Words: Will Almond
Images: Offside Sports Photography
It started with a PowerPoint.
Well, no, maybe it didn’t. But the PowerPoint was the moment Leeds fans knew they were in love. Marcelo Bielsa stood in front of a room full of journalists not only confessing to the “spygate” debacle that had confounded the Proper Football Men of England, but basking and revelling in it. It was Clough’s pots, pans and dustbins all over again. Except this time, the shithouse was in charge.
Marcelo-mania had gone mainstream. The country was listening. There were other moments too. The blue bucket. The litter picking. Brief limelight. But for Leeds fans, it has been a season of constant, dizzying, enveloping Bielsa. He has become so Leeds that it’s hard to remember a time before him, and is painful to think about one after him.
Scrolling through Facebook, you feel like a member of Bielsa’s family. Here’s Marcelo at a barbeque, here’s Marcelo with little Ian, here’s Marcelo out to the shops. Photos of him walking to training, clad all in Leeds gear, silhouetted against dry stone walls and rolling Yorkshire countryside plaster your feed. You’d assume Leeds have offices at Thorp Arch, the Leeds training ground, but the manager seems to prefer the humble setting of a Costa in Wetherby to mastermind his tactical plans (expect Frank Lampard to qualify as a barista any day now). Marcelo’s pre and post-game press conferences in English and Spanish now go out in full as a podcast courtesy of the Yorkshire Evening Post. A Twitter account translating some Bielsa-isms into English briefly achieved the status of sacred text in a little corner of West Yorkshire. Tickets at Elland Road are gold dust. Leeds is drunk on Bielsa.
Bielsa isn’t God. He isn’t. Then again, comparing Leeds before Bielsa (B.B.) and after Bielsa (A.B.), he begins to look pretty close. Kalvin Phillips has gone from curious bystander to the future of English football. Kemar Roofe obviously spent the summer at a barn-door-hitting camp, returning an all-action hero, a harrying presence and clinical finisher. Pontus Jansson was always a passionate, fiery, and talented (if inconsistent) leader at the heart of defence, but looking at him this season you wonder if he shouldn’t just calm down a bit for the sake of his long term health.
Going further back, four years before Bielsa arrived—the year 4.B.B.—there was the six-game reign of Darko Milanič (three draws, three defeats) or Dave Hockaday’s tenure which was also six games, as it goes. Hockaday now manages Kidderminster Harriers of the National League. Anyway, the football was bad, and anyone who looked like they might for a second relieve the aching, unending misery of it all, were promptly sold (Becchio, McCormack, Byram, Cook etc. etc.). Leeds became an experiment in how much drama you could have off the pitch while remaining absolutely, unmovingly, mediocre on it.
Under Bielsa, marching on together stopped being an anthem used to soothe and drown out tears. It became a tactic. Hordes of white shirts began to hound opposition players with the ball, and then, in possession, they would sway apart and surge forward like a festival crowd. But always, always... together.
And now? Well now, Leeds are second. Just. Much of the on-pitch invincibility of those heady early-season days has worn off. Bielsa has been more confrontational in press conferences. The unthinkable is now thinkable. They might not go up.
If they don’t, it’ll be a one-two right to the gut, sure. The promised land will remain just that, promised, like an IOU from Peter Ridsdale. Worse, much worse, Bielsa will almost certainly leave, bound for a beach in Argentina or yet another sleeping European giant to add to his list of former clubs which already features Lazio, Marseille, Athletic Bilbao and, of course, Leeds.
But in nine months, Bielsa has earned so much more than points. He’s achieved so much more than a league position. He has restored pride in the badge. He has built a community. He has made football fun to watch again. He’s made Saturday mornings exciting and horrifying. Too long and too short. Unbearable and irreplaceable. It’s the little things that matter, and Marcelo could give a presentation about them. Bielsa began, Marcelo happened, and now, it almost doesn’t matter how it ends, we’ve loved every second.