Marcelo Bielsa – An Outsider’s View

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.

‘Spygate’ – an enormous fuss about absolutely nothing and an utter waste of time.

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Binoculars? Check. Pliers? Check. Huge fuss and a two hundred grand fine? You what!

It’s been well over a month now since we heard the first squeals about Spygate in the media. And bizarrely, it’s taken almost all of that time to actually sort anything out. But after what was beginning to seem like an endless investigation by the English Football League, it all came to a stuttering end with an absolute whimper.

If you haven’t heard, in the lead up to their game against Derby County it came out that Marcelo Bielsa had sent a member of his Leeds United staff to ‘spy’ on a Derby training session. And oh, the footballing world went mad.

‘…I’m on an even keel where Leeds are concerned.’

Now, I’m no Leeds fan. I’ve lived in Leeds now for over twenty years and my wife and son are both fans, but I can’t and won’t betray my Geordie roots. I’m black and white; always will be. However, living here for such a long time has given me a different perspective on the club that it would seem everyone loves to hate. I can draw parallels between Leeds and Newcastle, between their fans and ours and that allows me to feel a certain amount of respect for them as a club. As such, compared to a lot of people I’m on an even keel where Leeds are concerned.

However, it seems that for many, Leeds will always be renowned as ‘Dirty Leeds’, forever defined by the antics of Revie, Bremner, Wilkinson, Strachan and Jones. And so, what happened in the wake of so-called ‘Spygate’ was really not that big a surprise.

Firstly, the introduction to the live coverage of the actual game in question – Leeds v Derby – was utterly dominated with talk of men cutting holes in fences. Ironic really that where pundits should have been using the homework they’d done to talk about tactics, formations and key players, they instead talked about Bielsa and his homework on tactics, formations and key players.

‘…Bielsa calmly admitted that he was solely responsible…’

Frank Lampard, the Derby manager, was interviewed and declared, ‘I don’t think that, at any level of sport, it’s right to send a man to break into private property.’ He also said that he was ‘very surprised’ by it. At one point I thought he might be about to have a little cry. Furthermore, in the same broadcast the Sky pundit and former player, Keith Andrews branded the whole thing not only ‘disgusting’ but ‘immoral’. A reminder – we’re talking about a bloke looking through a fence and not someone drilling a peephole through the wall into the showers. Meanwhile Bielsa calmly admitted that he was soleley responsible, but that he’d broken no rules. He would famously detail all of his other EFL spying via a Powerpoint presentation in a specially called press conference. Elsewhere, the likes of Martin Keown were ridiculously outraged and called for a points deduction for Leeds while Paul Merson – never one to shy away from hyperbole – disagreed, saying that such a punishment ‘would be a joke’.

Twitter and the internet in general exploded with talk of what should and shouldn’t be done. Vitriol spewed forth and it became difficult to see the woods for the trees. Maybe the spy himself could’ve swapped his wire cutters for a strimmer and an axe to help us all out?

‘…Leeds would be given a slap on the wrist…’

And then a few days ago it was all dealt with, without any of the fanfare and drama that the ongoing investigation had seemed to be preparing us for. The EFL issued a statement that amounted to the fact that Leeds would be given a slap on the wrist in the form of a £200,000 fine and that a rule change would be made, with clubs no longer able to spy on each other within 72 hours of a game. So, in the end, even the punishment admitted that this probably wasn’t an isolated case.

So what’s to be made of it all then? Well, for me personally Bielsa and Leeds have done nothing wrong. And the league’s rule change pretty much makes it clear that spying goes on and that, in fact, it’s an accepted part of the game. Remember, no laws were broken. And in fact, a closer look at it all tells us that the biggest crimes committed here were with some of the reactions and lies. When someone like Martin Keown is the voice of moral outrage you might be able to sense that the argument is not that strong.

Look at what Lampard himself claimed. According to Frank, the first they knew about any of it was when the police were on the training pitch, and thus much to Frank’s annoyance, his very important session was being interrupted. And yet the police themselves claim otherwise. Not only did they state that they did not interrupt a session, but also that although a man was questioned, he was outside the training ground and no mention was made of any pliers being readied to cut through a fence. A spy? He hardly sounds like James Bond. Lampard’s claims of a man crawling through the undergrowth just brought about images of David Bellamy, rather than football’s version of the Milk Tray man – and yes, I realise that both of those references really show my age!

How can anyone justify a points deduction here? At most it’s a little bit un-sportsmanlike, but then this is football, where sometimes finding sportsmanlike behaviour can prove to be nothing but a long and fruitless search. A bit like investigating someone spying on a Derby training session then. I love football, but we’re talking about a sport where cheating and un-sportsmanlike behaviour is rife and where often, if we’re honest it’s ignored at best and at worst, applauded.

‘Diving has become an art form.’

Bleating about what essentially amounts to scouting reeks of hypocrisy when we take even a brief look at the behaviour of those involved in the game. Every game that you watch will feature a player claiming for a throw-in, a free-kick or corner that blatantly wasn’t theirs. Occasionally players shout at ball-boys who they feel are taking their time getting a ball back. And who’s to say if the home club haven’t ordered their ball-boys to do exactly that? Diving has become an art form. Blocking and grabbing at corners is the same. Referees have been abused for years. Pitches watered in certain areas in order to benefit a team and recently there was the fact that Liverpool cleared snow from only a selected part of the pitch during a game against Leicester. Every corner taker tries to place the ball outside of the D, every free kick taker moves the ball and every player taking a throw-in will meander down the pitch in order to gain an advantage. Some bloke watching a training session and making notes is not really that big a deal. Especially when you take into account that people are sent to scout the opposition every week, albeit during matches and not training sessions where shape and set pieces etc are being worked on.

From a neutral point of view I have to say I look at Spygate and wonder if all this fuss is simply a Leeds thing. I mean, they’re hardly a favourite among anyone connected with football. Revie’s Leeds were hated, Wilkinson’s Leeds were hated, even O’Learys’ Leeds were hated, although for me that was more down to O’Leary than any style of play or players involved. Even spending money seemed to be hated when it was Leeds doing it. I mean, you’ll hear a great deal more disgruntled noises about Peter Ridsdale’s fish than you will about the spending of teams from Blackburn in the 90s to Manchester City today.

Would every team in the league provoke such reactions when they didn’t actually break any rules? Of course not. It’s hard to imagine Guardiola or Pochettino – both devotees of Bielsa and his ways –  seeing their clubs vilified for similar actions. In fact, it’s hard to imagine many teams in the top two tiers of English football provoking this sort of response. Perhaps my own club, Newcastle, could rival the level of outrage. I mean, if we dare to criticise the way our club is run pundits are fighting to get to the head of the queue to put us in our place or trot out the lines about our unacceptable expectations. I have a feeling that the likes of Richard Keys and Dennis Wise would need coronary care if Rafa had sent someone to watch a training session. And talk of pliers could well have them foaming at the mouth. (I must therefore start that rumour). Looking further afield, I’m sure that the likes of Millwall would also face a fine for essentially doing nothing wrong, but I’m afraid my list pretty much ends there.

‘It all makes a two hundred grand fine for watching a training session seem just a little bit over the top.’

Even the fine seems ludicrous to me. When Serbian players and officials racially abused England Under 21 players in 2012 they were fined £65,000. Argentina were fined less than £60,000 for instances of homophobic chanting in 2018, having been punished for the same thing on eight separate occasions in the two previous years. And in 2015, Croatia were fined less than 7000 Euros for having a 14 metre swastika on their pitch during a Euro qualifier. It all makes a two hundred grand fine for watching a training session seem just a little bit over the top. Almost like the FA took one look at who was involved – Leeds – and who had been upset – the Golden Generation’s Sir Francis of Lampard – and thought, well we have to be seen to be doing something. After all, Lampard scored that goal against Germany that went over the line but wasn’t given. There’s a contribution that needs rewarding.

That said, the reaction of other Championship clubs didn’t help either. Eleven clubs complained about the so-called scandal, with the likes of Bristol City calling for a points deduction. How many would have asked for similar if it had been Bristol City themselves being accused?

All in all, in my opinion, there’s been far too much made of very little here. Several people inside the game have made similar claims about their own clubs; players texting line-ups to each other, training sessions being watched for years and yet, all of a sudden with a foreign manager and a less than popular club it’s all over back and front pages and we need to bring back the death penalty. Well this particular well-placed neutral thinks that people need to calm down. We live in a world where the pursuit of marginal gains is somewhat worshipped. Look at the lengths in the world of cycling that Team Sky go to gain an advantage. In my world – education – we’re encouraged to do more and more to help kids gain a few more marks. And in football, they’ve been doing research on the opposition for years. ‘Spygate’? Get a grip.

 

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