By Weekend Editor Graham Chalmers
The one moment in Dave Simpson’s The Last Champions which makes it plain this isn’t going to be just another Leeds United book is the suicide of Gary Speed.
If it still comes as a shock to the reader, how much more must it have been to the man who interviewed him only a couple of weeks before the tragedy?
“He was the one ex-player I thought I’d never get to talk to,” says Dave.
“He was the Welsh national manager and national managers are very elusive for the simple reason anything they say can be seized upon by so many different political forces.”
Simpson’s is no conventional book about football.
The Last Champions explores how the ‘Mighty Whites’ won the First Division in 1992, the final season before it was reborn as the moneybags Premier League.
Though little more than 20 years ago, the game has changed beyond all recognition since then.
“An earthquake in football was about to happen. I’m not sure people realised what a massive revolution it was going to be. In a way, Leeds’s story is a microcosm of that.”
To Leeds fans, the early 1990s truly were the glory days at Elland Road. In three-and-a-half seasons, they rose from near the bottom of the Second Division to grab the ultimate prize with a fraction of the budget of modern clubs.
Though Simpson, a Guardian journalist who lives in Tockwith, has been a Leeds fan man and boy, this is no work of idle fan worship.
Simpson, who wrote for LeedsLeedsLeeds magazine from 1998 to 2011, is as much detective as author, taking the same easy-to-read approach in The Last Champions as his previous, well-received, book, The Fallen.
Then, he tracked down every single musician to appear in the line-up of cult indie band The Fall since they formed in the late 1970s.
Here he attempts the same with the title-winning Leeds team of 1992, though the problem this time, wasn’t so much finding them as getting them to agree to talk.
A tricky task at times, he tells me.
“I would have liked to have talked to Gary McAllister and Gordon Strachan but it wasn’t to be. A lucky few of the title side still go on Sky TV for £1,000 a time. If they’re still on the gravy train, you can’t speak to them.”
From the boardroom to the dressing room, Simpson’s amazing detective work uncovered 17 of the disparate cast of characters behind that unlikely triumph in 1992, including the celebrated Frenchman Eric Cantona.
Despite his long search, a few key names still eluded Simpson in the lengthy cat and mouse game he’d unwittingly entered into.
Perhaps he was simply too much of a fan to push it as far as he might have, I suggest.
“ I did do a bit of doorstepping but most of the team are still very close.
“I found David Batty’s address but decided not to bang on his door. I knew if I upset one of them I risked upsetting them all. Ironically, McAllister buys furniture from a place about a mile away from my house in Tockwith.”
What makes The Last Champions an impressive achievement far beyond the limitations of most football books is the way everyone Simpson talked to remembers the same events in a different way.
The effect is like returning to the scene of a crime over and over again.
Favourite moments for Simpson himself include flying to LA to see Vinny Jones, lengthy chats with two of his favourite unsung heroes – Carl Shutt and Mel Sterland – and sharing a few drinks with Lee Chapman, with whom he’s remained friends
. But no matter how much time his book spends mapping the finances and tactics that went into creating a winning team, it can’t get away from the human side of the game.
Despite his journalist’s eye and deep affection and knowledge of the subject, even Simpson could not foretell what would happen after he last saw Gary Speed.
“If someone had said he would do what he did a few weeks later I would have said they were insane. He was a thoughtful person, the nicest guy. I do know he wasn’t enjoying it as Welsh manager with all the politics and all the complexities of keeping various camps happy.
““He seemed much happier talking about the past than the present.”
Simpson’s book also poses the question of whether any club without billionaire backing could repeat Leeds United’s success in the modern world.
He’s happy to supply an answer, though, like Speed, his nostalgia is tempered with pessimism.
The Last Champions: Leeds United and the Year that Football Changed Forever is published in paperback by Bantam Books.
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