The Square Ball Week: Newell’s Old Boys & Bielsa’s New Loves

In 2018-19 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Marcelo Bielsa’s love for Newell’s Old Boys is complete in a way that his love for football is not.

Bielsa can talk about football at length, and did at this week’s press conference for almost an hour, including a 700 word comparative essay on the time-wasting tactics used against Leeds United last weekend by Garry Monk’s Birmingham City. Their methods were valid within the rules of football, he said, but: “Just imagine a game where both teams do not want to play. If the last game lasted 50 minutes [in play], if we did exactly the same, we would play only 25 minutes out of 90.

“The rules allow you to do that,” he went on; he always goes on, because there’s always further to go. “But this is not the spirit of the game. I assume my position regarding this problem. My position is to try to reach the beauty of the game.”

That position, that aim, is why there is always more for Bielsa to say about football, more to analyse, more to discuss. Bielsa won’t criticise managers with different styles — not directly, anyway, although ‘within the rules’ is hardly glowing praise — because in a way he needs their opposing styles to support his project. He resists the thought of two teams playing delaying, defensive football, but what about two teams playing pure, distilled Bielsa football, taken to the conclusion he’s spoken of and played perfectly by robots? Without the contrast, would Bielsa simply unplug his trusty video player, chuck all his VHS tapes, and go home to his family?

Bielsa’s answer to a question about the intensity of the Championship compared to his experiences in Argentina was much more concise. “The emotions I got in Argentina,” he said, “when I trained my team, it’s impossible to have the same emotions.”

Eighteen words, not 800, because how many words do you need to describe complete, concluded love? There’s so much Bielsa could express about Newell’s Old Boys, but his answers on the subject over the last few months always suggest it’s the one thing about which there’s nothing he can say.

Bielsa created Newell’s Old Boys — the stadium didn’t even have a proper name until they named it after him — the way Don Revie created Leeds United, and as Leeds fans we can understand one direction of that intense attachment; the statue of Revie on Lowfields Road, paid for by fans, expresses what his thirteen years managing Leeds United meant to us more eloquently than lists of achievements or fading memories of games can. It’s hard to put so much into words, so it was put into a statue, for when words can’t be found.

But from Revie’s angle the tale is a little different to Bielsa’s at Newell’s. He was a former Footballer of the Year when he arrived at Leeds, an FA Cup winner and England international, indebted to Leicester City’s captain Sep Smith and manager Johnny Duncan for moulding him from a shy seventeen year old far from home into one of England’s finest footballers; Don was so entwined with Johnny Duncan’s family that he married Johnny’s niece, Elsie. Revie became the Don of Elland Road, and he loved it, loved the club, the people, the city; but he had already been something else, been somebody, and loving Leeds was an enduring pride, like that taken in children as they grow up, unlike the love affair of equals — equal nobodies — between Bielsa and Newell’s Old Boys.

Newell’s created Bielsa, first as a player, by showing him he wouldn’t make it and putting him on a new path; then as a coach, through the youth and reserve teams until glory with the first team. In a crucible they created each other amid scorching, youthful fire. The heat of their passion became more than Bielsa could take; he quit, exhausted, and when people seek evidence of the infamous Bielsa ‘burnout’ in the late-season results of his teams, they’re looking in the wrong place; they should be looking for the quivers of stress in his voice, the tactical plans drawing creases onto his brow. Newell’s taught him everything, including how it feels when, in love, you’re cracking up.

A comparison can be made here with the almost absurd detachment with which Howard Wilkinson celebrated his two titles at Leeds; in 1990, by avoiding the euphoric bus journey from Bournemouth to the all-night parties in Leeds, and staying overnight at a friend’s house, secluded in the New Forest; in 1992, by enjoying his Sunday lunch and pretending it wasn’t happening. It was deliberate; in a photograph taken when he won promotion with Sheffield Wednesday in 1984 Wilkinson had seen himself looking, “As if I’d just come out of a prison camp” and swore never to let football have that effect on him again, not even Sheffield Wednesday — his own Newell’s Old Boys. Wilkinson was raised in Sheffield, played for Wednesday, managed them; “I just feel that I better understand the people around here than perhaps I understand the people anywhere else,” he said in 1984, “and I think that is an advantage. And I think the same consideration applies the other way round, the supporters feel that as well to a certain extent.”

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Wilkinson was broken hearted when he left Hillsborough, his dream of winning the First Division title with ‘his’ club, the club he hoped he would never leave, ruined by a stingy board whose ambitions were sated in mid-table. After sobbing into a towel in the Hillsborough bootroom on the day he said goodbye, careful detachment became his trademark at Leeds, to our advantage; in 1992, as Leeds’ players watched Alex Ferguson growing more purple by the day on television, they could look to their own manager, easing them through training before leaving for a round of golf, a novel on tape playing on his car stereo, and feel secured by his calmness.

But what looked like emotional disinterest in Leeds, and a sometimes alarming obsession with resurrecting old Sheffield players and bringing them to Elland Road, meant his relationship with Leeds fans was more about mutual appreciation than shared passion. That distance harmed Wilkinson in the end; it’s hard to imagine Newell’s fans turning on Bielsa the way Leeds fans turned on Wilkinson at the 1996 League Cup final. The story of Leeds and Wilkinson is a story about dreams coming true, but not the way anyone expected, and it ends with as many broken hearts as it began with. Wilkinson might not have loved Leeds the way he loved Sheffield Wednesday, but in his own way he gave Leeds more of what he had to give.

The coolness towards Wilkinson speaks of a need among fans to not only love their players and managers but to have them love back; think of Lucas Radebe, who never hides his feelings about Leeds, or Alan Smith, who shed his quickly and painfully. Wilkinson did more for Leeds than anyone since Revie, but left many fans feeling he could have done something more. We wanted to feel the passion as well as see the trophies, but by the time he came up the M1, that wasn’t Wilko’s way. He didn’t leave his heart in Owlerton, but he wasn’t going to leave it where everyone could see it anymore.

It’s hard to decide what Bielsa’s refusal to put his emotional attachment to Newell’s into words, or more likely his inability, means for Leeds United. Others have loved him since he left Rosario; the population of Chile, the fans of Athletic Bilbao and Marseille. Bielsa can speak eloquently about his relationships with those places and fans, of warmth, affection, kinship, passion even, and possibly love; but about Newell’s he can say nothing, only that nothing can compare. As we listen to Bielsa’s press conferences for hints of his fondness for Leeds, are we hoping to compete with Newell’s for space in his heart? We might be better off aiming for a different organ, his spleen perhaps, maybe one of his kidneys.

We all want our love to be different, better than any loves before, but sometimes that’s asking too much. And asking ‘How much?’ can be the wrong question. In a short story by the Russian author Teffi that I can’t find again right now but trust me, unless I’m wrong, a character declares that it’s daft to speak of loving one person more than another: love is like an on/off switch, you either do or you don’t, and what sets each love apart are its particular qualities, and how you act upon it, rather than its weight or depth. You love both your spouse and child, but in different ways, not one more than the other; likewise, you can’t love someone ‘a bit’.

It’s possible for Bielsa to love Newell’s and Leeds, not one more than the other, but always one differently to the other, and that difference is what we’ll probably never know. Newell’s, the love that Bielsa cannot speak of; Leeds, a love about which we yearn to hear more. The question is, which should we prefer; how much should that matter?

Well, actually, that’s not the question. Because all of the above was supposed to be a brief preamble to an article about Ezgjan Alioski, and now there’s no room for whatever questions I had about him. But, you know when you just can’t get someone off your mind? I wonder what Marcelo Bielsa is thinking about now. It’s probably about Leeds United. But I wonder what he’ll dream about when he goes to sleep tonight. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)