Tribal Football

Exclusive: Cantona, Batty - Wilkinson's Leeds title winners & how it fell apart

Exclusive: Cantona, Batty - Wilkinson's Leeds title winners & how it fell apart
Exclusive: Cantona, Batty - Wilkinson's Leeds title winners & how it fell apart
Exclusive: Cantona, Batty - Wilkinson's Leeds title winners & how it fell apartAction Plus
It Is 22 years ago that Leeds United shook the establishment by claiming a very surprising league title under the watchful eye of manager Howard Wilkinson. One of the best English managers of all times, Dave Tomlinson claims in his latest book on Leeds. But was Wilkinson a good enough manager to keep a title winning side at the top?

"I asked Wilkinson the same question about what happened following on from that title. I think people would say Leeds probably peaked too soon and he talks about himself. He was banking on this long-term plan and then a whole series of things happened," Tomlinson explains. 


Tribalfootball meet him in connection with his book "The Man with the Plan". A book primarily, but not solely, describing in depth the period where "Wilko" took over at Elland Road and created a title-winner from scratch.

"Were Leeds really big enough to capitalize on the title? They did spend quite big just after they won the title, but they didn't really push on. And the players started believing in themselves a bit too much. Wilkinson says that himself and some of the players say exactly the same," Tomlinson elaborates on the reason why Leeds never got close to the very top again under Wilkinson.

All about the team

Tomlinson's "The Man with the Plan" is just the latest output on Leeds from the long-time LUFC supporter. In fact, he's even lost a bit of track himself on how many books he's put out.

"I think it's ten, but this is the one I'm most proud of. I managed to get Howard Wilkinson to talk to me for a couple of hours and go through a lot of details. I also got a lot of the players to share things. It was about trying to capture what it was like at that time. Because it was incredible.

"Leeds do this quite a bit where they go through a period where it's just mythical. There weren't that many great players. There was a few really, really good players, but there weren't that many great players. It was just the team spirit. And that's what Wilkinson stressed; it was all about the team."

Howard Wilkinson dropped down a league to take over at Leeds which, even for that period, was a very unusual move.

"Everyone thought he was stupid or crazy. He describes how his wife certainly thought he was crazy. Because he was really highly regarded. One of the most up and coming coaches or managers in the game at the time. He just bought into the vision of Leslie Silver, the chairman at the time.

"The thing about Leeds is; it's a massive club. If you go in there and turn them round, as Bielsa did, as Wilkinson did, as Revie did, you're a Messiah in that place. Even now, you get people saying they would rather have gone down with Bielsa than stay in the Premier League without him," says Tomlinson, who is still a bit hoarse as Tribalfootball talk to him the day after Leeds turned on the magic against Norwich in the Championship promotion playoff-semifinal.

Wilkinson gained a reputation for a certain kind of football which wasn't easy on the eye to everyone. While a lot of his former players talk very warmly about Wilkinson to this day, there are also a few examples of others who more or less hated his style of play. Like David Batty

"Batty makes no secret of the fact that he didn't rate his football. He talks about Wilkinson being really boring, he's always talking about these long rambling team talks where it went on and on. Batty was quite disruptive in training and Wilkinson in the end just accepted it.

"He didn't like authority. He had been mentored by Billy Bremner who was the manager prior to Wilkinson, and he just couldn't take the change. He played really great football for Wilkinson and Wilkinson really rated him but it was clash between the two.". And then there was the case of Steve Hodge.

"That was a different thing. Wilkinson paid nearly a million quid for Steve Hodge whom he also tried to buy while managing Sheffield Wednesday. He even writes in his autobiography that he was a complete footballer. But Hodge had a lot of injuries and that really turned Wilkinson against him.

"He did give him an awfully hard time, he was always taking the p*** out of him and just really criticising him. He was the butt of a lot a lot of jokes," tells Tomlinson who tried to get Steve Hodge to offer some insight for the book to which Hodge declined, stating; "I wouldn't give you anything decent".

While at the subject of a clash of personalities, let's introduce Eric Cantona to the story. His career at Elland Road is as legendary as it was short, since Wilkinson allowed him to join Manchester United.

"He was a wonderful player. But Wilkinson was about the team. To get the best out of Cantona, he'd have had to build his side around him and he couldn't do that. Because it would have meant changing too many other things. That could have worked out very differently, but you could see the writing on the wall.

"At the time they brought in Cantona, it was a fair risk. And people think about Cantona as a major contributor in the championship years, but he wasn't. He scored a few goals, but it was still carried largely by the players that he already had.

"Cantona was largely used as an impact and he was incredible in that. Really, really good. But the two of them just didn't get on. You could see that. It was just the blatant flouting the authority. No respect for the team, no respect for Wilkinson. He was a confident guy," Tomlinson adds with a smile while remembering the uproar it caused when Cantona transferred to Old Trafford.

"The fans were all up in arms about it. They loved Cantona. Really loved him. But now they despise him, you know, for switching to Manchester United. Judgment's a wonderful thing, isn't it?" Tomlinson asks rhetorically.

It took Howard Wilkinson four years to get Leeds United out of the Second Division to the title, and while a clearly complex, hard-nosed character, he remains the last Englishman to win the title. As Tomlinson says; one of the best English managers of all time.

"It is based on getting the best out of what he had at his disposal. Turning a club in the doldrums around, making them believe and making the city believe in themselves again. Just like Marcelo Bielsa did. Restoring the confidence that they could do something. The confidence that they were a really great side.

"Some of those players were quite average. They were decent, solid players. But the spirit was fantastic. Absolutely wonderful. And the crowd/player bonding was wonderful. He was absolutely right for the time, for the club, for that team."


- Tomlinson's "The Man with the Plan" is out and available on Pitch Publishing and can be purchased here