Leeds United: The last pre-Premier champions

LEEDS UNITED’s triumph in 1992 was a surprise to many people who felt the club was unlikely to regain the glory years of the Don Revie era. But few could deny them their title in 1991-92 after they stubbornly saw off the challenge of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side.

Leeds had returned to the top flight in 1990 under Howard Wilkinson and enjoyed their first season back, finishing in a highly credible fourth place. In normal circumstances, such a performance would have been rewarded with a place in European competition, but with English clubs banned since 1985, only one place was granted to England in the UEFA Cup for 1991-92.

Wilkinson was a highly respected and disciplined coach and his arrival at Leeds in October 1988 came after a successful spell with Sheffield Wednesday. In his first full season at Elland Road he led the club to promotion. After finishing fourth in 1990-91, he set-out to strengthen the Leeds team and in preparation for 1991-92, signed full back Tony Dorigo from Chelsea, Rod Wallace, a speedy forward, from Southampton and Nottingham Forest midfielder Steve Hodge. 

Leeds started the season well and were unbeaten in their first 10 games, losing 1-0 at Crystal Palace. From that game, on October 1, they went on an unbeaten run that lasted 16 games before losing at Oldham Athletic in February. Leeds and Manchester United were the only serious challengers for the title and swapped places on a regular basis at the top. Leeds were top on New Years’ Day after Manchester United were surprisingly beaten at home by Queens Park Rangers while Leeds beat West Ham. Leeds were one point better off than their rivals, but Manchester United had two games in hand.

Alex Ferguson’s team always seemed to have games to spare and suffered to a certain extent from fixture congestion. While Leeds continued to win points, Manchester United’s spare games appeared to give them the upper hand. 

Leeds and Manchester United also met in the Football League Cup and FA Cup and each time, Wilkinson’s team were overcome. Lee Chapman, Leeds’ tall centre forward broke his wrist in the FA Cup tie and Wilkinson acted quickly to bring in reinforcements. The trump card was the signing of French forward Eric Cantona, a player with a troubled past who had no shortage of skill or charisma. 

Cantona’s arrival was as much a psychological boost for the team as well as adding an extra dimension to the Leeds attack, but at first, he found the going tough. He started only six games and was used as a substitute nine times. He scored just three goals. Leeds’ real strength was their midfield, arguably the most effective in the league, which comprised experienced hands in Gary McAllister and Gordon Strachan as well as younger talent like David Batty, Steve Hodge and Gary Speed.

At the end of March, Manchester United were definitely in the driving seat, with a one point and one game advantage over Leeds, who received a major blow to their hopes when they were trounced 4-0 at Manchester City on April 4. With Manchester United on League Cup final duty on April 12, Leeds leapfrogged them with a 3-0 victory against Chelsea, a game that saw Cantona score an outstanding individual goal. United returned to pole position by beating Southampton, but then hit a very poor patch, drawing at Luton and losing at home to Nottingham Forest. Leeds, after beating Coventry on the day Forest won at Old Trafford, suddenly had one point lead, although Manchester United had the chance to regain top spot at West Ham two days later. They were beaten 1-0 which meant both teams had played 40 games but Leeds were on 76 points, Manchester United on 75.

The penultimate weekend of the season saw Leeds win 3-2 at Bramall Lane, home of Sheffield United while Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-0 at Anfield. Leeds, who won by virtue of an own goal 13 minutes from the end, had a four-point lead with one game remaining and had done enough to become champions.

There was still one game to go, won by 1-0 against Norwich, but Leeds had completed their job a week earlier. Their rivals, Manchester United had simply run out of steam, but their time would come very soon. As for Leeds, they failed to defend their title in 1992-93 and finished a very poor 17th in the first Premier League season.

Leeds United’s team in 1991-92 normally comprised: John Lukic, Tony Dorigo, Chris Fairclough, John McClelland, Chris Whyte, Mel Sterland, David Batty, Steve Hodge, Gary McAllister, Gary Speed, Gordon Strachan, Lee Chapman, Rod Wallace, Eric Cantona.

John Lukic (31), tall goalkeeper, born of Yugoslav parentage, in his second spell with Leeds United. Also won the league title with Arsenal in 1989, but joined Leeds a year later.

Tony Dorigo (26), fast full back born in Australia, but capped 15 times by England. Joined Leeds for £ 1.3 million from Chelsea in the summer of 1991. Played for Aston Villa before Chelsea and later had spells with Torino and Derby County.

Chris Fairclough (28), solid and reliable central defender who arrived at Elland Road from Tottenham in 1989 after also playing for Nottingham Forest. England under-21 international.

John McClelland (36), veteran Northern Ireland defender signed from Watford in 1991 but moved to Scottish football in 1992. 

Chris Whyte (30), towering centre half who read the game very well. Started his career with Arsenal and also appeared for West Bromwich before signing for Leeds in 1990 for £ 450,000. Much travelled later in his career, including stints with a number of US clubs.

Mel Sterland (30), dynamic full back who should have won more than a single England cap. An excellent dead-ball kicker, he was also energetic and tenacious. Joined Leeds from Glasgow Rangers in 1989, linking-up with his manager at Sheffield Wednesday, Howard Wilkinson. 

David Batty (23), combative midfielder who won 42 caps for England. A product of Leeds’ youth system, Batty was also excellent at distributing the ball, an often overlooked part of his game. Joined Blackburn in 1993 for £ 2.5 million.

Steve Hodge (29), compact midfield player who had a good eye for goal. Signed from Nottingham Forest, costing Leeds £ 900,000 and also played for Aston Villa and Tottenham before joining the club.  Won 24 caps for England, playing in the 1986 World Cup.

Gary McAllister (27), skilful and cultured midfielder who joined Leeds in 1990 from Leicester City for a fee of £ 1 million. A natural leader on the pitch, he was a pivotal figure in Leeds’ title win. Won 57 caps for Scotland in an international career that last almost a decade. Was named in the PFA team of the year for 1991-92. Later played for Coventry and Liverpool.

Gary Speed (22), versatile midfielder who started with Leeds’ youth system and went on to play for Everton and Newcastle United, among others. After his playing career finished, which saw him capped 85 times by Wales he went into management and was manager of his country when he died tragically young.

Gordon Strachan (34), enjoyed a late career “Indian Summer” when joining Leeds in 1989 from Manchester United. A huge character and influence, Strachan was named FWA Footballer of the Year in 1991. Won 50 caps for Scotland, playing in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.

Lee Chapman (32), tall centre forward who finished top scorer for Leeds in 1991-92. Joined the club in January 1990 from Nottingham Forest, costing £ 400,000. 

Rod Wallace (22), striker or winger who arrived from Southampton along with his brother Ray. A fleet-footed character with an eye for goal, he spent seven years with Leeds before joining Rangers.

Eric Cantona (24), French forward whose contribution to Leeds’ title win has passed into folklore even though he started just six games and scored three goals. Cantona arrived from Nimes in February 1992 and by November of that same year, had been sold to Manchester United for £ 1.2 million where he had a highly successful and often controversial career.

Appearances and Goalscorers

Agana, T 1+1; Batty, D 40; Cantona, E 6+9; Chapman, L 38; Davidson, B 0+2; Dorigo, T 38; Fairclough, 30+1; Hodge, S 12+11; Kamara, C 0+2; Kelly, D 0+2; Lukic, J 42; McAllister, G 41+1; McClelland, J 16+2; Newsome, J 7+3; Shutt, C 6+8; Speed, G 41; Sterland, M 29+2; Strachan, G 35+1; Varadi, I 2+1; Wallace, Rod 34; Wetherall, D 0+1; Whitlow, M 7+3; Whyte, C 41.

Goals: Chapman 16, Rod Wallace 11, Hodge 7, Speed 7, Sterland 6, McAllister 5, Strachan 4, Dorigo 3, Cantona 3, Newsome 2, Fairclough 2, Barry 2, Whyte 1, Shutt 1, Whitlow 1, Own Goals 3. Total: 74

Football League Results

Aston VillaD0-0W4-1
Coventry CityW2-0D0-0
Crystal PalaceD1-1L0-1
Luton TownW2-0W2-0
Manchester CityW3-0L0-4
Manchester UtdD1-1D1-1
Norwich CityW1-0D2-2
Nottingham FW1-0D0-0
Notts CountyW3-0W4-2
Oldham AthleticW1-0L0-2
Sheffield UnitedW4-3W3-2
Sheffield WedsD1-1W6-1
West HamD0-0W3-1
1Leeds United4222164743782+37
2Manchester Utd4221156633378+30
3Sheffield Wednesday4221129624975+13

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