Book Review: The Last Champions by Dave Simpson

If you wander into a bookshop and look at the section on Leeds United AFC, the shelves will invariably be loaded with titles which hark back to the Revie era and the exploits of his teams of the 1960s and 70s. Whilst those trophy winning days at Elland Road put the West Yorkshire club onto the footballing international stage, they were not the last Leeds team to bring the League title back to LS11. In 1991/92 under Howard Wilkinson, Leeds took the First Division title by four points from Manchester United, yet the story seems to have been fairly much passed over. In The Last Champions (Leeds United and the year that football changed for ever), Dave Simpson has brought that extraordinary season to life.

Simpson currently writes for the Guardian and had before that written for Melody Maker, with his previous foray into books a title about the band The Fallen. Away from music Simpson contributed to the official club magazine LeedsLeedsLeeds.

In terms of this book, The Last Champions, the title reflects a number of facts that at the start of the 2012/13 season still hold true. When Leeds United won the First Division title in 1991/92 it was the last time before the monster that is the Premier League took over the top division of English football and therefore Leeds will always be the last First Division Champions. Howard Wilkinson is the last English manager to win the title and that season was the last occasion when Leeds United were the Champions of England; who knows when these two facts will alter?

In telling the story of ‘Sergeant Wilko’ and his team, Simpson seeks out the players and staff who were part of that incredible season. Therefore the majority of the book features chapters which are set around interviews with the central characters of the Wilkinson era prior to and including the 1991/92 season. These include Wilkinson, his assistant Mick Hennigan, physio Alan Sutton, board members Leslie Silver and Bill Fotherby and players such as the late Gary Speed (to whom the book is dedicated), Vinnie Jones, John McClelland, Chris Kamara, Mike Whitlow, Chris Whyte, Lee Chapman and Jon Newsome.

The various chapters provide interesting anecdotes from within the dressing room, the training ground and ‘on and off’ the pitch. However, there are a number of themes that emerge time and time again. Wilkinson is portrayed as a disciplinarian who drilled into his players the benefits of organisation and structure in training until it became second nature on the pitch. He was also seen as ahead of his time in areas such as match preparation including a more modern approach to diet and nutrition for players. However, Wilko was by no means perfect and some players questioned his man management skills, in particular the manner in which so many of the squad left Elland Road. What also comes through is that in comparison with the current Premier League era ‘stars’, the players back then were just ‘ordinary’ guys, with many of them today doing ‘regular’ jobs.

Simpson also seamlessly weaves in his own story of growing up in Leeds and his attachment to the club. He admits as a child, he “…never really liked football…” because of his uncomfortable experiences of playing the game in the school playground. But, after seeing Leeds beat Arsenal 2-0 in October 1974, Simpson “…was hooked immediately…” However, his first love music still tugged at his heart strings and as football in the late 70s suffered at the hands of hooliganism and racism, so he swapped Elland Road for various music gigs. It wasn’t until Wilkinson arrived in 1988 that Simpson returned to LS11 to witness the revolution that saw Leeds take the Second Division title in 1989/90 and the top prize just two seasons later. He ends the book with a brief look at the first season of the Premier League and the end of the Wilkinson era.

This book is a fine tribute to the period Wilkinson was in charge at Leeds and the players and staff that saw them crowned as English Champions. Simpson’s journalistic style, one which never loses the feeling that he a fan, makes this a fascinating read, which is difficult to put down. There is also something ethereal and melancholic about the book. Whilst the pages celebrate that period of the Wilkinson era, the words and images have an underlying feel of a time gone-by. Perhaps it was because it was the last season prior to the Premier League and for Sky football never existed before that point and consequently those last First Division Champions are merely ghosts from the past. Football has become a different beast in the Sky era, where money is ‘king’ and the players, like television hold the clubs to ransom. Like Simpson, I remember growing up and watching football in the 70s when it was affordable. For many nowadays that is not true and that is a sad fact.

For me the pictures also say so much. The images used within the book are not colour or on glossy pages, but are black and white, with a grainy quality; unassuming and understated. Finally, check out the images used on the sleeve of the book. On the front the Leeds team celebrate with the trophy, most of whom are caught in the moment of triumph. Then look at the faces of Gary Speed, David Batty and Mel Sterland. These three seem somewhere else. Maybe the picture has just caught them off guard? What were they thinking about? On the back, Wilkinson is seen walking away (back to the camera) carrying the Championship trophy with Elland Road empty. To use a melancholic musical refrain, “those were the days my friend…”.



To read an interview with Dave Simpson and another review, please click here.