The defender known as ‚Zico‘ talks about his Leeds United career
Not since the days of Terry Cooper had the club enjoyed such an attacking full back as Mel Sterland, until his arrival in the summer of 1989.
After ten years at Sheffield Wednesday, and helping Rangers to the league title, ‚Zico‘ joined his former manager, Howard Wilkinson, at the Whites, becoming a key part of the Leeds United revolution that would lead to promotion, then the First Division title.
Here he talks about his Leeds United journey…
Leeds were in Division Two at the time, and you were playing for the most successful side in Scotland? Why did you decide to move to Elland Road?
„Rangers said a couple of clubs had come in for me and that they would listen to offers. One was Trevor Francis at QPR. I spoke to him on the phone and agreed to meet for talks, but I didn’t really fancy a move to London. Then I met Howard Wilkinson on the way back from Loftus Road, and he simply said, ‚We’re going to win the League.‘ Honest truth. He said he was spending a lot of money on decent players, that we were going to get promoted and win the league. That was it for me.“
So were you signing for the club or the man?
„Both. Leeds were a big, big club, and as I’d worked with Howard before, at Wednesday, I knew he wasn’t messing around there. He wouldn’t have taken the job on if he didn’t think he could be successful. The family were even all right about it, even thought it was Leeds. They knew it was a good move for me. It was also a chance to come back to Yorkshire.“
Did you notice any difference in Howard from your days at Sheffield Wednesday?
„We, he had certainly mellowed – there were none of those bloody cross-country runs! I think he was just that bit more experienced. Added to that he’d got better players around him to work with, and a chairman – Leslie Silver – who was backing him all the way. He was generally a lot more relaxed.“
There was obviously a sense of anticipation before the start of that season, but did you ever feel this was going to be all or nothing?
„There probably was an element of that. The money that he had spent and the expectation around the place built all that up, definitely. But from day one, I knew we were going up as Champions – I had a feeling in my guts. A lot of my optimism came from the supporters, they were magnificent all the way through that season. Midweek, Saturdays, whenever, the noise they would make when you ran out onto the pitch was absolutely frightening. Standing in the tunnel, you could tell other teams were scared rigid, and that was all down to the fans. People often say that fans are worth a goal start, but that really was the case at Leeds. And at away games, you would look over to the visitors section, and it was absolutely packed with three or four thousand Leeds fans. Unbelievable.“
What do you think were the key moments on the way to promotion?
„It is really difficult to say about particular games, I just used to get my head down and get on with it. Do the old ‚take each game as it comes‘ routine. I suppose a really important game was the first of the season, the 5-2 drubbing we had at Newcastle. Mick Quinn scored four goals that day – can you imagine that, that little so-and-so getting four past my defence?!? We couldn’t believe we’d take such a hiding, especially after creating so many chances. But to be honest, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us, after all the hype about the transfers and being favourites, it really did focus the team. That result brought us back down to earth.“
How much pressure did you feel feel under in the build-up to the Bournemouth game – knowing a win would guarantee promotion as Champions, but defeat could cost everything?
„I never had any doubts. And when Chappie scored, there was no way we were going to lose. It was a brilliant day, though; you knew the chairman was pleased when he came in the dressing room with his expensive suit on and hugged a lot of sweaty footballers! That was some trip back up the motorway that night – a hell of a lot of champagne was drunk!“
Who do you think had the most influence on the pitch that season?
Gordon Strachan was magnificent. I would say he was the best professional I ever worked with in football. His presence was incredible; he would get us all fired-up during training and get us going during games. When he wasn’t there, we really missed his influence. When he was back, we immediately put more effort into our game – each of us knew exactly what our job was, what was expected. But then we had the likes of Vinnie Jones who was not only a smashing lad but superb on the pitch as well, he really gave us something extra. He never had any international caps and he hadn’t won too much, but everybody looked up to him. He was great to have around. Chris Fairclough was also brilliant. I reckon he should have gone with England to the World Cup in 1990, he was immaculate throughout that campaign. But the essence of that team was the fantastic spirit. Everyone worked really hard for each other, we had a good laugh in the dressing room, taking the mickey, playing card and that. That’s what got us through.“
Then Leeds won the Championship in 1992. Could you believe you had achieved so much so quickly? Most Leeds fans were delighted to just be in the First Division…
„It may sound a bit weird, but we definitely won the title too soon after getting promoted. We didn’t really buy that many players. I suppose the likes of Tony Dorigo and Gary McAllister came in, but we were just carried on by our momentum – I think it took us all by surprise, really. From my own point of view, it was very disappointing that I couldn’t finish the season. My ankle was in a bad way, and for a lot of the games around New Year – games I shouldn’t really have playing in – I was taking pain-killing injections and I think that it what has caused me all the trouble since. But you want to play all the time. I only missed the last 13 or so games, so I had easily enough appearances to win a medal. But it was a great achievement, especially when you’ve beaten Man United!“
Do you ever reminisce about your days at Leeds?
„I do think about those days quite a lot, yes. People stop and talk to you about that Leeds side, and the fact that we won this and we won that. And you say to yourself, ‚Bloody hell, they’re right!“ But I do put on the videos from time to time, have a look back at what me and the team achieved. Especially that game against Sheffield United on Boxing Day 1989 when I scored my free-kick. Obviously, they are not my favourite team anyway, but to score a goal like that was fantastic. It’s funny really, if I had been Brazilian, they would have shown that around the world every minute of every day for about three years, but because it was Leeds United, everyone thought, ‚Sod ‚em, not that bothered!‘. I see Simon Tracey, their goalie, now and again, and I always give him an absolute roasting about that goal. He never stood a chance!“