HOWARD WILKINSON’S wife was very succinct with her response to his proposal to leave Sheffield Wednesday after five years and take charge of Leeds United.
“She said I was crazy,” laughs the 74-year-old, three decades on from a move up the M1 that stunned Yorkshire football. “A few others said the same and, to be fair, they had a point.
“My first reaction when asked if I was interested in Leeds was to reply, ‘You must be joking’. But I soon saw it as a chance to, not so much start with a clean sheet of paper, but rub the bad off the paper and keep the good.”
Wilkinson did that and then some. Inheriting a side sitting fourth bottom of Division Two and only outside the relegation places on goal difference the former teacher took Leeds into the top flight at the end of his first full season and then to the League title two years later.
All that, though, was way in the future when Wilkinson succeeded Billy Bremner on October 10, 1988 following two weeks of talks with United chairman Leslie Silver.
“I liked Leslie from the start,” he says when talking to The Yorkshire Post in his Sheffield home. “I felt he was someone I could trust right from our first meeting at his paint company.
“Bobby Robson had recommended me for the job to Leslie and Bill Fotherby, his second in command. I was told via a journalist called David Walker they wanted to see me, if only to get my advice.
“So I drove up to meet Leslie at about 6.45 one night, deliberately so no one would be around.”
From that first convivial two-hour meeting came another, at which Silver asked how much it would cost to bring true success back to Elland Road.
“There was a slow way of doing it and a quick way,” recalls Wilkinson, who had outlined at the initial meeting a plan that involved promotion the following season and the League title “within five or six years”.
“I said the difference was about £2m, which I knew from a look at the finances would have to be Leslie’s money.”
Silver never blinked – and Wilkinson was about to cut short what had been a hugely successful spell in charge at Hillsborough.
Wednesday had been promoted to Division One in his first season and then rarely been out of the top half. The Owls had also enjoyed a couple of stirring FA Cup runs.
“I had an excellent relationship with (Owls chairman) Bert McGee,” he adds. “He was a gentleman, but at the end of my fifth season I had gone to the board and said, ‘Look, we have gone as far as we can go with some of these players and to bring about the change required to push us on will take money’. I gave them a figure.
“The board, though, wouldn’t budge. The club had been in deep trouble a few years earlier, nearly going to the wall. The board, all Wednesdayites, didn’t want to ever be in that position again. I understood that.”
Leeds would be the undoubted beneficiaries of this caution in S6. United, having lost the four games preceding Wilkinson’s appointment, were beaten just once in his first 16 league outings.
It was off-the-field, however, where the most important transformation was happening thanks to Wilkinson’s eye for detail and vision.
He adds: “From the outside I saw Leeds as a city dominated by Don Revie. I told Leslie at our first meeting that the person coming in had ghosts all over the place, which could not be ignored – and mustn’t be ignored because they were great times.
“But now the party was over – and it had been for a while at Leeds. I took down all the old photos (from the Revie era) and said, ‘When we are nearly or as good as them then they can go back up’.
“I think they went back up after promotion.”
As the walls of Elland Road were undergoing a makeover so, too, was the club as a more professional set-up was adopted with close attention paid to diet and preparation. Wilkinson also had a very firm idea as to the type of character he wanted at Leeds.
“There are always leaders who create the energy in a football club,” he adds. “The followers then feed off the leaders’ energy.
“But then there might also be terrorists within the club. They drain energy.
“These terrorists also like company. Misery loves company. It is the same in an office as a football club.
“I bet you have it at The Yorkshire Post. She or he will always be looking for a pal, and then always in their ear, saying, ‘That boss can’t talk to you like that’.
“There were no big or nasty surprises in those first few months. Just a case of putting a green or red mark next to each person’s name.”
Wilkinson admits one signing changed everything.
“Gordon Strachan was key,” he says about pipping Wednesday to the Scot’s signature in March, 1989. “He’d not had a good time at Manchester United due to him and Alex (Ferguson) not having the best of relationships following his departure from Aberdeen.
“When we met I almost got the sense Gordon thought he had one foot in the deckchair. 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.
“Gordon signed and the rest, as they say, is history.”