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Howard Wilkinson’s arrival at Leeds United on 10th October 1988 was a total surprise as Leeds were next to the bottom of the Second Division, while Sheffield Wednesday were in the top half of the First Division. To lure a Manager of Wilkinson’s undoubted ability on a four year contract was a major coup for the club.
When Wilkinson arrived United were a precarious 23rd with just 6 points to show for their 9 games played. They duly won his first game 3-1 against Peterborough United to progress to the 3rd Round of the League Cup. Three consecutive draws were achieved before the first League victory of his reign came, 2-1 over Hull City at Elland Road. League survival was the priority and a steady accumulation of points saw United safe long before the season’s end, finally finishing tenth. Wilko now started to look to the future and began his team-building in earnest by signing Scottish International midfielder Gordon Strachan from Manchester United.
At the start of the 1989-90 season Wilkinson continued his rebuilding. Skipper Mark Aizlewood, who had been stripped of the captaincy and banned for 14 days for making rude gestures to the crowd not surprisingly left the club to join Bradford City. In came the likes of Chris Fairclough, Vinnie Jones, John Hendrie, Mel Sterland, John McClelland, Lee Chapman and Chris Kamara. The arrival of Chapman and Kamara along with the emergence of Gary Speed who had emerged from the junior ranks proved to be the final pieces in the promotion jigsaw for United, as a three way battle developed between the three United’s of Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle for the two promotion places.
A win at Elland Road against Leicester City in front of a crown of 32,597 left United in the box seat, as a win at relegation-threatened Bournemouth would bring not only promotion but also the Second Division title. Sheffield United, who visited Leicester City, and Newcastle United, who had to visit relegation candidates Middlesbrough, were both ready to pounce. Chris Kamara crossed for Lee Chapman to rise and head the winner, and United had little difficulty in hanging on to their lead to win the championship with 85 points, on goal difference from Sheffield United who won at Leicester City.
Back in the top flight Wilkinson continued to strengthen his squad with the acquisitions of John Lukic, Gary McAllister and Chris Whyte. United could have been forgiven if they had settled for mid-table respectability after such an hard season but it was to their credit that they battled all the odds to finish fourth on 64 points, with some tremendous efforts. Chapman had a stellar season and after scoring twice in a last day 4-3 loss to Nottingham Forest to finished the top scorer in the First Division with 21 league goals and 31 in all.
The 1991-92 season was when the history was made though. The previous two seasons had seen spending of £5.5 million but the board again backed Wilkinson who strengthened his squad further. A new record £1.6 million for striker Rod Wallace, £1.3 million for Tony Dorigo plus the signings of Steve Hodge, David Wetherall and Jon Newsome completed the squad. With 20,000 Season Tickets sold, bringing in £3.5 million and the prospect of high TV and broadcasting income, the Board felt it well worthwhile in their strife to bring the title to Elland Road.
After ten games Leeds and Manchester United remained the only unbeaten teams in the Division. Ironically Leeds lost the next game and Manchester became firm favourites with 26 points from ten games, already six points ahead of Leeds who had played a game more. Manchester wasted their game in hand when beaten 1-0 by bottom of the table West Ham United and Leeds now had destiny in their own hands. If they won their remaining games at Sheffield United and at home to Norwich City the championship was theirs, falter and Manchester, who had to visit Liverpool at Anfield before finishing at home to Tottenham Hotspur, or the fast finishing Sheffield Wednesday could claim English Football’s major prize.
Leeds won 3-2 at Bramall Lane with goals from Jon Newsome, Rod Wallace and an own goal from Brian Gayle. The 3-2 win meant Manchester had to win at Anfield to keep their hopes alive. An early Ian Rush strike and a late Mark Walters goal ensured a 2-0 defeat and many thousands of Leeds fans all over the world were jubilant as they reclaimed the championship after 18 years to become the final winners of the Football League Division One as the country’s top League, as it became the English Premier League in 1992-93.