A new book looks back at the Leeds United team that won the old First Division 20 years ago. Chris Bond talks to author Dave Simpson.
CHARGING around a golf course in Los Angeles is not somewhere you would expect to find yourself if you were researching a book on Leeds United’s 1992 championship winning team.
But football is a funny old game, as writer and lifelong Leeds United supporter Dave Simpson discovered when he travelled to the Hollywood hills to meet former footballer turned film star, Vinnie Jones. “I was jet-lagged and hanging on to this golf buggy for dear life with Vinnie driving it like he’s in a Bond film with some of his golfing mates. It was bizarre, and in the middle of all this I was asking him about Beeston Hill and his memories from 20 years ago.”
Simpson travelled to LA to talk to Jones as part of the research for his book The Last Champions, which looks back at Leeds United’s title winning team. The club’s success was to prove a watershed moment in English football, for not only were Leeds the last team to win the old First Division before the mega-money era of the Premier League began, Howard Wilkinson remains the last English manager to win the league.
Simpson set out to speak to as many of the protagonists as possible, from the manager to players like top scorer Lee Chapman and Gary Speed and unsung heroes like Carl Shutt and Mike Whitlow, as well as the club’s chairman Leslie Silver.
Vinnie Jones had already left Leeds by the time the 1991/92 season started, but Simpson included him because he’d played a pivotal role in getting the club promoted from the old Second Division. Jones had a hard-man image during his playing days, so how did he find the former hod-carrier? “He’s exactly as you would expect, and we spent a very entertaining and comical day on the golf course. We talked for hours, I couldn’t shut him up because not many of his friends know him as a footballer. They just know about him as an actor, so he never gets to talk about it.”
As with Jones, he found that most of the players were happy to chat to him. “Most of the guys wanted to talk about that era and I got to speak to people I never thought I’d get to in a million years.”
Simpson, who watched most of the games in the club’s title-winning season, decided to write the book after he found himself pining for the old days following the end of another disappointing season. “The Howard Wilkinson era for me and probably most Leeds fans of my generation, were the glory days and with very passing year it seems as though it’s become almost mythical. It was an amazing season not just for the players and the club, but the whole city. I vividly remember the victory celebration, it was a beautiful day and literally half the city turned out and you think ‘crikey, what an achievement.’”
He assumed someone had already written about this team, but was surprised to discover they hadn’t. “There’s a mountain of books about the Don Revie years and nothing at all about the Howard Wilkinson period, which I thought was ridiculous because it was our great triumph of the modern era and no one had really documented it.”
One of the reasons why it’s perhaps not celebrated more by Leeds supporters is the fact that it proved the team’s zenith, rather than the starting point of a glittering new chapter in the club’s history. “The following season was pretty disastrous, they got knocked out of Europe by Rangers early on and they finished 17th and nearly got relegated which would have been the first time the defending champions were relegated since 1940.
“Howard Wilkinson’s halo has slipped a little in the eyes of some supporters, especially among the younger fans, and I find that really sad because they don’t quite realise what an achievement it was.”
Simpson says for Leeds to win the title ahead of a Manchester United squad that cost twice as much, was a remarkable feat. “For us to beat them over 42 games was an amazing achievement, especially for a side that had only been promoted two years earlier. I can’t imagine it ever happening now.”
But he says the team’s success came at a price. “What struck me was just how far everybody involved had pushed themselves to the limit to get that title and I think this is something that has possibly been forgotten. It’s like clambering to the top of Everest and to do it all again was beyond them”
The club had wheeled and dealed in the transfer market to make the limited budget stretch as far as it could, while some of the players had pushed themselves beyond the call of duty. “The right back Mel Sterland has some health problems now which date back to that season. He got an injury against Notts County which at the time no one thought was too serious. He played eight games in the run-in with that injury and did himself in for the rest of his life because of that.
“I asked him if he’d known that he would still be struggling with medical complications 20 years later would he still have played those games? And he said, ‘yes, of course I would.’ It makes you appreciate the sacrifices some of them made.”
This Leeds side was all about teamwork, endeavour and creativity. Into this equation Eric Cantona brought a dash of Gallic flair, although the mere mention of his name still enrages some Leeds fans who can’t forgive him for switching to arch-rivals Manchester United the following season. But, as Simpson says, he only played a cameo role in Leeds’s triumph. “He was brilliant at coming on for the last half an hour but none of his goals were match-winners, they were all icing on the cake goals. If he had stayed they would have had to change the rest of the team and realistically that wasn’t going to happen.”
To his surprise he managed to speak to Cantona. “He doesn’t do many interviews and he’s never really talked about Leeds, so realistically the chances of getting a tell-all from him was about as likely as me landing on the moon.”
However, Simpson managed to ask him a question at a press conference Cantona was giving at a testimonial match for former England and Manchester United star Paul Scholes. “I asked how he looked back on his time at Leeds, and whether it could have been any different, and he looked as though he’d seen a ghost. But then he answered quite at length, saying he’d found it very difficult as pretty much the first French player in the top English league.
“I thought that was interesting because there was so much focus on people finding Cantona a problem, no-one stopped to think that it might be difficult for him, too.”
But if Cantona’s mercurial talents grabbed the headlines, it was the manager, affectionately known as “Sergeant Wilko”, who orchestrated the team’s success. “Everybody I spoke to about Howard said his attention to detail was incredible. Gary Speed described him as being like ‘a Victorian father who you wanted to please and who you knew cared for you but never expressed it.’”
Occasionally, this inscrutable mask would slip. “There’s this great moment when they played at Aston Villa where they won 4-1. Speedo was injured but had gone down with the team and there was a moment when a goal goes in and Howard Wilkinson leaps up and hugs Gary Speed and Gary said that was the first time he realised how much it meant to him and I think there’s something very moving about that.”
Simpson interviewed Speed last August just a few months before his sudden death. “I was actually writing the Gary Speed chapter when I got a call telling me the news and I could not believe it. I must have re-written that chapter 10 times because I found it incredibly hard.”
Such a tragedy has cast a shadow over the story of this title-winning team, but Simpson believes what that they all achieved remains an inspiration.
“It wasn’t just about the first XI it was also about the people who came in for a few games here and there, unsung heroes like Mike Whitlow and Carl Shutt. Most of them were from fairly poor backgrounds and they had a dream.”
This was before the Premier League gravy train started rolling and none of the players earned the big bucks their counterparts get paid today. “Mike Whitlow said he earned more in two or three years with Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League than he had in the previous 15 years and there are lot of them like that. John McClelland was an Irish international who played for Glasgow Rangers and he’s now a postman who also does match day tours. He says kids come up to him and ask if he’s got a Ferrari and he says ‘no’ because he didn’t make big money so he can’t retire.”
Simpson believes Leeds United’s title win symbolised the end of an era. “The bond between fans and players doesn’t seem as strong as it was. When Leeds won the title Steve Hodge drove around the city centre with David Batty hanging out of the sun roof, you just can’t imagine Wayne Rooney doing that.
“It was a different time and more innocent and if you speak to the players it was the highlight of their lives for many of them. You can’t take eighty grand with you, but no-one can take away the memories and they climbed Everest together.”
The Last Champions, published by Bantam Press, is out now priced £16.99.
Leeds United class of ‘92
Leeds United were the last winners of the old First Division in 1991/92
Howard Wilkinson remains the last English manager to win the league
Leeds won the league with 82 points, beating Manchester United (78 points) into second place
They scored 74 goals, the second highest after Arsenal (81) and conceded 37 goals
Lee Chapman was the club’s top scorer that season scoring 16 league goals
Highlights include the 4-1 away victory against Aston Villa and a 6-1 defeat of Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough
Leeds won the title on April 26, 1992, when they beat Sheffield United 3-2 in a windswept match at Bramall Lane.