Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Last Champions - Interview with Dave Simpson

Released on 12th May in Hardback by Bantam Press, Dave Simpson - music journalist for The Guardian - has written an ode to his hometown team Leeds United about the 1992 League Champions managed by Howard Wilkinson.  Whilst more memorable for prolonging the agony of Manchester United, and thwarting their attempts at a league title for the first time in 25 years; the team consisting of the late Gary Speed, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan, Tony Dorigo, David Batty and Lee Chapman finished four points clear of their  more expensively-assembled rivals across the Pennines.

Simpson takes it upon himself to track down all the squad members of the 1991/92 winning side as well as members of the team that gained the side promotion from the old Division 2 in 1989/90.  Written with genuine enthusiasm and pleasure, Simpson's novel is part love letter, travelogue of the length and breadth of Britain but also a memoir about the end of English football.  Leeds were the last team to win the First Divsion, as that summer saw the dawn of the Sky TV bankrolled Premier League - this fresh injection of money and finance changed football forever.  It made it more and more unlikely that a team such as Leeds would win the league title having two season previously been a league below. The idea that a Reading, Southampton or West Ham (all promoted from the Championship) can compete for the title is both a wild fancy and totally unrealistic.

Dave Simpson was kind enough to grant me a brief interview about the gestation of the book and his thoughts on football now:

Jamie Garwood: What made you want to write a book about Leeds in 1992? Was it an attempt to write down memories, or show people how football used to be?
avid Simpson: Initially, in May 2011, I was sat in my expensive blue plastic seat at the end of another disappointing season and started pining for the old days. The 1991-2 season was my favourite as a supporter and the Howard Wilkinson years were  my 'glory years.' I started to wonder what had happened to all those players. Strachan, McAllister and Kamara were still high profile. Others had completely disappeared. So I started tracking them down. The more players - and staff - I talked to I realised i was sitting on not just a sporting story but a human one - of tremendous sacrifice, endeavour, the courage to believe and the end of an era in English football.

JG: What do you think is wrong with football at the moment?

DS: It's quicker to list what's right with it: the pitches are good and some of the football is exciting. But on many other levels money has distorted the game, in the Premiership at least, to the point where it's no longer a sport. In the Championship, clubs' power relates more or less to the size of their fanbase. In the Premier League, it is now down to the financial might of the owner. Everything else is secondary. In struggling to keep up, some of them risk going out of business. Ticket prices are unaffordable, those involved in the game life lives so far removed from the supporters they may as well be on another planet. The national team and FA Cup are now sideshows to the Premiership circus. I'm actually surprised a billionaire owner hasn't yet picked himself in the team. Surely this will be a matter of time.

JG:Do you consider sport too much of a business-oriented venture nowadays?
DS: As above really. Football has always been in league with money but it's got to the point now where there is little meaningful competition. This season may be a watershed - for the first time Manchester Utd.'s global power and Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial skills are not enough: the league was won by extraordinary financial power. The incoming FIFA financial rules may change the situation, but I'm not hopeful. 

JG: You state the importance of 'Sergeant Wilko' in the success of the team - should he be spoken of more highly in terms of good managers.  Was the way he left Leeds detrimental to his legacy.  (I only say more highly because the last manager to take a club from the old 2nd division to the 1st Division championship was Brian Clough with Notts Forest. Clough is thought of as a better manager.)
DS: Absolutely. Wilko was - and is  the most successful Leeds manager since Revie, and his achievement in taking a team from the bottom of Div 2 to the English League Championship in three and a half years is just astonishing. He was years ahead of his time in nutrition, fitness, tracking player's statistics (an early form of ProZone) and the detail of his planning. Clough's achievements in winning the league with unfashionable Derby and Forest and then winning the European Cup are probably unsurpassable now. Some common ground between them, but chalk and cheese in many ways. For me, both great managers. Clough wasn't a great Leeds manager, obviously, his reign famously lasting 44 days. 

JG: Out of the squad, who was the most eager and easy to talk to? And how long did it take do do all the interviews?
DS: I found Micky Whitlow via Google, pegged down the M1 to Burton Albion, he bought me dinner and I barely got a word in for the next two hours!  About six months in all. It was a mad, demented, Herculean rollercoaster which took me everywhere from a cafe at Morrison's in Sheffield to a golf course in Beverly Hills.

JG: After the reclusive Batty, which interview was like getting blood from a stone?
DS: Well some players didn't want to talk and you have to respect that. Chris Kamara took some pinning down because he's very busy and in the end I had half an hour's notice and leapt in the car and dashed to his house! Lee Chapman wanted to be the last interview and he was but we had a cocktail-fuelled chat some months before the interview, then spoke for two hours during the interview, and I've really warmed to Lee.

JG: Do you think Neil Warnock is the man to return Leeds to the Premier League?
DS: I hope so. He certainly has the track record. As ever with Leeds it will depend whether he has the players he needs.

JG: Do you still go to Elland Road? 
DS: Yes. I've been there twice in the last week and it's not even the season yet.

JG: How important is Leeds FC to the fabric of the city?
DS: Crucial. It's a one club city and the club potentially at least is a massive part of the local economy. A successful Leeds United and a successful city go hand in hand, and vice versa.

JG: You are known for your music writing, was it a risk to write a book outside of your comfort zone away from your specialised subject?
DS: Well I wrote for the LeedsLeeds Leeds club magazine for 13 years, so was used to interviewing players. Music and football (and writing about them) are similar: it's about research and application, obsession, passion and pain. I learned a lot about book writing doing my previous book The Fallen and definitely enjoyed the whole process more the second time.

JG: You dedicate the book to Gary Andrew Speed (1969-2011), what were your feelings about his untimely death?
DS: Like most people on that Sunday morning, there was shock, sadness and confusion.  It seemed right to dedicate the book to Gary - and especially poignant.  Gary epitomised so much of the innocence that has been lost from English football.

JG: What is next for you?
DS: A baby, imminently. I have been banned from calling it Howard Wilkinson Simpson but it will be given a Leeds United babygro and taught to kick a football as soon as it can walk.

Many thanks for your time David, I wish you all the best with the book

Dave Simpson's book is a joyous pageturner of a read full of wonderful anecdotes and memories from players whose careers hit the highest of heights, when winning the domestic league title was the pinnacle of any career in contrast to that of John Terry, Frank Lampard et all and the pursuit of European club glory.

The biggest compliment to be given to the book, is that you do not have to be a Leeds United fan to appreciate the journey these players went on and the emotional rush and release it must have been to become the Last Champions of England.

THE LAST CHAMPIONS is out now in Hardback by Bantam Press for £16.99RRP for up-to-date posts by Dave himself on the book and its release. Or alternatively follow him on twitter @davesimps0n

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