Hard-Bitten, but Totally Smitten: Leeds Fans Celebrate Marcelo Bielsa Day – by Rob Atkinson


God

Three years ago today, Leeds United made a managerial appointment that must rank as one of the top three strokes of genius in their entire century-and-a-bit history. In context, the recruitment of Marcelo Bielsa is right up there with those of Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson. All three men came to a club in dire straits, and all three performed miraculously to transform the fortunes of an archetypal sleeping giant. As to who can be judged First Among Equals, history will judge the best. From my contemporary standpoint, what I will say is that the answer to that conundrum is by no means as clear-cut as many might suppose.

It might seem like sacrilege to even contemplate placing Bielsa in a position of pre-eminence over the Don, or even Sgt. Wilko. Both of those former club servants brought the ultimate domestic accolade to Elland Road, an achievement that is unlikely to be matched in today’s vastly different game where a super-powerful, massively entitled group of fat cat plutocrats rule; moreover, as we have recently seen, they are determined to maintain their dominance, by hook or by crook, and devil take the hindmost. In that context, the achievements of Marcelo Bielsa in his three year tenure (the longest period he has ever stayed in a club job) bear comparison with anything the other two of that legendary triumvirate managed.

That’s as may be, and I’m not setting out to ruffle the feathers of those veteran fans who remember Revie’s Super Leeds, or even (as I do) Sgt. Wilko’s Barmy Army. But these are different days, and in the current climate, with the game’s tangible rewards being hogged by that gluttonous cartel, it’s status that now assumes more importance for The Rest. Leeds United had been away from the Top Table for 16 years, far too long for a club of our pedigree. Both Revie and Wilkinson took control after much shorter periods of exile – Bielsa, by comparison, was looking to restore to the spotlight a club that the top level of our game had almost forgotten. And he’s done this with an endearing mixture of style, humility, stubbornness, quixotic idealism and – let’s not mince words here – sheer, unadulterated genius.

In effect, Bielsa has accomplished the fashioning of a silk purse from the tattiest of sow’s ears. In the last game of the season just completed, as Leeds secured a ninth place finish in their comeback season, most of their matchday combatants were also on duty in Marcelo’s first game, back in 2018 as pre-season Championship favourites Stoke City rolled up to Elland Road, took a fearful battering, and headed back to the Potteries sadder and wiser for the experience. Looking further back, the bulk of the squad that finished dismally mid-table in the second tier the season before were still around as Leeds rattled off four victories in the last four games of last season. This is heady stuff, again, given the context, and you can well understand the esteem in which Bielsa is now held by the Leeds faithful. Let’s face it, we’re talking here about an esteem which goes far beyond respect, which transcends even adulation. Some say Bielsa is revered, as you might revere a god. Some simply refer to him as God. This is not mere respect or adulation, this is The Real Thing. Let’s not bandy words. This is Love.

When I was younger, I was probably guilty of falling in love too lightly and too often. I was a sucker for a pretty face or a maverick football club – though I was too young, and too untutored in the ways of Leeds, to fall for Don Revie. I do worship him as a historical icon for the club I’ve adored for almost half a century, and I’m immensely proud of our dominance under Don in that golden era. By the late eighties, though, I was desperate for something to love about a diminished Leeds, particularly in the aftermath of King Billy’s reign and the traumatic way it ended. When Wilkinson moved in, it quickly became clear that here was a man who would give us back our pride, restore our status after eight years in the doldrums and enable us all to look the game in the eye again. And yet, I never quite fell for Wilko, despite the fact that he exceeded our wildest dreams in that glory year of 1992. You don’t make choices about who you love and who you’re fond of on a less ardent basis. I was grateful beyond words for what Howard did for Leeds, but with the best will in the world, it never translated to love, and I assumed then that people come and go, but my heart belonged to the club. Thinking about it, that’s not a bad philosophy; most likely it’s one that could see me through a dread time to come, when our latest Messiah decides his work is done and it’s time to call it a day.

Here and now, though, I know that my previous sang-froid will be of no use to me when the current incumbent of the Elland Road hot seat finally goes to pastures new, or maybe just home. I’m going to find it so hard to bear, because I literally love Marcelo Bielsa, and I know I’m not alone in this. It may even be that, when Marcelo does go, it’ll be time for me to take a step back, find other stuff to write about, view the game more dispassionately, concentrate on home and hearth, wait for grandchildren to come along. I can’t put it any more plainly than that. For me, Marcelo Bielsa is God – and once there’s no more God, then there’ll be precious little point in continuing to worship.

I don’t know, maybe I’m being a tad over dramatic, as we ageing thespians tend to be. Maybe, when the blow falls, I’ll be able to rationalise it – don’t be sorry He’s gone, just be glad He was here. It’ll be an exercise in managing how I feel, that’s for sure. I just hope it’s a situation that I’m still a couple of years away from having to deal with. For the time being, let’s just accept that we have been blessed indeed these past three years and, on this Bielsa Day anniversary, simply be glad of that. And, who knows? The best may well be yet to come.

Marching On Together

25 responses to “Hard-Bitten, but Totally Smitten: Leeds Fans Celebrate Marcelo Bielsa Day – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Rob, “the play’s the thing…” ❤️

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  2. Reality Cheque

    I was blessed to be able to watch Revie’s men take most opponents apart at Elland Road for many years Rob. I remember going to games genuinely expecting Leeds to win every game. I wonder how much more those legends would have achieved if they had been allowed to perform on the “carpets” of pitches today’s players take for granted
    Bielsa has not only transformed the players and brought a style of play that is both successful & also highly entertaining & exciting for the fans, but he also refuses to entertain any negativity during his press conferences or any criticism of match officials regardless of how poorly they may have officiated Leeds games in the eyes of our fans or media pundits
    The last time I checked Marcelo Bielsa was only very marginally behind Don Revie’s win percentage albeit over a much shorter time frame but well ahead of Howard Wilkinson so please God, allow yourself to remain at Leeds United for at least another 4 or 5 years to heal our wounds & continue to work your miracles. MOT

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  3. Wow, brilliant article Rob. I got my first taste of the Don in 1965 whilst home on leave and I was smitten. Lifelong love of this club which just gets in your blood and takes over. Nobody can replace him, he was unique, a different time but his time. Same with Wilko, brilliant. Marcelo Bielsa has all the qualities of the great managers we have been lucky and privileged to have known however, he is so, so much different. Humble beyond belief, wise with an uncanny almost magical understanding of what makes a player tick. No other manager on the planet passed or present would have done what he did in the Villa game. No other manager would have called a press conference in Spygate and confessed to the world press that he had spied on every club we have played absolute brilliance. I love the guy, I want him to take us to the Champions League, and win it. Anyone who can take the most hated team in Britain, and turn them into not only a formidable exciting brilliant team, but de radicalise the haters to actually love watching us ONLY GOD COULD DO THAT.

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  4. Dave Instrell

    Great article Rob.

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  5. Mike Rileu

    Lovely article Rob. How we pulled this off I don’t know but I love him too – we all do. I think there are huge things to come too – perhaps next season. Sheffield United we aint!

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  6. Steve Clark

    Leeds have a huge amount to thank both Howard Wilkinson and Marcelo Bielsa for. However, Don Revie still stands as being easily the best manager in the club’s history. When the other two managers took over Leeds had fallen on hard times and had suffered from years of mismanagement and decay. Despite this they took over a club that had a sizeable bedrock of support and potential waiting to be awakened. This was not the case when Don Revie took over in 1961. Don took over a club with a mediocre history, no solid bedrock of support and a ground that, apart from the West Stand, was still very basic.
    The success achieved under Don’s management helped to finance extensive ground improvements and helped to build the support which the other two managers have been able to draw on.
    Wilkinson and Bielsa have both done outstanding work for Leeds but Don Revie made Leeds United into a credible club and for this reason he is not only the best manger this club has had but one whose record stands comparison with any other top manager in the game’s history.

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  7. Wow! I went to my first match in 1963, aged 9. I immediately loved Norman Hunter. I have had 3 heroes in my life, Norman, Brian Close and my dad, all now sadly passed. So at the age of 67, to have a new hero would appear strange, but Marcelo Bielsa is just that.
    I have had season tickets with my 2 daughters for years and I have more or less had exactly the same thoughts you have in your article and had discussions with them along those lines when they ask ‘what were your favourite times?’
    It’s such a difficult question to answer, but, because my girls are witnessing it and because I felt that they would never witness us playing like this or achieving anything else in my lifetime, I’m unashamedly going with now and my latter life hero.
    Love the article. I’ll forward it to my daughters so they can understand what my dilemma was. You have crystallised it perfectly for me.
    Thanks & MOT

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    • Many thanks – after writing something like this, you tend to worry you’ve revealed too much, so a reaction like this is very reassuring. I’m sure your daughters will be delighted to know that they’re living with some of your greatest times with you – MOT

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  8. Thomas Salmon

    I really enjoy reading your articles Rob. They are from the heart and express many things that we feel as Leeds supporters. I am a practising Christian man, so I take your references to God with a smile. However, there is one point I would like to make about your references to God.

    As Christians we believe that when we die we loose our body but our soul flies to heaven.

    When it comes for Bielsa to leave, as surely as when we die, we can be well satisfied that part of his soul will rest with us at Elland Road and be eternally grateful.

    Tom

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    • As a confirmed agnostic, it’s long been my habit to use any deity as a metaphor rather than a literal god. I’ll happily subscribe though to your view that Marcelo Bielsa will leave some of his essence behind him at Elland Road when the parting of the ways actually comes. It’s a comforting thought – MOT

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  9. Yep, yer a drama queen Rob😁! Doesn’t stop me enjoying your articles though mate…✊

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  10. Life is LUFC

    First job this morning was to look at the fixtures for 20201/22 and I gulped. Next job look at the news, read your blog and cried. Wednesday bloody Wednesday. I’m off to read my book and the housework can wait.
    Seriously though, I could never decide which of the the three could be placed 1st, 2nd and 3rd. They are all men of their own time, doing what was required and getting the job done in their own way and with what was available to them to do it. All of us shed our tears on the departure of two of them and there will be plenty more tears to come when the third decides to depart.
    Mind you when MB sees this coming seasons fixtures he’ll stay just to prove Leeds United can do it and not burn out. 😍 MOT

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, bless you. It’s been an emotional three years, but to be quite honest – after saying farewell to Lion Berardi and el Mago Hernandez, I need a couple of years before any more goodbyes. Onwards and upwards, MOT 💙💛💙

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  11. howard mackey

    We are blessed to have him Rob, long may it continue, excellent article.
    Regards H. M.O.T

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  12. Dare I say that Marcelo has eclipsed the Sergeant and The Don by turning second division players who were prepared to work hard into world beaters?
    The club will benefit for years from his presence.
    I hope the football world can measure his achievements beyond just medals

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  13. Hi Rob
    A great article. I am old enough to have seen The Don’s teams and the side built by Sgt Wilko.

    Will Bielsa take Leeds to the pinnacle of English football? It’s possible, but in these days, of huge money and pampered players, probably much more difficult.

    His ability to take a very average championship side to where we are now is extraordinary. His ability to take players like Kalvin, Dallas and Cooper to excel in the Premier league marks him out as a great manager.

    Above all this though is the integrity of the man, a shining light in modern day football and I’m sure he makes his charges not just better at their jobs, but better people too. He doesn’t suffer big egos and I feel that he will ensure any new players that join club will also need to be decent people and add to the collective team spirit.

    He is clearly a man who is not motivated by money, but by making people the best they can be.

    Is he the best manager we’ve had? Quite possibly, let’s hope he stays for a few more years to prove it and when he does go his legacy remains and is not squandered as has happened before.

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    • Thanks Ian. Comparisons are generally invidious, all the more so across such a time span with so many changes in our sport. But it’s still fascinating to ponder. My latest food for thought is: how would Bielsa have fared with Revie’s squad of the sixties and early seventies. Leeds were so often runners up, and arguably underachieved over a decade or more – would the Bielsa method have brought more success, or would cultural issues have had him snookered? MOT

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  14. king sniffer

    Wonderful stuff Rob. I cannot contemplate the day He will leave. All we can do is enjoy it, and what’s more appreciate it whilst we can. I somehow don’t believe that you will distance yourself at that point; the eternal hope and optimism will kick in as it has so many times in the past, but let’s hope that is a long time away just yet. MOT

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    • Thanks for the kind words. It’s a terrifying prospect, right enough. Fingers crossed it’s a few years away, and Project Bielsa still has a long time to run MOT

      Like

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