Leeds learn to thrive on their past

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When Howard Wilkinson took over as manager of Leeds United seven years ago, he found the corridors and offices of Elland Road littered with mementoes of Don Revie's great sides of the Sixties and Seventies.

"Take them down," he ordered. "There will be no more living in the past." A promotion, a title, and a place in Europe later there are no such inhibitions. The mementoes are back and the Leeds side who beat Aston Villa 2-0 to go top of the Premiership on Saturday were dressed in the classic all- white colours of 25 years ago. Take away the sponsors' name and makers' logo and it could have been Billy Bremner, Allan Clarke and Eddie Gray out there. The only trim is Gary Kelly's haircut and even the club's initials, LUFC, are spelled out in copperplate, as they were in the early Seventies. Only the sock-tabs, owl badge and intimidating tackling is missing.

This may appear to be a superficial observation but, although kit styles cannot influence performance, they can illustrate a mood. Leeds are now proud of their history, not burdened by it.

Wilkinson's arrival was a significant step in dealing with that heritage. He was the first manager in eight years who was not associated with the Revie years - Clarke, Gray and Bremner were his predecessors.

The break appeared to make the difference as Wilkinson took Leeds to the final Football League championship, in 1992. What Wilkinson then failed to do, unlike Revie, was to build on that success. Leeds' defence of their title was the worst since Ipswich in 1963.

However, they finished strongly last season to come fifth and claim a place in Europe, and have been tipped as possible champions this year.

So far they have not let their supporters down - although Newcastle's victory yesterday pushed them back to second place. But champions? The current side may be styled like Bremner and company but they do not possess the same substance. They are compact, well-organized defensively, and have two high-class players in Gary McAllister and Tony Yeboah, but they do not pass like their illustrious predecessors.

Of course, few teams do, and comparisons are invidious. But it is Leeds' blessing and misfortune to have such a history. Good Leeds sides will always be compared to Revie's, but without those years of success the club would not have the support, resources and stadium that make them such a potent force today.

Besides, the 1992 team were not a classic side and they won the title. John Lukic, Tony Dorigo, McAllister, Rod Wallace and Gary Speed remain from that year. Of the others Kelly, Carlton Palmer, David Wetherall and Yeboah are fine replacements for Mel Sterland, David Batty, Chris Fairclough and Lee Chapman while John Pemberton is on a par with Chris Whyte. Only Gordon Strachan is irreplaceable.

Brian Deane, who fills his position at present, is a different type of player. His place is under threat if Leeds ever do sign Faustino Asprilla, Parma's Colombian striker. However, the stumbling overpriced centre-forward of two seasons ago has been reinvented as the tallest winger since Ian Ormondroyd and he makes a fair fist of it.

On Saturday it was his excellent cross from the left which David White headed in to seal victory three minutes from time. Leeds had gone ahead, three minutes into the game, from another cross, Speed touching in Wetherall's far-post header after Kelly had whipped in a short corner.

Between the goals Villa had the bulk of possession but Leeds created the better chances. Villa's 3-5-2 formation, so effective against Tottenham and Manchester United, was unbalanced by Leeds' width. With only Yeboah ploughing the middle, and Deane and Rodney Wallace on the flanks, they were stretched and the potency of their wing-backs, Ian Taylor and Alan Wright, was much reduced. Thus, while Leeds got behind the visitors' defence Villa channelled their own attacks into Leeds' solid core where they broke like dying waves on a sea wall.

Apart from a Mark Draper shot, which Lukic fortuitously deflected over the bar after misjudging it, Villa never looked like scoring. Savo Milosevic looks increasingly in need of a goal to settle his nerves - he either snatched at chances or dallied with them, while the crossing ability of the injured Steve Staunton is badly missed.

Leeds, for whom Yeboah prowled the shoulder of the offside line like a hungry panther, always looked likely. Some of their short passing was impressive, although they were uncompromising defensively they were always prepared to move the ball sweetly along the ground in forward areas.

Leeds will certainly not lack for support and they are already building up impressive momentum. They have talented, if largely untried youngsters in reserve and money in the bank. In an open year that may be enough, but probably not.

However, should that money ever be spent they are not far short. Four years ago the spring signing of a mercurial foreign forward provided the fresh impetus to carry them over the line. Ooh, aah, As-prill-a anyone?

Goals: Speed (3) 1-0; White (88) 2-0.

Leeds United (4-3-3): Lukic; Kelly, Wetherall, Pemberton, Dorigo; McAllister, Palmer, Speed; Deane, Yeboah, Wallace (White, 77). Substitutes not used: Beesley, Beeney (gk).

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, McGrath, Southgate; Taylor, Yorke, Draper, Townsend, Wright; Milosevic, Johnson (Fenton, 59). Substitutes not used: Scimeca, Spink (gk).

Referee: D Gallacher (Banbury).