Slip sliding away - Leeds once again find themselves on the brink

Keith Duggan: as the curtain falls on Sunday the keenest emotions will be experienced by the fans in Burnley and Leeds

One of the best moments of the Premier League season took place in the northern reaches of Argentina. The grand romance between Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa ended as they all do, abruptly and without ceremony in February of this year.

A 6-0 scutching at Anfield quickly followed by a 4-0 loss in London against Tottenham was enough to break the nerve of the boardroom and they sacked the club’s revivalist hero. Given the panicky patterns of modern management, the move was not surprising but still saddening. Bielsa left the city with the silence of a ghost.

A number of fans, bereft after the manner of his departure, wanted to find a way to say thanks but didn’t know how. Finding themselves in that middle ground between desperation and inspiration, they clubbed together and took out a full page advert in La Capital, the biggest daily newspaper in Bielsa’s home city of Rosario. It was headed, Thanks Marcelo.

The senders remained anonymous. It was a simple salute and a dreamy reminiscence: “We stood in the August 2018 sun mesmerised by football we didn’t know was possible”, it began in what was, in essence, a bloke-ish love letter.

In a brilliant touch there is no mention of Leeds United by name. It cost £350. And it went viral, capturing the imagination in football-mad Argentina and quickly becoming a memento piece. If Bielsa saw the tribute, he has kept his counsel but is known as a voracious newspaper reader.

It was a moment of relief in a benighted season for a flagship north of England football club. Once again they find themselves 90 minutes away from sliding out of the top flight, requiring a win over Brentford to have a hope of remaining up. And it's Burnley, their rivals from just 35 miles across the Pennines and also on the brink, who have the power to consign them to their fate in their game against Newcastle.

Abiding hero

They've been here before, of course. In 1981-82, Allan Clarke, abiding hero from the Don Revie era, returned to try and save Leeds. It was the same year that Marc Almond and David Ball, after meeting in Leeds Poly, got a band together and reached number three in the charts that January, singing about standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo crying in the rain – an unsurpassed opening line which deftly captured the experience of being northern and English at that time.

Leeds is a city and football club with a weakness for patriarchal saviour figures, beginning with Revie with his tough decency and aura of Brut 33 flashness and expanded on by Howard Wilkinson, who resurrected the club by returning it to the First Division in 1988 and took them to the title just four years later.

The most recent god is Bielsa who came to Leeds in 2018, seemed to wave a kind of Harry Potter wand and guided Leeds back to the big time with those dazzling white shirts exhibiting the kind of football that befitted the grandiosity of the club.

The cult of the manager is nothing new, of course, but in the era of heightened money there is an insane pressure on managers to perform as both master strategists and shaman figures, capable of transference of will and ambition onto the field.

They are vastly paid but do they ever have a moment to enjoy the fruits of their labour? The pressure is insane. Look at the face of Pep Guardiola, the most successful of them all, and the word “carefree” will not automatically come to mind.

Witness the recent image of José Mourinho openly weeping with emotion after Roma’s big win, and try to argue that the game doesn’t drive middle-aged men to the verge of unreason.

Fascination

The coverage of the Premier league is relentless, and Bielsa quickly became a figure of fascination because he had no interest in cultivating an image and just managed and lived as he saw fit. He sat watching games on an upturned blue bucket close to the sideline.

He was a bundle of contradictions: a lovable authoritarian, who imposed spartan dietary restrictions on his players and ran them into the ground at training and then hosted (and paid for) Christmas raffles for his staff. Word leaked out that he was living in a modest flat, above a chiropodist practice in Wetherby, where he was a regular mass-goer. He remained at a stern remove from his players – “the more they get to know me, the less they’ll like”, he declared.

But in the stands at Leeds they adored him. How could they not? Ninth in the Premier League in 2021 and back visiting the haunts that had formed the Saturday away day experiences of their fathers and grandfathers – Old Trafford, Anfield, St James’. The big time.

Thirty years have slipped by since the Leeds of Cantona and Speed and Chapman became league champions, the last of the old First Division. One of the mysteries and fascinations of the game is why and how these big, steadfast clubs of England’s industrial flagship cities just stopped winning.

On Sunday the Sky hype will dress up the season-long Manchester City and Liverpool title duel and the faint chance of a late dash to the line for Jürgen Klopp's team. But as the curtain falls the keenest emotions will be experienced up the road in Burnley and Leeds. Losing their role in the big show is the worst of all fates for a football club – which is why Liverpool's blue fans experienced the ecstasy of survival on Thursday night.

Because Leeds above all the giant clubs know there are no guarantees of when or if they will be back or when the next Bielsa will materialise out of nowhere.

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, indeed.