The reluctant sophisticate

close-up: Howard Wilkinson A belief in experience over promise has checked progress at Elland Road. Ian Ridley discusses a growing disaffectio n
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The Independent Online
IF THE only certainty in football management is the sack, then the Grim Reaper and the Inland Revenue are in for hard times when it comes to Howard Wilkinson. He has never been dismissed from a job - perhaps that is why they made him chairman of the League Managers' Association.

Indeed, according to a source close to him, Wilkinson is "bomb-proof" at Leeds United. Even if for the second successive midwinter they are watching brighter sides, but not necessarily bigger clubs, leave them jockeying for position in mid-table. That verdict will do little to appease the growing number of disgruntled supporters at Elland Road.

Superficially, there seems little reason for the disaffection. After all, in his seven years, Wilkinson has led Leeds from the desert of the Second Division to the First Division title in 1992, ending an 18-year thirst. And while recent results have been poor, notably the 6-2 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday last weekend, Wilkinson has taken them into Europe this season and the Coca-Cola Cup. A quarter- final tie at home to Reading offers a realistic route to silverware.

The criticism centres on how Leeds are playing. They are being left behind, say the fans, by the dashing styles of Newcastle, Liverpool and today's detested visitors, Manchester United, whose challenge is clearly worrying Wilkinson. Fifteen phone calls early last week finally elicited the response from his secretary that he was too busy all week to be interviewed. Why, they also wonder, does Wilkinson persist with buying ageing players and selling those who won Leeds the FA Youth Cup in 1993?

"The whole thing has gone stale," said Eddie Taylor of the Leeds fanzine The Square Ball. "You have to blame Wilkinson. He should have gone 18 months ago. There is a general frustration among the fans that the club just seem to be throwing money at it and running to stand still. I think the manager probably has gone as far as he can."

There seems little reason why the team should struggle. In Gary Kelly and Tony Dorigo they have two of the best full-backs in Britain, while Gary McAllister remains probably the most accomplished British passing midfield player. Then there are Tony Yeboah and Tomas Brolin up front.

"But you also have John Lukic, Carlton Palmer and Brian Deane, who the fans feel aren't up to it," Taylor said. "That is the spine of the team. Yeboah and Brolin are exciting but the feeling is that we keep things tight at the back and wait for a bit of magic from them. We are just not getting behind defences or wide and there is a lack of fluidity. The whole pattern of play is not geared to creating chances. Everybody expects McAllister to do it but they give him the ball then run away."

Taylor points out that Leeds's best result of the season, the 3-0 win in Monaco, was due simply to three inspirational moments from Yeboah, who has dried up of late. Indeed, the trouncing in both legs by PSV Eindhoven in the next round saw a distinctly outmoded Leeds team epitomising English shortcomings.

It is a truism in football that a team reflects its manager, and the former Leeds and Newcastle player Scott Sellars has said that the differing approaches of the two teams was mirrored in the characters of Wilkinson and Kevin Keegan.

The perception of Wilkinson is of a dour Yorkshireman wedded to direct football, but it is not wholly accurate. His humour is dry - "If ever I'm reincarnated, I'd like to return as a personality," he has said - and he once wanted to be a comedy writer. He also insists that he can coach any style of play. Indeed, his experience as a regional coach and teacher of others at Lilleshall over more than 20 years has won him the respect of the FA.

He was consulted on the England coach's job and, not wishing to subject himself to its rigours, recommended Terry Venables. He has also declined to be considered for the post of technical director, charged with developing technique and young talent. You wonder if it would be appropriate to him, however.

"After we won the title, Howard did try to change our style," says Lee Chapman, who spent eight years as a player with Wilkinson at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds. "He had always had success playing the direct way but wanted more sophistication. It didn't work. Players were used to playing a certain way and Howard was too. You can't just change. Now he has bought big players like Yeboah and Brolin as a way of bringing in sophistication and maybe it's unfamiliar territory for him."

Wilkinson has always believed, too, in experience over promise. Richard Jobson recently came in from Oldham for pounds 1m to partner the inconsistent David Wetherall, but he is now 32. Out has gone Noel Whelan, 21 on Saturday, for pounds 2m to Coventry. Also offloaded from the 1993 youth team are Jamie Forrester, on a free transfer to Grimsby, and Kevin Sharp, for pounds 100,000 to Wigan.

"It was like banging my head against a brick wall," Sharp says. "I got on well with Howard but I felt I was never going to get a chance no matter how well I was playing. My dad, who acts on my behalf, went in to see him to ask why and he just said that was the way he did things and he couldn't afford to play the younger players."

Of the others in that youth team, the captain Mark Ford has made a few appearances in midfield, Mark Tinkler has been prone to injury, while Andrew Couzens is on the fringes. It contrasts with today's opponents, the losers in that final, who have given extensive action to Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham.

There is mitigation: the Leeds team was simply bigger and stronger at that stage of their development. "And the youth coach, Paul Hart may have got more out of that team than he was entitled to," Lee Chapman says.

The return of Eric Cantona today will stir another debate about Wilkinson - his ability to deal with the exceptionally gifted player even though Eddie Taylor says the Leeds fans are mostly behind Wilkinson in his selling of Cantona, who was ultimately uncommitted to the club.

"It's ironic," Taylor says. "We probably have some better players than we did last season when we beat United 2-1 with some rare fluid and incisive football, but we expect to get hammered this time."

In the euphoria of promotion five years ago at Bournemouth, the Leeds chairman, Leslie Silver, stood outside the dressing-room and declared that the manager had a job for life with them. Unsackable through managerships at Boston United, Notts County, Sheffield Wednesday and now Leeds, Wilkinson may indeed be. But one wonders if, at the age of 52, that technical director's job doesn't look so appealing to him after all.

"Jack Charlton made a great decision last week, not to hang on too long," Lee Chapman adds. "My experience of working with Wilkinson says that he won't be sacked, he'll know when to go."

The creed of Sergeant Wilko

In his own words: "It's more important in football to have character than to be one."

"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."

"I don't sit down on New Year's Eve and get all emotional and wonder if it's going to be a good year for me. I know it's going to be the year I make it."

"I'm one of those 20-year, hard graft, overnight successes."

Said of him: "There are bigger heads than mine in the First Division - Howard Wilkinson springs to mind." - Brian Clough.

Arrivals this year: Tony Yeboah (Eintracht Frankfurt) pounds 3.4m; Paul Beesley (Sheffield United) pounds 250,000; Richard Jobson (Oldham Athletic) pounds 1m; Tomas Brolin (Parma) pounds 4.5m.

Departures this year: Chris Fairclough (Bolton) pounds 500,000; Tony Grant (Preston) free; Mark Humphreys (Bristol City) free; Jamie Forrester (Grimsby) free; Kevin Sharp (Wigan Athletic) pounds 100,000; Nathan Lowndes (Watford) pounds 40,000; Noel Whelan (Coventry) pounds 2m.