IN an era when clubs with even the slimmest chance of winning Premier League honours invariably look abroad for a new managerial appointment, Howard Wilkinson’s place in history as the last Englishman to lift the title in this country seems secure.
But Dave Bassett, whose Sheffield United side were beaten by Leeds United on the day Wilkinson’s side were crowned champions a quarter of a century ago today, believes his old friend deserves so much more.
“I had a lot of time for Howard Wilkinson,” the 72-year-old told The Yorkshire Post. “He was a bloody good manager. We couldn’t win the league that year and I don’t mind admitting that I am glad Howard did.
“To me, he should have been the England manager. He was a great football manager and it is criminal that Howard doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves for the job he did at Leeds. He rebuilt an entire club.”
Wilkinson’s crowning moment on April 26, 1992, came, fittingly, in his home city of Sheffield. Not at Hillsborough, where he had played and managed Wednesday, but at Bramall Lane on a day when the weather was more suited to the moors made famous by Wuthering Heights than an attempt to scale the summit of English football.
A titanic tussle had raged all season between the Uniteds of Leeds and Manchester. Blows had been exchanged with such ferocity that both combatants in this War of the Roses contest had appeared punch drunk for weeks.
We made Leeds fight all the way and no-one could accuse us of throwing it in that day. I was gutted to lose the game but pleased for Howard that he won the title.Dave Bassett
With two games to go, however, Leeds’s fate was suddenly in their own hands. A point clear of their rivals and boasting a superior goal difference, Wilkinson’s United knew victory in a fixture brought forward to lunchtime on police advice would leave Manchester United having to win at Liverpool in front of the live ITV cameras later in the afternoon to take the race to the final weekend.
The stage was set for a day that no one at Elland Road will ever forget. First blood went to the Blades, as Alan Cork fired in from close range. Leeds responded with an equaliser from Rod Wallace that went in off the striker’s knee and then a stooping header from Jon Newsome that owed much to goalkeeper Mel Rees being unable to jump to reach Gary McAllister’s floated free-kick due to having come off second-best in an accidental clash with team-mate Paul Beesley during the build-up to that first goal.
Lee Chapman putting through his own net then restored parity before the most bizarre of five madcap goals settled the game in Leeds’s favour as an almighty mix-up between Brian Gayle and team-mate Rees saw the defender head the ball into an unguarded net.
As George Courtney, refereeing his final game, blew the final whistle, all the pressure was on Ferguson’s Red Devils at Anfield. They never stood a chance, goals from Ian Rush and Mark Walters sealing a 2-0 victory for Liverpool and a third league title for Leeds.
“We made Leeds fight all the way and no one could accuse us of throwing it in that day,” added Bassett. “I was gutted to lose the game, but pleased for Howard that he won the title. I didn’t care for what (Gordon) Strachan did at our place (the previous year), sitting on the advertising hoarding and posing after scoring against us. He deserved a right slap for that.
“But Howard was someone I did like and respect. It is wrong that he doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves as a manager. I put that down to Howard not being willing to play the game with the national press, who can make such a difference as to how someone is perceived by the public.
“Howard was his own man and the press didn’t like that. They wanted someone who would play their game and it led to Howard getting the unfair reputation of being dour and whatever.
“But anyone in football knows just how good Howard was.
“I do say to Howard when we meet from time to time that I wished he had never dipped back into club management with Sunderland (in 2002). If he had stayed at the FA, the game in this country would be in a miles better state than it is.”