At the start of the Premier League campaign so recently completed, one of the big issues for discussion and debate was: how will Leeds United, 16 years exiled from the elite, fare on their long-delayed return? The battle lines were drawn, with Leeds haters, wishful thinkers, embittered ex-pros and various other pond life on one side – and Those Who Matter on the other.
The views were starkly polarised. For the various factions who, for one reason or another, wished Yorkshire’s only giant club nothing but misery, there was a fairly unanimous feeling that United’s tenure in the top flight would last for three seasons: autumn, winter and spring. The predicted final tables from back then make for amusing reading now, with Leeds appearing in many forecast bottom threes and with the likes of the previous season’s miracle club Sheffield Utd going from strength to strength.
My own forays into social media at this time were seen as baselessly optimistic, bordering on drug-fuelled delusion. One Arsenal fan of tender years, and even tenderer grey matter, could not believe that I refused to accept United’s inevitable fate with meek submissiveness. The poor lad got quite hot under the collar at my refusal to acquiesce, and eventually blocked me in a fit of outraged pique, promising to re-establish contact around Easter, when our fate was sealed. Still waiting on that one.
Then there was the Brighton fan who was so sure that we’d zero chance of survival without Ben White, condescendingly explaining as if to a child that sadly no deal was possible as we’d be direct rivals in the struggle against the drop. Haven’t heard from him lately, either.
On the other side of the coin, the optimism and positivity that characterised the online output of many prolific Leeds writers must have seemed mere bravado to the uninitiated. But we’d just witnessed two miraculous seasons in the Championship during which we’d proved we were the best outside the game’s elite. In the first season, we suffered a late attack of stage fright, and failed to get over the line – but in the second, we walked the league by ten points, to a background of wailing, gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair from the anti-Leeds fraternity who were witnessing their worst nightmare come true. They’d forecast another late season blow up and the departure of Marcelo Bielsa back to the Argentine, tail between legs. But we knew better – we knew that Bielsa is God incarnate, brought to God’s own county to return the chosen people to the Promised Land. So mote it be.
And thus it has come to pass, with yet more amusement in store for us as the haters refused to let the evidence of their own eyes divert them from their predictions of misery falling upon Elland Road. Karen Carney brought the undeserved ridicule of unreconstructed misogynists down upon the heads of female football pundits, with her silly theory that Leeds’s promotion was down to the COVID break. But this was never about gender – male pundits game out with theories just as daft if not dafter, proclaiming that Bielsa was a myth (Gabby “Gobby” Agbonlahor) and other exercises in mental frailty and lack of perspicacity from the likes of Andy Hinchliffe, Kris Boyd et al.
Overall, opinion has remained polarised. There was early encouragement for the nay-sayers when results were poor during a spell where Leeds were deprived by injury of the international defenders they’d signed in lieu of poor Ben White. That chorus of “we told you so” turned sulkily quiet with the emergence of Pascal Strujik and the recovery of Diego Llorente. Since those two were deployed in harness, United’s defensive performance has improved markedly, with Sky’s beloved graphic highlighting Leeds’s weakness from set pieces becoming more redundant with every passing week.
In the last ten games of the season (over a quarter of the campaign, let’s not forget), Leeds were second only to a resurgent not to say desperate Liverpool in the form table, and came within a short head of challenging for some form of European qualification – a “failure” which may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise. But that late season charge, unaided by any COVID break (sorry, Karen) has surely dispelled another myth beloved of Leeds-haters, the oft-mooted “Bielsa Burnout”. Sorry, lads (and lasses), but – like so many of your pet theories – the burnout was just so much pie in the sky, meaning you’ve had to gorge on the humble variety instead.
So, what of the future? Inevitably, there will be departures, and we’ve already bid a tearful farewell to two of our favourite sons in the Lion and the Magician. Thank you, thank you to Gaetano and Pablo, your legend status is secure and you’ll never be forgotten. Success elsewhere, lads, but you’ll always be welcome home anytime. There will inevitably be additions over the summer, and we’ve learned to trust the judgement and acumen of Victor Orta. He won’t let us down – and of course Marcelo Bielsa, or “God” as he’s fondly known hereabouts, will continue the biggest and best project of his incredible life.
I foresee more progress, a clear path ahead to establishment as a giant amongst the elites as Marcelo continues to build his legacy, and not least of all, more bitter disappointment for those whose happiness is entirely dependent on Leeds failing and falling. Let it be.
Marching On Together