Great Football League Teams 1: Leeds United 1989-90
The 1980s could not have been more miserable for Leeds United. Unfortunate to suffer an eight year sojourn outside Division 1 at a time when football reached its lowest ebb and beset by hooliganism and low gates, it was a decade of despair matched only by their recent, financially driven decline. Lowlights included Paul Petts’ hat-trick in a 5-1 defeat at Gay Meadow in 1983 and a 5-0 tonking by Chelsea that saw the whites’ hated rivals promoted on the last day of that same campaign. Throughout the period, Leeds had obsessively relied on the heroes of yesteryear to kickstart recovery — the permanently scowling Allan Clarke had taken them down and Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner had also failed at the tiller. Only a run to the FA Cup Semi Final in 1987 provided cheer, and even the emergent skills of the talented John Sheridan could do nothing to offset a flimsiness that made Leeds an easy scalp for the likes of Grimsby and Oldham.
Enter Sergeant Wilko at the back end of the 1988-89 season. Howard Wilkinson’s first act, aside from tearing down the photographs of the Revie heroes adorning the walls of Elland Road, was to bring in top flight experience in Chris Fairclough and Gordon Strachan. The Peacocks finished that season in spritely mood but these were but initial moves in the master plan.
It has long been asserted that “playing football” will do nothing to get you out of the lower divisions, a theory roundly disproved not only by metaphysics but by the likes of West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City and Reading since. But the Leeds of 1989, along with perhaps this year’s Newcastle United vintage, provide the supporting evidence for Charles Hughes apologists. Nothing could have been achieved without Strachan: the provider of the skeleton key to assist Leeds’ bludgeoning; but the signing of Vinnie Jones on a rainy summer day provided the clearest signal of Wilkinson’s intent. Maligned as a pure thug, Jones wasn’t the only man who could put it about — a young David Batty partnered him in a fearsomely aggressive midfield and Mel Sterland and Mike Whitlow also relished a slider. Up top, post-xmas stiffener Lee Chapman was all arms and elbows and Mickey Thomas snapped at opponents’ heels, albeit in only a trio of appearances.
With that cast of characters, Leeds must have been deeply unpleasant to play against (the sledging will have been world class) and so it transpired. A 5-2 opening day dousing by a Micky Quinn inspired Newcastle proved a counterfeit dawn as Leeds shifted inexorably up the table. The press reaction was to vilify. Leeds were still deeply unpopular from their Seventies days and their fans’ terrace exploits had continued to provoke hatred. A 1-0 win at West Ham in October, with Jones on the score sheet, provoked special vitriol, fuelled as it was by the London media’s unfathomable love affair with those rag tag Eastenders.
Amid the semi-warfare, there were pockets of brilliance — Jones curled in a beautifully placed shot in a home win over penny-chew kitted Brighton and the attendances rose. Those bigger gates fuelled a pre-Christmas run that saw Middlesbrough defeated and the Magpies avenged and the Lowfield Road stand was rocking. Into the Spring and Chapman was hitting the net regularly, youngster Gary Speed was breaking through and Leeds destroyed closest rivals Sheffield United 4-0 in a season defining moment – and yet, at the moment of triumph, the 1-0 clinching win over Bournemouth was spoiled by the supporters again.
In a ruthless move reminiscent of Prince Hal’s disavowal of Falstaff, Wilkinson sent Jones packing, brought in Gary McAllister, John Lukic and, eventually, a certain seagull fancying Frenchman. Two years later, Leeds were the best team in England. Could the current crop return to those nosebleed inducing heights?