There are two enduring emblems of Leeds United’s title win in 1992. Alongside the quiet authority of Howard Wilkinson, there’s that epochal midfield of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed.
It’s not to say there wasn’t talent elsewhere. John Lukic had shown his credentials by making vital saves in Arsenal’s iconic 2-0 victory at Anfield in 1989, the match that sealed their title, before returning to his boyhood side a year later. Mel Sterland earned his status as a cult hero, a marauding full-back masquerading in the brawny frame of a pub player, and Tony Dorigo added a touch of class on the other side, with Chris Fairclough and Chris Whyte capably binding things together in the middle. After turning 30, Lee Chapman enjoyed the best spell of his career, scoring 60 goals in his first two and a half seasons at Leeds.
But certain teams have one unit that’s totemic, rising above their peers to define the team. Brazil in 2002 had the attack of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. For early 1990s Milan, it was the defence of Maldini, Costacurta, Tassotti and Baresi. For Wilkinson’s Leeds, it was that midfield – Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed. Always in that order: Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed.
Daniel Chapman’s book Do You Want To Win? chronicles the Wilkinson era. The illustration on the front cover could only be one thing: those four. Strachan with the ball, driving forward; Batty, head up and looking for space; McAllister and Speed appropriately offering support.
They all enjoyed success elsewhere. Strachan had already won European honours as a key part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side. Batty later returned home as another cog in Leeds’ next – and last – great midfield at the turn of the century, making great strides in Europe alongside Harry Kewell, Olivier Dacourt and Lee Bowyer. Speed would become loved at each of his subsequent clubs. McAllister had a late-career resurgence at Liverpool, winning five trophies in 2001 in the same leadership role that fellow countryman Strachan offered Leeds a decade earlier.
The timing was impeccable, a feeling that the stars aligned in that one season, each player at the perfect stage of their career to contribute sufficiently, their attributes coalescing into an imperious and well-balanced unit. At 27, McAllister was at his physical peak. Speed and Batty had developed at Leeds as they went from Second Division champions to a top-four team to kings of England in just three short years. With Speed 21 and Batty 22, they had the right mix of energy and guile to excel at the top-level. They also had an excellent mentor in Strachan, who dropped down to the second tier after leaving Manchester United.
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“The impact Gordon had on me was absolutely tremendous. When I was a young player with Leeds, I would watch Gordon with his bananas and seaweed cakes and wonder what the heck he was eating that for,” Speed reflected in Paul Abbandonato’s book Gary Speed Remembered. “In those days, if I was hungry I used to just stop off at Burger King. Then Gordon was suddenly race past me in training and I would realise that he was right and I was wrong.”
After a spat with Sir Alex Ferguson led to Strachan’s departure from Manchester United, spite proved as good a motivator as anything else and their frosty relationship would take decades to thaw. After taking up Leeds’ offer, Strachan extended his old manager’s wait for an English league title to six seasons by beating his former club to first place.
When the 31-year-old Strachan was unveiled at Leeds, he said: “I still feel I’ve got a lot to offer the game. I’m here to try and improve Leeds and get them back where they belong.” Little did he know that meant the summit of English football. Together with Wilkinson, he brought back a winning mentality to the club of Don Revie, Billy Bremner and Jack Charlton.
In the 1990 promotion season, Leeds held onto the top spot after December but were in a precarious position in their penultimate game against Leicester, just two points clear of third place Newcastle. The noise at Elland Road that day has become mythologised; finally, the one-club city of Leeds had a captain they could trust to step up and guide them to the promised land.
“Have you ever seen a better goal, and have you ever seen one better timed?” was the immortal line of commentary as Strachan sweetly struck a half-volley after the ball had pinballed out to him outside the box, winning the game in the 84th minute. Leeds had the leader they’d waited so long for.
The commentator, John Helm, had provided another now-iconic line just weeks before, in that same unmistakable West Yorkshire inflection: “Go on Gary Speed, get one yourself son,” he narrated as the young Welshman broke forward on the counter to cap off a 4-0 win over promotion rivals Sheffield United, a result that put Leeds back on track after a winless streak of four games had their promotion push in the balance.
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Capped off with the jubilant cry of “… and what a great goal!” as the ball rolled over the line, that moment was often revisited in the wake of Speed’s passing. It’s tempting to class it as a definitive portrait of the player as it demonstrated his pace, that magic left foot, his coolness and reliability, but it still doesn’t do him justice. He had it all. “Gary Speed was the ultimate utility star player,” Wilkinson said in Do You Want To Win?. “I think I played him in every position except goalkeeper.”
Speed signed at Leeds as an apprentice, with Billy Bremner as manager in 1988. Part of a youth training scheme for school-leavers, he was kept on by the legendary Scot. Moving from a village in Wales, he lived in Seacroft, with “burnt-out cars everywhere”, he told Dave Simpson in The Last Champions. “Two buses to work every day? I loved it.”
Batty, a Leeds local, was emerging at the same time, and was adored by supporters for his full-blooded physicality; a bulldog with the floppy blonde hair of a Neighbours heartthrob. An anecdote recently told in the Quickly Kevin podcast by his former teammate Tony Dorigo demonstrates the adoration of supporters: “The first goal that I scored for Leeds was at Elland Road and was against Manchester City. The ball came out from a corner, it bounced, and I’ve half-volleyed it, pinged it, right into the top corner. It was a very good goal and I was delighted. A few minutes later Batty scores. Oh my God! It was like an earthquake, the noise. It was a shitty tap in. Doesn’t matter, mine was forgotten. You felt the warmth for David.”
In the same interview, Dorigo revealed how Batty broke Keith Curle’s jaw with a stray elbow jumping for a header in an England training session. It’s an unsurprising tale for a player who was famously unyielding in his desire to win the ball, but he was more than just a crude ball-winner. Few other defensive midfielders had such an ability to read the game, illustrating why he earned 42 England caps during the 90s. His proficiency in spreading the ball flew under the radar.
An elusive figure in his retirement, he gave a rare interview with Leeds magazine The City Talking back in 2015: “People used to have a go at me for passing sideways and backwards, but I’ve always believed in that.” Batty said. “Why not just keep the ball? While you’ve got the ball, they haven’t, and I prefer to have it. It’s hard work getting it back, especially when you’re playing against better teams. You almost never do.”
It’s a sentiment one might expect to read in an interview with Xavi or Pep Guardiola, figures who are almost evangelical about football, rather than a player who was often derided as an agricultural workhouse playing at the hub of an unfashionable team.
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Gary McAllister completed the quartet in 1990. He caught the eye after scoring against Leeds for Leicester City in the match that nearly cost them promotion. Controversially, his introduction meant ousting fan-favourite Vinnie Jones, but the move was soon vindicated as he improved the team further, helping Leeds to a fourth-place finish in their first season back in the First Division.
With a wicked delivery from a dead ball, he quickly developed an understanding with the towering Chapman who would often get on the end of his crosses. The six foot two inch striker scored a career-best 21 league goals during their first season playing together.
Playing with largely the same side that won promotion, it was unfathomable that Leeds could improve on fourth place. But this was a side in ascendancy, and the acquisitions of Rod Wallace and Dorigo offered further refinement. It helped that the previous year’s runners-up, Liverpool, suffered in the post-Dalglish era, and champions Arsenal started so sluggishly they soon forfeited any hopes of retaining the title.
The opportunity was there, and it was eagerly pounced upon by Leeds and Manchester United. It was 18 years since Leeds were at the top, and a now unthinkable 25 for Manchester United. The two sides only lost one match apiece before Christmas, though both stuttered during the final months. In the end, it was Manchester United’s flounder that proved the more fatal, losing three of their last four games.
So often it was those four figures at the heart of Leeds’ best performances. Batty was the opposite of a highlights player but was responsible for one of the Kop’s loudest roars of the season when he scored his only goal of the campaign against Manchester City in a 3-0 win. Strachan and Speed scored two apiece in a 4-0 drubbing of Southampton, an early statement victory. Chapman scored hat-tricks in the 6-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday and a 5-1 win against Wimbledon, but behind every great number nine is a great supporting cast. A McAllister corner; a Speed cross; Batty tackling, building; Strachan driving forward.
Then there was Eric Cantona. Undoubtedly a stimulus to help push Leeds over the line, his influence has otherwise been over-inflated because of what would follow. He made just six starts and scored fewer goals than Steve Hodge, but he was symbolic of a changing tide.
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Signed midway into the following season after a run of seven winless games, Cantona turned Manchester United into champions. He was the player who changed it all for them, changing English football too. All of a sudden everybody wanted a continental number 10. As a result, in came Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp, Juninho and Georgi Kinkladze.
The season after winning the title, Leeds finished just two points clear of relegation as they panicked with the implementation of the back-pass rule, their defending looking rudimentary overnight. Meanwhile, Peter Schmeichel lapped up the change and Manchester United made a giant leap forward with the use of Cantona as a deep-lying forward. Wilkinson was a football grandmaster in the spring of 1992, but by the winter, he looked lost. English football became a different sport that summer.
There is so much that feels incongruous about Leeds’ 1992 win when viewed through a modern lens, not least the image of Wilkinson celebrating the victory humbly in a Gatorade jumper in scenes the polar opposite of today’s extravagant displays.
As a result of this transformation, and everything else that’s changed in the last 25 years, there’s a melancholy in looking back. Despite everything, Leeds have long been stuck in the same quagmire that Wilkinson and Strachan once pulled the team out of. A wistful hope that new saviours might emerge is quelled by such legends belonging to the past.
How can the club hope for another Batty if they can’t hold onto Lewis Cook? Why would a player with Strachan’s European lustre join a Championship team? That said, Marcelo Bielsa is slowly fanning the flames and hope is abound again at Elland Road.
When Leeds’ award-winning The Square Ball fanzine launched in 1989, there was a positivity around the club and heroes to revere. Still going today, it now provides a vitally sardonic voice as fans swallow ever-rotating mediocrity. There’s a new generation of Leeds fans who don’t remember it any other way; for whom new heroes might come and go, but ultimately only to stand out amongst the dreck around them. There is little hope of seeing another team like it. That’s the beauty of 1992. They were masters of their domain.
Those key figures have returned and reminisced, notably for the exceptional Do You Want To Win? but there’s always an absentee: Speed. After the devastating, unthinkably tragic news hit that he took his own life in 2011, the rest of that midfield returned to Elland Road. Solemn and ashen-faced, McAllister, Batty and Strachan paid tribute to their former teammate by laying a wreath on the pitch where 20 years prior, Speedo, still just a boy, wove his way into the folklore of one of Leeds United’s greatest teams.
By Nestor Watach @NestorWatach