At the start of the year, as he approached a quarter of a century in a profession he entered at 28 as player-manager of Boston United, Wilkinson had never taken a team to Wembley, never been dismissed and never been relegated. Leeds' Coca-Cola Cup final flop in March was, ironically, the beginning of the end which came yesterday. The Elland Road club were clearly not prepared to risk letting him complete an unhappy hat-trick.
Ultimately, Wilkinson became the victim of his own success, or more accurately of the expectations he raised. Lest that statement sounds bizarre, given Leeds' failure to build on the championship triumph of 1992, it is instructive to examine the state of the club when he succeeded Billy Bremner eight years ago.
Fourteen years had elapsed since Don Revie left Leeds as champions. Wilkinson, having been persuaded to drop a division from Sheffield Wednesday, became the eighth manager to take on his mantle. Like Revie, he found them floundering in the old Second Division after a decade of decline. They stood 21st, below Plymouth, Hull, Walsall and Bournemouth, and the previous home crowd was 15,600.
Unlike most of his predecessors, who included several ex-Leeds players, Wilkinson was not in awe of Revie. To stop the club living in the past, he had pictures from that era to be removed from the foyer. Any resentment was soon forgotten as Leeds went up as champions at the end of his first full season in 1990.
His early transfer dealings showed masterly judgement. Gordon Strachan became Leeds' linchpin; Mel Sterland and Lee Chapman followed. And when Vinnie Jones - a model of propriety under Wilkinson - had done his bit by helping to achieve promotion, he replaced him with Gary McAllister.
Support had more than doubled, and the chant of "Sgt Wilko's Barmy Army" suggested a strong affinity with the manager. In their first season back among the elite, Leeds finished a highly creditable fourth. A year later, after an intense struggle with Manchester United, they became the last pre-Premiership champions.
That was when things started to go wrong. Wilikinson had talked about having a 10-year plan for Leeds; although there is never a bad time to win the title, they were way ahead of schedule. The team was an ageing one, built to get them up rather than into the European Cup. Constructing a new squad would have been as financially prohibitive as it would have been unfair on Strachan and company.
That autumn, soon after his chairman, Leslie Silver, expressed the wish that Wilkinson would "carry us forward to the next century", Leeds hit their first sticky patch under his management. Rangers humbled them in Europe, Watford put them out of the League Cup and they could not win away. He rang Alex Ferguson to ask about buying Denis Irwin and ended up selling him Eric Cantona.
The Frenchman had been at Leeds less than year but was the idol of the crowd. At the time, dismay was greater that he was allowed to join Manchester United than about the fact that he had fetched just pounds 1.2m. Although the team plummeted from first to 17th that season, supporters put their reservations on hold.
When Leeds finished fifth in each of the next two campaigns, and unearthed a new crowd favourite in Tony Yeboah, the long-term plan looked to be back on course. They had finished 1994/95 on a high, winning at Liverpool and Newcastle as well as drawing at Old Trafford. Yeboah then fired them to the top after three wins at the start of last season.
It proved to be a false dawn. The Ghanaian was an isolated success among Wilkinson's increasingly suspect dealings. His cut-price buys, like Beeney, Worthington, Beesley and Pemberton, did not have the requisite quality. When he threw money at the market, paying pounds 2.9m for Brian Deane and a club-record pounds 4.5m for Tomas Brolin, it tended to rebound in his face.
The Coca-Cola final against Aston Villa offered a chance of redemption, only for Leeds to be outclassed. For the first time their followers turned on Wilkinson, but despite the ensuing six consecutive defeats and 13th place he continued to look unsackable. He had, after all, signed a three- year contract three days before Wembley.
Behind the scenes, however, his power base was being eroded. During the summer, Silver and his fellow directors sold out to the London-based Caspian group. The good news for Wilkinson was that the media and leisure company had no immediate plans to install their own man. The bad news was that one of the old board, Peter Gilman, objected to the sale and took out an injunction to prevent it.
The deal went ahead, but while waiting for the court to allow him to use Caspian's funds, Wilkinson saw several of his targets join other clubs. Equally damagingly, his captain, McAllister, decided he would not wait around until the matter was resolved, joining Coventry. Yeboah, meanwhile, would be out injured until Christmas.
In his last major interview as Leeds manager, with the Independent, Wilkinson described it as "a summer of discontent". Nevertheless, the autumn began to look more promising as they won successive matches to go sixth in the table. Then came Manchester United, with Cantona at his imperious best, bringing them to earth with Saturday's 4-0 rout at Elland Road.
Suddenly, all the talk about a flourishing youth policy, about their refurbished stadium and new training centre, paled into insignificance. He recognised that the bottom line was winning games, and Leeds have won only five out of 23 in the League this year. Howard Wilkinson was the right man for Leeds United in 1988, but the football world moves on.
Leeds under Wilkinson
(October 1988 to September 1996)
1988/89: 10th in Second Division; FA Cup: 4th round; League Cup: 3rd round
1989/90: Second Division Champions; FA Cup: 3rd round; League Cup: 2nd round
1990/91: 4th in First Division; FA Cup: 4th round; League Cup: Semi-final
1991/92: First Division Champions; FA Cup: 3rd round; League Cup: 5th round
1992/93: 17th in Premier League; FA Cup: 4th round;League Cup: 3rd round European Cup: 2nd round
1993/94: 5th in Premiership; FA Cup: 4th round; League Cup: 2nd round
1994/95: 5th in Premiership; FA Cup: 5th round; League Cup: 2nd round
1995/96: 13th in Premiership; FA Cup: 6th round; League Cup: runners-up; Uefa Cup: 2nd round
1996/97: 9th in Premiership on 9 Sept P5 W2 D1 L2 Pts7
George Graham has turned down Manchester City... I'll bet that at some stage it's reported that the reason is that he has been offered the job at Leeds United
What Howard Wilkinson told Phil Shaw in the Independent's Monday interview last weekReuse content