How Bielsa reunited Leeds supp
Ahead of tonight’s vital game against Derby, rare optimism grips the Championship leaders
When Leeds United take on Derby County at Elland Road tonight, the focus, for once, will not be on the ghosts of Don Revie and Brian Clough, those two sons of Middlesbrough locked in eternal rancour.
Nor will the well-worn footage of Norman Hunter looming out of the Baseball Ground mud and murk to trade haymakers and uppercuts with Francis Lee merit another airing to define the two rivals by their glorious and sometimes ignoble past.
Leeds, still two points clear at the top of the Championship despite back-to-back defeats, are a club who have been liberated from nostalgic infatuations and ceaseless turmoil since relegation from the Premier League in 2004 by material progress towards promotion under Marcelo Bielsa. Derby, in sixth, are a far more mature and cohesive side now than the one Leeds trounced 4-1 at Pride Park in the second match of the season.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” says Eddie Gray, Leeds’ most graceful player, who also served his beloved club in two spells as manager. “It’s a big, big game. There’s a lot of optimism in the city and we have a great opportunity to go up.”
It is another sell-out at Elland Road, where signs of transformation and renewal are evident since Andrea Radrizzani became the majority shareholder in
2017. It has never been a pretty ground, with stop-start development caused by decades of boom and bust. The consequent confusion of styles have robbed it of elegance. Nevertheless its stark asymmetry, one enormous stand dwarfing the other three, is always arresting.
Yet on Tuesday, a crisp but bright winter’s morning, the car parks filled by conference and seminar goers, it felt cared for again. The towering banners swooping down from the top of the stands featuring the squad’s leading lights may be only superficial adornments but they reveal a willingness to acknowledge that this is a place that thousands of people treasure, rather than a once-a-fortnight revenue generator, the cost of whose upkeep peeved previous owners.
A lick of paint symbolises more than just a desire to tart up the place. The consideration shown for Elland Road’s importance in people’s affections is there in the Leeds United Supporters’ Trustfunded mural of Howard Wilkinson with the 1992 titlewinning midfield – Gordon Strachan, Gary Mcallister, David Batty and Gary Speed.
Similarly, the pavement telephone junction boxes that lead back into the city past Revie Road used to be uniformly drab in corporation khaki but are now vibrantly white, yellow and blue.
Slogans that may seem trite to others – Billy Bremner’s “side before self ”, “the only place for us” and “marching on together” from the song Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! – are writ large on everything from seats to facades and shirt collars,
‘The players are all buying into his ideas and everybody’s in harmony’
homilies and commandments that have nourished an identity.
Today, across Elland Road at the Old Peacock pub, where you can buy beer in quart pots that demand a two-hand grip, the bar will be rammed by teatime and a nervous excitement palpable in the hum. Fifteen years since Leeds dropped out of the Premier League, Bielsa’s approach and success so far has made the club and the city seem united again.
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” says Mick Hooson, a fan since 1970. “The style of football is a joy to watch compared with some of the stuff we’ve seen over previous seasons, we’ve got a team that dominates possession and regularly has twice as many shots on goal as the other side.
“The club was absent from the city centre for years but now has two
shops [opened in 2016 and last summer] and you do see more stickers in cars, more people wearing hats or badges on their coats. We’ve been away so long that there are supporters now who weren’t born when we were last in the Premier League.
“My son, who is 19 in a couple of weeks, went to his first game on Boxing Day when he was four but in his generation at school, Leeds supporters were not the majority – it was Chelsea, Manchester United even. When I was at school there were no Man United fans – there was one Liverpool fan who actually came from Liverpool but everyone else supported Leeds.”
It is not just a generation of fans who have been lost to Leeds but a couple of generations of players, too, as another fan of almost 50 years’ standing, Fergus Dick, points out. “We’ve sold James Milner, Lewis Cook, all those kids,” he says. “If we could just get to the point where we don’t have to sell our young players anymore. And Bielsa loves the kids – to see Jack Clarke roaring down the wing fills your heart. We need those kids to stay and the only way to keep them is to go up. So we’ve got to go up.”
While there is anxiety, there is no hysteria beyond the customary blowhards on Twitter, and Bielsa’s character has been instrumental in that. “He’s so humble and a real servant of the game,” says Adam Pope, the BBC Radio Leeds club correspondent and commentator. “There’s no false modesty, no deflection tactics when explaining defeats, he always supports referees and is totally willing to take responsibility when things go wrong.”
Despite Championship defeats by Hull and Nottingham Forest and QPR’S victory in the FA Cup last week, Leeds continue to create chances but have been dogged by a failure to be clinical even during the run of seven wins that preceded them. No one has had more shots per game than Leeds and only Norwich have managed
Marching back: Elland Road (above and right) hosts another sell-out crowd against Derby County tonight; Billy Bremner’s statue (left)