Bygones – How Alex Ferguson’s late call on Gordon Strachan transformed fortunes of Leeds United

Key debut: 'Gordon Strachan in action against Portsmouth''at  Elland Road on March 25, 1989
Key debut: 'Gordon Strachan in action against Portsmouth''at Elland Road on March 25, 1989
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IAN BAIRD, the Leeds United striker, had been looking forward to former club Portsmouth’s visit to Elland Road for weeks.

His subsequent winner in a game that took place 30 years ago today justified such a sense of anticipation. That, though, is not why this 1-0 victory continues to resonate with supporters of a certain vintage.

Instead, the debuts of Gordon Strachan and Chris Fairclough, cornerstone of both the 1990 promotion and League title win two years later, are what makes the 1989 visit by Pompey stick in the mind. As the goalscorer himself readily admits.

“Chris Fairclough was a great signing,” recalls the former striker, now 54, to The Yorkshire Post. “He was one of the top young players at the time. Things had not gone particularly well at Spurs but he was still a great addition.

“Strachan, though, was the big one. We realised straight away that Leeds did not plan to hang around much longer in the Second Division.”

United, by March, 1989, had been out of the top flight for almost seven years. The board had turned to Howard Wilkinson the previous October in the hope he could succeed where Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner had failed by taking the club back up.

ON TARGET: Ian Baird scores for Leeds United against Portsmouth in March 1989.

ON TARGET: Ian Baird scores for Leeds United against Portsmouth in March 1989.

Progress had been made. Leeds, deep in the relegation mire when Wilkinson took charge, were sitting 10th in the table and still hoping to gatecrash the play-offs as transfer deadline day loomed.

But Wilkinson recognised United’s hopes of making that step up meant genuine quality needed to be added to his squad. In Strachan and Fairclough, signed on consecutive days for a combined fee of £800,000, he managed to do just that.

“Signings of that quality can be strange for those already at the club,” added Baird, by the time of Strachan’s arrival a year into his second spell at Elland Road after a difficult stint at Fratton Park.

“It can cause a bit of trepidation. You never know what it means for you personally. Does the manager see you as part of his plans? Or are you being edged out? It can cause a bit of uncertainty, even though for the club signings like Chris and Gordon were hugely positive things.

I made it clear that was not what I wanted. What I needed was someone who would be my leader on the pitch and the person I wanted everyone else to be. I knew that person didn’t exist at the club.

Howard Wilkinson on Gordon Strachan

“But I have to say both lads were great. Especially Gordon, who was not big-headed in any way. Some, after the career he’d had, might have been but Gordon was very down to earth and fitted in straight away.

“The first thing that struck you was his professionalism. It was great for young lads like David Batty and Gary Speed to see that.

“Alex Ferguson, by letting Gordon leave Manchester United to sign for Leeds, obviously thought his career was over but that just wasn’t the case.”

Wilkinson had enquired after Strachan early in his reign at Elland Road but been rebuffed by Ferguson.

Deadline-beater: Chris Fairclough on his Leeds United debut v Portsmouth.

Deadline-beater: Chris Fairclough on his Leeds United debut v Portsmouth.

The Red Devils manager did, though, promise to let his Leeds counterpart know if things changed. The call that would change Leeds’s history came as deadline day, back then the third Thursday in March, approached.

Ron Atkinson, Wilkinson’s successor at Sheffield Wednesday, was desperate to be reunited with the Scot, who he had brought south to Old Trafford from Aberdeen in a £650,000 deal.

Middlesbrough also made an enquiry but Wilkinson won the race for Strachan’s signature.

“When we met, I almost got the sense Gordon thought he had one foot in the deckchair,” says Wilkinson, who also brought in Carl Shutt from Bristol City in part exchange for Bob Taylor during the same week as Strachan and Fairclough. “I made it clear that was not what I wanted. What I needed was someone who would be my leader on the pitch and the person I wanted everyone else to be. I knew that person didn’t exist at the club.”

Strachan turned out to be everything Wilkinson could have hoped for and so much more. He went on to make 245 appearances and play a leading role in the club’s revival.

Fairclough, too, turned out to be an inspired addition with the duo’s debut against Portsmouth proving to be a good guide as to what the Elland Road faithful could expect in the years to come.

A crowd of 27,042 – 9,000 up on what United had been expecting before the capture of Fairclough and Strachan – were treated to a full-blooded encounter featuring several bust-ups and a late red card for Pompey defender Graeme Hogg.

Leeds missed an early penalty when John Sheridan was denied by Andy Gosney after Baird had been flattened by Gavin Maguire.

It was Sheridan’s third miss from the spot of the season but, ultimately, one that did not cost the home side thanks to a typical piece of quick-thinking from Strachan.

Having been fouled wide on the right flank by Mike Fillery, the Scot jumped to his feet and implored the ballboy to return the ball sharpish. A short pass to Sheridan then caught Pompey cold, meaning Baird was unmarked in the centre when converting the cross for his 13th goal of the season.

Baird’s six months at Fratton Park the previous season after leaving Leeds in a £285,000 deal had yielded just one league goal in 20 appearances so netting the winner was a sweet feeling.

“There was a bit of a rivalry between the two clubs back then,” recalls the former striker. “There had been a few games over the years and Portsmouth had just come down from the top division.

“I had come back, after not doing too well down there. There was a big fervour surrounding Leeds. Everyone was so desperate to get the club up.”

Leeds, with Strachan as captain and Fairclough a rock-like presence at the back, did, indeed, go up the following year. By then, however, Baird had left for Middlesbrough, the signing of Lee Chapman in January, 1990, prompting a decision that he admits now was rash.

“Howard Wilkinson was very good with me,” adds Baird, still hugely popular with supporters all these years on. “We had a couple of chats after his arrival, him saying what he wanted from me.

“I felt very much to be part of it and it was only further down the line that my stupid arrogance got the better of me.

“Lee Chapman was brought in and I didn’t play against Blackburn. I had started nearly every game since coming back and I didn’t like it. ‘Chappy’ scored. Off his knee that day, as it happens.

“But I took it badly and spat my dummy out. I went in to see Howard, told him I wanted to go and within half-an-hour I was told Middlesbrough had been on the ’phone. Howard never said he wanted me to go. It was solely down to me.

“I should have stayed. Bobby Davison got injured, and Carl Shutt went on to play plenty of games. But, by then, I had jumped in with both feet.”