The Square Ball Week: Major Bielsa

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

If the reports are true, legendary coach Marcelo Bielsa has spent the past week studying videos of Leeds United, perhaps living up to his reputation by watching two games at a time, evaluating what it is that Victor Orta and Angus Kinnear want him to do, and how he might do it.

In Leeds, the research has been less detailed. There are pages of analysis we could read, hours of video we could watch, but that could all be a waste of time. Bielsa is trying to decide whether a situation that seems fantastic — coaching Leeds United — can be brought, fruitfully, into reality. Until he does, we’re all living in our imaginations; imagining when Bielsa might be announced, how he might play, who he might sign, what he might be able to make Jay-Roy Grot do. The man is supposed to work miracles. When he watches the video of United’s eleven Pritt Sticks avoiding the ball at Norwich in April, how can we second guess what he will see? Like a Bielsa team, we have to win possession of the coach first. Then it will be time to attack the Bielsa depths, charging 3-3-1-3 at the Bielsa goal.

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Bielsa’s football has often turned out too good to be true for long, as his teams burn out in the intensity of his training and play, but the idea of Bielsa coaching Leeds feels too good to be true at all. And yet here we are. Leeds United are talking to him, and he is interested enough to talk to them. The idea of hiring one of the world’s best coaches has moved beyond the level of impossible, and that’s significant for a club that amazed itself two summers ago by plucking Garry Monk from the Premier League scrapheap, then reverted to type with Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom. Who was Thomas Christiansen, anyway? None of us knew. But TC definitely knew who Marcelo Bielsa was.

These kinds of hires, and their sackings, and the kind of football we’ve been playing over the last however many years, and the division we’ve been playing it in, have all damaged Leeds United’s self-esteem, so that it’s hard to believe the club is still worthy of the attention of a visionary. One of the responses to the chance of Bielsa that has most saddened my soul has been the claim that he can’t come here because our players aren’t good enough to handle his playing style, as if it’s our lot in life forever that Eunan O’Kane will chase away anything good or bright that approaches the Lowfields. Bielsa is a visionary, though, who has trained himself not only to watch what’s in front of him, but to see what is behind it. O’Kane could stand in front of the dugout and drop his shorts, but he won’t disturb Bielsa’s concentration the way he disturbed Stephen Bywater’s entire life at Christmas.

At Wolverhampton Wanderers Major Frank Buckley was, along with Herbert Chapman at Arsenal, the great soccer visionary of the 1930s and ’40s, but unlike Herbert Chapman, and like Marcelo Bielsa, his eccentricity and personality was a large part of his achievement.

Neither Buckley nor Bielsa were born footballers; Buckley’s was a military family, Bielsa’s legal and political, and both had brief playing careers. Bielsa retired young through lack of ability and started experiencing soccer through his mind rather than his feet; Buckley had a journeyman career, until a German shell left him as good as dead in the First World War. His excellent physical fitness meant he returned to the front within a year, justifying his status as Major, but the shrapnel damage to his lungs meant he could no longer play league football. He spent several years as a travelling sweets salesman, cultivating his presentation as a smartly dressed country gent back from the war, all tweeds, caps and plus-fours, with a military bearing that could be charming while selling sweets, or fierce once the network of former soldier/footballers got him back into the game.

Buckley looked and acted like a leader, so Blackpool and Wolves let him become one. He turned Blackpool into a modern football team, giving them bright orange shirts to emulate the Dutch and finding cheap ways to play proper football. And he turned Wolves into the great champions they had always believed themselves to be. Like Bielsa, he was singular, single minded, and derided as much as he was appreciated.

He believed in developing young players, playing them in new positions in practice matches and training them to use their weaker foot. He had not foreseen the fluid position-swapping of total football, but he did believe that a good player could play anywhere on the pitch. That pitch would often be deliberately soaked; Buckley was among the first to emphasise physical fitness, and leg and upper body strength, so his players could withstand conditions that would make their opponents flail. He was famous for dosing players with a serum extracted from monkey glands, believed to give them greater fitness and concentration; there were questions about it in Parliament, and opponents complained about a team of “supermen” with the glazed eyes of zombies, but nobody was sure how much they were putting it on. After making a player perfect, Buckley had no problem selling him, despite angry fans rioting on the pitch. He would calmly drive with a club director to a field somewhere deep in the Midlands, where they would sign a junior Buckley knew of, who would be twice as good.

The Second World War meant we’ll never know how good the Buckley Boys at Wolves could have become, or how good Billy Hampson’s team at Leeds United might have been. By 1948 neither were what they were. Leeds had relied on its pre-war manager and players, but plunged straight out of the First Division; former player Willis Edwards took over as manager, but within three months the progressive new board were trying to replace him with Buckley. He had left Wolves during the war, and was now trying to find a venue to repeat his methods; he soon fell out with the directors at Notts County, and while he struck an uneasy peace to stay at Third Division Hull City, by the end of the season he had taken Leeds United’s offer.

A destitute club robbed of its chance of success and drifting low in Division Two, making a legendary manager the highest paid in the division and giving him free reign to carry out all his most bizarre plans? It sounds familiar. Within weeks Elland Road was besieged with complaints from local residents about Buckley using the stadium’s public address system to berate his players during intense training sessions. If those sessions didn’t involve physical and acrobatic strength — Buckley believed a young player named John Charles was not good enough in the air, so had him practicing for hours, jumping and heading a crossbar — they were about balance and finesse, which meant ballroom dancing on the pitch. He sold the club’s two most valuable players, raised prices on the cheapest terraces, put up a new flag and set the team playing a direct, physical style of football, with Division One the aim. The old chairman had resigned in disgust. The new board were delighted.

Sam Bolton was the progressive new chairman who had been pushing to bring Buckley’s fresh approach to Leeds, but here lies another comparison with Bielsa. Buckley, by 1948, was a legend, but he was also an anachronism. His smart First World War get-up still just about demanded respect, but there was a younger generation now who just thought he looked funny. His ideas had become accepted throughout football — perhaps not the monkey serum — but they had also been improved. Managers like Stan Cullis, Arthur Rowe and Matt Busby revered Buckley’s work the way Pep Guardiola or Mauricio Pochettino speak of Marcelo Bielsa now, but they were managing at the top of the First Division, while Buckley was trying to rebuild at the bottom of the Second.

But ramshackle Elland Road was not the gleaming, modern Highbury or floodlit Molineux of the 1950s, and if Buckley’s ideas were no longer revolutionary at the very top, they still arrived in Leeds as if from another world. The Peacocks desperately needed bringing up to date, and who better to drag the club into the modern era than the man whose originality had helped define it in the first place?

That may be what Victor Orta is thinking now. Leeds United can’t hope for Guardiola or Pochettino, but why not aim for the teacher who taught them? Orta’s role in bringing Bielsa to Leeds is fascinating on its own. I’ve written before that, rather than the Machiavellian monster that has been portrayed at Middlesbrough and now Leeds, the soccer-obsessed journalist turned analysis-nerd is as socially awkward as that career path would suggest — and I speak with some experience there — and as benign. Orta was writing admiringly of Bielsa’s methods during the 2010 World Cup, and now, there Victor is, in a hotel conference suite in Mexico, negotiating to become Bielsa’s boss. Perhaps the worst thing we can say about Victor Orta is that he treats his job at Leeds United like a Football Manager save game come true. But if he manages to bring Bielsa to Leeds, that might also be the best thing.

If it works? Or maybe, even if it doesn’t. Major Buckley didn’t get Leeds United promoted. He did all he could; his teams were excellent, finishing 5th twice, then 6th, but they couldn’t escape Division Two. He gave up at the end of his fifth season, saying it had been “good fun.” But he left the first team full of well-trained Buckley Boys on whom the club could depend, and that lousy header of a football John Charles was always grateful to the Major for helping him become one of the greatest players in the world. The junior teams were stocked with young finds who Leeds would find useful in the years to come; as almost a parting gesture, in his final game Buckley gave a debut to a seventeen-year-old centre-half named Jack Charlton.

The Major Buckley era was bold, adventurous, frustrating and, as he said, good fun, and although Raich Carter, following him as manager, won that elusive promotion, it was Buckley’s time that people remembered more fondly. He might not have been the right man to win promotion, but hiring Major Buckley had been the right thing to do. Bold, adventurous, frustrating and fun; we should be happy and entertained if Major Marcelo Bielsa comes to Elland Road and fails the same way. ◉

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