Ruthless, balanced, brilliant. Leeds’ 1991/92 title-winning midfield might just be the finest four ever assembled…
In the beginning there was football. Then, evolution of a simple pastime, where players and teams would illuminate and dominate and then someone else would come along. In a post-war pastime there were no stars only characters; protagonists who entertained. Football’s natural selection developed wizards of the game, sponsored commodities and performing imports and exports all building up to the injection of insane amounts of money and the loss of purity and escape.
But before all that, on the sixth day God created Leeds United’s midfield.
Strachan, McAllister, Batty, Speed. Four words, four surnames but a force of nature and a lifetime of memories. Four footballers who together formed the dictionary definition of holism; the concept that their total effectiveness in interacting with one another was greater than the sum of their effectiveness in isolation. Each one a great individual player, but together indefinable sorcery was performed.
Sure, football has produced midfields that could pass teams off the park; Kennedy, Souness, McDermott, Case. Other midfields could dominate and savagely wound teams; Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs. Today, midfields are interchangeable and rotational, and few midfields select themselves and are set in concrete for three whole seasons.
And few midfields have ever possessed the optimal balance and symmetry of Leeds United’s midfield of 1990 to 1993; four players who could control, furnish and dispatch a game with an inherent ease, and whose life paths brought them together for a short time to ornament a period of valour and conquest. Some of us were lucky enough to witness it; when true undiluted greatness entered our lives, and crossed our path, before the path lead elsewhere.
A delectable concoction of leadership, nous, creativity, mettle and youthful self-assertiveness, Leeds United’s title-winning midfield of 1991/92 swept past teams with a ruthless lack of remorse. Elland Road was a blood-splattered pit of discarded limbs and helpless victims pleading for mercy and the first bus out of there. Leeds United was an army, and it would march boldly across enemy pastures up and down the country with the same heroic fearlessness, and it would return home victorious.
Strachan; the experience, the energy, the accepting of responsibility. Never hid and never dropped his guard. A ginger Scotsman, wind-up merchant and stout non-conformist moulded from Revie’s Leeds.
McAllister; the elegance, the brains, the conductor. Extra-sensory perception and inflexible drive. All-seeing awareness, audacity and unerring finality as passes, free-kicks and volleys cut to the heart of timid opponents.
Batty; the attitude, the governance, the mastery. Ball-winning and ball-retention, the toil and trench work and indestructible cocksure security; concrete temperament, perpetual surveillance and a ‘job done’ surety.
Speed; the pace, the flair, the touch. Boundless, fresh-faced box-to-box energy and vision, a perception of the need to go the extra mile, to make that run and make that difference. A strength of mind and body and a clinical penalty box sniper.
Leeds United’s perfect midfield came together in the summer of 1990, when Gary McAllister was bought for £1 million from Leicester City. He joined youth team products David Batty and Gary Speed, and a 33-year-old Gordon Strachan, purchased a year earlier from Manchester United and already the mastermind of a long-awaited promotion to Division One.
For three seasons the midfield was ever-present – or as good-as – and impenetrable. Steve Hodge, David Rocastle and to some extent Eric Cantona, failed to breach it, such was the well-oiled slickness that it exuded and the gear-change simplicity that clicked into place and meant every component fitted together with such finite precision that nothing could adequately replace a missing part. A simple science.
That said, the midfield thrived partly due to its adaptability. Each player could mix the adventurous with the thirst for battle, and each player liked to play while not shirking the level of effort expected from the military stewardship of manager Howard Wilkinson.
Such virtuosity routinely had teams beaten at Elland Road in the first fifteen minutes, as the crowd responded to the unyielding pressure exerted from a beast unleashed. In the 1990/91 season Leeds destroyed teams at Elland Road with a knowing predictability, as their maiden season back in Division One set a menacing precedent for the future. Derby, Chelsea, Sunderland and Aston Villa were all hit for three, four or five. The title-winning season of 1991/92 saw Leeds unbeaten at home as the midfield strangled teams to submission and allowed the likes of Rod Wallace and Lee Chapman to gorge on their fruits.
Speed himself scored seven goals that season, notably two succulent finishes in the 4-0 demolition of Southampton at the Dell. McAllister scored five goals, including a crucial New Year’s Day strike at Upton Park which saw off an irksome West Ham United and clinched a 3-1 victory. Likewise McAllister restored Leeds’ lead at Tottenham when the Londoners threatened to take points off them at a vital time. The resulting 3-1 win set Leeds off into a run-in that fended off Manchester United’s challenge and delivered the ultimate crown.
Both Batty and Strachan missed key games in the 1992/93 season, which perhaps explains the trouble Leeds found in defending their title with any semblance of the style they had possessed to date. It seemed the party was over and eight games into the 1993/94 season David Batty was sold and Gordon Strachan’s bountiful renaissance had finally caught up with him. Gary McAllister and Gary Speed remained at the club for two more seasons and each thrived on the added responsibility, but the team as a whole had lost the suffocating effectiveness of that midfield.
Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed. They held a gang mentality that simply felt right and looked right. They had each other’s back and possessed a sixth-sense understanding that knew what was required and when. Like a board game that fits perfectly back in the box that midfield was moulded effortlessly; no frustrating endeavour to make it work, or pushing and shoving as ill-designed alternatives fail to replicate what once was.
Such symbiotic beauty doesn’t come around too often and when it does it’s perhaps best just to cherish it rather than fret about replicating it, or regret that it was so fleeting. Some clubs never see it at all.
Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed. The last champions, the last gang in town.
Name your favourite band and they look just right; organically conceived, each member a complement for the other and arriving at the right place at the right time. The Beatles, The Clash, The Smiths, The Stone Roses. Classic four-pieces performing with a fluency and cohesion that can’t be manufactured. Here was Leeds United’s midfield hitting a natural groove, having a message and telling a world that had to listen. Born to be together and somehow the stars aligned to ensure that for a dizzying period of goals, trophies, rapture and white noise, they were.
A serendipitous coming together that did their thing, shone a light, and then they were gone.
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