Perhaps no one other than the inspirational Wilkinson could have brought the League championship back to Elland Road just three and a half years after taking over in the basement of the old Second Division, but then only the idiosyncratic Yorkshireman would have committed the transfer blunder of the generation. Eric Cantona was the last piece of the jigsaw that made Leeds an awesome, thrilling attacking force.
Here was Currie, Giles, Clarke and Gray rolled into one. The ultimate Leeds player - highly skilled but capable of looking after himself. The embodiment of all the virtues of the Don Revie version of total football.
Let us not forget the intensity and passion of Cantona's love affair with the Leeds fans who first recognised his genius. It was the Leeds supporters who coined the chant "Ooh, aah Cantona" and made it into a record, and to them that Eric declared from the balcony of Leeds' Town Hall, championship trophy in hand, "I love you. I don't know why, but I love you." When Wilkinson sent the Frenchman to Manchester, he not only robbed his side of its best player, he broke the Leeds supporters' hearts. At a stroke, he destroyed their imagination, their dream, the belief that they would see the promised land. Wilkinson has offered the excuse that he and Eric had differing philosophies on life. This observation simply illustrates how Howard has completely missed the point by confusing his philosophical niceties with the business of running a football team.
Perhaps winning the title so soon after taking charge led Wilkinson to believe that he could do no wrong, but he totally failed to build on that success. Wilkinson's failure to acquire a high quality central defensive pairing has been the cause of many of his recent troubles. Where other sides have invested heavily Leeds have tried to defend on the cheap. The centre of defence this season has been based around David Wetherall, Paul Beesley, John Pemberton and Lucas Radebe who did not cost pounds 1m between them - and it shows.
The Cantona debacle apart, Wilkinson's activity in the transfer market has been very frequent and frequently bizarre. His deals remind one of a parsimonious housewife, always on the lookout for bargains past their sell-by date. Having found Strachan for a song, there has since been an endless quest for another thirty-something bargain.
After the sale of Batty a match banner read "We've got rid of the Crown Jewel, now let's get rid of the Silver". David Batty, Noel Whelan and Eric Cantona were sold for a grand total of pounds 5.7m, while Carlton Palmer, Brian Deane and Tomas Brolin cost pounds 10m between them.
How far Leeds have back-peddled in the last few seasons was illustrated in the week that saw them totally outplayed at Anfield in the FA Cup and all but humiliated in the Coca-Cola Cup final. The cup runs were achieved almost entirely against lower-division opposition.
The thrilling team of a few seasons ago is now just a memory. The tragedy of the Wilkinson era is that having created a side capable of sizzling football, he and the board proceeded to dismantle it.
Wilkinson's man management deficiencies will soon deprive Leeds of another world-class player with the impending departure of the demoralised Brolin, while Tony Yeboah has understandably declared he has no wish to continue his career at a "nobody" club like Leeds. Cantona famously boasted to Wilkinson that he could win him championships. Howard was alone in not believing him. Perhaps he does now.Reuse content