Wilkinson weathers storm

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Ken Jones talks to the Leeds United manager who reveals that he came close to leaving the club following last month's Coca-Cola Cup final defeat and a barrage of personal abuse
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The Independent Online
Managers, coaches, scouts and psychologists are still trying to find out what's inside footballers's heads. Wish them luck. They need it.

Consider what happened two weeks ago when Leeds United met Aston Villa at Wembley in the Coca-Cola Cup final. The Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson, felt his players were up for the occasion but in some cases the level of commitment, passion if you like, proved to be zero. "I was gutted," Wilkinson said last week.

He could handle the disappointment of a 3-0 defeat, even abuse from disgruntled supporters, but not the embarrassment of going down without a fight. ''Leeds were at Wembley for the first time since I became manager but what should have been a marvellous experience, win or lose, turned into a nightmare,'' he added.

"I couldn't believe the way some of our players performed. This is going to sound awful, but I almost wished that one of them would take a swing at the referee or they would start fighting among themselves. Anything to show they were actually interested.'' Times have changed, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, and the manager today must deal with the pernicious effects of affluence. "In many cases the player's perception of effort is not what it used to be,'' Wilkinson said. "This may relate to only travelling around in expensive cars, never having to get on a bus or a tram, losing touch with the reality of life.''

The phrases that spring from Wilkinson's mind are part dressing-room culture, part student union. Reality is a Yorkshire working-class upbringing and the awareness of limited playing ability that persuaded him to qualify as a schoolteacher.

Home from the Coca-Cup final, around midnight he remembers, Wilkinson thought again about alternative employment. ''I was emotionally disembowelled, close to walking away from it all,'' he admitted. "I thought, sod it, who needs this aggravation. It was still swirling around in my mind in the early hours of Monday morning and later when I talked things over with my wife.''

A big truth about footballers generally is that the despair they feel in defeat seldom lasts longer than the time it takes to down a couple of lagers. For managers it is different, an unavoidable responsibility to confirm Sir Alf Ramsey's astute assertion that they get too much credit and too much blame.

On the morning of the match, Wilkinson took calls from friends in football who told him to enjoy every moment because a Wembley final passes quickly. "Then there I was at seven o'clock and the day hasn't passed quickly at all,'' he said. "I'd been on the rack and died a slow death. All the bad things were vivid in my mind and in that moment I think I could be forgiven for indulging my emotions. Rationality flies out the window and you think, 'Why me?' But then all of us who have been managers know why. We know who will be held accountable.''

And the next day Wilkinson decided to carry on. "I remembered what I'd come here to do. I thought about the new training facility we've just opened, the accommodation block, the transformation in the stadium, the money spent on commercial ventures, the increase in turnover and that we are moving towards the realisation of a 10-year plan. I thought about people on my staff who've had chances to go elsewhere. I thought about the times I've told young players not to give up when things are tough, what they would think if I baled out.''

Different strokes for different folks. One manager used to argue that if you put all 11 players in a room and have them try to jump over a ping- pong table he could pick out the one who would perform best on the field. Another was so determined to prevent his team from frothing at the mouth before a game that he told dirty jokes to loosen them up.

The myths of dressing-room oratory are abundant. Some argue that pep talks can have an hypnotic effect that expands horizons and capabilities. Others have demonstrated that their effects are temporary and perhaps illusionary. "To motivate players in the long run you've got to be dealing with a common thread,'' Wilkinson said.

"They've all got to want the same things, respect the same things, be prepared to make sacrifices to achieve those things. They've got to share in a generosity of spirit, recognise that the team is bigger than any individual. Understand what that means. How deep disappointment should cut.''

Wilkinson sees himself not merely as the manager of a football team. "They [the Leeds directors] wanted me to manage the club. I had a vision they heard, understood and liked which seemed to unravel some of the mysteries of football for them. The people who took me on were relative strangers to football in that they were ex-spectators. They didn't know about buying and selling, injuries, campaigns, youth development; they knew about making paint, weaving cloth, construction but wanted to direct their energies into building a modern football club. That's difficult if you don't know what makes a successful club tick, what makes the game tick. What comes first in the process.''

This realisation may be anathema to the majority of football directors but perhaps the only way for them to enjoy the role is to look at the game simply. "You can use the history of football like you can look at a history of company accounts and learn lessons,'' Wilkinson added. "How long clubs have stayed in a division after promotion. The difference between those who mange to bridge the gap and those who pop up and down like yoyos. Stability? Yes, at a realistic level whether in the Third Division or the Premiership. You work out a niche and make sure that you stay there.''

The first casualty is often the manager himself and in any case few today are granted or indeed seek Wilkinson's authority. "It is becoming more difficult for any manager to operate as Sir Matt Busby did at Manchester United and Bill Nicholson at Tottenham, more or less running the club while continuing to send out successful teams. In those days managers with that sort of ability and commitment would have influence in many areas. That's rarely the case now but if you haven't got someone in the centre with specialist knowledge, Peter Robinson at Liverpool for example, how do you arrive at the right decisions?''

Since his appointment in 1988, Wilkinson has built two teams, winning promotion from the old Second Division in 1990 and the championship two years later. It is time to set about building another.

"One of things that influenced my decision to stay here was my age,'' Wilkinson said. "I'm 52 and to have attempted somewhere else what I think has been achieved here would have taken another 10 years. We've got some good young players coming through and the thought of working with some of them is a great encouragement. Too many too soon can cause problems but there is no doubt that they bring vitality. That's why it amuses me when people speak about the possibility of Alex Ferguson moving upstairs at Old Trafford. Why shouldn't he continue to enjoy working with the terrific youngsters he's brought forward?''

One of the big mistakes Wilkinson admits was agreeing to insert an escape clause in Tomas Brolin's contract that may lead to the Swedish international leaving Elland Road at the end of the season.

"What I failed to see was that implied a doubt in commitment, both on his part and mine,'' Wilkinson said. "In any case, I should have signed him in May, last May, next May whatever. Getting him when we did meant that there was no time to get him properly fit and into the rhythm of the Premiership. For some daft, illogical reason I played Brolin too soon instead of working hard with him for six or seven weeks as I did with Tony Yeboah. Brolin wanted to be in and foolishly, I went along with it. I don't know what Brolin wants but he's yet to show us how good he is.''

A performance held against Wilkinson was the one by Leeds at home against Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-finals. "I agree that it was a horrible match,'' he said, "but there isn't anything in my contract to say that we must look good on television. I felt our best chance was to keep things tight for an hour and try to expose the flaws we had spotted. It didn't work out and we were outplayed in the replay.''

When interviewed on television or picked out by the cameras during matches, Wilkinson comes over as an extremely serious man, devoid of humour. This is far from being the whole truth but it is not in his nature to affect a phoney persona. As for those who abused him at Wembley, they should be told that he does not expect supporters fully to understand the workings of their club. "Why should they," he said. "They pay their money for Saturday afternoon, or whenever. What we do with that money is essential to our long-term future.''

If Wilkinson wins next year, what then? Who would try to guess?

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