Football

Balls Remembers The Worst Ever Title Defence In Premier League History

Balls Remembers The Worst Ever Title Defence In Premier League History

With Leicester City now flirting outrageously with relegation, we cast our eyes back at the worst title defence in English football in the last thirty years. It's not Chelsea last season. 

Within a couple of years of Leeds United's 1991-92 championship victory, it was difficult to conceive how it had happened. It was a triumph which didn't age well.

Balls.ie has noted before that the Don Revie team of the 1970s created a generation of Leeds United supporters in this country. Those who grew up in the 1990s, a demographic which accounts for a large tranche of our readership, will remember Leeds as the team their Dad supported.

Howard Wilkinson's title winning upstarts of 1991-92 left no such legacy. This is not surprising. Though their years in the sun only yielded two league titles, the Don Revie team were a consistent force in English football for a decade. Between 1965 and 1974, they never finished outside the top 4 and rarely finished outside the top 2. By contrast, Sergeant Wilko's outfit opportunistically stole in for a League title and promptly returned to the back of the peloton.

Like Leicester City, they capitalised on a vacuum at the summit of English football. Liverpool, under Graeme Souness, had imploded and were now hovering not far above mid-table irrelevance. Their manager's poor handling of ageing stars and poor work in the transfer market would set them back years.

At the same time, Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were not yet the finished article, relying heavily on Brian McClair and Mark Hughes up front and still bearing the mental scars of years of under-achievement.

Why has this title success seemed to fair badly in the eyes of posterity? Well, the identity of their manager didn't help.

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Even in the 1990s, Howard Wilkinson, the most unglamorous manager ever to lift the English league title, seemed to belong to a different era. Sergeant Wilko, as the nickname suggests, favoured iron-clad discipline and players who were willing to work and conform to his way of thinking (hence, his inevitable falling out with Eric Cantona).

Remarkably, as of 2017, he remains the last English manager to have won the League, a record that looks like standing for a while yet.

And there's the small matter of their hideously poor title defence, which did undermine their legacy. It does happen. It happened to Blackburn Rovers, and it may even happen to Leicester City.

Potted histories of Leeds United usually speed through the barren period between the European Cup final defeat in 1975 and their return to the first tier of English football in 1990.

Jimmy Armfield, known to younger football fans as a co-commentator on Radio Five Live, took over the club after Brian Clough's sacking. Despite being written off by John Giles as "no good", Armfield led the team to the European Cup final that season and kept them in the top half of the table until 1978.

The board had greater ambitions and sacked Armfield in 1978, appointing Celtic manager Jock Stein. He was tempted away after just 44 days to become Scotland manager. In those days, managers happily abandoned club jobs to take international roles, the reverse of what happens nowadays. Burnley's Jimmy Adamson was handed the reins and he presided over further slippage eventually resigning in 1980. Club hero Allan 'Sniffer' Clarke took the job and initially stabilised things. However, the goals dried up in 1981-82 and Leeds were relegated at the end of the season.

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They remained down in the dumps for the remainder of the decade. Under Howard Wilkinson, who made some magnificently astute signings in the transfer market, the club were promoted in 1989-90. Wilkinson won the race to sign Gordon Strachan in 1989, despite the interest of top tier teams. He bought Vinnie Jones specifically to cope with the physicality of the Second Division, discarding him once promotion was achieved. Lee Chapman was bought halfway through the promotion season.

Strachan, who was in the autumn years of his career, was the greatest success. At the age of 33, he won the Footballer of the Year award in the 1990-91 season. It was a thrilling first season back in the top flight for Leeds. Wilkinson bought Gary McAllister and Arsenal title winning goalkeeper John Lukic. They finished 4th in the table, a long way off the rampant Arsenal but ahead of the likes of Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Everton and Spurs.

Wilkinson's team were a long way off peaking. Their difficult second album was a staggering triumph. They trailed Manchester United for most of the 1991-92 season, however, the leaders abruptly stopped scoring goals in the run-in as Leeds United's form held strong. Fergie grumbled about the fixtures schedule which left Manchester United playing 5 games between the 16th and 26th April. They lost three of those - to Nottingham Forest, to the already relegated West Ham and then to Liverpool in the penultimate game of the season.

It was that game which guaranteed the title would be returning to Leeds United. They had already won 3-2 at Sheffield United earlier that Sunday, aided by an extraordinarily ugly pair of goals either side of half-time. Sheffield United defender Brian Gayle gave Leeds United victory with a remarkably generous own goal. Rare is the goal when no attacking player touches the ball in the opposing half. The better part of Gayle's rather scanty wikipedia page is devoted to that goal.

"Manchester United put some incredible results (together) which gave us the chance to plug away, plug away. And we didn't really have much time to think about it. There wasn't really any pressure until the game against Sheffield United."

Gordon Strachan

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Howard Wilkinson, to whom dourness was a religion, told Match of the 90s that he refused to watch Liverpool-Manchester United that afternoon. After Mark Walters poked home the second goal against Manchester United. His son ran into the dining room and told everyone in the house that "we've won the championship." The dining room almost emptied as everybody scampered in to check the television, everyone that is except Wilko who remained in his chair.

ITV took a camera inside the home of Lee Chapman, where many of the Leeds players had gathered. Fingers cradled champagne glasses.

Presenter Elton Welsby tried to get the side's only glamour boy, Eric Cantona, to finally utter a few words on English television. "Magnifique Eric!", Welsby said. Eric replied in English, asking "Do you speak French?" Whelsby said "Non" and the 'interview' more or less ended there.

Yorkshire TV were also allowed into Chapman's house where Eric managed a few mono-syllabic answers to the interviewer's questions causing his teammates to collapse in laughter.

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It was a terrific success. In McAllister, Strachan, Batty and Speed, they boasted the best midfield in the league. Rod Wallace, bought at the start of the title season, alternated between playing as an out-and-out striker and wide on the right. At the back, Tony Dorigo won an England call-up for his performances. Up front, they relied strongly on the diligent target man Lee Chapman.

Posterity, however, has decided that Lee Chapman wasn't a striking enough emblem for this success and has decided to overstate the role of the much more box office Eric Cantona, who only scored three goals in seven starts that season.

An exasperated Howard Wilkinson has spent the past couple of decades attempting to minimise Cantona's importance to the title success, partly, one suspects as a justification for offloading him to Manchester United in November 1992.

 

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This decision was instrumental in building up Wilkinson's image as an old-fashioned dullard who only won a league because Manchester United threw it away. It has been painted as the most significant moment of Leeds United's abject title defence in 1992-93. But things were already going wrong that year.

After a Charity Shield, in which Cantona scored a hat-trick and Leeds beat Liverpool 4-3, Wilkinson's team made an underwhelming start to the new season, drawing frequently and winning only occasionally. They suffered a 4-1 defeat away to Middlesbrough at the end of August and while they bounced back with a 5-0 win at home to Spurs - Cantona with another hat-trick - it was a false dawn.

Especially disastrous was their away form. Amazingly, Leeds United followed a title winning season by failing to win a single league game away from home all season.

Cantona's final game for Leeds was a 4-0 defeat away to Manchester City on 7 November 1992. Wilkinson had run out of patience with his exotic French bird. The story of how he fell into Manchester United's hands is well known. The Leeds manager rang Man United chairman Martin Edwards inquiring about the possibility of bringing Denis Irwin back to the club. Ferguson happened to be in the room and dismissed the idea outright. After a few moments of amiable chatter between rival chairman and manager, Fergie remembered how his players had raved about Cantona in the dressing room after a recent game against Leeds. He scribbled a note to his chairman asking him to probe gently Wilkinson on Eric's availability. He was signed within a matter of days.

Interestingly, Wilkinson's decision to get shot of Cantona had plenty of defenders at the time. The Frenchman was regarded as part wildcard/part performing seal.

Leeds United and RTE television legend Gilesy offered this verdict on Cantona at Elland Road.

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Cantona does not fit in well with English soccer in my view. Leeds produced by far the best team performance of any club last Saturday at home to Arsenal - and Cantona was not in the side. It's no coincidence. I don't think Cantona has really produced for Leeds.

Gilesy's view was far from rare among Leeds old-timers, Norman Hunter proclaimed it "sound business" while Billy Bremner said he couldn't see what all the fuss was about, adding that it would be "a much bigger blow if either David Batty or Gary Speed wanted to leave the club."

Leeds' form continued on more or less the same trajectory as it had while Cantona was still there. Their resolute refusal to countenance taking three points on the road maintained until the end of the season. They eventually finished 17th in the table of 22 teams, only two points ahead of the relegated Crystal Palace.

Bizarrely, on the final day of the season, after a Rod Wallace goal snatched a late 3-3 draw away at Coventry, the away contingent mounted a mass invasion of the Highfield Road invasion, with hundreds rushing to hug the goalscorer. It seemed like a strange over-reaction in the circumstances. There was no danger of relegation so they couldn't have been reveling in Premier League safety. Perhaps, they were just happy the season was actually over.

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Unlike Leicester City, the 1992 English champions found little glory in the European sphere, though they did survive the First Round thanks to a foreign player rule breach from their opponents. Matched against German champs Stuttgart, they were demolished 3-0 in the First Leg.

In the final minutes of the game, ITV's touchline reporter Nick Powell asked Wilkinson to commit to an interview after the final whistle. With the game still on, and Leeds suffering badly, Wilko whipped around and snapped "Fuck off".

This exchange formed the centrepiece of the very brief post-match interview with Powell, as Wilkinson asked the interviewer whether he'd like it if someone burst in on him during a news report. After confirming that Powell wouldn't like that, Wilkinson was satisfied he'd made his point and stormed off.

Leeds put a heroic last stand in Elland Road on 30 September, winning 4-1 on the night and, thus, apparently falling short. However, late in the game, Stuttgart unwittingly broke the rule specifying that only three foreign players be used.

Leeds wanted Stuttgart disqualified. English clubs were especially hindered by the foreign player rule on account of their always liberal use of Scottish, Irish and Welsh players. Thus, they were pre-disposed to be unsympathetic when the Germans broke he rule.

But Stuttgart earned some leniency by alerting UEFA to the breach of the rule themselves and a strange playoff game was arranged for the Nou Camp on 9 October. In front an almost empty stadium, Leeds won thanks to goals from Gordon Strachan and Carl Schutt.

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This reprieve would only tee up a more humiliating exit as Leeds lost the Battle of Britain against Rangers. The Scottish champions, with David Murray's money enticing many English players up north, had been the prime beneficiaries of the Heysel ban.

Leeds might have been satisfied with a 2-1 loss in Ibrox but the tie was ended a fortnight later after Mark Hately and Ally McCoist had sent Rangers 4-1 up on aggregate with two away goals. Leeds needed 4 goals but could only muster an irrelevant consolation through Cantona, his final goal for the club.

Eric Cantona's biographer Phillipe Auclair wrote of the era;

The post-Heysel exile from European competitions had made English football fold back into the worst of itself. A perverse mixture of fear - of the outsider, the foreigner, the eccentric - and glorification of 'manly' virtues in which the detached observer could see little but crudeness and brutality. What happened on the pitch mirrored what took place in the stands. Football of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a drab, sometimes vicious affair...In the eight years between the butchery of Heysel and Manchester United's first championship title since 1967, English football seemed to be played in the deep of winter, on windswept, rain-soaked fields of mud.

The day Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United perhaps heralded the ending of that era.

Read more: Sketching The 'Typical' Irish Supporter Of A Series Of Famous English Football Clubs

 

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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