Leeds United: Hope & Love
So last night in Huddersfield, a team fighting to avoid a second successive relegation did their local rivals a huge favour. Leeds and Huddersfield are deeply entwined. A hundred years ago this season, Leeds City were expelled from the Football League and immediately liquidated over financial irregularities, a sequence of events which led to the very formation of Leeds United. Leeds City’s manager at the time of this crisis was one Herbert Chapman, who would go on to lead Huddersfield to two of the three successive Football League championships that they won during the 1920s.
Huddersfield’s 2-1 win against West Bromwich Albion was also significant for a whole other reason, of course. The distinctive gurgling sound of an end of season choke emanating from the Black Country has been growing exponentially over the last few weeks, and Albion manager Slaven Bilic looked crestfallen at the post-match press conference, as he was left to reflect upon his team’s return to the Premier League being taken out of their own hands at such a crucial point of the season. With two games left to play, a switch has flipped and Premier League football is now Brentford’s to lose. It will be interesting to see how they react to no longer being the chasers in the pack with just two games left to play.
Despite it having happened without them even taking to the pitch, though, last night was all about Leeds United. Last season’s play-off drama against Derby County could have been a tipping point for the club. It would have been easy to throw toys from the pram, to reach the rushed conclusion that the ambitious decision to appoint Marcelo Bielsa as manager of the club had been a mistake, and that Leeds might be better served by bringing in a seasoned Championship clogger instead. Rather than doing this, though, the club seemed to recognise that the potential remained for something rather special to happen with Bielsa in charge. Last night, the benefit of that calculated gamble bore spectacular fruit.
The relationship between Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa did become something more than the usual mutual tetchy relationship between a club’s manager and its supporters. Bielsa’s energy and endearing eccentricities had given it a third dimension. From being regularly seen in local supermarkets in his club tracksuit, through his immediately charming demeanour, to the way in which he handled last season’s “Spygate” incident, it was obvious from the outside that a very special bond between the manager and the club had been established, and that keeping faith in Bielsa was the only sensible option to take.
There have been plenty of times over the last decade and a half when the position of being a Leeds United supporter has been frankly unenviable, considering the amount of mismanagement the club has endured since tumbling from the Premier League. It would have taken a heart of stone not to be touched by the video of Bielsa last night, outside his home, being feted with elbow bumps and cheers as he came out of his house to be greeted by ecstatic fans. Money rules professional football these days, we all know that, but this sort of relationship is one that money alone simply cannot buy. It’s a love story.
An added layer of poignancy has been added to all of this by the recent death of Jack Charlton, the club’s record appearance holder. Leeds had already lost Norman Hunter, another stalwart of their great team of the 1960s and 1970s, this season, and while the passing of time makes such losses inevitable, it feels appropriate that another chapter in the club’s history should open as one from the past comes to a close. All football supporters crave success for their teams, but hope – that success might be possible – is also important, and there have been times over the last decade and a half when it has felt as though returning to anywhere near the vicinity of past glories might be beyond the club in an increasingly financially stratified world.
It’s a lesson that other clubs would do well to learn. The unthinking appointment of a “club legend” as manager remains a flawed strategy, and the revolving door policy towards managers that so many clubs tend to lean towards these days remains expensive and driven more by the increasingly febrile nature of fan culture than by clear-headed strategic thinking. Leeds United have in the past been as guilty of this as anybody else. Bielsa was, after all, their 21st manager since they tumbled from the Premier League amid a flurry of bouncing cheques in 2004. Perhaps, though, Leeds have learned this lesson. Presuming they have, it’s certainly been done the hard way.
Social distancing went out the window in Leeds last night as crowds flocked to Elland Road to celebrate, but it’s difficult to begrudge such an outpouring of joy. The future is difficult to predict. When Leeds were promoted to the First Division in 1964, they finished as runners-up in each of the next two seasons. When they were promoted in 1990, they finished in fourth place in their first season back and became the champions of England the following year. Football has changed enormously since, though, and it’s difficult to believe that repeating anything like this is likely nowadays, but at least Leeds United now have the opportunity to test their mettle, and that means something important. Hope and love have been in short supply recently, but this morning Leeds United supporters have both in abundance. It’s been a long way back, but everybody loves a happy ending.