Jon Howe: Building success the Howard Wilkinson way

Latest column from author and Leeds United fan Jon Howe

In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks back at how Howard Wilkinson went about building success at the club.

Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.

Jon Howe

When Howard Wilkinson stood on the stage outside Leeds Town Hall and addressed a crowd estimated at 150,000 on Sunday May 3rd 1992, he ended his triumphant title-winning sermon with the claim that “it looks like we’ll have to go and win it again.”

It was a flippant remark, but it hit home straight away. This wasn’t the end, even though it felt like the best end ever. And the trouble with football is that it never ends (current situation notwithstanding). We all know what came after, but we can still look at that period with undiluted fondness, with every late-April and early-May bringing a succession of cherished anniversaries. This year is the 30th anniversary of Howard Wilkinson overseeing Leeds United’s promotion to the top flight, an achievement the club has struggled to repeat in an agonising period now spanning over half of that time.

Promotion in 1989/90 was the start of everything; the first base camp in Wilkinson’s epic ascent to greatness and validation for how he managed change at a football club wholly resistant to it. Because managing change was an absolute necessity. Everybody working at Leeds United, and who had managed Leeds United in the recent past, were too close to it. They couldn’t see how things had moved on, but things had stayed the same. They couldn’t see the emotional crutch of the Revie years that everyone clung to for comfort and security. They couldn’t see that Leeds United – in Wilkinson’s own words – were a Rolls Royce with a Mini engine.

Howard Wilkinson could see it and he needed to change it. Leeds United needed a root and branch dissection to wheedle out debilitating forces and bring fresh ideas, fresh goals and a reason to believe it was okay to look forward, rather than cling to the past.

It is testament to Marcelo Bielsa’s impact at Leeds United that, 30 years on, he is arguably the only coach since Wilkinson to introduce such a wholesale cultural change. To instil new methods and streamline a vision throughout every department of a football club is a unique challenge, and to be allowed to do so is a rare privilege that only the best can live up to. In October 1988, Howard Wilkinson was fortunate that he had suitors in Bill Fotherby and Leslie Silver, who were able to apply long-term thinking when even short-term thinking was in short supply. Between them they took a huge gamble on a ten-year plan, at a time when it was a challenge to look into next week.

What they knew, but we didn’t, was that investing in Howard Wilkinson wasn’t a gamble. His personality was an intoxicating mix of blunt northern-ness and studied philosophy; he had a unique ability to fuse profanity with the profound. It cut through in a way where he could happily tear everything up and intensely upset people, but still have them running through brick walls for him.

And it was all part of the plan. Because Howard Wilkinson knew how to manage people and he knew how to manage situations. And if he couldn’t manage the people, he managed the situation. It’s why he is still hired today to lecture middle-management groups on leadership and how to implement the small things that add up to make a big difference. Such skills can be applied in any walk of life, and much as Howard Wilkinson knew how to get the best out of a disinterested David Batty, an excitable Vinnie Jones and a succession of journeymen conundrums, he could doubtless apply the same skills to find success in managing a travelling theatre group, or a vineyard, or a department store, or anything.

Wilkinson was wary of the media and uncomfortable in the glare of publicity, but somehow had the disposition to be able to hold court in a dressing room charged like a ticking time bomb with huge, energising personalities like Mel Sterland, Gordon Strachan, Ian Baird and the aforementioned Batty and Jones. Forging a formidable unit from a disparate assemblage of stranded workhorses was what Wilkinson did best, and it brought unlikely success in the most epoch-defining way.

Like the best creative collectives the world has thrown together, sometimes the high art happens and then everyone drifts apart. Like ships that pass in the night, the magic is brief but wonderful. Then everything changes, and Howard Wilkinson still had to manage change. Part of his ten-year plan was foreseeing how football was developing and what was on the horizon, and while it appeared at the time to look like Wilkinson had lost his way at Elland Road, he was merely navigating a necessary transition.

The change in football that Wilkinson could see coming – the Premier League, overseas money and PLCs – was what eventually engulfed him; the football merry-go-round had started, bringing power struggles, bottom lines and change for change’s sake. Wilkinson was sacked just as the youth system he created was emerging to win trophies and eventually bring a new era to Leeds United. His ten-year plan had worked almost to the day. But you should check your change, because mistakes cannot be rectified later.

I’ve always felt that you cannot help what era you are born into and therefore you should have no regrets as a Leeds United fan. I missed out on the Revie era, but I wouldn’t swap being 19 in 1989/90 for anything. Strachan would always be my spiritual leader, Batty would always be my hero and I would always want Howard Wilkinson overseeing everything.

A 25-year dynasty of prolonged success is not the Leeds United way; it is the imperfections that make us perfect, and the peaks and valleys of the rollercoaster that make these singular successes so memorable. Leeds United never did stay true to Howard Wilkinson’s claim on that sunny Sunday afternoon in May 1992, they have never even come close, because managing Leeds United is like hitting a moving target, and Howard Wilkinson was always managing change.

All we ask is that the guardians of our football club recognise its potential and run it accordingly; appreciate, if you like, that a Rolls Royce deserves the mechanics to get the best out of it. And in that sense, with what Howard Wilkinson gave this football club and how he shaped our lives, I wouldn’t change a thing.