English football was in flux as it awaited the summer of 1996. Some would call it panic.
The European Championships were coming, the first tournament held in England since summer 1966. That one needs no embellishment; that a repeat was expected goes without saying. After all, Steve Howey, Dennis Wise and Nick Barmby had helped England to a 1-1 draw in a friendly with Portugal, thanks to Steve Stone’s goal, so England could justify high hopes.
But manager Terry Venables had announced he would step down after the tournament whatever happened, for circular reasons involving the FA’s lack of trust which was based on his heavy legal caseload. Replacing a manager before a tournament with someone who would take over afterwards had the FA in a tizzy, but they were due to meet the man a newspaper said was the players’ choice, Middlesbrough boss Bryan Robson. Among the players surveyed, such star names as Simon Barker of QPR and Alan Kimble of Wimbledon went on record to say he was their choice, although Gary Charles, the Aston Villa full-back, was more circumspect. Acknowledging Robson’s lack of managerial experience, he suggested teaming him up with Howard Wilkinson.
Wilkinson had already been interviewed by the FA, but not to coach the first team. He was wanted for the new job of FA Technical Director, to become the most powerful figure in the English game. He turned it down.
If England were in flux, what were Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds in February 1996? Not panicking. But after a 5-0 defeat at Anfield, it was hard to remember there were reasons not to.
Leeds in 1995/96 didn’t seem to know what they were trying to be. Was this still the glory club of 1992, with John Lukic, Tony Dorigo, Gary McAllister, Gary Speed, Rod Wallace? Or was it a new generation inspired by youth, with Gary Kelly, followed by the winners of the FA Youth Cup like Mark Tinkler, Rob Bowman and Andy Couzens, with an even younger set emerging — Alan Maybury, Harry Kewell, Andy Gray? Was it a big spending club splashing on star names from home and abroad, like Brian Deane, Carlton Palmer, Tony Yeboah and Tomas Brolin? Or was built on a low cost foundation of journeymen, John Pemberton, Mark Beeney, Nigel Worthington, Paul Beesley?
Somewhere in there was the perfect blend, but in trying to find it Leeds were becoming neither one thing or another. They’d started the season proudly in the UEFA Cup but were now out and mid-table in the league. They’d started with Noel Whelan as the poster boy for youth but sold him to make a splash with Brolin. They’d lost 6-2 to Sheffield Wednesday but, on Christmas Eve, beat Manchester United 3-1. Were Leeds champions in waiting or relegation fodder?
What they were, in February, was depleted, and that was Wilkinson’s immediate problem. After Anfield they went to Nottingham Forest and lost again, while in South Africa, the hosts’ Lucas Radebe was marking Tony Yeboah out of a 3-0 win over Ghana in the African Cup of Nations semi-final, while a suspended Phil Masinga watched on, looking forward to the final.
For the trip to Villa Park that followed, Wilkinson had five more first team players suspended, and perhaps mercifully only one injured. Nine players missing, and mercy didn’t last long. After twenty minutes, John Pemberton was forced off for treatment to a gashed leg inflicted by Savo Milosevic, and before Nigel Worthington could come on to replace him, Dwight Yorke scored. It was already his and Aston Villa’s second of the day.
Perhaps that Villa only scored one more — Yorke passing up a hat-trick to set up Alan Wright — was to United’s credit, playing against the odds. Maybury was making his debut aged seventeen, and even he had to go off at half-time with a knock. Tinkler replaced him, joining starters Bowman and Couzens; Speed and McAllister did their best, but the team looked and played like it was thrown together.
And yet £4.5m worth of Tomas Brolin was nowhere to be seen, although after the game he was certainly heard. With nine players out and only fifteen left to choose from, the fourteen Wilkinson chose — eleven on the pitch, three outfielders on the bench — didn’t include the club’s record signing.
“I don’t know whether I will be staying with Leeds,” he said, 79 days after arriving. “I do know what I’m capable of on the soccer field, and I always believe I should be picked in the side. It was very disappointing to be left out. I can’t tell if I’m being blamed for recent poor results, but unless the manager selects me, I cannot contribute anything.”
What Brolin could contribute, and what he had said to his manager about it, was the whole point, according to Wilkinson, who had wanted to play a defensive 5-3-2 against Villa.
“Before we played at Liverpool, Tomas was concerned at the amount of defensive work he was being asked to do,” said Wilkinson. “He expressed the opinion that he wasn’t very good at it, and that is an honest opinion I have to take into account when making my plans.
“Tomas agreed that my decision to leave him out was eminently sensible. I know that is what he said, because ’eminently’ is the only word of Swedish I understand.”
He joked, but he was clearly frustrated, not only by the player, but by the attention and the questions that were building up to the next morning’s ‘Brolin Bust Up!’ headlines, and by having to justify himself after a 3-0 defeat.
“Presumably, I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and have a vision,” that he should leave Brolin out, he said. “If he had been playing brilliantly he would have played.”
But nobody was playing brilliantly. And nobody else in the Leeds squad had finished third at the World Cup eighteen months earlier. After a long time out with an ankle injury, Brolin had been looking for a clear step forward in England, and although he apologised for the way his reaction ‘came across’, the end-of-season get-out clause in his contract had him thinking he should try his luck elsewhere.
After three defeats in the league, Leeds United were also hoping for a change of luck elsewhere in the cups, with League Cup and FA Cup ties coming up. Gary McAllister, though, wasn’t letting himself be fooled after the Villa game.
“Cup success is fine, but there is no way a club like Leeds should be scrambling around in the Premiership,” he said. “We ought to be chasing the title. Instead there was simply no spark.”
Wins in those cup matches meant Leeds didn’t play another league game for a month, by which time they were through to the FA Cup quarter-finals and the League Cup final at Wembley, against Liverpool and Aston Villa. From 12th in the Premiership, could they still win two trophies at Wembley? ◉