It was thirty years ago this week that Howard Wilkinson moved from First Division Sheffield Wednesday to nearly Third Division Leeds United, took a look around at facilities that were almost Fourth Division — ‘This was how it was when Mr Revie was here’ was the irritating excuse — and, within four years, created a team that became champions of England. It’s one of Leeds United’s, and football’s, great stories.
Around the same time, in Rosario, Argentina, Marcelo Bielsa was taking a similar grip of Newell’s Old Boys, building an unprecedented team, winning the Argentinian championship and reaching the final of 1992’s Copa Libertadores. Newell’s named their stadium after him, and their fans revere him to this day.
And Wilkinson? The anniversary of his coming has been marked, yet again, by discussion of his going. The Yorkshire Post carried two interviews with Wilko, one about his hiring in 1988 and one about his firing in 1996, and social media conversations quickly moved from the glories of his first four years to the agonies of his last four months. Perhaps Leeds fans find Christmas too cheerful; Good Friday, and a good ol’ crucifixion, is more to our tastes.
This is an old frustration of mine. When I wrote a book about Wilkinson’s two title winning sides I deliberately ended it on the the art gallery balcony on May 3rd 1992, the trophy in Gordon Strachan‘s hands (even as Jon Newsome almost dropped the decorative lid), and took the story no further: no misused David Rocastle, no missold Eric Cantona, no mystifying Scott Sellars, not even the brilliant day at Wembley, beating Liverpool 4-3 in the Charity Shield; any mention of anything after the start of that May would carry the story too far. I wanted to tell a tale of brilliance, even including taking the remnants of Billy Bremner’s team to the edge of the play-offs in 1988/89, an achievement usually forgotten now. Like Jimmy Armfield’s semi-finals in the late-1970s, the times when we did okay are written out of United’s history: we’re only interested in absolute success. Or absolute failure. In between is nothing.
The years with Wilkinson after the First Division title, or more accurately after the feeble attempt at defending it, were very in between; two 5th place finishes, the second enough to qualify for Europe, a League Cup final. But the time between selling Cantona and losing 4-0 to Manchester United in 1996, when Cantona scored the fourth in stoppage time to guarantee Wilko the sack, is compressed into ‘Wilko’s madness’ and dismissed, unexamined.
It’s understandable. They were decent seasons, but frustrating, as Leeds cut their own nose off: Strandli for Cantona, Pemberton for Batty, Beeney for Lukic, Palmer for no apparent reason. The core of quality remained — Speed, McAllister, the relentless Strachan, Wallace, Dorigo, joined by promising youngsters Wetherall, Kelly, Whelan. But the edges were uncertain, as for all the big-money transfer speculation, Leeds never seemed to get their first choice, while loyalty was often misplaced in players who we hoped rather than expected would develop beyond decent. Jon Newsome was the player to replace Chris Fairclough for ten years; we ended up selling Newsome, while Fairclough remained. Admittedly Fairclough was now in midfield in place of Batty, but this is straying from the main point.
That point is that if we’re not going to dwell on those middle years, why does the anniversary of Wilkinson’s arrival make so many leap so quickly to the end of it all in 1996, instead of revelling in the glory of 1988-92? It’s as if what Wilkinson did in those first four years was so enormous it defies explanation; how can we talk about something that, thirty years later, we still don’t really understand? Whereas we’re all, as humans, much more familiar with failure. We have the language to talk about things going wrong. So that’s what we talk about when we talk about Howard.
And what did go wrong — apart from everything? The final few months of Wilkinson’s eight years are startling for how little control he had of a situation, of a football club, that he had reinvented from scratch. In September 1995 he was Sergeant Wilko, leading his regiment into Europe; by September 1996, he’d suffered a rebellion, a coup, and he was gone.
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For all the mistakes on the pitch, it was a rebellion from above. When he left Wilkinson acknowledged he had made mistakes but added that, given where he’d brought us from, he didn’t do anything truly terrible by ending up in 13th place and a cup final, and was ready to rectify the problems by buying Martyn and Bowyer and looking to the new generation of youth. But events in the boardroom created a situation Wilkinson couldn’t control. Leslie Silver, Bill Fotherby and Peter Gilman, the controlling trio who bankrolled Wilko’s successes, had paved their way to a lucrative exit, but an armed robbery at Silver’s house in March 1996 sped the process up; he and his wife were tied up and threatened by a gang targeting high profile football people, and Silver, in his seventies, decided to retire. The ensuing takeover was unprecedented in the Premier League era, and painful, as Gilman objected to Silver and Fotherby accepting an offer lower than Gilman’s favoured group were making; they spent all summer in the High Court arguing about who should be allowed to sell, and who to buy, Leeds United. Gary McAllister became so aggravated he made up his mind to join Gordon Strachan at Coventry City; Wilkinson, promised transfer funds, couldn’t spend them until the court case was settled, by which time most of his targets had gone elsewhere.
And after the season began, it became clear that certain promises made by the new owners, Caspian Media Group, came with a sell-by date. Fotherby, installed as chairman, lasted less than a season. Wilkinson, promised backing, lasted less than two months. George Graham, who everyone had been promising for weeks was not Caspian’s preferred choice, arrived within hours of Wilkinson’s departure.
As he had at Wembley, Wilkinson looked like someone who had lost control of his destiny, because he had. The team reflected the boardroom confusion; after years when the club was too poor to clinch his high profile transfer targets, Wilkinson had been handed Tomas Brolin, a mistake that weighed heavily on Wilko’s mind, on the club’s wage bill, and on the bench in the dugout; the only time in Wilkinson’s career he went against his instincts and bought a player he wasn’t convinced about. Wilkinson was convinced that the youngsters in his academy at Thorp Arch were the club’s future, and his destiny; they were better than Manchester United’s kids, and Wilko couldn’t wait to manage them. But he couldn’t control his fate long enough to secure that destiny; too many other people had too many other ideas.
Even before he was fired, Wilkinson acknowledged that nobody really cared about how hard his job was. Football fans, by their nature, weren’t sympathetic, and just wanted wins: “Whether that’s fair or not doesn’t come into it.” And there has never been a hint of recrimination or bitterness from the man himself; just sadness at how it all worked out. I once asked him if he would ever write the story of the years after the title, to explain the restrictions he was under, the forces working upon him. “You can spend your life trying to self-justify,” he said. “But the question you always ask yourself is: ‘If I do this, if I say this, will it be in the best interests of the club going forward?’ If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then you don’t say it, and you don’t do it.”
His one effort at controlling his legacy was compering the press conference to announce his own sacking; clearly emotional, he fronted up anyway, talked to the press, poured the champagne. He may have felt that his record at Leeds would stand for itself: after the club had suffered eight years in Division Two, he delivered two titles, a Charity Shield, two European campaigns, two top-five finishes, a cup final, an East Stand, an Academy that would produce quality players for years and years that would, and did, guarantee the club’s future, eventually its existence; it wasn’t bad for eight years’ work, and would surely give the fans plenty to talk about when they talked about Howard.
Perhaps he didn’t reckon on the half-empty glasses of West Yorkshire, and didn’t anticipate such focus on selling Cantona and losing at Wembley, to the exclusion sometimes of the good that was done. Perhaps he should, as he has wondered aloud since, have gone sooner. Arsenal wanted him. But he didn’t feel he’d done enough at Leeds. He promised Leeds a ten year plan, and that would be his legacy, so he couldn’t leave it incomplete. But that decision was made for him in the eighth year, and Wilkinson’s legacy was no longer his to dictate.
Maybe that’s where Marcelo Bielsa has the advantage over Wilkinson. Bielsa didn’t linger after the Copa Libertadores defeat. Whether through self-doubt or acute self-awareness, he didn’t dare to try again with Newell’s; he had given everything to doing something brilliant, and that was his limit. Some of the good players would be leaving for Europe; the team would have to be rebuilt, not unlike Wilkinson’s Leeds after the 1992 title, when several of the squad were past their best. Wilkinson, on May 3rd 1992, told the people of Leeds at the championship parade, “It looks as though we’ll have to go and try and win it again.” In Rosario, Bielsa said something different; that he was leaving Newell’s Old Boys. He didn’t stay under circumstances he couldn’t control, he didn’t attempt to repeat a miracle everyone had thought impossible. He left, and left his legacy untarnished. They named the stadium after him.
And so it has been ever since for Bielsa, never staying in a job too long, never dwelling on success or failure or dragging a job beyond its natural end. When the work feels done he finishes, and lets the work stand for itself. Two seasons at Newell’s. Two seasons at Athletic Bilbao. One season at Marseille. Overall it’s less than the time Wilkinson spent in charge at Leeds, but it guarantees Bielsa god status in three countries.
And at Leeds? Nobody is sure how long Bielsa’s contract is; the club say two seasons plus a one season option, other reports say one season with a one season option. History says it won’t matter, because whatever his contract says, when Bielsa feels his work is done, for good or ill, he’ll be gone. The optimism inspired by his management so far suggests that Bielsa could have an impact on Leeds United as seismic as Howard Wilkinson’s from 1988 to 1992; his history suggests we’ll discuss that impact — for good or ill — for years to come. His legacy will be his impact; immediate and burning, never fading away.
Howard Wilkinson had done enough to become a Leeds United legend by May 1992, but kept going, feeling it was his duty to the club to keep doing more. For Wilkinson, the price of his loyalty was his legacy. If that was a mistake, it’s a mistake Marcelo Bielsa won’t make. But the mistake might not have been Wilkinson’s, who did his best, but ours, who don’t always remember that. ◉
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(artwork by Joe Gamble)