The Last Champions
The 1991-92 Football League Championship title was an historic accolade, marking the end of a very long era. From the next season, a breakaway elite would compete for “the FA Premier League”, with a Sky TV deal bankrolling the game at top level, new rules ensuring that income and wealth would trickle upwards to feather the nests of the better-off instead of down to nourish the grassroots of the game. The increased pool of money would lure foreign players to dive into it, in hitherto unprecedented numbers. Wealth and commercial interests, foreign syndication and new markets, these were the factors that would influence the game from now on. The traditional purity of competition on a level playing field would henceforth be a thing of the past. The winners of the 1992 League Title would be, in a very real sense, the Last Champions.
How inevitable it was, then, that we would hear more and more of the usual suspects throughout TV land and the media as a whole, ruminating on the place in history up for grabs, donning their red-tinted spectacles, taking out an onion and dreaming, wistful and misty-eyed of how “fitting” it would be if the mighty Man U could take the prize. There was even talk of the title coming “home” to the Theatre of Hollow Myths – home, mark you, to a club that had never won the Championship in the era of colour television, whose finest hours were recorded on grainy monochrome fuzzycam as the Pride of Devon were overtaken by thoroughbreds such as Liverpool, Leeds United, Arsenal and Nottingham Forest. Against all sense and logic, the feeble of mind, the hacks, the sentimental hypocrites all ached for the last real title to go to Man U. How bitterly disappointed they all were when Leeds United callously, magnificently pooped their party.
Bitterness is not an emotion to show in public in the first few stinging moments of disappointment in defeat. So it was that Alex Ferguson, freshly beaten at Anfield to confirm Leeds as Champions by an eventual 4 points, gritted his teeth and declared that Leeds were indeed worthy victors. Suffering as he was from the nightmare combination of losing to Liverpool and thereby surrendering the Title to Leeds – a scenario dredged from the very bowels of the average Man U fan’s own private hell – such a seemingly magnanimous verdict was reckoned to Ferguson’s credit. This magnanimity, though, did not last long. In a book published that summer, Ferguson backtracked: “Leeds didn’t win the title, we threw it away.” This was the real Fergie starkly exposed, glisteningly visceral, a man who would always look for some hidden, unfair reason why his team would lose; one who could never credit the opposition for winning fair and square. An early layer of the notorious Ferguson paranoia and bile-ridden self-righteousness was laid that summer of ’92.
Small Man, Small Book
Now, freshly retired and free of even the minor constraints that kept him relatively quiet – give or take the odd casual back-stabbing – when he was Man U manager, Ferguson feels able and willing to dish the dirt on all those horrible people who annoyed him during his rant-laden and tyrannical career. One such target is Leeds United; he has neither forgotten nor forgiven those last champions of the game as we knew it. In his latest autobiography – one would never be enough for a serial egomaniac like Ferguson – he labels the Leeds United team of 1992 as “one of the most average teams to win the title”. It is not clear whether he counts the Man U team of last year, champions by default as all of their rivals self-destructed, among that “average” number, but then it wouldn’t be in his nature to make any such concession.
The fact of the matter is that the Leeds United champion team of the early nineties found the game changing around them at precisely the wrong time. The new back-pass law unsettled a previously effective defence, the expensive arrival of David Rocastle was surplus to the best midfield four in the land and the loss of the marauding Sterland deprived them of much quality overlapping service from the right, fatally damaging their chances of mounting a defence of their title. But the victorious 1991-92 campaign saw that group at their best, putting on sparkling displays at Villa Park (4-1 winners) and Hillsborough (6-1 winners against a Sheffield Wednesday side that finished third).
Much is made of Man U’s disastrous run-in, as if this had never happened to challengers before. But again, Leeds had their own late-season wobble, losing at Oldham, Man City and QPR as well as dropping valuable home points to Villa and West Ham. Just as it could have panned out closer than the eventual four point gap between Leeds and the runners-up – so that gap could easily have been much greater. The proof of the pudding was in the final league table which saw Leeds with most wins, fewest defeats and a decisive four point margin. That legendary chestnut “the league table doesn’t lie” carried much more weight in those egalitarian days than it does now when the Premier League table usually resembles more of a financial assets sheet.
The inescapable conclusion to all this is that the outcome of the 1991-92 Title race – that historic, landmark Championship struggle – still rankles bitterly with the elderly Glaswegian, and every now and then he feels the overpowering need to spit out that sour, ashen taste of defeat. It was the title he obviously wanted to win above all others – the iconic Football League Championship, unattainable to Man U for a quarter of a century. Instead, he had to settle for a succession of more plastic baubles, won on a skewed playing field with ever-present controversies over offside goals, penalties dived for, opposition penalties not given, opposition goals disallowed from a foot over the line. Ferguson was denied the real thing, and the ones he won are tainted by the feeling that Man U were media darlings with refs in their pockets and a plastic army of glory-hunting fans in armchairs everywhere. No wonder the poor old man is bitter.
With all due respect to Ferguson – which quite frankly isn’t very much – his latest “tell-all” book has to be taken with an almighty pinch of salt. It’s a litany of whinges about the people he feels have slighted him, personal attacks on those from whom he demanded loyalty but refused to repay in the same coin, wild swipes at figures respected by everyone in the game except the increasingly empurpled Fergie himself. It’s a mish-mash of hatred, resentment, revisionism, self-justification and bitterness. And like his laughable, transparently bitter and envious attack on the Last Champions – it’s something more to be pitied than, for instance, derided as a load of old bollocks – so there I shall leave it. History, meanwhile, will always remember Wilko’s Warriors as worthy winners of the historic, final Championship of the old-style, much-loved and missed Football League.