Leeds United at home to Middlesbrough, in the early weeks of a Second Division promotion campaign, evokes memories of 1989/90, our last promotion season.
And you can call it a campaign right from the start, until you know for certain that it is a promotion season, or not. As Marcelo Bielsa said this week, if we read anything into league positions at this stage we make a mistake, because “the goals are definitive ones, not partial ones.” In other words, you only get promoted at the end of the season, and that’s the only goal.
But to do that it helps if you start winning promotion from the earliest stage, and that is an advantage Bielsa has already taken over United’s last Second Division promotion winning manager, Howard Wilkinson. In 1989 he had the euphoria, and he had the definitive goal, but when Leeds played Middlesbrough, he didn’t yet have the promotion winning start.
What he had was a bit of a shambles. Wilkinson saw enough of 1988/89 — in person, not on video, as he was already manager — to know that his play-off near-missers were not good enough; he extracted a couple of million from Leslie Silver, and sent Bill Fotherby out shopping. It’s often assumed that was enough; meticulous Wilkinson drilled the new players in his methods, put them on the pitch, and promotion was won: the end. History often records the destination, not the journey.
But that misses much. Pre-season veered between average and poor; Doncaster Rovers were beaten, but a draw with Rotherham United and defeat to Halifax Town were thin fare, and a 5-1 defeat to Anderlecht at Elland Road was a disaster. The season itself opened at Newcastle United, and what happened there is often remembered; the big-spending optimists of Leeds were beaten 5-2.
It didn’t dull enthusiasm for the first home game, on a Wednesday evening, against Middlesbrough, but Elland Road didn’t feel like a place that had a grip on itself. With capacity cut due to the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report, the Kop was filled in eighteen minutes, and as the club had done a poor job of advertising that entry to the South Stand terraces would require a membership card, chaos developed on Elland Road; fans with cards couldn’t get past fans without cards, who were trying to argue or force their way through the turnstiles. Kick-off was delayed for half an hour; despite room available for 6,000 more fans inside, 3,000 were locked out, and either clambered up Beeston Hill for a view, or wandered off to smash some windows. Vinnie Jones concentrated on the fans he saw on the hill. “I just could not believe it,” he said. “If you cannot put in great performances for supporters like that, who can you do it for?”
But first you have to be playing, and Vinnie Jones wasn’t. The price of pre-season wasn’t just a couple of embarrassing results. Headline signing Jones picked up an injury, as did reliable centre-half Chris Fairclough; unreliable centre-half Noel Blake picked up a red card against Anderlecht and was suspended for the start of the season. John McClelland, a free transfer expected to provide experienced cover, started in central defence at Newcastle; longer-serving Peter Haddock, expected to provide back-up to new left-back Jim Beglin, played alongside him. Then Beglin was injured in that game, ruled out until February, so Mike Whitlow came in. At least summer signings Mel Sterland and John Hendrie were fit.
But Vinnie’s absence was the real story, and left the new-look Leeds looking decidedly old hat, especially given who his stand-in was. Wilkinson had sold John Sheridan in the summer, the mercurial, some would say mystical heart of United’s midfield since 1982; plenty said that Vinnie Jones was not so much a replacement as an insult, but alongside David Batty for the first three games of 1989/90 was an even more confounding signing. Mickey Thomas might have had 51 caps for Wales, but he also had hair like an ageing witch, was 35 years old, and had cost £10,000. He had caught Wilkinson’s eye as the fulcrum of Shrewsbury’s midfield the season before, when they were relegated. Now he was at Elland Road, as the man to get Leeds promoted.
Well, I doubt even Howard Wilkinson saw him that way, but we weren’t as familiar then with Wilko’s fondness for having dedicated old pros around the place, to be relied upon in case of emergencies; you could call them Pembertons, because otherwise you’d call them Beesleys. Signing Paul Beesley allowed Wilkinson to ‘sleep better at night’, he said, but his ilk made fans want to sleep through games. Imagine turning up to the first home match of the biggest promotion attempt in years, and seeing Vinnie Jones is sitting on the bench, and Mickey Thomas is starting. Maybe that’s the real reason fans were smashing windows.
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To be fair to Wilkinson, it worked, to a point. Bobby Davison gave Leeds an early lead, running aggressively from midfield, shooting aggressively inside the near post, celebrating aggressively in front of the Kop. But Middlesbrough equalised early in the second half, and Wilkinson decided it was time to take Thomas off; so Carl Shutt could come on. Vinnie Jones stayed sat down. There were times, it has to be said, when Howard Wilkinson was infuriating.
But he had an infuriating habit of being right. Jones eventually came on for Baird with three minutes to go, with instructions to just go out, and ‘Go for it.’ He lifted an already intense atmosphere, then lifted it some more with his first tackle. A through ball towards Davison followed; Middlesbrough’s Gary Parkinson got there first, but his chipped back pass bounced in front of the goalkeeper, changed direction, and went in. 2-1 to Leeds. The season’s turning point?
No. It allowed Howard Wilkinson to appear relaxed in front of the press after the game; rarely for those days, his post-match conference was filmed, allowing us a glimpse of him leaning with one arm amid the half-drunk pints on the press lounge bar, with what looks like a glass of white wine in his own hand, telling the press he was glad of the delayed kick-off as it calmed his players down. It could have been water in his glass, but like Bielsa described his bucket, let’s allow some wine into the ‘folklore of football’; we won’t go as far as claiming Mick Hennigan was there to translate for him. Then he named the same starting eleven for Blackburn Rovers’ visit the following Saturday, with Thomas again in midfield ahead of Jones, and drew 1-1.
It took Mickey Thomas’ sore knee to get Jones into the starting line-up away to Stoke City, another 1-1 draw; in the next game Jones scored his first goal, against Ipswich Town at Elland Road, another 1-1 draw. In the first five games Leeds had won once, thanks to a very late fluke own goal. Wilkinson had spent £2m that summer; Leeds were 12th. Elland Road’s restricted capacity no longer felt like a problem. The draw with Ipswich ended amid angry booing.
There is a point to these meandering memories. Promotion, and the Second Division title, were eventually sealed in May 1990 when Chris Kamara crossed and Lee Chapman headed the winner against Bournemouth. Neither of them joined until January. Imre Varadi signed even later, but was a vital part of the run-in; Gary Speed, always associated with the promotion season for his goal against Sheffield United, didn’t break into the team properly until mid-March.
The Second Division season was 46 games then and it is 46 games now, and our sixth game — against Middlesbrough on Friday night — is only one of them. It’s an important one, and it’s a big one, and for all sorts of reasons I can’t wait; who ever thought we’d see Tony Pulis taking on Marcelo Bielsa in the Championship? But the final score in the game will not be the final word on the season. Samu Saiz is my darling, but Izzy Brown may yet have something to say. Kalvin Phillips is Bielsa’s wild-haired choice in midfield, but Adam Forshaw might yet be this season’s Vinnie Jones.
There’s a lot still yet to happen, and right now, that’s one of the best things about where we are. Why else do we look forward to watching? ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)