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Today marks the seventy fifth birthday of one of the greatest managers Leeds United have ever had and one of the most influential yet underrated coaches in English football, Howard Wilkinson. When he took over at Leeds on 10th October 1988 the club was third bottom of the Second Division and looking relegation candidates but he had always had the knack for getting the best out of players and getting the team to achieve far more than their collective ability. He improved the fitness and discipline of the existing players and staved off relegation to Division three and managed a tenth place finish in his first season.
He made the inspired signing of Gordon Strachan for £300,000 from Manchester United just before the March transfer deadline, together with the loan of England Under-Twenty-Three International Chris Fairclough from Tottenham Hotspur, United looked like potential promotion candidates for the following season. A fee of £500,000 made Fairclough's move permanent and with the full backing of the board he signed Mel Sterland from Rangers, John Hendrie from Newcastle, Vinnie Jones from Wimbledon for £600,000 each and several other squad players to see United installed as early favourites for promotion.
John Sheridan had departed for £650,000 to Nottingham Forest after seven years outstanding service, but with David Batty a fixture in midfield and Gary Speed pushing for a permanent place in the team United were looking good and soon led the League and set a cracking pace but the addition of Lee Chapman for £400,000 from Nottingham Forest in January 1990 added further to United's strength and after a temporary hiccup on the run in it was he that scored the goal in the final game at Bournemouth which saw United promoted as Champions of the Second Division.
In preparation for his first campaign in the top flight he added some class to the Second Division Champions with the acquisition of Gary McAllister from Leicester City and John Lukic from Arsenal, each for £1 million and central defender Chris Whyte from West Bromwich Albion for £400,000. United spent most of the season in the top five and fully deserved their fourth place finish as their midfield combination of Strachan, Batty, McAllister and Speed became the best in the Division. Their success was not just confined to the League, they also reached the Fourth Round of the FA Cup and only bowed out after a titanic struggle with Arsenal which went to two replays, while in the League Cup they were eliminated in the two-legged Semi-Final by Manchester United.
In preparation for the 1991/92 season United added more class to their ranks with the purchase of Tony Dorigo from Chelsea for 1.3 million, Rod Wallace from Southampton for £1.6 million and Steve Hodge from Nottingham Forest for £900,000. Wilkinson out-thought and out-psyched Manchester United's Alex Ferguson as the two teams led a two horse race for the First Division title. The arrival of Eric Cantona in February, after Lee Chapman was out for several games with a fractured wrist, was the icing on the cake as the enigmatic Frenchman added the flicks and skills to United's well oiled machine and the Old Trafford team cracked and under the pressure of trying to keep up with the cracking pace set by United and the Championship was sealed on the penultimate game of the season as United won at Sheffield United and then watched as Manchester went down to Liverpool, later in the day.
Wilkinson won the Manager of the Year Trophy and after Leeds had given a stunning performance in the Charity Shield match at Wembley in beating FA Cup Winners Liverpool by 4-3, with Cantona getting a superb hat-trick, which he followed up witha repeat performance as Leeds trounced Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 in the League a couple of weeks later no-one would have predicted their imminent fall from grace. Wilkinson always maintained that United should have used their position as Champions to attract more players to their ranks to cover for injuries and also said that United had won the Championship one year too soon and 1992-93, the first year of the EPL, was a disaster as United slumped to seventeenth place and failed to win one game in their travels away from Elland Road.
Cantona took off across the Pennines, but there was a ray of hope as the Leeds Youth team took out the FA Youth Cup defeating Manchester United in both legs of a two legged Final, despite their team including many players who were to become full internationals and the backbone of the Old Trafford team for years to come. The Leeds team was honoured by many of their players becoming Youth Internationals, but sadly none, with the possible exception of Noel Whelan achieved anything at top flight level.
Wilkinson went back to the drawing board and started to rebuild the side, buying Brian Deane from Sheffield United for a then club record £2.7 million and then selling talisman David Batty to Blackburn Rovers in October 1993 for £2.75 million but managing to finish a respectable fifth in 1993-94. The following season United managed to qualify for the UEFA Cup with another fifth place finish and it saw the arrival of the extremely gifted Tony Yeboah from Eintracht Frankfurt for a club record £3.4 million in January 1995 and scoring twelve League goals in sixteen starts. He started the next season with eight goals in the first eight games, including goals against Liverpool at home and Wimbledon away which were voted first and second in the 'goal of the year'. He also had scored a hat-trick at Monaco in the first game of their UEFA Cup campaign and with United riding high in the League things looked rosey.
Unfortunately the goals dried up and despite reaching the final of the Coca-Cola Cup and the Quarter-Finals of the FA Cup the season fizzled out to a poor ending with six successive defeats and a draw in the last seven matches and a disappointing thirteenth finish. A Wembley final should be one of the highlights of a Managers' career, but the Wembley meeting with Aston Villa ended with the Leeds fans screaming for Wilkinson's departure after a very disappointing performance. He had spent another £3.4 million on Tomas Brolin, who failed to live up to his reputation. During the close season the club was taken over by the Caspian Group, and his close association with Chairman Leslie Silver was gone.
After giving Wilkinson the funds to sign Lee Bowyer, Lee Sharpe, Nigel Martyn and Ian Rush, partly funded by the sale of Gary McAllister and Gary Speed and watch the team get off to a reasonable start sitting in fifth spot on seven points after four games, the board realised that they needed some sort of excuse to ease him out and bring in their favoured replacement George Graham. A 4-0 home defeat by Manchester United on 7th September 1996 provided that pretext, and Wilkinson was shown the door on 9th September 1996. Wilkinson had brought success to a struggling club and left as his legacy the Academy, which already had produced a team capable of winning the FA Youth Cup and was soon to bear even more fruit with another FA Youth Cup and Harry Kewell and others had already seen first team duty and the likes of Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Matthew Jones, Stephen McPhail and Alan Maybury were soon to emerge as full Internationals. After leaving Leeds, he went on to become FA Technical Director in January 1997, Managing the England Under-Twenty-one side and taking charge of the National side as Caretaker-Manager firstly after the departure of Glenn Hoddle in 1999 and then following Kevin Keegan‘s resignation in 2000.
His legacy goes on as the Leeds United academy he setup continues to produce talent and the structure and systems he helped introduce at national level start to show success with youth level tournament victories and the rejuvenation of the England side.