Howard Wilkinson: I can’t wear this football philosophy b-------

Howard Wilkinson - Howard Wilkinson: History can smother people at Leeds
Howard Wilkinson was the last man to lead Leeds to top-flight glory, a division they are hoping to get back into on Sunday

Howard Wilkinson remains the very definition of the Yorkshireman. When he is asked how he is enjoying a much deserved break in Majorca after ending his long-standing tenure as chairman of the League Managers Association, he does not miss a beat.

“Fair to middling,” he says of his stay.

And the thing is, he means it. Just as he was as a manager, Wilkinson is not a man who has ever knowingly embraced the bright side of life.

But, perennially downbeat or not, what a record he has. Not least in his rare distinction as the last English manager to win the title in England’s top division. Though when he steered Leeds United to becoming the last champions before the advent of the Premier League in 1992, he never for a moment thought that, across three decades, none of his fellow countrymen would match his achievement.

“Obviously, yes, it surprises me,” he says of the fact he remains the last to do it. “But times have changed. When I was managing it was basically four nationalities in charge of clubs: English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. Now there are managers from across the world here. But do I lose any sleep about it? No, I don’t.”

Wilkinson was the last Englishman to manage a team to the top-flight title
Wilkinson was the last Englishman to manage a team to the top-flight title - Varley Picture Agency

At Elland Road, 30 managers including caretakers have taken charge since Wilkinson departed. These days the manager is a German, Daniel Farke. But Wilkinson says, whatever the nationality of the coach, the priority has not changed. Just as Farke was last summer, Wilkinson was recruited by the club with the simple task: get them promoted back to the top flight. In October 1988, he took a call from the then Leeds chairman Leslie Silver. At the time Wilkinson was in charge of Sheffield Wednesday, having steered them to promotion in his first season. Before that he had been at Notts County and had done the same thing.

“I took two or three phone calls about the job,” Wilkinson recalls. “And after a while I gave in and said yes, I’ll come up to talk to you about it. I made it clear I was reluctant to move. Leslie Silver cleverly started off by saying, ‘well. if you’re not going to come, would you mind giving us some advice as to how we might do what you’d done at Notts and Sheff Weds?’. I recognised quickly that he was both a gentleman and someone true to his word. When I agreed to taking the job and I told him my plan, he said he was prepared to back me financially with whatever it takes. And he was.”

Their 1992 title triumph was Leeds' third top-flight triumph, one masterminded by Wilkinson
Their 1992 title triumph was Leeds' third top-flight crown, one masterminded by Wilkinson - PA

When asked what his plan was, Wilkinson pauses for a moment. This is not someone who embraces modern terms like philosophy or tactical blueprint. In fact, had he been asked what his philosophy entailed it is very likely the conversation would have been immediately terminated.

“Put it in simple terms: you have to find a way to win,” he says of his methodology. “Behind that lies 1,000 stories. Basically, you take what you’ve got, work out what it can do best, then get on the practice pitch and work on it. I can’t wear any of that philosophy b-------. My style was always dictated by the players I had at my disposal.”

At Sheffield Wednesday, for instance, he had been the first English manager to play three at the back, with his full-backs pushed forward into auxiliary wingers. But that did not mean he was intent on insisting Leeds play the same way. Especially as, when he arrived at the club, they were sitting precariously close to the Second Division relegation zone; he simply recognised they needed to start winning, pronto.

“It was not appropriate for the Leeds players,” he says of his Wednesday tactical innovation. “On top of which, I had the opportunity, thanks to Leslie Silver’s backing, to bring players in when and where I thought necessary during that season. That really helped.”

One of those he quickly brought in was Gordon Strachan, signed from Manchester United.

“A journalist told me he was going to sign for Sheffield Wednesday,” Wilkinson recalls. “I got on the phone to him and told him under no circumstances should he go to Sheffield without talking to me first. And he liked what I said.”

With Strachan as his captain, and Vinnie Jones – who he signed from Wimbledon – another leader in the dressing room, Leeds were soon careering up the table. Indeed, so quickly did he bring about transformation, he was able to fulfil Silver’s ambition and get the team promoted back to the top flight in his first year. But he did not stop there. After a season consolidating, he set them on course to win the title, the club’s first trophy since the Don Revie glory days of 1974.

Jack Charlton and Don Revie
During the glory days of the late 1960s and early 1970s there was no shortage of silverware and champagne at Leeds as seen here with two of the club's big characters, Jack Charlton and Don Revie - Getty Images/E. Milsom

“At the start of that pre-season I didn’t sit down and say, ‘right chaps, here we go, we’re going to win this division,’” Wilkinson says when asked if he had expected to win the title. “All I said was we need to do better than last year.”

It helped that in the February of that season he recruited a certain Frenchman: Eric Cantona.

“I signed him because I knew he was just an exceptional player,” Wilkinson says, chuckling at the memory of what the forward used to do on the training ground. “He had an exceptional reputation, mind, but I thought I was capable of dealing with that. I thought he’d be an asset. And he was.”

As the final lap approached in what became a two-horse race with Manchester United for the title, Wilkinson did something that he looks back on now as being critical to making the players believe in themselves.

“I took down all the pictures of the Revie era around the club. And there were a lot of them,” he says. “I said to the players, when you are nearly as good as them those pictures go back up. In other words, the fate of those pictures is in your hands, the club’s history is in your hands. I think the past had smothered a lot of people at Leeds. They were expected to do what that team did without the players that team had. I think it’s always a weakness to keep looking at the past, instead of looking forward.”

His psychological trick worked. Seeing off Manchester United at the last, Strachan lifted the Championship trophy.

So what advice would he give Farke ahead of Sunday’s play-off against Southampton? Should he, too, be pulling down the past?

Daniel Farke
It is now the turn of Daniel Farke to try and get Leeds back into the Premier League - Getty Images/Robbie Jay Barratt

“It’s been a long old time since I was involved,” he says. “It would be disrespectful for me even from a distance to offer an opinion. He knows what it is he’s got to do. One thing I will say is this: Leeds is the sort of club that has ingredients to become what it once was again. They are capable of sustaining and being successful in the Premier League.”

So, from his holiday redoubt in Majorca would the man who last brought a trophy to Elland Road be watching on Sunday?

“Oh aye, I’ll be watching,” he says. Then he chuckles.

“But I suspect it will be a tough watch.”

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