I nearly wrote a blog about the former manager of Leeds United when we were promoted out of the Championship. Timing is everything; sadly this blog is an obituary.
Like most British football supporters I had never heard of Bielsa when my mid table Championship club wheeled in the latest managerial solution to attempt to lever the club back into the Premier League (after sixteen years in the lower reaches.) Good luck I thought as he looked at the meagre talent in his squad and the absence of significant money to address the problem. Leeds United had turned into a saloon door scenario for managers passing quickly through. The new post Cellino Board had appointed some real clunkers prior to this and nothing bode well.
What happened over the next three seasons is of legends, well at least in West Yorkshire. Bielsa transformed the team into a free flowing, ever running attacking force and got the team promoted at the second attempt. Journeymen players were transformed and the football we played was often sensational and much admired. The desperate and loyal fans were energised, inspired and beyond grateful. What at an exciting time ahead. It was dream time.
Bielsa was, in reality, the anti hero. The very definition of understated. Despite the large salaries coaches earn that could support a very plush lifestyle. Portly and forever dressed in a sweat shirt and tracksuit bottoms he exuded humility, compassion and kindness. He eschewed ever publicly speaking English and seldom looked at the camera in an interview. His post match comments were often weary and evasive gibberish: talk of ‘efficiency’, ‘execution’ and ‘moments’ that never gave you any meaningful information or emotion. So from here we dissected small vignettes of his kindness or personal relief. For example, the enormous hug he gave one of his coaches when the third goal went in against Burnley and secured the three points was such a moment, here was a man under enormous pressure. Kindness involved his interaction with the fans or paying a fine he received for the misdemeanour of sending someone to watch a Derby County training session. Kindness was paying for a gym for staff to use and the endless selfies he posed for. Many of these images were taken around Wetherby where he lived. Morrisons will miss him! He was a very regular sight and even I saw him one Sunday morning.
The inevitable difficult second season in the Premiership came along and Leeds have stuttered. Yes, injuries, a feature of a Bielsa regime, have bedevilled the team along with many complaining the squad was too few in number. I personally don’t subscribe to all of this. The team appeared to fail to turn up for several fixtures and the tactics employed the season before no longer surprised the opposition. Maybe the team was too tired to swamp the opposition. I had no confidence that our catastrophic run of conceding 17 goals in the previous four games was about to dry up. What could the Board do? They did the inevitable, initiated a departure and found a new coach.
The grief and resentment to the Board was palpable amongst many of the fans. Many would have preferred to stick with him and gone down with him. Such folly was the case with Nottingham Forest who stuck by Brian Clough in 1993, all the way until they were relegated into the Championship. Leicester City had no emotional attachment to Ranieri who perished in 2017, the season after miraculously lifting the Premiership title. Football clubs are £ multi million businesses with shareholders, debts and employees. Players have release clauses that may mean relegation sees them sold at fire sale prices etc. It’s logical and correct that changes should be made when needed. Unfortunately for the coaches they are obvious first casualties, unlike players, shareholders or directors who may have all serially failed.
They’re talking of erecting a statue or naming a training ground after Bielsa. I would like that. It would be fitting but, there again, where is the one for Don Revie or Howard Wilkinson? If Leeds do get relegated then Bielsa may have crawled away from the wreckage in good time. I hope the affection endures and his reputation grows as we all go marching on together.