Leeds pay price for sacrificing flair

Phil Shaw sees Howard Wilkinson's struggling team comprehensively outplayed and outclassed by superior opponents
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The Independent Online
During the half-time interval at Wembley, the final score from Old Trafford was announced over the Tannoy to groans from the already disgruntled Leeds supporters. It was a good job that they did not give the name of the goalscorer.

A good job, that is, for Howard Wilkinson. The Leeds public have already given their manager the benefit of a substantial doubt over the sale of Eric Cantona, despite the fact that the transfer has become the football equivalent of the record company mogul who gave the Beatles away. But the mood among the Elland Road crowd has darkened of late, and even victory yesterday would probably have been perceived as merely papering over the cracks.

The popular belief is that Wilkinson has a deep-rooted mistrust of flair. "Why is Brolin on the bench?" some 32,000 Yorkshire voices demanded in unison after Villa's second goal.

The answer probably lay in Wilkinson's sarcastic pronouncement after the grim stalemate against Liverpool earlier this month, which indicated that he believes entertaining and winning to be mutually incompatible. There has been a growing feeling, too, that he is no longer able to motivate his players.

A Cup final is, of course, an occasion on which nobody ever needs motivating. Wilkinson's selection also looked positive enough, even if there was no starting role for Tomas Brolin. The Swede's popularity seems to be based on the outlet it offers for dissent against the manager than on anything he has achieved in his limited appearances on the pitch.

The bald truth, evident well before Savo Milosevic's early goal, is that in the space of 18 months Brian Little has shaped Aston Villa into a side superior to Leeds in almost every department. Revealingly, in view of the fact that Wilkinson has been touted both as a prospective England coach or FA technical director, Villa also had the edge technically and practically.

Wilkinson attempted to match Villa's system, deploying three defenders and two wing-backs, but their unfamiliarity with what are unaccustomed roles was all too apparent.

The one conspicuous success for Leeds was paradoxically the player on whom Wilkinson had taken an uncharacteristic gamble. Andy Gray, 18, starting only his fourth match, was uncannilly reminiscent of his father, Frank Gray, and Uncle Eddie, but he fought a largely lone battle until Ian Taylor's goal meant it was already too late.

Little, a quiet and reflective character not given to one-liners for which Ron Atkinson is famous, was also once stereotyped as a dour manager; a long-ball man, even. But this was the post he craved, the club whose traditions he understood better than most die-hard Holte-Enders, and their victory at Wembley was proof-positive that sides can be both highly organised and play with panache.

There was a moment, shortly before Dwight Yorke hammered in Villa's third, when the sardonic chant first heard during a 5-0 thrashing at Liverpool rose from the Leeds legions. "Wilko for England," they shouted. The only mystery is that during the debate about who should succeed Terry Venables, Little's claims have gone largely unheard. Villa and their ecstatic supporters will trust that it remains that way.

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