Leeds United fans have been waiting more than fifteen years for the Premier League football they deserve. Too often during that time they’ve been rewarded for the team’s efforts, instead of their own, and got what the players deserved at the end of each season: nothing.
Marcelo Bielsa has not come to Leeds and made the Championship look easy; the end of last season proved that. Instead he has demonstrated how much hard work and effort is needed to conquer this difficult, unpredictable, gruelling league. Sometimes I look at Bielsa’s squad of coaches in the technical area during a game and think of Neil Redfearn failing to convince Massimo Cellino that he needed an assistant.
This playing squad is working harder and smarter than any Leeds team I’ve seen since Howard Wilkinson’s title winners; making more sacrifices, demanding higher standards, achieving things that, without that work, they couldn’t. Players like Mateusz Klich deserve something more than just promotion, more even than the league title. I don’t know what that something more might be, other than perhaps the chance to enjoy life again one day after Marcelo Bielsa has finished demanding every minute of it. And to look back on a career at Leeds, feeling like it was worthwhile.
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That was the feeling Luke Ayling had lost in his famous turning-point interview after the defeat at Nottingham Forest, still an important moment. It’s something Bielsa’s method always risks: he demands a level of work that can only be given in service of victory. What would be the point of working so hard and losing, when you can lose anyway while working half as hard? Who would want to follow Bielsa to the cliff edge again, remembering the feeling of falling from it in April and May last year? In Nottingham, Ayling was looking over the edge, wondering what it was all for.
Perhaps since then the players, many of whom have been at Leeds a long time, have remembered what fifteen years of patience have done to the fans, and decided their fate is not to wait anymore. Leeds didn’t lose heart after Forest, they lost patience, and have looked determined ever since to satisfy Jonny Howson’s recent order, ten years after he took Leeds into the Championship from League One: get it done. As quickly as they can.
Apart from the win over Reading, the result of every game of the six Leeds have played undefeated since Forest has been settled in the first half. Luke Ayling has given Leeds match-winning leads in games in the sixteenth, fifth and now third minutes, a trend suggesting he should be opening the scoring in our final game against Charlton any time now.
That’s a crucial change from the afternoons and evenings of nail-chewing tension in the stands, watching the players on the pitch wearing their own nails and fingers down to bloody stumps, scratching and scraping at the concrete walls of Championship defences while the clock ticks mercilessly to ninety. Leeds have realised that early goals are going to mean early promotion, and a much more pleasant time along the way.
Ayling’s volley, two minutes and twenty seconds after kick-off against Huddersfield Town, ruined Town’s plans, nullified the threat of a local derby breaking out, and let the home fans look forward to an hour-and-a-half of attacking football, rather than what has often this season felt like fifteen years of anxiety being shoehorned into one afternoon.
It was also an astounding example of the rewards the Leeds players work hard for in training. A slick move down the left and then, although Town gave him too much space to do it, a superb cross from Jackie Harrison, a player who toils over his final ball. This time he’d spotted a player nobody thought was involved in this attacking move, and that nobody expected to make a late run into the penalty area to crash the cross off the crossbar with precise power Tony Yeboah would have been proud of.
Luke Ayling’s goal might have confounded expectations in the crowd, but it met the expectations of Harrison when he crossed the ball, and of everyone who saw him score from the same spot with the same technique in training the day before. Even his celebration, letting his hair loose and sliding on his knees across the grass like David Lee Roth hyping up a yacht party was pre-planned by the team.
All of which outlined the different pleasures available in football: for fans, the pleasurable shock of suddenly experiencing a moment so unexpectedly sublime; for the players, the pleasurable satisfaction after rehearsing it that way. It’s hard to know what the manager’s pleasure was: the taste of his coffee, mainly, that he sat and quietly sipped while Ayling and the team celebrated a few yards away in the direction where he didn’t look.
Bielsa says he sees no difference in how the team is playing now compared to when it was not getting results, but the second goal, spoiling the Cowley brothers’ half-time planning within six minutes, was another novelty, scored from a set-piece. Ben White headed Pablo Hernandez’s crossed free-kick firmly towards the bottom corner of goal, but a dive and stretch by goalie Jonas Lossl kept the ball out, until it met the feet of Pat Bamford, who was delighted to have the chance to end his scoring drought.
Bielsa files all this, and Illan Meslier’s clean sheets behind a defence missing the protection of the injured Kalvin Phillips but stiffened by Gaetano Berardi playing simply as if he wants to win the league, under improved efficiency in both boxes. That’s true, but it disguises the renewed mental resolve of the players to will that efficiency into being. Leeds are on a virtuous ascent right now: the better they play, the better the results, and the better they play. Football is not always so generous in return for effort, but as score after score goes for Leeds — and not only in their own games — it’s becoming almost impossible to resist the atmosphere of anticipation at Elland Road, the feeling that the long longed-for joy is coming. And it shouldn’t be resisted, because it’s a feeling that can help.
The feeling in the second half was that only Huddersfield’s desperate blocks could limit how many goals Leeds would score, with Jackie Harrison particularly unlucky not to get a goal to go with his assist. As against Hull, Leeds forced the pressure so that there were times when Huddersfield could hardly reach half-way, and instead had to mass ranks in their own penalty area while Pablo Hernandez sincerely nutmegged them. To tell the truth, Leeds didn’t quite reach the sustained slick heights they did at Hull; after Tyler Roberts came on, the main incident was a penalty claim by Town in stoppage time.
But Leeds don’t need to be at their best to be the best team in the division, as Town manager Danny Cowley put it, “by miles.” He said he’d enjoyed his afternoon “in a sadistic way,” which would be right if he likes watching his players suffer; I think he meant masochistic, as a manager (and his brother) feeling he was being “out-managed by a genius.”
Even his most ardent critics, who found their voices around the time of the Forest game, must be on the verge of recognising that truth about Bielsa. The story of this game was not just the attacking football and the beautifully rehearsed goal, but the mental determination required of the players to hold their nerve and get the goals done and get the games done and get the promotion done. It’s amazing that we’re watching the same Luke Ayling from the Forest game. It’s incredible that these are the same players who were suffering so badly last May. Something, this spring, looks very different. Sip your coffee and watch. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)