The first draft of this article was about the noise of the distant wolves (the big dogs, not the football team), howling because Leeds United are at the top of the league, like we’re a rising moon that must be brought back down below the horizon.
We’re not actually top of the league, because Norwich City’s last minute winner against Bolton Wanderers kept them there; that was one of the howls. Leeds play Bolton on Saturday, and it’s immediately obvious that it won’t be the moon and stars rising over Lancashire around 4.45pm, but the celestial head of Scott Wootton, drawing the ball into our net like the tide.
This week has brought the usual portents that come when Leeds do well. My formative experience of it was the First Division title winning season, when Leeds started 1992 by trashing Sheffield Wednesday live on television. Howard Wilkinson as manager and Lee Chapman as hat-trick hero defeated their own pasts that day — they had been at Hillsborough together — and in a season that was meant to end Manchester United’s 25 year wait for a league title, that match was a loud proclamation that history was about to belong to Leeds United instead. Within days Chapman was a crumpled heap next to a goalpost at Elland Road, shoved by Gary Pallister as he dived to score, left gripping a broken wrist and staring in panic at Wilkinson on the bench. Wilkinson not only had to replace his star striker but, if the tabloids were to be believed, his star midfielder too. He insisted that the Scottish papers reporting that Gary McAllister was about to sign for Rangers were not to be believed, while the rest of us tried to think of someone who might be feeding such stories, of someone with a vested interest in the title race and close links to Scottish journalists. It was an early lesson for me in something older Leeds fans had known for years; fate and the football world don’t like it when Leeds overstep their mark.
Injuries have already been a prominent part of this season’s attempt to scale The Championship walls, and the 4-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion was like being caught in the lightbeam from Shaun Harvey’s watchtower; the alarm was sounded, and we’d soon be back in our cells. United’s four wins since have been a desperate bid for freedom, and this week the wolves were joined by alsatians, set on our trail by Harvey and his spirit guide, the ghost of Alan Hardaker. First there was the transfer rumour: Kalvin Phillips to West Brom for £10 million, with the kicker that the deal will only be done if West Brom go up and Leeds don’t, a fail-and-sell double whammy courtesy of The Sun. Then came the manager rumour: Atlanta United need a replacement for tactical visionary Tata Martino, so reports quickly linked them to Marcelo Bielsa, although an interview with Atlanta president Darren Eales soon broke the link again. Then the fates stumbled across the Wikipedia page for ‘Doing a Leeds’ and summoned up a financial angle, that the UK broadcasting arm of Andrea Radrizzani’s Eleven Sports could be about to go under, with ‘possible’ implications for Leeds.
All this is to be expected at Leeds United, and while that could be dismissed as paranoia, this week’s press coverage of, for example, Sheffield United is linking them with loan deals for Jermaine Defoe or Shane Long. Leeds fans are derided for our exceptionalism, but you try going 58 games without a penalty, and dismissing your persecution as imaginary.
While the way Marcelo Bielsa has transformed Kalvin Phillips is fascinating, I’m equally enthralled by the battle he may not have not known he was signing up to lead: overcoming the history and the fates that traditionally defeat Leeds United. At his first press conference, Bielsa said, “I know everything I, as a foreigner, could possibly know and could have absorbed about Leeds United and what Leeds United means to supporters in this country.” Last week he said, “I’m sure I’ve done something wrong because God is punishing me!” Welcome to Leeds, Marcelo. Bielsa was brought in to change the squad but also to change the culture, and he’s now learning what he couldn’t learn about Leeds United from watching VHS tapes, unless it was the video from The Ring.
So much, so metaphysical; Marcelo Bielsa fighting for but also against the history of Leeds United; it’s the other story of the season and I like writing about it. Then it became real: Samuel Saiz Alonso, who came from sunny Spain to take us up again, wants to go back.
It’s not the sunshine; it gets hot in Getafe, but the sun is filtered through urban smog. But that land, about as far from central Madrid as Wetherby from Leeds, is the land Samu loves; the land his young family, who he also loves, calls home. In the Yorkshire Evening Post Phil Hay reports that Saiz is unhappy in Leeds, and has been ‘pushing’ for a move to La Liga since the summer.
In some ways this was always coming. Saiz’s career has been an inward spiral, like watching him beat defenders with his right foot forever, as he toured B teams — Real Madrid B, Getafe B, Atletico Madrid B — finally breaking from his home city and finding success at Huesca in north-eastern Spain. Here he also found maturity. Nightclubbing and timekeeping were holding him back, and his relationship with reality TV star Elena Milla kept him in tabloids if not on La Liga pitches; but they had a daughter together, and early in 2017 Elena replied to critics of her ‘superficial’ Instagrammed life by revealing the previous few months had involved treatment and an operation for a precancerous condition, finally and healthily resolved the day before.
It was against this new background of responsibility that Saiz matured and played the best football of his career at Huesca — “a footballer so special that he emanates a resplendent pleasure for the fans’ senses” wrote one journalist — as if determined to finally make something of his career and leave something for his daughter. Against this background, too, were the weeks spent on holiday with his family deciding whether to join Leeds or take an offer in La Liga.
He joined Leeds, and from our point of view, it worked. His introduction in a pre-season friendly against Oxford United unveiled a tiny midfielder with the swaying hips of David Batty and the 21 shirt of Tony Yeboah, that he said he chose; his early season bloom in the League Cup against Port Vale and Newport County produced an irresistible flower, despite the brutish defenders’ attempts to kick his petals off. Saiz transported all this to the Championship and was brilliant until, one day in Newport, he wasn’t. Bielsa brought a new blossom out of him until, again, it stopped, although Saiz has been more resilient this time. While never hiding his displeasure at being benched, he has been a game changing substitute in the last six weeks; against QPR, when his ankles were kicked three times for every one kick he gave the ball, he made the movements that created the space that helped Leeds United to win. If Saiz has had home on his mind since summer he has hidden it about as well as he’s capable. There’s been no sign of him downing tools in last season’s dispiriting, disinterested way; he’s looked as interested in embodying the spirit of a one-footed Johan Cruyff as ever.
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But has England worked, from Saiz’s point of view? “Actually, it was not very hard for me to settle here in England,” he said in his one and only press conference, this October. “Because my family’s here with me, and because we play twice a week, and what I like is playing football. As I like football and I enjoy playing football, and as we play twice a week, I don’t have time to think about other things.”
It’s fair to wonder if he still enjoys playing football while six-foot cloggers are kicking him, when referees book him for complaining, where there’s no room for the tricks he does for fun while he enjoys playing football. The English Championship isn’t really a league where you can enjoy playing football; yes, you play twice a week, but how much do you play? If Leeds play better than the rest, you get a medal at the end of it, and an open top bus tour, while ice-water drips from the compresses on your bruised ankles. What does Samu Saiz play football for? Nutmegs or trophies? One often leads to the other, but not often in this league.
Since 2016, at least, he has also played football for real. Instead of dissipating his talents in nightclubs and empty Segunda stadiums, he started using his magic to make money for his family’s future, like Paul Daniels moving from social clubs to TV to provide for him and Debbie McGee. If he has looked occasionally like the world has been pressing down on him at Leeds, it’s because he’s having the same realisations that many a millennial meets in their late-twenties; all this drifting isn’t paying the mortgage, and art college is a dream from long ago. He broke out of his Madrid spiral, but only into another: work, relationships, fatherhood, health, responsibility, work, relationships, fatherhood, health, responsibility, work. “As we play twice a week, I don’t have time to think about other things,” said Samu. Well, that’s the dream.
The reality is that Elena is pregnant again; she grew up with a sister, and wanted to give the same gift of a sibling to her first daughter. There were almost two gifts; in mid-July Elena said on Instagram that she’d been to the gynaecologist and found out that, “They were going to be twins but, in the end, one of them did not come through.” Elena’s first daughter had a difficult birth; then came the cancer scare; now the shock of discovering and losing a twin in the space of one doctor’s appointment. “They are nine magical months but for me, personally, being pregnant is very hard,” Elena wrote on Instagram.
It’s easy to imagine that being pregnant might be easier for Elena in Madrid, where her family is, where she speaks the language; where her partner Samu might be able to find work that pays the same but that doesn’t require such long, Bielsa-imposed hours; where he might find more professional satisfaction swerving the touch-tackling of La Liga than feeling the no-holds barred assaults of the Championship. To a Leeds United fan who has spent fifteen years trying to tunnel back to the Premier League with a bent pin, turning away from glory now, when it’s so close, sounds insane. But if all you want from life is home, health, happiness and nutmegs, refusing to let yourself turn towards that opportunity would be loco, even if it means turning back.
There might still be a way of staying. Bielsa is no longer the obsessive maniac of his younger days, speaking now of the importance of family and taking time off. The players were given a holiday during the last international break that would have been unthinkable in Bielsa’s early coaching career, and repaid him with four wins. Bielsa is magnetic, and full of praise for Saiz; he might be able to persuade him that it is possible to live his next five months in Leeds. As Bill Fotherby told Chris Fairclough when he was doubtful about leaving London as his wife was about to give birth: “They have babies in Leeds, you know.” Failing that, Salim Lamrani looks like he could make a very persuasive case to Samu with his biceps.
But it would be hard to appeal to anything other than Saiz’s sentiment. With a second daughter due, though, his emotions may be hard to reach with a promotion campaign; and it’s hard to know what more could be added, emotionally, to what’s already been said. “To tell the truth, I feel I am lucky,” Saiz said in October, “because I’m in a big, beautiful city. What I said before about the fans, I feel loved and I feel gratitude towards them. When you walk down the streets of Leeds and you see the love of the fans, you feel like an important player.” Last November, to Marca in Spain, he said: “The stage is crazy, amazing, they keep cheering and they are always singing to me. Every time they sing to me the song they have made, they make my hair stand on end.” During the Bristol City game last month Saiz was captured on video as he waited to defend a corner in front of the South Stand, laughing, blushing, and singing along with his own song.
We’ve got his heart. The problem is he’s not being led only by his heart anymore, that was spiralling him around B teams in the Segunda. The reformed attitude that made him grow up and bring his talent here will take him away again. Again Leeds United are being brought down by factory owner Mr Weaver’s sneer in the film This Sporting Life, about star rugby player Frank Machin: “He’ll have to learn he has to pay something for his ambition.” Leeds United have always had ambition, and always had to pay; we know this rule better today as the reason why we can’t have nice things.
We lost league titles to the Football League and European Cups to UEFA; we lost Tony Currie to his wife’s longing for London and Eric Cantona to a greater need for a right-back. We lost Tony Yeboah beneath a pile of Yorkshire Puddings and Harry Kewell to mammon. It seems to be our fate to have met our perfect match in Samu Saiz, but for the affair to dissolve into gazing wistfully at each other across the Bay of Biscay.
It’s Marcelo Bielsa’s job to change the culture at Leeds United. He might not be able to change it enough to satisfy Samu’s longing for Iberia, but if Saiz goes, the job remains the same: overcome our history while taking us back into it, where we belong. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)