How Bielsa re­united Leeds supp

Ahead of tonight’s vi­tal game against Derby, rare op­ti­mism grips the Cham­pi­onship lead­ers

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Football - Rob Bagchi

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)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.