They say that all good things will come to an end. But we never really want them to, do we? Because in some of these cases, the end of the good thing can be incredibly painful. From the outside looking in Bielsa and Leeds parting company might have seemed inevitable. Everything comes to an end at some point, right? And most of the time, with that inevitability in mind and that awareness, we’re able to comprehend such change, prepare for it even and then move on. But despite the results and despite the inevitability of such a narrative in football, this one was a hard one to bear.
I’ve lived in Leeds now for over 25 years and have come to have a deep respect for both Leeds United and the fans. As a Newcastle United fan, it’s been difficult not to recognise the parallels between the two clubs and the two sets of supporters. I know that Bielsa’s sacking is viewed by the majority as unjust and indeed heart-breaking. Looking on from a distance, the outpouring of emotion prompted by the decision so far has been hard to watch. Seeing my wife crying, watching my son’s dumbfounded expression when I told him the news and listening to the frustration and heartbreak of my friends has felt awful, but not as awful as their experience of the whole thing.
When Bielsa was appointed as Leeds manager in June 2018 I was already reasonably aware of his reputation. A fellow Newcastle fan had seemingly been on a one man social media campaign to have him appointed as Newcastle manager for what felt like years and a little research revealed his exploits as Chile and Athletic Bilbao manager. This man was something special. This man felt tailor made for my club. But sadly, in 2015, when Bielsa was struggling with Marseille our board thought it was a better bet to appoint Steve MaClaren and the less said about that, the better.
I knew that there’d be fireworks when Bielsa went to Leeds. But I never imagined quite the effect he’d actually have.
Put simply, Marcelo Bielsa transformed Leeds United. This was a huge club that had been out of the big time for far too long and yet, gaining a place back with the elite still felt a long way off. Looking from the outside in, Leeds United felt a bit lost to be honest. Club captain Liam Cooper, in thanking Bielsa for everything he’d done called them “a team going nowhere” before he was appointed and having not played in the top division for over 14 years when Bielsa arrived, he wasn’t far wrong.
Change was immediately evident and even though the first season ended in glorious failure there was no reason to panic. From where I sat – and I would say exactly the same thing about my own club – it wouldn’t have felt like Leeds United for them to get it right first time. With clubs like ours there’s always a complication. But boy did Bielsa and Leeds get it right second time round!
We were on a family holiday when Leeds clinched promotion, but it’s something I’ll never forget. The scenes around the ground, the players singing on the steps at Elland Road, the outpouring of joy on social media and of course the video of Bielsa and Kalvin Phillips embracing while Bielsa told Phillips he was “the best”. Unforgettable scenes for me as a Newcastle fan, so I can only imagine how it felt for Leeds fans. That night, we sat up until the early hours, TV on, refreshing Twitter every few minutes, drinking in the atmosphere a few miles from our home yet hundreds from where we now sat. The excitement was still utterly tangible.
Bielsa-ball carried on in the Premier League with Leeds daring to take the game to champions Liverpool at Anfield on the first day before beating Fulham and Sheffield United and drawing against Man City. It promised to be an exciting season and it was. And all the while friends of mine who are Leeds fans watched on in disbelief as Leeds held their own and thrilled the nation. Implausibly, Leeds United – dirty Leeds – were becoming people’s second team! And no one was more responsible for this than Marcelo Bielsa. The man who used an interpreter in interviews, ludicrously detailed PowerPoints in press conferences and measured out 13 paces in the technical area for superstitious reasons, when he wasn’t sitting on a bucket to help with his back. Is it any wonder that a city fell in love?
Bielsa, as Liam Cooper said, “united a club, a city and a team”. And it’s clear that’s what has broken so many hearts. Here was a man who had time for everyone, a man obsessed by the game that we fans love and a man of the people. It wasn’t just that Leeds fell for him, but that he fell for Leeds. Amidst all the badge kissing and loyalty soundbites of the Premier League, Marcelo Bielsa fell in love with Leeds United and the fans returned that love with interest.
Last season, I found myself getting ever more jealous of Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa. Our manager at the time – and thankfully not any more – was Steve Bruce, a man who had declared himself one of us at the merest whiff of getting the job. And yet, he struck us all as someone with no feeling whatsoever for our club. He brought an awful style of football, taking us back to the dark ages with his tactical ignorance. He criticised the fans and the players; anyone besides himself as he refused to accept any responsibility for our failings as a team. And with this and Mike Ashley’s ownership, people’s love of their club began to die.
Meanwhile, just down the road from where I live, thousands were chanting Bielsa’s name, his image was appearing on the gable end of houses, the football was electrifying, kids were wearing the white shirt with pride again and a city had got its club back. And while it hurt to watch from one perspective, from another, that of just being a football fan, it was a thing of beauty. Friends and family were waxing lyrical about this Argentinian god among men, people had a smile on their face, they looked forward to the games and felt like they could beat anyone. Having watched Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, I knew how that felt and while I was pleased for those that I knew, I couldn’t help but feel a bitter pang of jealousy.
Marcelo Bielsa will remain a legend and a hero in Leeds for a long, long time. Probably forever. A great manager, but probably a greater man. He brought back a special feeling to a special city. Because this wasn’t just about the football club, it was about thousands and thousands of people. Many will have had their lives touched personally by Mr. Bielsa – we’ve all heard the stories, seen the photos, watched the videos on social media – but many will have just watched Leeds United winning games again, be it at the match or on the television, as a Leeds fan or like myself a football fan and absolutely loved it. Because football, when it’s played with the swagger of a Bielsa team, can change lives. And now, with his sacking the special feeling has gone and the fans and players are heartbroken.
Having watched Newcastle United as Keegan left, three times as a player and manager, I think I get it. Having seen Sir Bobby Robson assemble an awesome young team and then get sacked with us still placed highly in the league, I understand. And having all but given up any hope I had left in my team when Rafa Benitez walked, I think I know what Leeds fans are going through. But I’d say this; don’t give up. Even when it all feels pointless, carry on.
As the saying goes. ‘don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’ Gracias Marcelo, it was nice to have known you from a distance.