Leeds United, 1988-1996
“There’s a plane sitting on the runway. It’s going to take off and it’s going to fly. You have three weeks to decide whether you want to get on it or not.”
This was October 1988. My first day at Leeds United, and these were my first words to a group of players who’d had an awful start to the season.
Leeds were fourth from bottom in the Second Division. I was leaving Sheffield Wednesday, in the First Division, to go there. Everyone said I was barmy. Including my wife.
Her exact words were: “You’ve got to be joking. Aren’t they in the Second Division?”
“Yeah, but I think it’s a great chance to really fly.”
Maybe it was all down to Vince Lombardi. I’d been captivated by the coach of the Green Bay Packers American football team ever since I first discovered his books.
I was 23 years old at the time, and searching for ways to fill my time when I wasn’t training at Brighton (below). I’d already taken on one extracurricular activity, signing up for an FA B Licence course I’d seen advertised on the club noticeboard.
I just thought it’d be something to do. But, from day one, I loved it. I loved the idea that in football, just like any other activity or area of learning, there was structure. In those days, some of the coaches were very... what you might call “hand-reared”. Sometimes you might question the logic, but you weren’t encouraged to do so.
This was a whole new world.
The coaching course still left me with five empty afternoons a week, though. I’d already reached the sad point where I was timing how long it took me to do the Daily Mail’s cryptic crossword each day, trying to beat my own record.
Then I remembered libraries – those things we’d been introduced to at school.
"Even now, I see some experienced coaches who still don’t really understand how people learn"
And then... well, I was blown away. I found Gary Player’s book Positive Golf, in which he talked about the value of visualisation. So, if you’re on a fairway and there’s a lake, don’t see the lake. Just see the green.
I got into the Australians, who were coming along in athletics, too. Percy Wells Cerutty was this mad Australian coach who believed in getting the athletes into camping, eating natural foods and discussing philosophy, excellence and aspiration.
Then I found Vince Lombardi. He was a revelation for me.
It was the 1950s, and Green Bay would play a game. That night, he and his coaches would go through it on the cinefilm, cutting out clips and sticking them together. The next day, the players would come in dreading the session. They knew he was going to take them through the film, picking out the good, the bad and the ugly.
I had so much admiration for what this man had achieved. With a population of only 35,000, he’d turned the Green Bay Packers into the best American football team there’s ever been.
I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to get on my A Licence course.
That’s where I first met a great visionary called Allen Wade, then director of coaching at the FA and a former lecturer at Loughborough University. When I told him I wanted to coach and manage after I was finished playing, Allen suggested I do a PE course and teacher training.
I wasn’t sure. I had a wife and kid to think about. Why would I want to go back to school?
“Because you’ll cover the theory of learning, physiology, anatomy, sociology, psychology. And, most importantly, you’ll learn how people learn.”
He was right. That was so valuable. Even now, I see some experienced coaches who still don’t really understand how people learn.
"I had one whiskey and said: ‘That’s the end of the party’"
My next crucial lesson came a few years later, in my third season as a manager.
It was at Boston United, where I’d finished my career as a part-time player and coach. We’d won the Northern Premier League in my first two seasons. But then I decided to change things. I wanted us to focus on playing out from the back.
That season, we finished fifth.
That’s when I learned that your job as a manager is to find ways for your players to win games, because that’s what they want to do. Not to indulge a whim of yours about what is and isn’t good football. Who was I really pleasing?
Did they want to win, or did they want to come off the pitch having had a nice time?
The important thing is finding a way to play that enables them to do what they do well individually, but collectively, too. That’s my job, and that’s what they want me to do.
The concept of good and bad football is flawed. For me, if players are playing in a way which enables them to be good and enables them to win, then that is good football.
A few years later, I was working for the FA as a regional coach and manager of the England non-league team when I got a phone call from the Notts County manager Jimmy Sirrell (below, centre). He wanted me to join County.
“I don’t want to come and carry the balls, Jim.”
“No, you’ll be helping me look after the team.”
I didn’t understand. What had changed?
He said: “Howard, I cannae any longer get these players to run. They will not bloody run for me. You will coach them. Select them.”
I started the day after Boxing Day. By then, Notts County were about sixth from bottom of the Second Division.
Jimmy was right: he couldn’t get them to run.
"We became ‘the passing team’, with the first sweeper in England who played out from the back: ‘Pedro Beckenbauer’"
Our first game was at home on New Year’s Day. With a few Scotsmen and an Irishman on the staff, I decided we should stay in a hotel on New Year’s Eve.
Lying in bed that night, I got a phone call from the night porter: “Mr Wilkinson, we’ve got some guests in room so-and-so complaining about the noise from next door. That room is allocated to one of your players.”
I went down and knocked on the door. A player opened it. Every player in the team, apart from two, was in there.
“Aye, come in,” he says. “Have a drink.”
So I did. I had one whiskey and then said: “That’s the end of the party.”
We struggled for the rest of the season, but finished clear of relegation. When I got them back in for the next pre-season, I knew I had to find a way for them to win.
This was an experienced group. They could all pass and control.
Ray O’Brien was slow, but he could thread a needle with his left foot. Don Masson was a midfield genius and regular for Scotland. Tristan Benjamin at right-back could have been a Brazilian – he had such grace, skill and pace. Pedro Richards was another skilful right-back who I moved into the middle as a sweeper. In goal, Raddy Avramovic was excellent, as was his distribution with both feet and hands. He could throw a ball longer than any keeper at that time.
The way for them to win was to play how we tried – but failed – to play at Boston. We became ‘the passing team’, with the first sweeper in England who played out from the back: Pedro Beckenbauer.
I remember playing at Bristol City in a friendly, and bumping into one of their midfielders in the tunnel after the game.
“Are you the new coach?”
“You’ll get f**king relegated trying to play like that.”
"What you’ve got to do for us, I shouldn’t ask of a dog. You three are our front four"
I think we went the first 18 games without getting beat. It was Christmas before anybody worked out what we were doing.
Avramovic wasn’t allowed to kick the ball unless he had to – everything was rolled or thrown out. David Hunt in midfield was the water-carrier – he’d run out of midfield behind the opposing full-backs allowing Pedro, playing as a sweeper, to step into midfield.
Playing like that, we finished second in the league and got promoted – County’s first time in the top league for 35 years!
But there were better coaches and better players in the First Division, and they quickly sussed what we were doing. By Christmas, we were perilously close to bottom of the league. I knew we had to change.
I sat the players down and said: “It’s my fault we are where we are. We can’t keep playing like we have been. If we don’t change, we get relegated. What do you want?”
We went from Avramovic not being allowed to kick the ball, to Avramovic not allowed to throw the ball – and, that season, we survived. For Notts County, that was unbelievable.
We survived again the following season, and that’s when I got the phone call from Sheffield Wednesday – the club my dad had supported, and so the one I’d grown up supporting.
They were in the Second Division, but when I looked at the team I thought we had enough to get us out of it. We also had a plethora of good centre-halves, so I decided to play 3-4-3. The first in the UK, I think.
We played three strikers: one centre, right and left. I explained to them: “What you’ve got to do for us, I shouldn’t ask of a dog. You three are our front four.”
I wanted the full-backs to get wide, push on and get up the line. We’d press high. Play a very rigid offside.
That season, nobody could live with us. We should have won the league, but by Easter Monday we’d secured promotion and, after that, they stopped running.
We finished second, one goal behind Chelsea. After 14 years, Sheffield Wednesday were back in the top flight.
"You’re trying to relive the Revie era, but you haven’t got Revie players"
By the end of my third season there, it was clear we needed to invest in better players. We’d finished 13th in the league – eight places lower than the previous season.
After the final game, I found Nigel Worthington sitting alone in the dressing room. “Gaffer,” he said. “You need to leave here. You can only squeeze so much juice out of a lemon.”
I ended up staying for five years. Until a month or so into the 1988/89 season, I got a call from a reporter, saying he’d been asked to sound me out. Was I interested in going to Leeds United, who were at that time in the Second Division?
I blame Bobby Robson. When Leeds chairman Leslie Silver asked him who he should bring in, Bobby told him: “You’ve got to try very hard to get Howard Wilkinson.”
I drove up to see Leslie at his paint factory near Leeds. He asked me: “If you were me, what would you do here?”
“You need to change. You’ve got to change the approach and the culture. You’re living in the past, trying to relive the Don Revie era – but you haven’t got Revie players. You’re successful in the paint business. You haven’t done that by making the same paint the same way you were 15 years ago.”
We met up three more times over the next month. At the end of the last meeting, he asked me a question. “You’ve told me we can get promoted, and that there’s a quick way or a slow way. What’s the difference?”
“Two million pounds. I’m not saying I’ll spend it. But I need to know that, if I ask, it will be available – when and if I decide we need it.”
I told him how I thought it would go. The remainder of that season would be sorting things out. The following season, we could get promoted. Four years after that, we could win the title.
I also said we’d need to acquire a new training centre and develop a youth academy, to grow our own.
Providing we stuck to the plan, all was possible.
"If you can't be a star, don't be a cloud"
Early the following year, I had a piece of luck. I’d heard Gordon Strachan was leaving Manchester United and was in talks with Sheffield Wednesday.
Somehow, I got hold of him: “Do not go home from Sheffield, Gordon. Come to Elland Road first. We can give you a new career.”
I told him I was looking for someone who was more than a player. Someone who could be my conduit on the pitch. Someone who could support the culture I wanted to grow, and demonstrate it by the way he trains, talks, thinks and behaves. Someone to be club captain.
I said we could get him fitter, prolong a career he thought was ending. I was delighted when he said yes.
I was looking for players who were committed to what we needed to do to become the best organised, the fittest, the best set-piece outfit in the league. This would be our base.
Yes, you need to be able to control and pass a football – but you also have to commit to the belief that this is about we, about us. Not me.
If you can’t be a star, don’t be a cloud.
Gary Speed is a great example of my sort of player. In my time at Leeds, I played him in every position except goalkeeper. Never once did Gary get the hump.
It’s us. It’s we. It’s for the greater good.
Of course, I also had Eric Cantona in that Leeds team for a time. I’d seen him play for France’s Under-21s and knew he was a good player. So when I found out he was looking for a club in England, I rang Gerard Houllier and Michel Platini, who was the French manager at the time. They confirmed it: “Yes, he’s a great player... but he’s also a loose cannon.”
Anyhow, I met him. He came over well and we took him on loan. He started seven games in our title-winning season.
In his second season we were going through a difficult period, away from home especially. One Saturday morning, I left him out of a game at QPR. He decided to leave the hotel and go home.
After that... well, let’s just say it was better that he left the club.
"When you’re building something, you know there’s a next step. But you don’t want to get there too quickly"
The Leeds team I had at the start looked different to the one I had two years later, but the basic principles remained: press the ball high, win the ball early. Physically, be stronger and better organised.
I employed an athletics coach to help the players. But I had been a very keen student of sports science – I knew about recovery rates, oxygen debt, training specificity. We didn’t have heart rate monitors then, so each player learned to take his own pulse, to better assess recovery time during pre-season training sessions.
We also had a urologist come in. He helped design rehydration drinks for each player based on their individual test results. And a gentleman called George Wilkinson from Newcastle University who did our analysis, to ensure we had the empirical evidence we needed to support training and performances.
In my first season we finished in 10th place, but the next year we flew. Leeds were back in the First Division.
The plan then was to win the title. In four years’ time.
It happened faster than anyone expected.
In our second season in the top flight, we pipped Manchester United to the title. It sounds daft, but it was too quick. The season after that, we weren’t equipped to do what we’d done again. We didn’t win a single game away from home.
When you’re building something, you get to a point where you know there’s a next step. But you don’t want to get there too quickly, because you’ve got to be ready to maximise and build on the opportunity when you get there.
After eight years at Leeds, I discovered my own next step had come around faster than I expected.
In the summer of 1996, the club got new owners. We were in pre-season when I got a phone call from a very good friend of mine who’s also an extremely successful manager. He told me he had it on good authority that my job had already been offered to another high-profile manager who at that time was out of work.
From then on, it was clear I was on borrowed time. It’s the first time in my life I’ve not driven to work thinking how lucky I was.
The players got to know it, too (the football grapevine is unbelievable). It was a great example of a lack of cohesion brought about by a lack of trust.
It’s us. It’s we. It’s for the greater good.
When that feeling’s gone from a team, flying is impossible.
Vince Lombardi might have been one of the first to teach me that, but he certainly wasn’t the last.