Wilkinson on glory days.
We caught up with former Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson, to look back at his time at the club.
Wilkinson brought the good times back to Elland Road under his stewardship, guiding the club to the Second Division title in 1990, followed by the First Division Championship in 1992.
Here, he talks to us about taking the Leeds United job and what was key to his and the club’s success…
As a manager you twice dropped down from the First Division, first joining Sheffield Wednesday from Notts County and then Leeds from Sheffield Wednesday. They must have been big decisions for you?
“It was a big decision, but I felt I’d done as much as I could at Notts County and the offer to go to Sheffield Wednesday was an offer which had potential. What I went there to do, I did in my first year, in a sense. The hard work starts then, though, because you are trying to stay in that top flight and better still, trying to get into the top six. We did qualify for Europe, but it was the year Heysel happened and English clubs were banned. Sheffield Wednesday had been in the top flight for a few years and I knew that we needed investment on the pitch to take the next step. If you don’t do that, you go backwards and it wasn’t available. I don’t hold anything against them or the people there at that time, that was just the reality. Leeds came along, second bottom of the division below and once again, after I had spoken to then Leeds chairman Leslie Silver at length on a number of occasions, I felt that it was an opportunity to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to win the First Division, get into Europe and compete with the best.”
You guided Leeds away from the wrong end of the table and then in your first full season, you went on to clinch the Second Division Championship…
“It is always nice to win something. Whether it is Leeds United or Lincoln City, it is always nice to win something. It was a dream move, Leeds were second bottom, I went there in the October and we went on a run undefeated into double figures which set the stage for the following season. We had re-ignited the flame, the fans were starting to come back with the enthusiasm and Leslie Silver and the directors were fully behind me. They agreed to support me financially in terms of getting the players in I felt we needed to get out of the division. Gordon Strachan was one of those, where, you knew he was not only going to be an influence on and off the pitch, but one where other players were going to look and think, ‘Gordon Strachan has gone there, maybe they are serious about what they are trying to do’, and that was the case. We set out with four objectives… To get out of the Second Division as soon as possible, buy the ground back, build a proper training ground with an academy and ultimately to win the First Division. We aimed to challenge for the First Division Championship within five full seasons. As it turned out it was within three full seasons, so it was a bit early in terms of being able to sustain that sort of rapid progress, but you can’t turn it down and away we went.”
Were you surprised how quickly it happened, finishing fourth in your first season back in the top flight and then winning the title the following year?
“A little bit, but you quickly get a sense of how far you can take a team. I never talked to them about winning this, winning that or the other. I always broke it down into manageable numbers of games. We’d set a target, the players and I would talk about it and agree what was reasonable to aim for and we would play six games at a time. We didn’t play a season, we just played six games at a time, until you got to the point, where, in any long race you have to kick for home. Until then, we just kept saying, let’s make sure we get our next target. I always used the analogy of a golf swing to them, if you get your golf swing right and you groove it, when you are under pressure, you won’t deteriorate or fall apart. You have that swing to rely on and we had what we had ours to rely on, with the good habits we had developed. You win a game and move on… Who have we got next…”
What was your most memorable moment from the 1991/92 season?
“For me the most memorable thing about that season was the reception at the end of it and getting on the open top bus. You just can’t comprehend until you have seen it happen once, how important it can be to a city. The advantage Leeds have got is that it is a one club city, which is a massive bonus. To have a city behind you has great advantages in terms of support and commercially.”