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