One shot – lots of goals: Leeds United’s perfection of the art of free-kicks

A look back at the free-kick maestros who grace Leeds United's history


From Sheridan to Hernandez, in his latest column for, lifelong supporter Jon Howe delves into the Leeds United's journey to master the art of free-kicks.

Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.

Free-kicks haven’t featured too heavily in Leeds United’s recent history. Why would Marcelo Bielsa hand the glory of scoring a goal to one single player, when he can involve every member of the team three times over in the act of bursting the onion bag? It’s hard to argue with that, and perhaps explains why Pablo Hernandez was the last Leeds player to score direct from a free-kick away at Burton Albion in December 2017. And why another free-kick specialist, Barry Douglas, has more recent memories of scoring a free-kick against Leeds for Wolves, than for them.

Yet though we haven’t decorated football with a spectacular show reel of free-kicks in the last few years, Leeds United still possess a back catalogue of set-piece showstoppers that are the envy of many clubs the world over. Free-kick goals are very much a modern phenomenon, emerging as a practiced art since footballs were manufactured much lighter and players learnt they could manipulate them to do things that defied science.

Sadly, in Don Revie’s day, whilst Leeds had expert dead-ball technicians like Johnny Giles and Peter Lorimer, suet puddings offered more to the study of aerodynamics than the rain-bloated lead weights they had to master, and it was the 1980s before Leeds sculpted their first free-kick connoisseur.

If anything was to excite Leeds fans during a turgid decade, it would have John Sheridan’s name attached to it. The midfield maestro had Leeds fans in the palm of his hand, taking control of corners, penalties, free-kicks and pretty much anything you would pay to watch. Free-kick-wise his genius cheered some desperate afternoons, with an innovative chip and lob routine versus Derby County at Elland Road in November 1986 probably the highlight. The end of that season almost had the most fitting finale too, but sadly his nonchalant chip into Charlton’s net in extra-time of the Play-Off Final Replay at St Andrews ultimately counted for nothing.

This was just the start of a utopian period for free-kick enthusiasts though, because if anyone appreciated an element of a football match that you had almost complete control over and could practice until your brain waved the white flag, it was Howard Wilkinson. Countless hours were spent huddled on the frozen wastelands of Fullerton Park as Mel Sterland navigated ankle deep mud to curl another wayward effort into the West Stand car park. But he earned his nickname of ‘Zico’ at Sheffield Wednesday for getting it right when it mattered, and with an unerring conviction, Sterland was Wilko’s first free-kick aficionado.

Sterland loved scoring against Sheffield United, and did so with free-kicks in three consecutive seasons. Who can forget the nuclear force of the guided missile he sent into the Blades’ net at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day in 1989/90? Whilst he scored less spectacular efforts in Elland Road victories in 1990/91 and 1991/92. His other much-cherished pile-driver was the deceptive daisy-cutter on a snowy December afternoon at Old Trafford in 1990, which triggered some of the best ‘limbs’ you will ever see amongst the frozen Leeds fans packed into the old Scoreboard End terracing.

It is a measure of Tony Dorigo’s talents that when you have Gary McAllister in your ranks, you can get any sniff of free-kick action yourself. The stylish left-back managed just that and illuminated the First Division title-winning season with drilled left-footed efforts away at Norwich City and most memorably in the 6-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday, when Dorigo’s 34th minute strike really wrestled control of the game at a vital time.

But it was the mercurial McAllister who truly lit up that era, although his free-kicks perhaps played second fiddle to a stunning collection of solo strikes and long-range net bulgers. McAllister’s majestic right foot was able to combine deft control with thunderous power, and you can thumb through his free-kick directory to find evidence of both.

Delicate chipped efforts were the order of the day at Port Vale away in the FA Cup, and at home to Wimbledon in 1993/94 and Coventry in 1995/96, when his free-kick contributed one third of his only hat-trick in a Leeds shirt. Many people cite McAllister’s chipped free-kick on a typically rain-sodden Monday evening at Oldham in 1993/94 as the archetypal ‘unsaveable’ strike. He managed to curl the ball up and over the wall and into the furthest corner of the net where no goalkeeper in the world could reach it. But then McAllister had brute force in his armoury too, and his equalising goal versus Arsenal in the FA Cup Fourth Round Replay in February 1993 was hit straight and true, but couldn’t prevent a shattering extra-time defeat.

By the time Ian Harte entered the scene after McAllister’s departure, it seemed every team had a set-piece specialist, but few had Harte’s deceptive ability to combine whip, accuracy, power and consistency. Sharing the same stage as David Beckham was a tough ask, but Harte enjoyed and deserved the limelight every bit as much, and became a prime reason why David O’Leary’s swashbuckling Leeds side grew into one of the most feared at home and abroad.

Harte’s sharp-shooting gallery started with a long-range effort away at Portsmouth in the 5-1 FA Cup win in 1998/99, and by the time he beat England’s David Seaman with astute strikes in consecutive Highbury wins over Arsenal in 2001/02 and 2002/03, he was a potent force and a quick-thinking free-kick exponent you had to keep an eye on. Harte’s most famous goals came during the Champions League run, with unstoppable Kop end efforts versus Anderlecht and Deportivo La Coruna, which are amongst the most cherished images of an unforgettable season. Alas, Harte’s long-range dipping effort which bamboozled Manchester United goalkeeper Fabian Barthez gets forgotten for the 4-3 defeat it played a part in during 2001/02, and sadly Leeds were soon on the slide.

Since this time only sporadic efforts from the likes of Alan Thompson, Robbie Blake, Eddie Lewis and Ross McCormack have lit up the scene, until King Pablo entered our lives. And who knows? For all the buccaneering attacking play and high-press overloading that creates goals for Bielsa’s Leeds, we would all happily settle for a simple, solitary free-kick to trigger the long-awaited explosion of joy that brings glory back to Elland Road.

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