After losing 4-0 to Manchester City and being knocked out of the Coca-Cola Cup by Watford took Leeds United’s winless streak to seven, Howard Wilkinson told the press he was off to a health farm for the weekend to recover. “I’ll be drinking lemon juice and carrot juice, eating lettuce and reading some books on philosophy,” he said.
Patrick Andersson, one of the Swedish international defenders Wilkinson was hoping to buy to solve United’s defensive crisis, reckoned Wilko had relaxed too much. “It was midnight and he was in his dressing gown,” he complained about their hotel meeting. “He thought he could discuss my future in ten minutes but he was wrong.” Despite being offered £1,500 a week, Andersson and his pal Joachim Björklund were unimpressed by the prospect of joining Leeds.
Wilkinson didn’t seem to mind. Mel Sterland was almost ready to make his comeback in the reserves, while Tony Dorigo’s return to fitness meant the back four that finished the previous season as champions were back together, with Jon Newsome at right-back in place of Sterland. During the international break, Wilkinson said, “I just worked with the back four all week. We tried to get two or three things clear in our minds, establish a positive attitude.
“Success can be a poor friend, a very effective enemy,” he added, considering how United had stalled in six months since winning the biggest prize in English football. “We have to knuckle down, close ranks and dig in.”
It was necessary work. In those seven winless games, Leeds had conceded sixteen goals. In 23 league and cup games, Leeds had kept two clean sheets. Arsenal were coming to Elland Road after winning their previous six matches; they were without striker Alan Smith, but Wilkinson pointed out that the remaining forward line — Ian Wright, Kevin Campbell, Paul Merson and Anders Limpar — were “the best four in the Premier League.” Before the match Ian Wright said, “Leeds have got something we want – the League title – and we’re going to do our best to go out and get it,” and taking things from Leeds was not usually a problem for Arsenal, who hadn’t lost to United since their return to the top flight.
But Leeds had taken the title from Arsenal, and Wright, who joined at the start of their defence of it, said he understood what Leeds were going through.
“Everybody wants to beat you. Teams who might play badly the previous week then raise their game immensely against you with their players performing like internationals. Leeds are finding that as well.” His manager, George Graham, was refusing to believe Leeds wouldn’t recover their form and challenge — publicly, at least. “This is going to be the most open championship race for years and I’m taking no notice of people who are writing off Leeds,” he said, although it had the feel of mind games.
Graham felt any psychological upper hand he’d gained slipping away at four o’clock on the morning of the match, when he and his players were shivering in November rain outside the Holiday Inn in Leeds, their hotel evacuated by a bomb scare from a hoax caller. “I don’t think it was Howard,” said Graham. “He doesn’t have an Irish accent.”
While he did have a well drilled back four to face up to Arsenal’s powerful forwards, Wilkinson was missing two key players. Injury to Eric Cantona meant that Rod Wallace was back to partner Lee Chapman in attack, but the team was prevented from returning to its classic title-winning shape as David Batty was injured too. Gary Speed moved into the centre in his place alongside Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan swapped wings to the left, and £2m summer signing David Rocastle got his first Premier League start for Leeds, at last, playing on the right wing against his boyhood club. He had, “nothing to prove to Arsenal,” he said, “It wasn’t as if I was a flop there”; but after almost four months in the reserves at his new club, he did have something to prove to Leeds.
Leeds, after such a dreadful run of form, had something to prove to themselves, and in driving rain on a muddy pitch, they suddenly looked more like themselves. Batty’s absence was a blow, but it was counteracted by Rocastle’s determination to impress; Cantona’s absence was a blow, but without him the team were freed from trying to work out how to play with him. The reliance on Chapman’s aerial threat had increased almost in defiance of Cantona’s demands for the ball to feet, and without Cantona to distract them from the playing style of almost three years, that reliance reduced. Instead of aiming long balls at the striker, the ball went to Strachan, McAllister and Rocastle’s feet, and only to Chapman’s head when their instincts told them it was right.
It was one of those Elland Road afternoons when the intensity of the crowd is matched by the intent of the players. Straight from the kick-off Strachan was cutting back on his right foot to cross from the left, and any confusion about seeing Strachan on the wrong wing was lost as the Kop urged the ball towards Chapman. David Seaman caught the cross, but Leeds were showing they wouldn’t sit back against the team coming for their title.
A pass from Wallace almost found Speed, and Rocastle slid to block Arsenal’s pass out; Wallace got the ball back and a backheel from Speed almost completed a one-two. Leeds collected the loose ball again, Dorigo giving it to Strachan, whose cross towards Wallace was cleared from above his head by Tony Adams. Strachan took control again and took on Lee Dixon, who knew what Strachan would do — cut inside and cross — but was bemused when Strachan took the ball on his left to the byline. He slipped, the perfect chance for the ball to go back to Strachan’s right foot and over towards Chapman. The cross evaded Seaman and Chapman too, but the pressure was building.
It kept building. Rocastle swerved towards Arsenal’s centre-backs, passing into Wallace and creating space for a return; he’d made so much space Wallace had time to turn and shoot straight at Seaman. An inswinging cross from Strachan dropped onto Wallace’s head, unmarked six yards in front of Seaman, but his effort sent the ball wide of the far post and wide of Chapman, waiting behind him to bury. Chapman flicked on a corner to Speed’s feet, but even though he was just outside the six yard box his sidefooted shot was stuck in the mud just inside and Seaman grabbed it. Even Chapman tried shooting, from 25 yards, but that was never a good idea.
United were dominating, Fairclough and Dorigo brushing Wright off the ball whenever he came near; his best chance came in the second half when a poor back pass from his old friend Rocastle got caught in the mud. As Rocastle watched with his hands on his head, Lukic dived at Wright’s feet to block his shot.
By half-time United’s only worry was not scoring. Arsenal had bigger problems. This game is now famous for the injury to David Seaman, that at the time was euphemistically described as to his ‘side’, but that he revealed years later was a touch further south. Chapman’s studs had met Seaman’s groin, and while Strachan was yelling at him to get up, Arsenal’s physio was trying to work out where the blood was coming from. His punctured scrotum, as if turned out. “Gordon was like ‘Oh, sorry, big man’,” says Seaman.
He wasn’t helped when he had to tip a wayward cross from McAllister over the bar and crashed into the post. Seaman talks now about how he was taped up at half-time and finished the match, but his memory is failing him there: early in the second half, as Arsenal prepared to face a corner, Adams was signalling frantically to the bench that Seaman couldn’t continue, Dixon and Steve Bould joining in with ‘stretcher’ gestures while Leeds organised their attack. There was no time for a change before Strachan clipped his corner into the near post where Whyte flicked it on, high and looping into the six yard box where Fairclough was already in the air; Seaman winced with every flat step to his left, and Fairclough buried his header into the top of the net.
All Seaman could do was jog off to the touchline where Alan Miller was waiting to replace him, but after scoring one classic goal to take the lead — the Whyte to Fairclough corner coming straight from Howard Wilkinson’s relentless training ground practice — Leeds couldn’t wait to score another. Within five minutes it was 2-0. Rocastle skipped around three tackles in midfield and passed to Wallace on the right wing. He knew what to do: aim a cross at Chapman. He leathered the ball into the box at a consistent height of six feet from the floor along a line with the penalty spot, where Chapman’s forehead was waiting to redirect it over Miller’s dive and into the corner.
Classic Wallace, classic Chapman, classic Leeds; all set up by the new boy, Rocastle. Celebrations broke out all over the pitch: some ran to Chapman, while Rocastle carried Wallace in his arms until he had to put him down to embrace Strachan. Even Ian Wright was impressed, putting his arm round Chapman as they waited for the restart, admiring the finish.
Even with thirty minutes left Leeds knew they’d won the game, but it took until the end for McAllister to add the gloss. It was worth waiting for. After a corner and a Chapman header, Leeds produced a goal from the artistic end of their midfield repertoire. Strachan snuck up on John Jensen and hassled him into giving the ball away, making him look even more foolish with a turn and flick that opened up the centre of the pitch. McAllister was running there between the centre-halves and Strachan’s pass into his path was perfect; a deft lift over Miller’s dive sent the ball gently into the net with one bounce, and McAllister rushing to the corner to celebrate. Three goals, three points, a clean sheet, and a win.
“We’ll tell in the next month whether it’s all been worthwhile, or whether today was just one of those days,” said Wilkinson about the work he’d done with the defence to earn the clean sheet that allowed Leeds to score three. “It was very, very important to get a win, but probably just as important for us was the performance.”
It was just as important, too, to find reinforcements. Andersson and Björklund seemed determined to sulk in Sweden, but paper talk linking Leeds to Manchester City’s Ian Brightwell grew after Mel Sterland turned his damaged ankle before he was even able to take to the pitch for his comeback in the reserves. Despite the comprehensive win over Arsenal, Wilkinson urgently needed to find the right-back he hadn’t looked for in summer.
But Leeds weren’t the only team looking for recruits in vital areas. Manchester United had gone four games without scoring before beating Oldham 3-0, ending a run of five draws followed by two defeats. Angry fans at their Annual General Meeting were demanding cuts to ticket prices and manager Alex Ferguson was under pressure to sign a striker. “To be honest, we are all very annoyed about it,” said Sheffield Wednesday manager Trevor Francis when a £3.5m offer came in writing from Old Trafford for his striker David Hirst. “This offer has come through despite the fact that I have told Alex Ferguson, and our chairman has told their chairman, he is not for sale,” said Francis.
Sheffield Wednesday had finished 3rd behind Leeds and Manchester United the previous season, just three points from 2nd, and although they had just been knocked out of the UEFA Cup Francis was not going to let Hirst leave while the team was among the new Premier League’s front runners. Alex Ferguson would have to find another way of solving his goalscoring crisis; Howard Wilkinson would have to keep looking for a right-back. ◉