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Gary McAllister: Leeds before anno zero

By Phil Shaw



They were the last champions, the final winners of the Football League before the great convulsions of the modern game’s year zero. And now Gary McAllister is on a mission to dismantle what he regards as the myths surrounding Leeds United’s triumph in 1991-92.

The new Premier  League -- and with it wall-to-wall television coverage, plush all-seater stadiums, endless streams of exotic foreign players, gargantuan wages and transfer fees -- lay just round the corner when Leeds came from behind to pip Manchester United to the prize.

McAllister, who joined Gordon Strachan, David Batty and Gary Speed in Howard Wilkinson’s outstanding midfield quartet, remembers being in a workingmen’s club in the city’s toughest areas on the night the epic struggle with United turned in Leeds’ favour.

He also recalls, with a modicum of embarrassment, putting his foot in it with Alex Ferguson on the day the white, blue and gold ribbons were tied to the iconic trophy. However, the 46-year-old Scot believes Leeds’ achievements have not received the recognition they deserve. On the 20th anniversary of the promising autumn which led to a perfect spring, he wants to rectify the misconceptions that often surround their success.

The most irksome notion it was more a case of their Roses rivals throwing away the title than of Leeds winning it.   Close behind is the argument that Wilkinson’s capture of Eric Cantona, later to help Ferguson amass silverware galore at Old Trafford, was crucial in prolonging his future club’s quarter-century wait for the title.   Despite the disappointment of his 2009 return to Elland Road as manager, which lasted only 11 months, McAllister’s readiness to fight the corner of Leeds’ class of ’92 is undiminished. The facts, he insists, prove they were worthy winners.

“We lost just four games out of 42, to Crystal Palace, Oldham, Manchester City and QPR,” he recalls. “None of the best sides of the day – United, Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool and Forest – could beat us in the First Division.  

“We scored more goals (74) than anyone except Arsenal and got four or more four times away from home, which tells you how positive we were. We also kept 20 clean sheets and were unbeaten at home.

 “So it annoys me when people belittle what we did. It’s patronising. If you look down the roll of honour for the two decades since then, I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to win it unless you’re one of the top two or three clubs.”

As for Cantona’s input, after he pitched up as a midwinter refugee from the French disciplinary system, McAllister returns to the figures. “Eric started six matches and came on in nine. He helped turn one against Chelsea but his other two goals were in games already won. He was a positive influence, but to say he made the difference getting us over the line doesn't stack up.”

McAllister is steeped in what it takes to accrue major honours, having gained FA Cup, League Cup and Uefa Cup winner’s medals with Liverpool. He has also worked in the Premier League since ending his long playing career, serving as No 2 to Gerard Houllier at Aston Villa last season.

Yet when he first joined Leeds, in a £1m move from Leicester in 1990, they had just escaped eight years’ hard labour in the former Second Division. Captained by Gordon Strachan, they surprised themselves, concedes McAllister, by finishing fourth in the top flight.

“In the summer of ’91 there was an amazing feeling within the club and the city," he recounts. "The whole place was buzzing. I think it coincided with some big business coming into Leeds.   “No one was shouting ‘We’re gonna win the League’, but we knew we were very competitive. Howard signed Tony Dorigo, Rod Wallace and Steve Hodge, who all helped take the club to the next level.”

Starting with a 1-0 victory over Brian Clough’s Forest, with McAllister scoring against the club he spurned to join Leeds, Wilkinson’s team were unbeaten in the opening 10 matches.  “We were four minutes from winning at Old Trafford and came from 2-0 down against Arsenal, who were champions. We always had titanic battles with them.   “When we finally lost, at Crystal Palace, it was to a 94th-minute goal when there were supposed to be two minutes’ stoppage time. The referee justified it by saying we were ungentlemanly by trying to run down the clock, but of course that’s what you do as a professional.”

Wilkinson – who remains the last Englishman to manage the nation’s champion club – then came into his own. “We tend to rubbish British managers at the expense of foreign ones, but you pick up things from the best that stick with you.

With Howard you had to show a reaction when you lost. He made a point of that; he wanted you to respond like a wounded animal, to bounce back and make sure you don’t lose two in a row.   “After Palace we smashed Sheffield United. We went 4-0 up and though we eased up and it finished 4-3, it was a powerful performance. Three days after we lost to Man United in the League Cup semi-finals, we won 6-1 at Wednesday even though Strach and Batts were out. Later, after we got beaten 4-1 at QPR, we thrashed Wimbledon 5-1, and when Man City beat us 4-0 we won 3-0 against Chelsea. Eric came on and scored a sensational goal.”

Given that Wednesday would finish third, the rout of Wilkinson’s previous club at Hillsborough in a live television match stands out as the display per excellence.  To anyone still questioning Leeds’ quality, McAllister points to another awayday romp, also on TV, when they beat Aston Villa 4-1.

“Howard pulled a master stroke that day. Their winger Tony Daley was flying at the time. During the week we’d worked on John McClelland man-marking him. We thought it was a bit strange because John was a really big guy. But though he wasn’t easy on the eye he was quick across short distances and read the game brilliantly. Daley hardly got a kick.   “We scored some well-worked set-piece goals at Villa, all training-ground stuff between me and Strach.

Nowadays, as a coach, it’s hard to coax players into practising half-a-dozen corners. Gordon and I would do 60 or 70 each the day before a game. Same with free-kicks. Howard oversaw it, and it wasn’t just the takers involved, it was everybody.

“People said we got a lot of goals from set-pieces, as if it was something to be criticised. In that respect we were ahead of our time – if you look at the stats for international football or the Champions’ League, most goals stem from set-pieces.”

In the 3-1 win at Tottenham, McAllister scored the antithesis of a “dead-ball” goal, or route-one football (another criticism that lingered over Wilkinson), although the build-up did begin with John Lukic.

The keeper hurled the ball to Strachan on the right wing. He darted forward before threading a pass infield to Cantona, who picked out McAllister’s surge through the centre. His shot flashed past Erik Thorstvedt and the whole move took barely 12 seconds.

McAllister admits he thought after the loss at Maine Road that the title had “probably slipped away”. “Howard, though, was very good at keeping things on an even keel – he didn’t get carried away when we had big wins and didn’t lose it when things went badly. He told us to focus on the next game and not even look at United’s results and fixtures.”

With hindsight, the mid-season period in which Leeds and United clashed four times – twice in the League Cup semi-finals and once each in the League and FA Cup – helped the underdogs, although McAllister remembers another factor. “There seemed to be a problem between Mark Hughes and Fergie. We thought, ‘Keep that going, please!’”

United’s victories in the knock-out competitions ensured Leeds could focus solely on the championship while their rivals became embroiled in fixture congestion around Easter. “They had a spell of four games in six days when it all fell apart for them. Forest beat them at Old Trafford on Easter Monday – Scot Gemmill got the winner, bless him – and on the Wednesday they played at West Ham, who had already been relegated.

“That night I was judging a karaoke event for Jim Beglin’s testimonial season at a social club in a place called Gipton. Kenny Brown got West Ham’s winner and the place went berserk. I wasn’t due to sing but I probably did before the evening was out.”

Ferguson’s men had been strong favourites for months. Now, with both sides having two matches left, Leeds headed to Sheffield United knowing victory would confirm them as champions if United lost later the same Sunday at Liverpool.

“Ours was a bizarre game, full of unusual goals,” says McAllister, an understatement when one considers Brian Gayle’s header over his own keeper that clinched Leeds’ 3-2 success. “At no point that day did I feel we weren’t going to win the title. We went behind but we always felt we had too much for them.”

The Leeds players dispersed to watch the coverage from Anfield. McAllister went, with Cantona and Batty, to Lee Chapman’s North Yorkshire home. “That was always going to be a Liverpool win. I did feel for the United players, as a fellow professional, but I didn’t think they were particularly gracious towards us.

“Fergie did an interview afterwards where he made it clear he felt we hadn’t so much won it as United had lost it. I was watching in Chappy’s living room, waiting to be interviewed, and I shouted, ‘There he goes again, gracious as ever’. Denis Law came back in my ear and said ‘You do know he can hear you?’ It’s only now, 20 years later, that Fergie’s speaking to me!’”   McAllister did his bit on the box, clutching a mug – of champagne – and soon the whole squad converged on The Flying Pizza, a Leeds restaurant run by a fanatical fan.

“It was quite a night. Quite a week, actually, with various civic celebrations, though we still had to play Norwich.”   A stunning solo winner by Wallace ensured Leeds finished on 82 points, only two below an average of two per game, and the party started all over again.

“I’m very proud we were the last champions of the old League and I'm quick to remind people of the fact, rather than them telling me,” beams McAllister. “It hasn’t received a great deal of hype or recognition. But it’s a big thing – that trophy has had an amazing history and we were the last to win it as champions of England. I want to get that out there.”   Could a club ever again take the the title two years after promotion?

“Impossible. Just look at Manchester City. They were already established in the Premier League and somebody came in and gave them £380m to spend on players. They finished fourth. If you were coming up a division, what would you need to spend? £500m to get fourth place?

“Everything’s changed since the start of the Premier League. You only have to look at the parachute payments clubs get when they go down, the sheer number of overseas players and managers coming in all the time and so on.”

Wilkinson, backed by an ambitious board, restored Leeds’ fortunes following their plummet from the power and prosperity they knew under Don Revie. A similar challenge now faces Simon Grayson, a fringe player at Elland Road 20 years ago, and his predecessor believes the club’s “tradition, history and fan base” could attract the players to facilitate another bright new dawn if only the funding and ambition from the boardroom matched the fervour of the faithful.

Therein lies the rub. “You could never rule out Leeds as a club with the potential to compete at the highest level,” argues McAllister. “I just think it would probably take investment of the level of Roman Abramovic and Man City's owners to recreate the success they had.”

* From BACKPASS magazine. For subscriptions: http://www.backpassmagazine.co.uk/