How Bielsa Ensured Leeds United Are No Longer The Damned United & In The Process Showcased His Own Genius

How Bielsa Ensured Leeds United Are No Longer The Damned United - The Argentine in image
Hull City v Leeds United Sky Bet Championship Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa during the Sky Bet Championship match at the KCOM Stadium, Hull PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUKxCHN Copyright: xRussellxHartx FIL-14165-0111

Football in England was pretty different back then. Premier League was gradually gaining popularity across the globe and outside the country, while it was all about the ‘galacticos’ of Real Madrid and a certain Ronaldinho who joined a rising Barcelona side a year after his majestic 2002 FIFA World Cup show.

Porto, of all the European hotshots, conquered the Champions League crown under a promising young manager named Jose Mourinho whereas Portugal, the surging force of the continent comprising of veteran Luis Figo and a budding teenage sensation in Cristiano Ronaldo, went down to a massive upset in the Euro 2004 final against the underdogs Greece. AC Milan, now struggling for a place in Europe, were a force to reckon with and this beautiful game, in a nutshell, had much more to offer than the frivolous Messi vs Ronaldo debates, Arab money and the ever-growing social media toxicity.

In England, Arsenal wrote history after becoming the ‘invincibles’ of English football while Manchester City, a mere midtable side back then, were celebrating a top-flight survival finishing 16th in the league standings. The Sir Alex Ferguson era was in full swing and Chelsea, irrelevant a few years ago, became the runners-up within 12 months of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s takeover.

Having said that, the game was changing rapidly, and the philosophy of promoting homegrown prodigies, scouting talents and nurturing the academy prospects was not enough to stay up amid growing competitiveness. Leeds United, despite being a European powerhouse, failed to foresee the future and a great fanbase fell victims of utter mismanagement in the summer of 2004.

2 May 2004, Greater Manchester

No, they could not script an escape this time. A club that featured in a Champions League semifinal three years ago have now failed to retain their top-flight status.

It was inevitable amid financial shambles that saw Leeds United’s debts hitting the £100m figure and Mark Viduka, one of their greatest stars ever, shattered the slightest of hope upon receiving a 33rd-minute marching order against Bolton Wanderers. He earned the Whites a lead moments ago from the spot, but then lost his cool and received his second booking for flinging an arm in Bruno N’Gotty’s face.

The travelling supporters most certainly knew what’s coming next. A second-half brace from Youri Djorkaeff, own goal from Ian Harte and a late Kevin Nolan strike put the final nail in the Whites’ coffin. The pride of Yorkshire were demoted to the English Championship with two games to spare.

28 August 2004, Athens

‘All’s well that ends well’.

A day to remember for Argentina as they won two Olympic gold medals on the same day, their first gold since the 1952 Summer Olympics. The 6 p.m. men’s football final against Paraguay at the Olympic Stadium was already the centre of attraction for a youthful Albiceleste side managed by a ‘mad genius’ who, despite all his charisma, charm and uniqueness, failed to win anything significant for his country in the past six years. His outrageous managerial honours with Newell’s Old Boys and Vélez Sarsfield were not replicated either. Rather the nation suffered a humiliating group-stage exit from the FIFA World Cup a couple of years back.

To add to that misery, Argentina endured a painful defeat against bitter rivals Brazil a month ago in the prestigious Copa America final. A stoppage-time equaliser from Adriano led to the penalty shootout, and the Selecao kept their nerves en route to conquering the coveted crown.

However, the Albiceleste chief was on a mission to script history, and he did so with an array of rising sensations in the form of Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Nicolás Burdisso, Fabricio Coloccini and Javier Saviola among many others. Argentina showed sheer supremacy throughout the competition and eventually defeated Paraguay (1-0) in the high-profile final. Tevez, a 20-year-old lethal centre-forward from Boca Juniors grabbed the attention of high profile European outfits and the gaffer, who went through a lot in all these years, silenced the critics before submitting his resignation a few weeks later.

In 2004, when Europe was lamenting over Leeds’ relegation, Marcelo Bielsa stepped down silently after inspiring a whole new generation of Argentine footballers to live their dreams.

4 May 2007, Elland Road

“The action taken brings to an end the financial legacy left by others that we have spent millions of pounds trying to settle. But the important thing now is not to view this as the end, but the beginning of a new era. The financial burden of the past finally pushed the club into administration following the issuing of a winding-up petition by HM Revenue & Customs, who will be one of the company’s major creditors.”

Revealed Ken Bates, the Leeds United chairman on the darkest-ever day in the club’s glorious history.

The English Championship is never an ideal league for a relegated side and Leeds, too, could not live up to the hype amid fierce competition from the fellow promotion rivals. Just a year after the Championship playoff final heartbreak against Watford at Millennium Stadium, the Whites had to undergo a 10-point deduction for entering administration. They finished bottom of the standings and therefore, went further down the English pyramid, now being forced to compete in the League One.

22 July 2007, Toronto

The exciting FIFA U-20 World Cup comes to an end with Argentina lifting the trophy justifying the hype surrounding them. But the ‘madman’ had his focus on football’s most pointless fixture ever where Chile were taking on Austria in the third-place decider. La Rojita grabbed a narrow 1-0 win and Bielsa, appointed as the new La Roja boss ten days ago, prepared his blueprint on how to clean up the mess and shape up the future.

Marcelo Bielsa in the Leeds United dug out.

The beauty of ‘Creole’ has been the signature of Lain football since its inception. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay to a certain extent have carried the baton forward for decades whereas Chile, irrespective of their passion and love towards the game, became irrelevant after failing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup once again (in 2006, having failed to achieve so four years ago). They were instead a one-man (read Marcelo Salas) show who was also in his mid-thirties and ‘El Loco’ agreed to be a part of such a bizarre project when no one had a clue what’s going to happen next.

8 May 2010,  Elland Road

Some joy for the Leeds fans finally after a nailbiting season finale against Bristol Rovers where the Whites almost bottled it once again.

The traumatic playoff outcomes from the previous years were already depressing enough for the Elland Road faithful. The last thing they wanted was a third successive League One playoff, and an exact 33rd-minute marching order of Max Gradel brought back the frightening memory of ‘that’ Viduka sending off from 2004. Although they knocked their arch-rivals Manchester United out from the FA Cup 3rd Round back in January thanks to Jermaine Beckford’s solitary strike, a Darryl Duffy goal for the Pirates early in the second half brought tears to many supporters’ eyes.

We all have to bounce back at some point in our life, and it was Leeds’ turn finally who had nothing to lose anymore. They threw everything to pull off a miracle, and the magic happened 10 minutes later when Jonathan Howson found an equaliser. Simon Grayson’s men were unstoppable that evening, and the first step towards revival was scripted by sensational Beckford who scored the winning goal just over the hour mark. It was indeed Box Office in front of a record home crowd (38,234) who had something to cheer for at final whistle after six miserable years.

28 June 2010, Johannesburg

‘Bielsaball’ flopped big time against mighty Brazil who registered a commanding 3-0 win against Chile in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 encounter.

History was created already though as the iconic Argentine succeeded in securing a World Cup qualification in his first attempt as Chile boss. Not only a place in this prestigious event, but a pool of promising youngsters ensured the nation’s first-ever win in a World Cup competition since 1962 when they finished third. Jean Beausejour’s first-half goal proved to be the difference against Honduras in their opening group stage outing.

The revolutionist, however, had a failed playing career but his interest in reading books and subscribing sports magazines helped him nurture his philosophy and managerial traits. He was unique from the very beginning of his coaching realm with innovative formations (3-3-3-1 or 3-3-1-3), one-touch artistry, swift movements, flexibility and relentless pressing.

What exactly Bielsa did since taking over the managerial role?

The Chile job was not at all dream offer, but what he had was full freedom to experiment and leave a legacy that he tried to attain back in his homeland but could not succeed entirely. Bielsa decided to travel across the country to spot talents and promoted the young guns who were standout in Canada during the youth World Cup contest. Some unknown kids in Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Mauricio Isla later went on to win successive Copa America titles under Jorge Sampaoli and Juan Antonio Pizzi.

That defeat against Brazil meant nothing and Bielsa already won millions of heart that led to a ‘Bielsa NO se va!‘ (Bielsa is NOT leaving) movement formed by the Chileans when reports surfaced regarding the gaffer’s potential exit in the aftermath of the World Cup campaign.

30 June 2013, Adios Espana

Success short-lived in Basque County as he left the managerial role at Athletic Bilbao upon expiration of his contract in June end.

Despite the arduous effort from the Chile board to retain his services, Bielsa resigned in February 2011 due to the ever-growing internal politics and ended up in Spain five months later to experience his first venture in the European circuit. Los Leones finished sixth during the 2010-11 season, yet the club’s new president Josu Urrutia opted not to extend Joaquín Caparrós’ stay and brought in Bielsa to succeed the Spaniard.

It was a dreadful start for him with only two points from the first five league games. But the team slowly attuned to his style and ended up being the runners-up in both UEFA Europa League and Copa Del Rey. His 3-3-3-1 gained enormous popularity among the Bilbao fans despite them finishing 10th in the La Liga standings.

football formations

However, the very next season turned out to be a disappointment as the exit of Javi Martinez (to Bayern Munich) and a fallout with contract rebel Fernando Llorente saw Athletic finishing 12th in the league table. The hipster of modern football, now out of his comfort zone, had a reality check for the first time in his managerial regime.

26 July 2013, West Yorkshire

While Bielsa was struggling for existence in Europe, the Whites were slowly bringing the pieces back together towards stability. The day finally arrived when they got rid of Ken Bates who no longer remained in any capacity at the club. The former Chelsea chairman bought Leeds in January 2005 and often encountered fans’ protest for his lavish lifestyle with little efforts in terms of investment towards rebuilding a struggling squad. The English businessman kept on sacking managers failing to keep hold of their academy prodigies and star contributors.

Bates finally sold Leeds to Middle East-based private equity group GFH Capital eight years later and was eventually sacked from the president’s role on 26 July. The dispute was farcical as the conflict originated over the payment of his private jet!

“GFH knew what my expenses were when they did due diligence and they signed them off”.

Stated Bates to defend himself despite costing the club around £120,000-a-year! Incredible, isn’t it?

5 April 2014,  Preston

“The independent QC has concluded that Mr. Cellino’s recent conviction in the Sardinian Court did not involve conduct that would ‘reasonably be considered to be dishonest’ based on information available to him at the current time.  The Football League will now consider the findings of the hearing.”

The statement from Football League suggests that the Italian business tycoon Massimo Cellino is now eligible to acquire the 75% ownership of Leeds United after a dramatic turn of events. Known as Il mangia-allenatori (The Manager Eater) from his Cagliari days, the new owner justified his ‘reputation’ by randomly hiring and firing managers during his first couple of years at Elland Road. The baffling appointment of David Hockaday remains a mystery as the current Head of Male Football at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College himself was expecting a U-23 or first-team coaching role while being approached.

I had covered this story before based on his interview with the Guardian from a year ago.

His suggestions in the transfer market were not entertained either, and Hockaday opted to remain quiet after failing to convince the Italian to recruit the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Mark Hudson, Conor Coady, Andre Gray and Craig Cathcart. Cellino instead went for names playing in the leagues of Italy and ended up forming a disjointed squad as revealed by the former coach.

Hockaday had only one match analyst, one strength and conditioning coach whereas his dismissal after six games in charge was quite dramatic too. Cellino initially thought of dismissing him after a humiliating 4-1 defeat to Watford but had a change of heart and took the blame entirely upon him for the ongoing catastrophe. However, it just lasted for five days as he made yet another U-turn and eventually sacked the gaffer after 70 days in charge.

17 May 2014, Marseille

An abrupt ending to his Bilbao stint left Bielsa with unfinished business in Europe. He was handed a lifeline one year later when Marseille roped him in. The maestro enjoyed a boisterous start despite little business and stunned the others by securing the leading status midway through the campaign. But the ‘Bielsa burnout’ struck again during the second half and a dip in form due to fatigue and fitness concerns led to 4th-place finish with Les Phocéens missing out on a Champions League berth. Although the outcome was underwhelming, El Loco mesmerised the fans once more with his elegance and personality. They were shattered and even in tears when the artist left his role next year following a rift with the Marseille management.

23 May 2017, Leeds

Cellino was no saint and will remain as one of the most controversial owners ever. Yet he made some positive alterations too and Leeds, a mere midtable Championship side by now, scripted an upsurge during Garry Monk’s one-year spell despite missing out on a playoff place by a whisker. The egress of key individuals continued, but the club started making the monetary gain from those high-profile exits (Ross McCormack, Sam Byram and Lewis Cook in particular) that saw them making an overall profit of £976,000 as on 30 June 2017. A loss of £8.8m was reported during the closure of the previous financial year, and this turnaround took place following Andrea Radrizzani’s arrival.

Radrizzani, a young and budding Italian businessman, bought the club’s 50% shares in January 2017 and announced the full ownership on 23 May drawing an end to Cellino’s reign. Garry Monk’s decision to step down came as a shock and the appointment of little-known Thomas Christiansen turned out to be another ‘Cellinoesque’ call. But the 42-year-old had a vision, and he earned the supporters’ faith immediately by buying back Leeds Ladies and completing the purchase of Elland Road for the first time since their relegation in 2004.

The decision of appointing Victor Orta as the director of football was a gamble. Still, it eventually paid off a year later when one moment of madness changed the club’s fortune forever.

24 May 2017, Lille

The day Radrizzani brought all the shares, Marcelo Bielsa was back in France to try his luck again one year after the Lazio controversy. It has to be one of the craziest football stories ever when he stepped down only a couple of days after his appointment, blaming the management for not meeting the promises over transfers.

It did not work out at Lille either. Reports of conflict surfaced yet again, and he left the camp in December with only 26.3 win percentage. When Leeds were rising from their ruins, Bielsa was fast approaching towards an abrupt ending.

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND – 4 JULY: Patrick Bamford of Leeds United celebrates after he scores the opening goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United at Ewood Park on 4 July, 2020 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

15 June 2018: The Redemption

The rumours were spot on. Even the supporters could not believe what they just heard! The negotiations took a while, but Orta slammed shut the fault-finders in due course by pulling off a deal for Marcelo Bielsa. Although his stakes were falling, the legendary ‘madman’ was still too big a name for the English second tier.

Leeds needed that one final push to be back where they belong, and the charismatic Argentine, now in his sixties, was still hungry for more. There were concerns among a section considering his age, recent record and the lack of transfer activity with no prior experience of the English game, but the enigmatic Argentine took little time in transforming the ambience and implementing his philosophy at Elland Road. A stupendous start encouraged the fans to roar once more; however, the fear of falling apart was looming large after a series of abysmal outcomes in the final months. The ‘Spygate‘ row reignited their rivalry against Derby County, and the Rams seemingly had the last laugh when they knocked the Whites out from the playoff semis.

Silverware is the currency of success in the modern-day game, and one would still be considered a failure if the objectives are not met. Bielsa, of late, lost his temperament in the aftermath of initial stumbles at his previous clubs, but the vibes of something special were sensed when he decided to stay back for one more year.

Bielsa trusted the options he already had in his armoury and preferred to rely on them over significant summer spending. His stupendous scouting ability helped Leeds overcome the defensive frailty following Ben White’s arrival who, surprisingly, proved to be an upgrade over Pontus Jansson with the latter forcing a move away from the club to join Brentford.

He transformed Patrick Bamford into an industrious ‘number 9’. At the same time, the likes of Stuart Dallas and Gjanni Alioski were nurtured as utility options who would rather slot in all over the pitch. Pablo Hernandez, despite being in his mid-thirties, was deployed intelligently to utilise his creativity from the centre of the pitch whereas both Jack Harrison and Helder Costa kept on contributing exquisitely as inverted wing-forwards. Luke Ayling developed his defensive skills as well as attacking composure while operating as a right fullback, as did Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich with high pressing, aggression and swift movement in the middle of the park.

20-year-old Illan Meslier, too, enjoyed a sensational run since replacing suspended Kiko Casilla between the sticks. Skipper Liam Cooper led by example after last season’s howler as the entire squad exhibited signs of improvement both mentally and physically en route to breaking the curse after 16 long years.

Leeds were thoroughly entertaining when in the mood but they had no answer whatsoever to the incessant bantering from the fellow league counterparts. Moreover, the gaffer’s famous press conference with a view to drawing an end to the ‘Spygate’ controversy haunt them back at their own backyard when a shambolic playoff defeat led to wild celebrations from Frank Lampard and co. with binocular gestures.

But the attitude and persona of the team have grown eloquently over the past few months as they did not bow down to the denunciation, rather worked tirelessly to achieve perfection. Derby lost the playoff final last year against Aston Villa and ended up giving a Guard of Honour to champions Leeds at Pride Park. The Whites let their football do all the talking to accomplish revenge which has been the icing on the cake towards rediscovering the big-club mentality they boasted once upon a time.

It was make-or-break for both Leeds and Bielsa whose roads were pretty divergent until they intersected a couple of summers before. Even though the Elland Road was empty on Wednesday night when they were lifting the silverware, the presence of those loyal supporters, the nostalgia of good old days and the sheer excellence of their golden era were felt from every corner.

‘We’ve been through it all together,
And we’ve had our ups and downs (UPS AND DOWNS!)
We’re gonna stay with you forever,
at least until the world stops going round’

The fans’ anthem echoed proud and loud all over Yorkshire.

A sports enthusiast in his mid-twenties who reads, breathes, as well as dreams (mostly) about football and attempts to share his views with the fanatics by jotting it down. Prefers to learn through extensive interaction, communication and exploration. So don't be in a quandary and SHOOT.