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My managers…Howard Wilkinson

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When I arrived at Leeds United they were the current champions. They began the first ever Premier League campaign as the team to beat.

I arrived in the September of 1992. Leeds United were the big spenders of the time and Howard Wilkinson paid £120,000 in a double swoop for myself and Kevin Sharp from AJ Auxerre. That will seem like a very small amount at this time. Compared to the money they were spending at that time it was pretty small too but they were buying youth players. Although we both had a decent pedigree at that level I think that we were just a little bit of a gamble. 

Howard was seen as the mastermind of the Championship success of the previous years and it was a great time to be joining them.

On signing for Leeds United I remember being called into his office. The terms were pretty much agreed. I was particularly nervous as I did not know what he wanted. My wages were not bonus related. It was a basic wage and signing-on fee. He had my contract in front of him and immediately began to re-negotiate. 

He asked me if I was a gambler:

”Would you be prepared to risk a bit off your basic wage in return for an appearance fee if you play in the first team ?”

This would have meant a 20% reduction in my weekly wage for a first team appearance bonus equalling one weeks wages. I was 17 years old and Leeds had a squad that could more than cope with a few injuries. My opportunities would obviously be limited, at best.

”What if I said no ?” I replied naively. Big mistake.

”Well, I would think that you don’t believe in yourself too much if that’s what you are saying” came his instant reply.

I had no choice but to accept. This was obviously the correct thing to do with a young player. To have no incentive to reach the first team is ridiculous. He was absolutely doing the right thing but my 17-year-old mind felt a little hard done to at the time.

I signed a contract for the remainder of that season plus two more seasons.

As the conversation finished I remember him saying to me that he didn’t expect me to play in the first team that season.

 ”But if you havent played in the first team by the end of next season then you might as well pack up and do something else” were his words.

I have remembered these words because I did manage to play in the first team that season. When I signed nobody could have predicted the season that was about to pan out. It was the season that Leeds failed to win one match away from home. The longer the season went, the bigger an issue it became.

For the first few months I was with the youth team and had very little to do with Howard Wilkinson. Youth team matches were played at 11am on Saturdays so he watched occasionally if the first team played at home. He was not the type of manager to communicate too much with a young pro. This was his way.  

I had scored 11 goals in 8 youth team matches when he spoke to me on a rare occasion. He had attended an early round match of the FA Youth Cup. I scored the winner late on. The day after he remarked that he didn’t know I was playing until I scored. A back-handed compliment I think. He asked me how many goals I had scored to which I replied with the figures.

He asked me if any of them were good goals. I really wasnt sure how to react to this one. I said that there were a couple of decent ones in there.

”No” he said immediately. ” Every goal you score is a good goal”. He then walked off. Conversation over.

I have never forgotten these words. During times when goals were hard to come by over the years these words always rang true. As a striker any goal is a good goal. He was so right. I have tried to pass this on to younger players as well as my kids when they play.  

Howard Wilkinson had been successful by playing his own brand of football. His teams were direct but effective. He had amassed a very large squad full of quality. It was clear that those who were not playing in the first team were not happy and they were not shy in making their feelings clear. It was great for me though. Playing reserve football with England internationals. Steve Hodge, David Rocastle. I even replaced Eric Canton in one reserve match.

But I think that trying to keep the amount of top players happy was tough. The team was under performing too which never helps matters. These were the days when the big contracts at the big clubs were starting to be given out and I suppose that it was the early signs of player power creeping in.

I remember hearing one disagreement with Carlton Palmer. The first team lost away from home and it was a Monday morning. They passed each other in the corridor and Carlton was ignored after saying ”Good morning” to the manager. This led to a heated argument for a few moments. Carlton was aggrieved because he was ignored and the manager responded by saying that he didn’t warrant any response after the way he had played at the weekend. They both had a point !!

I’m not saying that these were regular incidents because they weren’t.

Over the course of my time at Leeds United I think that Howard Wilkinson finally lost patients with me.

At half time during a reserve match away at Wolves I was not particularly pulling my weight and was greeted with a few choice words. He called me a f****** lazy c***. He was right too.

I didn’t progress as I should have but I don’t put any of this down to him.

I have only seen him once since I left. It was at Jimmy Sirrel’s funeral. I was not sure if he would speak or not. I was pleased that he went out of his way to say hello. He didn’t have to so I felt that it was a nice touch.

I will always be grateful to Howard Wilkinson for giving me my introduction into first team football. He has gone on to manage England.

Not many players of my level have been managed by an England manager.

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