March­ing on to­gether: team spirit shines at Leeds as wait goes on

The man­ager, squad and coach­ing staff have ac­cepted wage de­fer­rals to help oth­ers as foot­ball takes a back seat

The Guardian - - Sport Football - Louise Tay­lor

The plinth sup­port­ing the land­mark statue of Billy Brem­ner out­side El­land Road bears a sim­ple, yet evoca­tive, mes­sage. “Side be­fore self, ev­ery time,” it de­clares, re­mind­ing ev­ery­one of the for­mer Leeds United captain’s per­sonal mantra.

In a very dif­fer­ent way and a very dif­fer­ent con­text, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds are now show­ing they are ev­ery bit as big on team­work as the tro­phy-hoard­ing, no-quar­ter-given Don Re­vie side Brem­ner led with such a mem­o­rable mix­ture of fi­nesse and fe­roc­ity.

The Cham­pi­onship lead­ers’ re­ac­tion to be­ing stuck in a coro­n­avirus emer­gency-in­duced hold­ing pat­tern with the Premier League clearly vis­i­ble on the hori­zon has been im­pres­sively ma­ture and mea­sured. Yes­ter­day Bielsa, his play­ers, se­nior coach­ing staff and club executives ac­cepted a wage de­fer­ral in or­der to pro­tect the jobs and in­comes of 272 less well re­mu­ner­ated mem­bers of the club’s back­room staff and its army of ca­sual work­ers. Other teams are now ex­pected to fol­low suit.

Brem­ner was de­scribed as “10 stone of barbed wire” on the pitch but he would surely have ap­proved of the cur­rent Leeds captain Liam Cooper’s role in ne­go­ti­at­ing an ar­range­ment de­signed to pre­vent the loss of homes and liveli­hoods. In the ab­sence of the cus­tom­ary 35,000 match­day crowds at El­land Road Leeds are, ac­cord­ing to their chief ex­ec­u­tive, Angus Kin­n­ear, los­ing “mil­lions of pounds” per month.

With a £40m an­nual wage bill be­com­ing un­sus­tain­able, first­team­ers have agreed to their wages be­ing tem­po­rar­ily capped – a re­duc­tion to a sum in the re­gion of £6,000 a week was dis­cussed in re­cent days – leav­ing the bal­ance to come when nor­mal­ity is fi­nally re­stored. While the av­er­age Cham­pi­onship salary is around £12,000 per week, Bielsa’s top earn­ers, Pa­trick Bam­ford and Kiko Casilla, com­mand around £30,000.

Never in Leeds’s 16-year top-flight ex­ile has it been more im­per­a­tive to se­cure a Premier League re­turn, with its at­ten­dant, £100m broad­cast

Bielsa’s squad have do­nated suf­fi­cient money to pre­vent the Leeds fans’ food bank from fold­ing

rev­enue-funded cash in­fu­sion. How­ever, given the lives be­ing lost and the eco­nomic crash, the club is not about to feel sorry for it­self.

Top of the sec­ond tier and seven points clear of the play-off places with nine games to go, the play­ers could be for­given for feel­ing like weary trav­ellers left cir­cling their desti­na­tion in thick cloud. An aw­ful lot of hard work – men­tal as well as phys­i­cal – has gone into reach­ing this po­si­tion but the big­ger pic­ture has been grasped.

Al­ready Bielsa’s squad have do­nated suf­fi­cient money to pre­vent the largely match­day-funded Leeds fans’ food bank from fold­ing, while play­ers, most no­tably Cooper and Stuart Dal­las, have gone into role­model mode, us­ing so­cial me­dia to pro­mote so­cial dis­tanc­ing. Hol­beck To­gether, a lo­cal char­ity help­ing the el­derly, has re­ceived the club’s en­tire food stocks.

Cooper and com­pany can only hope the El­land Road larders will be re­filled and the sea­son even­tu­ally con­cluded with the team still in the top two. No one wants the cur­rent cam­paign to be voided, with pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion ei­ther sus­pended for a year or Leeds and sec­ond-placed West Brom be­com­ing part of a tem­po­rar­ily ex­tended 22-club top tier. Not play­ing is bad but the un­cer­tainty about what hap­pens next is worse.

Or at least so it ini­tially seemed. Daniel Chap­man, co-edi­tor of the Square Ball fanzine, en­cap­su­lates a now al­most unimag­in­ably al­tered mood among the fans.

“Two weeks ago the idea of call­ing off the sea­son had ev­ery­one say­ing ‘Typ­i­cal Leeds’,” wrote Chap­man in the York­shire Evening Post. “That’s gone. Any de­fi­ance the mir­ror now shows is mostly wide-eyed fear as I think less of­ten of pro­mo­tion. The death tolls from Italy are of a scale that can be mapped on to blocks of seat­ing at El­land Road. The no­tion of the virus be­ing ‘typ­i­cally Leeds’ seems ab­surd now that we can ap­pre­ci­ate its global im­pact on our in­creas­ingly lo­cal lives.”

If and when the Cham­pi­onship cam­paign re­sumes Leeds must re­gain the mo­men­tum that was serv­ing them so well. Given the like­li­hood of play­ing be­hind closed doors, they will surely have to do this with­out their adren­a­line-sup­ply­ing sup­port­ers and their in­ces­sant “March­ing on To­gether” sound­track. What ef­fect might that have? And how might a lay­off in­volv­ing play­ers train­ing alone at home in­flu­ence a team whose high-in­ten­sity style de­mands un­usu­ally hard, highly in­tri­cate daily train­ing-ground drilling.

Bielsa’s squad went into lock­down with per­son­alised ex­er­cise plans, sleep mon­i­tor­ing de­vices and diet sheets com­ple­ment­ing de­liv­er­ies of ex­er­cise bikes and other gym equip­ment to play­ers’ homes. Daily weigh-ins and body fat mon­i­tor­ing are now un­der­taken elec­tron­i­cally, with the re­sults taken on trust.

All head coaches are con­trol freaks to vary­ing ex­tents but for a mi­cro-man­ager as ob­ses­sive as the Ar­gen­tinian to sud­denly be forced into tak­ing such a hands-off ap­proach at a time like this must be par­tic­u­larly dis­ori­en­tat­ing.

As his squad cy­cle and run along York­shire’s country roads – es­pe­cially those sur­round­ing the foot­ballers’ mecca of Lin­ton, near Wetherby – what on earth does Bielsa do? How does he fill the time nor­mally oc­cu­pied by his fa­mous daily dust in­spec­tion at the club’s Thorp Arch train­ing ground.

De­spite his fam­ily re­main­ing in Ar­gentina, he has opted to stay on at his mod­est flat in Wetherby. Bielsa now has lit­tle op­tion but to in­dulge his pas­sions for reading, tak­ing long walks through the ad­ja­cent fields he has come to love and, above all, play­ing an ac­tive role in What­sApp groups cre­ated by the play­ers, coaches and med­i­cal staff. “This club’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion has been sec­ond to none,” says Cooper. “There’s been a lot from Marcelo on What­sApp telling us to stay safe.”

Leeds fans can­not wait to once more see Bielsa drink­ing cof­fee in Wetherby, pos­ing for self­ies in Mor­risons and lis­ten­ing to mu­sic on his head­phones as he makes the hour-long walk to Thorp Arch. For the mo­ment though, they can rest as­sured he and his squad really are all about “side be­fore self”.

GREIG COWIE/BPI/REX/SHUTTERSTO­CK

▼ ‘Side be­fore self’: Billy Brem­ner’s statue at El­land Road

GE­ORGE WOOD/GETTY IM­AGES

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