the rest of the nineties. Amid the high balls, screwed up chances and defensive mistakes, he’d opened the scoring in the 35th minute. Defending a throw-in, Whitlow headed a cross clear beyond the corner of Leicester’s penalty area, where McAllister received the ball on his chest. Left alone by Franz Carr and taking stock of Simon Grayson, he edged into the area, tilting his hips as if to sway past: but why bother, when with a couple of steps inside and a scoop of his right foot, the ball could travel low and curving around Mohan and Ward and into the far bottom corner on its own? McAllister scored a lot of goals like this, treating the strip of land outside the penalty area like his artist’s studio, pacing up and down before the canvas until he found inspiration. He’d found it now, so off the ball went, into the net, a goal fit for a time capsule, the one beauty spot Leeds had to offer. ◉