Wilkinson once took the Leeds players underground to observe life in the mines to bring an appreciation of obvious advantages

Click to follow
The Independent Online
One opinion that has been held here too long to be lightly dismissed is that managers who put their trust in footballers are asking for trouble. "Play all the angles before they start playing you," is how Brian Clough once put it.

What helped to make Clough a great figure in his time was the understanding that liberty-taking comes naturally to the breed, along with a nose for excuses - the coaching, the tactics, the pitch, team selection, even what is served up for breakfast.

Delayed when returning from abroad, an England player's eyes lit up at the suggestion that it was no way to get ready for a match against Liverpool at Anfield. "Try working on a coal face," Clough would probably have growled.

As I recall it, Howard Wilkinson once took the Leeds players then under his charge to observe life underground in the coal mines in the hope that it would bring about a greater appreciation of pretty obvious advantages.

Probably, this did not have the desired effect because, from personal experience, footballers, in the main, take their good fortune for granted.

All these things sprang to mind this week when it was announced that Wilkinson's eight-year reign at Elland Road was over. On the evidence of their dismal performance in last season's Coca-Cola Cup final against Aston Villa and subsequent displays in the Premiership, a fairly safe bet is that few if any of the Leeds players considered themselves in any way responsible for Wilkinson's dismissal.

Thinking back to a conversation I had with Wilkinson shortly after the Wembley disappointment, he may have sensed by then that it was time to think seriously about alternative employment.

It was not simply that football supporters are naturally unforgiving and that directors run out of patience, but that the team had stopped performing for him.

"Daft as it might sound, it got to the point at Wembley where I wished that one of them would hit the referee, start fighting among themselves, anything to show that they were actually interested," I recall him saying.

When those thoughts figured in an interview on these pages, they caused quite a stir and, apparently, led to recriminations in the Leeds dressing room.

However you look at these things, the manager, of course, is ultimately responsible. Eight years, even five, is a long time to be hearing one voice, and in Wilkinson's case it had reached the point where either he got himself a new team or the team would get itself a new manager. That Wilkinson was unfailingly honest and is in touch with wider realities did not come into the equation.

Ironically, Wilkinson's replacement, George Graham, had begun to experience something similar at Arsenal before he was called to account in a "bung" inquiry, sacked and then suspended from football for 12 months. The methods Graham had employed to win five major trophies in eight years, including two championships, were beginning to creak along with the legs of ageing players. An unavoidable impression was that Arsenal found Graham's indiscretions convenient.

Still, slapping managers around with consummate disrespect has not made it unpopular with the masses. It is not that long ago since many Manchester United supporters would have gladly seen the back of Alex Ferguson, who has since established himself as one of the truly great club managers, in the mould of Clough, Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson and Don Revie. Likewise, Everton supporters were howling for Howard Kendall's head before he went on to win the championship.

It has to be said that Wilkinson made mistakes, especially when signing players who never came up to expectations. There was a lot of tinkering with the system and, over the last couple of seasons, too many team changes. Winning the championship just two seasons after Leeds returned to the top flight probably worked against Wilkinson in that it brought about an untimely upsurge of expectation.

Shortly before that success was achieved, I came across Wilkinson at the Cheltenham Spring Festival. He was with two Leeds directors, one of whom said: "You are speaking to the best manager in the business." Wilkinson had already raised Leeds from the ruins of the post-Revie era.

This week the curtain came down for him at Elland Road just five matches into the season. Nothing new in this, but it is getting more and more difficult to be light-hearted about a game for children.