Wednesday, July 17, 2024

SPORTS | 04-03-2022 12:41

Bielsa leaves Leeds after delivering fans a truly transformative journey

Veteran Argentine coach fired by Premier League side after falling victim to awful streak of four consecutive heavy losses – but what a ride it was for fans in West Yorkshire.

An old adage states that all political careers end in failure, and with a few notable exceptions much the same can be said for football coaches. Rare are the occasions on which a trainer is able to complete a happy departure from a particular job: more often than not it occurs with the pressure building after a run of disastrous results, with fans' criticism ringing in their ears.

Marcelo Bielsa, though, as with so much, appears to be the exception to the rule. The veteran Argentine fell victim to Leeds United's awful streak of four consecutive heavy defeats and was removed from his post on Monday; but he did so with his legacy at the club, and fans' respect and admiration, fully secured for posterity.

'El Loco' spent three-and-a-half years at Elland Road, longer than he had ever stayed at any club during his three decades on the bench. When he took over Leeds were languishing in mid-table in the Championship, with little indication that their position was likely to change in the near-future. Bielsa immediately transformed their fortunes and, after coming close to promotion in his first season in charge, stormed to the Championship title the following year and then oversaw an impressive debut term in the Premier League, the Whites' first since 2004, finishing a credible ninth.

Along the way he became a favourite in West Yorkshire, as supporters were enchanted by his characteristically verbose and frank post-match interviews and approachable nature; the absurd wonder of 'Spygate'; the gifting of goals when justice needs to be imposed; the warm chance meetings in supermarkets and coffee shops. His charges too, despite the exertions of Bielsa's famously demanding training sessions and intense tactical style, lined up to praise the Rosario native for getting the very best of them: players like Kalvin Phillips, who under El Loco's stewardship went from the Championship to a starting role for England at Euro 2020; or Raphinha, who under Bielsa's watch showed such promise he now has an excellent chance of making the Brazil team at the World Cup.

It is a story that is repeated almost every time he takes the reins of a team: a magnifying personality who drags everyone around him into the adventure.

What, though, does that adventure mean in the cut-throat world of modern, hyper-commercialised professional football? Bielsa's detractors (and there are plenty out there) will tell you that the 66-year-old's elaborate methods and philosophies amount to little more than a long con trick: grand promises and lofty ideals but no trophies or real success to back it up. And it is true that, be it with Athletic, Marseille and now Leeds, the Bielsa train is one that must eventually come to a halt, being simply unsustainable in the long term and impossible to keep on track.

But then what of the journey itself? So accustomed are we in football and in life in general to keep our eyes focused on the next goal, moving forward, that perhaps we have forgotten how to simply enjoy the ride. Bielsa, on the other hand, revels in the process, meticulously adjusting every variable within his reach and, when things do go wrong, accepting defeat as an inevitable possibility which sometimes cannot be avoided. 

His latest journey may now be over, but the Leeds faithful especially will not deem it a failure after he enraptured the club with his brilliant football and unique personality. As Whites fan James Riach noted in The Guardian in a moving tribute to Bielsa: “To those who have followed his every move over four exhilarating years at Elland Road, his departure leaves a hole not only in the dugout but also in the heart.”

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards


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