“I am happy for the academy,” Marcelo Bielsa said this week, when asked if he took pleasure from the young players coming into his Leeds United team, even as he says he feels punished by god by the injuries that are giving them chances.

“It is an important part of the club. We are too much demanding with the youngsters … The fact we are very demanding with them, and this allows them to be part of the first team, is a very positive situation.”

Only Bielsa could make being punished by god a “very positive situation” in a few translated lines, but his own status as a god worshipped by cults around the world reinforces the theory that Leeds United’s injury crisis is a masochist test Bielsa is inflicting on himself. Four points clear in second place, before Christmas? We’re paying Bielsa £2 million a year for this, it’s against his principles to earn that money too easily. Stuart Dallas’ foot, meet Marcelo’s mallet. “Dallas played,” said Bielsa, “now Stuart Dallas can’t play, and Jamie Shackleton will play.” At least it keeps things interesting.

Bielsa may recognise that he is demanding too much of the club’s bairns, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to give them a break by going for reinforcements in January. This is the coach who told Fernando Gamboa of Newell’s Old Boys that he would cut off a finger to win the derby against Rosario Central. When Gamboa pointed out that if they won five derbies, Bielsa would lose his whole hand, the coach walked away in disgust, complaining that his young defender did not understand anything, leaving him to his game of Pac-Man in the team’s training barracks.

Compared to chopping a hand off, playing a few games with a yet-to-shave midfielder at right-back instead of a full-bearded winger isn’t making a great sacrifice. Neither of them are right-backs, so what’s the difference? And to Bielsa, using Shackleton is an opportunity that is worth the risk.

“Instead of buying,” he said, “I prefer to improve the quality of the work; because the team usually reflects the quality of the players, but it’s also linked to the training they receive, and you also can improve a team when you improve the equipment.”

This goes back to what Leeds United are getting from Bielsa for their £2 million, and the responsibility he takes when he takes charge of a club. He could use more money to try buying a right-back who could improve the team and help push for promotion. But the Academy has been working on Jamie Shackleton for years. Isn’t it the coach’s responsibility to give him a chance in the first team, to supplement the work of his youth coaches by training him as a first team player, testing him in the league they’ve been preparing him for, for so long?

Bielsa would say so. Historically he might only have stayed at his various clubs for relatively short periods of time, although Mark Hughes is doing his best to bring the overall average down. But while what he does on the pitch doesn’t always end with winning trophies, what he does off the pitch embeds qualities that can endure for years. This is what makes his career look like the work of a missionary, indoctrinating cults to himself then moving on, leaving behind an intensive gospel to be worshipped long after he’s gone. Whether Leeds United win promotion this season or not, thirty years from now Jamie Shackleton will be coaching a high-pressing 3-3-1-3 in the Bundesliga, and that’s Bielsa’s gift to football.

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Much good may Shackleton’s continuing professional development do us, though, desperate to leave Shaun Harvey’s budget Winter Wonderland through the front door. Bielsa’s belief in coaching rather than buying is a football philosophy question that has vexed Leeds United for almost as long as Leeds United have been vexing football’s philosophers. In the late 1920s and early 1930s Dick Ray, who had been the first captain of Leeds City and was now second manager of Leeds United, won two promotions from Division Two — with a 5th place in the First Division in between — building United’s first ‘wonder-team’ while stubbornly withstanding a storm of letters and complaints about his refusal to buy star players. “Never mind about getting any new men,” he would say, “Our players are nearly all young, they have football ability, and they will improve.” The response from the fans in the newspapers was normally blunt. ‘Buy a centre-half!’

In the 1950s John Charles’ greatness created a paradox, because he arrived as a teenager from Swansea for nothing. Even after establishing himself at Elland Road as the greatest player in the world, the stadium was rarely full because the city felt the team lacked star quality. Had Leeds spent £25,000 to buy Charles aged 22, rather than developing him from a boy, they could have got an extra 10,000 through the turnstiles every week. In the 1960s, the way Don Revie built his family changed the way the club saw itself, so that filling the team with kids became accepted as Leeds United’s way of doing things; but even at the height of success Revie had to answer to low crowds and a perceived lack of ambition. What price Peter Shilton, after all, when you keep finishing second?

Perhaps the most relevant case is Howard Wilkinson, whose name ought to be added to the Academy he founded, or a new one, if it moves to Holbeck as planned. His team were the English champions: Batty, McAllister, Speed, Strachan and the rest. His next team were almost the European champions: Harte, Jones, Kelly, Kewell, Maybury, McPhail, Robinson, Smith, Woodgate. Eddie Gray coached them and David O’Leary was in charge, but it was Wilkinson who built the structures, ahead of their time, that let them grow and thrive together.

But building for the future was not Wilkinson’s immediate priority when he arrived in the late 1980s. While an academy was part of the ten-year plan Wilkinson presented to Leslie Silver in the interview that got him the job, it was dependent first on Leeds winning promotion to the First Division, then becoming profitable. He appointed Dick Bate, one of the most highly regarded coaches in the country, as Youth Development Officer, then left him to it. Promotion and 4th place in the First Division made the club more attractive to teenage players and their parents — “I’m told that we are now able to compete for the best kids all over the country, and abroad as well,” Wilkinson said in summer 1991 — but he was still waiting for the money to build the facilities he wanted. “That is a corner of my garden I have forgotten about,” he said, perhaps with blueprints for the East Stand on his desk, an opening brochure for the Banqueting Suite. “I will go back there in about three years and see what happens.”

In the meantime, Leeds had won promotion with David Batty and Mike Whitlow the only players under 24 years old to play more than twenty games. Gary Speed forced his way into the side at the end of the season, but Wilkinson did not otherwise make much of the club’s juniors. Instead, when Ian Baird and David Batty’s wayward form put promotion at risk, Wilkinson went shopping: 30 year old Lee Chapman and 32 year old Chris Kamara arrived in January, joining United’s expensive array of experience: Fairclough, Hendrie, Jones, Sterland, Strachan. Speed started at Bournemouth on the final day while Batty was on the bench, and only Mervyn Day (aged 34), Peter Haddock (28) and Bobby Davison (30) had not been bought by Wilkinson. Batty-deluxe, Kamara, crossed for Baird-deluxe Chapman, and Leeds were up.

It’s only fair to point out that, when Day was injured for two games in November, Wilko had to sign Chris Turner on loan from Sheffield Wednesday, because he only had nineteen-year-old (and five-foot-eight) keeper Neil Edwards in reserve. But by remembering that the visionary advocate of youth football who reinforced our football club’s belief, inherited from Revie, in the fountain of player development, won promotion by ignoring the juniors and spending £50,000 on 30-year-old striker Imre Varadi in February, perhaps we are uncovering a lesson from the club’s tradition that might be instructive for Bielsa come New Year’s Day. “I always think we keep the traditions because they have value,” Bielsa said this week. “For me, it has a lot of value when a tradition stays.” Although he was talking about playing football at Christmas, rather than stocking up on squad players in winter.

“The solutions we are finding are solutions that allow us to stay optimistic,” Bielsa also said. “The youngsters among the first team … contribute a lot to the resolution of our needs.” And he’s right about that optimism, in a way that should speak to the heart of any Leeds United fan. From Dick Ray belligerently moulding Wilf Copping into a terrifying international wing-half; to proto-Loco Major Frank Buckley throwing seventeen year old John Charles into the team in his first season as manager, and seventeen year old Jack Charlton in his last; to fatherly Don Revie training a gang of skinny kids into the most formidable club side in the world; to fresh-faced Gary Speed stealing the show in Wilkinson’s promotion year; to the clubs that have stolen the jewels Wilkinson left us year after year since, from Batty to Smith to Milner to Delph to Cook; in Leeds United’s DNA is a pride that swells when a report, like the one this week, declares ours the most productive Category Two Academy in the country, the 12th best overall. If we hadn’t seen Jack Clarke we could live with Ezgjan Alioski, but how many Leeds fans aren’t saying a secret prayer 65 minutes before every kick-off that the day’s teamsheet will list the eighteen year old playing from the start?

We’re also praying we go up. Bielsa is right that Thorp Arch allows us to stay optimistic; it’s almost the only thing that has allowed us to stay optimistic for the last fifteen years. And Bielsa is probably the ideal coach to ensure that valuable legacy continues, refreshed and reinvigorated by his missionary zeal. But we have a new source of optimism this season — our league position — that puts Bielsa at the centre of one of Leeds United’s historical paradoxes, and puts pressure on him and fear in us for the next five months. He’ll do what he believes is right, of course. Then we’ll find out what sort of history we’re adding to our tradition this season. ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)

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