Football: Wilkinson deterred by derision: For Leeds United's manager, taking charge of England was once the ultimate goal. Joe Lovejoy finds that a change of heart results from what he regards as the devaluation of the job by an unprincipled media

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The Independent Online
HOWARD WILKINSON says he could manage England standing on his head, but he will not be doing so for fear of having that head turned into a turnip.

It was the continual portrayal of Graham Taylor as a vegetable by one of our less forgiving newspapers that finally persuaded the most successful Englishman in League management to abandon the pursuit of his lifelong ambition.

There was a time when Leeds United's manager and master coach would have walked over the coals his father used to mine for the honour of managing his country. Today he would not cross Elland Road for a job he says has been devalued by excessive and intrusive media interest.

The 50-year-old Yorkshireman was the early favourite when Taylor went after England's World Cup demise, but when he was asked last week if he was interested in replacing his one-time soulmate, the answer was a polite 'thanks, but no thanks'.

A few days in the limelight of favouritism convinced him that he would be better off staying put. There was more hope of Leeds winning back the championship they lost to Manchester United last season than of press and public accepting an England manager tarred with Taylor's tactical brush.

'The so-called experts undressed me, had a good look at me and rubbished me,' he said. 'Who needs that? If you ask me could I do it, I'd say I could do it standing on my head, but that's a different question to 'would I?'.

'I've worked for the last three England managers and I've seen what it did to them. I saw Ron Greenwood break out in sores, Bobby Robson go grey, and poor Graham Taylor double up in anguish and stick his head between his legs so far it nearly disappeared up his backside.

'If I was single, with no kids, it would be no problem, but I've a wife and three children, and I've seen the effect the job can have on your family. It won't happen to mine.'

The Wilkinson brood would not be cringeing over the cornflakes to find the head of the household lampooned as a Yorkshire pudding, or Bilko Wilko.

This debasement of what should be the most coveted job in English football merited further discussion, but first it was appropriate to examine how he had come to be the ante-post favourite.

Winning the title in 1992 will always look good on the CV, but the Queen was not the only one to suffer an annus horribilis and Wilkinson's champions fell away so badly last season that they flirted with relegation before limping in 17th.

Wounds were licked, inadequates replaced and 1994 finds Leeds second in the table, looking to celebrate the New Year with a win at Old Trafford which might - just might - sow the seeds of doubt in the leaders' minds.

Leeds' resurgence has seen a rebuilt team beaten only once in 16 games. So what went wrong last season? There were a number of factors, Wilkinson said. 'Sometimes you take players as far as they can go. They can do it once, but sustained success is beyond them. I was always aware of that, but I never thought it would happen as dramatically as it did.

'Sometimes, when you get the best out of somebody, all that's left is disappointment and anticlimax because they can't do it again. There are Olympic champions who only won one medal.

'Another reason was that some of them didn't cope well with success. I'm not saying they went out on the town, but some of them gave themselves credit for being better than they were. They got airs and graces. They got away from reality. Not a million miles away, but sufficiently far from it for it to affect their performance. Maybe only two to five per cent, but if enough fall short like that, you've got a problem.

'We won the League on merit, with 82 points, and we were never as bad last season as our results made us seem, but certain people couldn't cope.'

Changes had been made, primarily in defence, where the championship centre-halves, Chris Whyte and Chris Fairclough, have been moved on, to Birmingham City and into midfield respectively. Most significantly of all, perhaps, a right- back has been found to remedy last year's Achilles' heel. Gary Kelly, converted from reserve-team striker, has at last filled the gap created by Mel Sterland's long-term injury.

'I was going to do it last season,' Wilkinson said, 'but he was an 18- year-old who had never played there before and he wasn't confident enough. In July I got him in the office and told him: 'I'm going to play you there all pre-season and I think you'll do all right. If you're not, we've lost nowt.' He has been a big, big bonus.'

David O'Leary's Achilles tendon trouble was just the opposite, depriving the defence of a wise, old head. Recruited from Arsenal on a free transfer after 20 years at Highbury, O'Leary was supposed to supply the reliability which was never Whyte's forte. His injury, with the season only a month old, was a major blow.

'I thought we needed a steadying influence at the back,' Wilkinson says. 'Not just on match days, but throughout the week. I thought David would provide that, just as Gordon Strachan has done up front. The pair of them do have an influence on people during the week and, in that respect, David's time here has not been a total waste. He talks to David Wetherall, in particular, and Jon Newsome, too, helping them both.'

O'Leary has resumed light training, and expects to play again 'sometime in January'. Fairclough, his early-season partner, moved into midfield, as the ball- winner, when David Batty was sold to Blackburn Rovers to placate the bank.

This make-do-and-mend management was in stark contrast to the money-no-object regimes at Manchester United and Blackburn. Wilkinson says: 'In that respect, we're at a colossal disadvantage, but there's only one Prime Minister.

'Leeds is my club and I've got to get on with what we've got here. All the old cliches come to mind - it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog, etc. I'm here to translate the resources we've got into a force that competes as effectively as possible.'

He had made mistakes, and was man enough to admit it. The midfielder David Rocastle was an obvious one, bought from Arsenal for pounds 2m and sold on to Manchester City, at a loss, after just 14 appearances.

Eric Cantona would seem to be a bigger one. The Frenchman's transfer to Manchester United a year ago had been, in managerspeak, the final piece in the jigsaw which enabled United to succeed Leeds as champions.

For Wilkinson, it was a case of je ne regrette rien. 'The situation I faced gave me no alternative. Eric said: 'Am I in the team or not? If I'm not, no good. I go back to France. This is wrong. This is an insult.'

'Now don't forget I brought him here. I gave him his chance. Don't forget I paid the money for him and it was me who said the fella was a good player, and that we could learn from him.

'But a manager has to manage and pick the team. A player can't pick the team. And at that time, anyway, we were struggling and he wasn't setting the world on fire for us. So in steps Alex, and Eric finds a vehicle which he'd not been able to find at Leeds, or at Marseille, or at Nantes, or Nimes, or Auxerre - wherever. He finds a vehicle for his talent. That's life.'

The suggestion that Cantona was better suited to United's flamboyant style of play than he was to Leeds' comparatively dour approach produced a prickly denial.

'He's not better suited to their style of play, he's suited better to a team that's being successful and has the number of good players they've got. He said to me: 'Find me another club.' I said: 'Where do you want to go?' and he said, 'Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal'.

'Was it a mistake to let him go? You could have asked Alex the same question when he let Strachan come here, or Matt Busby when he let Giles come here. Eric has his own philosophy on life. It just didn't happen to fit in with mine, or with 15 or 16 others.'

Wilkinson's own blue-collar philosophy - he calls it pragmatism - lies at the root of his unpopularity as a potential England manager. He was an early admirer, and disciple, of the direct style which brought Taylor to prominence at Watford, and although no team with Gary McAllister at its hub could ever be kick and rush, the dog's bad name has stuck.

Wilkinson says he hates this 'pigeon holing', yet in almost the same breath adds that he has no time for the Corinthians of the Glenn Hoddle appreciation society. 'Good football, by definition, is winning football. Good football that's not successful is a contradiction in terms. That's indulging personal whims and preferences.

'The thing is to win. Every competitor I know, from Nick Faldo to Lester Piggott, is constantly adjusting his sights or approach relative to winning.

'Wimbledon, and whoever plays like them, have said: 'It doesn't matter whether it's Manchester United, Arsenal, Marseille or Milan - most of their goals are scored inside the penalty box, so forget everything else and get the ball in the box.'

'You might say: 'I don't go for that.' I'm saying if a manager thinks that is the only way the players he has can get results, then I don't think there's owt wrong with that.

'If they are capable of more, then there is something wrong with it, but it's just as wrong to look at Manchester United or Milan and say most of their attacks start with the back four, so we'll start all ours from the back, and to keep losing.'

Manchester United were playing good football, but there was nothing new, or revolutionary, about that. 'The best team in this country has always played good football.'

Wilkinson acknowledges that United are the best team - and by such a margin that they could monopolise the honours for years to come.

'Manchester United epitomise what is needed to be successful in this country over a period of time. Because of the number of games we play, the time span in which we play them and the type of game we play, you've got to be able to win matches pulling up. You've got to be able to win games comfortably sometimes.

'When we won the League, most of the time we were at full stretch, and Manchester United, up to a point, were at full stretch last season. Then they started to acquire enough players to leave some out and win games below full strength. For me, they're in a similar position to the Liverpool of 10 or 15 years ago.'

With a double-figure lead, no one expects United to be caught - Wilkinson included. 'That's the realistic view. If you're running in the 10,000 metres and at the half-way stage someone is a lap ahead, you've got two options. One is: I'm not going to win the gold so sod it. I'll give up. The other is: He might fall in the last 100 and anyway, what's wrong with finishing a good second?'

Unconvincing. For a man to whom winning is everything, the pursuit of second place must be a soul-destroying exercise.

Leeds' disadvantages should render the England job irresistible. Should. The reasons why it is not dominated the interview.

'I think a lot of people would say I'm a good coach. I've run FA coaching courses at Lilleshall for 20 years, and if they took all the top coaches there and put the various styles of play in a pot - sweeper, double sweeper, front sweeper, long ball, short game, etc - I could draw any one of them out and be confident of making it work.

'It's an insult to a good coach - to someone who is a student of the game - to say you can't manage at international level if you haven't played international football. Half the teams in the World Cup are managed by people who don't come into that category. It's like saying that to be a top jockey you need to have been a horse.

'Unfortunately I have a negative image, largely because of my relationship with the media, and majority opinion would be that I would not make a good England manager. I don't agree with that but, quite frankly, I've got to the stage where I don't care. I've got nowt to prove.'

Coached and deployed properly, and given consistency in selection, Wilkinson believes England's players were good enough not just to have qualified for the World Cup in America, but to have reached the final.

Taylor lost the courage of his convictions, his way, and finally his job. Taking up the baton was an uninviting task.

'The job itself is a terrific challenge. The problem is the bullshit and the hype that surrounds it. After every game you've got the interminable inquests. I just don't see the need to go through it.

'I spoke to Jimmy Armfield (the FA's head-hunter) about the England situation in the widest sense. It was a long discussion, but the bottom line was that I wouldn't be interested. I've told my chairman that it won't happen.'

Unpatriotic? 'Don't talk to me about that. I've staffed FA courses since I was 24, sometimes for nowt. I've travelled here, there and everywhere doing it. I've done coaching demonstrations for free. I've managed the Under-21s and the B teams, and I've gone and done reports for various England managers in the back end of nowhere, where I've been left to fend for myself and tickets haven't been there when I've arrived.

'I've done my stint in the trenches for the FA, only for people there to make clever remarks about me (a reference to the Lancaster Gate drone who said he was the same as Graham Taylor, only three inches taller). Who needs it? I don't need any boost for my ego or self-esteem.'

An unequivocal no, then. His tip for the job? 'The one the media want. Terry Venables.'

(Photograph omitted)