Wilkinson on a knife-edge

Phil Shaw talks to the Leeds United manager who knows he must revive the club's fortunes or face the consequences
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One of football's darkest ironies involves the tendency for good friends to pass each other in the revolving door of management. One man's P45 can be another's clocking-on card.

Little more than a year has passed since Howard Wilkinson turned up at a hotel near London to speak on behalf of George Graham. The Leeds United manager was effectively a character witness at the "trial" of his former Arsenal counterpart, and their mutual respect has survived a summer of speculation linking the out-of-work Scot with the job Wilkinson has held for nearly eight years.

Adding grist to the rumour mill - which also links Kenny Dalglish with a move to West Yorkshire - have been Leeds' poor results since the Coca- Cola Cup final calamity in March and the protracted takeover of the club by the London-based Caspian company during the close season. The bookmakers make Wilkinson one of the favourites for an autumn exit.

If it is true that the new owners are monitoring results even more closely than is customary, then the next few weeks could well determine whether Wilkinson stays or goes. After Wednesday's visit to Blackburn, Leeds face home matches against Manchester United and Newcastle, with a trip to Coventry, the club to whom they lost Gary McAllister in July, in between.

Wilkinson - never sacked, never relegated - acknowledges that they are "daunting fixtures" while pointing out that David Pleat, his latest successor at Sheffield Wednesday, probably said the same about an opening sequence that was to bring maximum points from Aston Villa, Leeds and Newcastle. He is under no illusions as to where the bottom line is drawn.

"The team has got to win - it's as simple as that. When the season started, the fans weren't saying: 'Well, what a summer of frustration, upset, hold- ups, limbo, injunctions, not being able to sign players, not knowing who's in charge it's been'. Whether that's fair or not doesn't come into it. No one ever said it would be.''

Caspian's buy-out gave Leeds renewed clout in the transfer market. Equally, though, it raised the possibility that they would want to install their own man. "George Graham has turned down Manchester City, and I probably know more accurately than the media why he's done that," Wilkinson says. "But I'll bet that at some stage it's reported that the reason is that he's been offered the job at Leeds United." The People duly obliged yesterday.

Another irony of Wilkinson's position is that he is potentially a victim of his own success; of the expectations he has done more than anyone to encourage. Leeds were among the dregs of the old Second Division when he arrived. They have enjoyed five top-five finishes in his seven full terms, but have not challenged for the title since taking it in 1992.

At this stage last season they sat on top of the Premiership with nine points from three games. Tony Yeboah could hardly take the field without posting a contender for Goal of the Season and Eric Cantona was a fading memory. The 38 matches since then - the equivalent of a full season - have delivered only 36 points. Relegation form. So what went wrong?

"My players thought they were as good as people said they were. They forgot why they got those victories. We also had the African Nations' Cup, which meant we lost three players for a month, and Yeboah got injured the day after the Coca-Cola final and we never saw him again. It was a rollercoaster season.''

One of an elite band of Englishmen to manage a side to the title in the modern era, Wilkinson had never reached Wembley. After the 3-0 violation by Villa, which provoked animosity that has continued almost unabated, he may have wondered whether it was worth the wait. Whether, perhaps, his time at Leeds had run its course.

"I enjoyed it enormously," he recalls, pausing for a second, "until it kicked off. The game itself and the aftermath were the low points of my career, and the temptation's always there to walk away from something when it gets unpleasant.''

What kept him going? "I like the job, and surrender would have been a greater blow to myself than carrying on. My feeling is that after three days, I'd wake up thinking: 'I'm bored to tears - why did I give in to them'?''

Wilkinson's refusal to placate his critics by resigning is seen by some as symptomatic of that South Yorkshire blend of stubbornness and vanity which Geoffrey Boycott is said to epitomise. Pride, he says, did not come into it, merely a desire to finish what he had started.

"The directors held the view that good managers are hard to find. And my CV isn't exactly disastrous. We had a commitment, a long-term plan that we laid down very early on, and we we were only part of the way through it. You could get someone new in and change things for a few months, but you've still got the same problems.''

Though he is too pragmatic, too rational to say so, the sense of destiny is strong in Wilkinson. When I ask whether his vision of turning Leeds into one of the game's major clubs remains in focus, he replies: "You're sitting in part of it." We are in the Italian-style training centre near Wetherby racecourse, developed at a cost of pounds 3m and opened last month.

Wilkinson expands his theme in a litany of Leeds' achievements since he and Leslie Silver, the recently retired chairman, came together with the aim of arresting a decline that had been accelerating since the end of the Don Revie era. Apart from the championship and the transformation of Elland Road into a Euro 96 venue, he takes particular satisfaction from a youth policy now producing players of Premiership quality.

Andy Gray, Mark Ford and Ian Harte have already gained international recognition. Mark Jackson, Jason Blunt and Harry Kewell are tipped to follow, while Wilkinson's coaching staff are hopeful that a prodigiously talented Irish teenager, Stephen McPhail, may eventually inherit McAllister's mantle.

To Wilkinson's "great regret" the Scotland captain felt unable, at nearly 32, to turn down a lucrative offer from Ron Atkinson at Coventry. The injunction taken out by one director to stop the Caspian deal was the final straw for McAllister. "It was a summer of discontent, if you like," the manager admits, "and it was dragging on and on.''

When the big kick-off came, they were still bedding in newcomers like Nigel Martyn and Lee Sharpe. In their first three games - a 3-3 draw at Derby, a 2-0 home defeat by Wednesday and 1-0 win over Wimbledon - a Leeds line- up still without long-term casualties like Yeboah and Tony Dorigo looked what they are: a team in transition.

From bad to worse, insist Wilkinson's detractors. Mitigating circumstances and appeals for patience cut little ice with people paying high ticket prices. It's that problem of expectations again, although as Wilkinson says: "I can hardly say: 'We're not as good as you think we are'. That would be counter-productive.

"My job is to take the performance of the players beyond their potential, so I deal in unreal expectations. The perceptions of what we can achieve are partly a reflection of what we've achieved already.

"Ten of the clubs who came up after us were relegated, seven in their first season. Blackburn are the only other champions. I think we're the only ones to reach a cup final. And, dare I say it, Newcastle are finding out how hard it is to crack it, despite what they've spent.''

Wilkinson is at a loss to comprehend "the level of hostility, bile and bitterness" in many letters he receives: not for him the maxim of football being more important than life or death. And though he can "understand" supporters' frustrations, he regards the booing at home games as damaging, "like a heavy frost near Bordeaux in April or May".

September should go some way towards establishing whether his rebuilt team - Ian Rush and Lee Bowyer for Tomas Brolin and Gary Speed, and boyish faces everywhere - are maturing into an acceptable vintage or withering on the vine. But for all the talk of pressure and the possibility of losing his job, perhaps even to an ally like Graham, Wilkinson appears outwardly unfazed.

"I don't worry about it because I can't do anything about it. I'd rather be working than not, but I've been in management since I was 28 (he is 53 in November) and some would say that by the law of averages I'm going to get the sack at some point.

"Of course I've still got ambitions. I want the championship again and I'd like to win a cup. I haven't altered my view about what I'm doing at Leeds United since the day I arrived. The only way I'll change is if someone says: 'You're no longer in charge'.

"A manager's not self-employed. If he's not in the directors' hands, he's in the players' hands. And if he's not in the players' hands, he's in the fans' hands.''