Leeds United 100: Howard Wilkinson's 'boring' preparation kept Whites grounded and living in the moment en route to First Division title

An attention to detail that was ‘borderline boring’ allowed Howard Wilkinson to keep his Leeds United stars firmly grounded and living in the moment en route to the 1991-92 First Division championship.

Howard Wilkinson's First Division title winners

The Whites manager had some superstars in the squad that finished four points ahead of bitter rivals Manchester United and brought just the third top-flight title to Elland Road.

Yet his players all enjoyed the same treatment from the man who became known, mostly in affectionate tones, as Sergeant Wilko.

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“The standard was really high in training,” said Tony Dorigo, Wilkinson’s left-back who, despite the overtures of Glasgow Rangers and one or two other interested clubs, arrived from Chelsea in the summer of 1991.

Leeds United's team ahead of the 1991/92 season

“It was a really strong group of characters, led by the manager.

“High intensity and high levels were demanded by Howard and by (Gordon) Strachan, who was a big leader on the training ground as well.

“There was no doubt Howard’s preparation, thoroughness and attention to detail bordered on boring, really boring – however you soon appreciated when you were defending a corner at Highbury with five minutes to go, you’re ahead and you automatically go to exactly the right place without thinking about. We were so well drilled.

“Attacking wise, that’s where he gave us a loose framework but quite wisely let the players express themselves. You don’t really tell players like (Gary) McAllister, (David) Batty, Strachan and (Gary) Speed how to play and move, they have that instinct, they know what they’re doing.

“The big thing for me as well, was he treated everyone equally. That’s not always the case, but I certainly think no-one got away with anything and he led that.”

It became quickly apparent that Leeds were in good shape to improve on the fourth-place finish they achieved in the previous season.

Wilkinson had outlined his goals to Dorigo as part of the club’s bid to land the defender and while the expectation was always there, looming large, it was never a distraction or a burden too weighty to shoulder, because the manager kept his team focused on the next step, the next game, the next challenge.

“Doing better than fourth was obviously going to be a tall task but as the season went on, six, eight, 10 games in, I soon knew we were going to be right up there,” Dorigo told the YEP.

“I suppose you know the end result of what you’re trying to do but you don’t try and look too far ahead.

“I came from Chelsea, London, so many things going on, so many clubs, whereas Leeds only had one football team and they were all with you, I had not had that before.

“I think you have to embrace the expectation. Sometimes it can be difficult. I saw it with Paul Gascoigne when he first burst onto the scene with England, the stuff he had to go through was ridiculous, but at the same time when you play for Leeds or England or whoever it is, you’ve got to expect scrutiny.

“When things are going well, that’s easier to handle and for us at Leeds going through this, everything was going the right way.

“We were winning games, there weren’t any huge issues and the expectation was building, but we were always brought back to earth by the manager, just looking at the next game.

“I always remember even breaking it down into your first header, your first tackle, your first pass, then it’s your second one. If you think like that everything else follows, it’s bringing it back to the moment.

“We always let everyone else get excited. Of course we always knew we had the opportunity but he was always good at bringing us back to earth in the dressing room.”

Everything went right for Leeds, in the league at least and certainly at Elland Road, which became a bonafide fortress.

Under Wilkinson’s control and marshalled out on the pitch by leaders Strachan and McAllister, Leeds went unbeaten at home in Division One.

It built a momentum that justified a feeling of invincibility.

“I think at home that was always the case,” said Dorigo.

“After each home game, winning, not losing, it was a wonderful feeling running out for the next one in front of the crowd. You always felt a step ahead, almost a goal ahead, it was a feeling coursing through the team.”

And the supporting cast of players just outside the starting XI played their part by putting side before self.

“The one player there you would look at was Steve Hodge, an international who came on and scored some really important goals, started some games but more often than not ended up back on the bench again.

“But he was a great professional.

“A lot of the other lads who were part of the squad, their attitudes were fantastic and it was important we didn’t have any dissent in the ranks.

“It’s always the case if you’re winning games and the manager is getting the decisions right that you can’t really say too much.”

Even when the Whites lost a big game, a 4-0 thumping away at Manchester City, one of the clubs in the chasing pack, Leeds barely flinched, kicking on again and winning four of their last five, conceding just two goals.

It was testament to the side’s strength of character.

That was on display on the day they sealed the result that would turn out to be a title clincher.

Dorigo recalls crisp packets swirling around in a mini cyclone on the Bramall Lane pitch before a game against fellow top-half side Sheffield United.

“The way they played, it was always a difficult place to go but we thought we could get the ball down and play and beat them, but the conditions made it very difficult.

“The weather was awful and the pitch was awful.

“We found a way to win, put the pressure on Manchester United and they had to respond, so we had to sit and wait.”

Later that day, Dorigo watched at his in-laws’s house, as the Red Devils lost to Liverpool and the championship race was over.

He and international roommate Batty were called by a ‘half cut’ Wilkinson, who informed them they had the permission of England manager Graham Taylor to skip the midweek international game in Moscow, so they could revel in their achievement in Yorkshire.

But what they had achieved did not sink in immediately.

“It took a little while to understand our achievement.

“I think even in the days and weeks afterwards, you’re straight back to work.

“Everyone had to scoot away with their national teams, there were always more games to play and the cycle started again.

“We had a 25th anniversary dinner to celebrate the title win and we all got together and reminisced and looked back, hearing the other guys’ stories and how they maybe saw it from a slightly different angle.

“That brings it back and you can appreciate it even more.”

Dorigo’s ‘best ever’ season, the success he and his team-mates shared and their status as the first Leeds United side to capture a major honour since the Don Revie glory days has cemented the relationships and ties they forged 27 years ago.

“In football you change club, you have so many different team-mates, but when you have a group of players who had such success, there’s going to be a special bond there.

“We might not see each other for a few years, then we get back together and it’s like the old days, the same old jokes.

“As an ex-player that’s what you miss, that camaraderie and it’s nice that it’s still there.

“Individually, I played in a World Cup, scored a winner at Wembley, but winning the title, proving that our team was the best was, for me, the most important thing I achieved.”