The Square Ball Week: Too Pure

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

Thirty-seven words went in and six came out. Asked with much preamble for his opinion on the conclusion of spygate, Marcelo Bielsa was brief. “Yes,” he said. “I am happy it’s over.”

It isn’t over, of course. Part of that is external; within twelve hours we were hearing from Darrell Clarke, the former manager of Bristol Rovers, who once turned down an offer from Massimo Cellino to manage Leeds. He said that nothing Bielsa said in the presentation he gave to explain his pre-match analysis was new or special. “I can do you a Powerpoint presentation and you’ll be thinking ‘wow, what a man’,” he said, adding defensively that ‘foreign’ managers get credit, “as if they have reinvented the wheel, but they haven’t.”

That’s more of an argument against domestic managers behaving as if their techniques and training sessions are worth great secrecy, compared to the relative openness with which Marcelo Bielsa names his teams and discusses his philosophy; perhaps if English managers didn’t hide behind fences we’d have more appreciation for their invention. But either way, it kept the spygate story in circulation for another day.

The other reason it isn’t over is internal, and understandable. Leeds fans have nursed their grievances since the mid-1960s, with good reason, and this season’s refereeing, among other things, has lengthened that list. One result of the £200,000 fine the EFL are imposing on Leeds is that any punishment of any other club will now be measured by Leeds fans against the spygate scale. Chelsea have been banned from signing players and fined £400,000 for 29 breaches of youth player transfer regulations; was spygate half as bad as that? The Russian Football Union were fined £22,000 for their fans’ racist chanting during a game with France; was spygate ten times worse? 1975’s champions of Europe are not the type to let this go, and nor should we.

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In the midst of this all is Bielsa, who stated his case publicly in one press conference and then had less to say than anyone, from Martin Keown to Dean Saunders. While not apologising — he hadn’t broken a rule — Bielsa offered all the relevant evidence he had, explained his reasoning, then quietly awaited a judgement that, when it came, he accepted without a murmur. He left all the debate and controversy to others; Bielsa has been concentrating on the job in hand, taking Leeds United back to the Premier League.

If Bielsa has found the spygate case a wearying distraction, he might wonder whether the Premier League is truly where he wants to go. In recent weeks the media have scrutinised him and Leeds as much as they can given this is still only a Second Division club. Leeds are a Premier League club in all but ranking, true, but to many new viewers and listeners hungry for EPL content they’re a weird and anachronistic distraction from their usual diet of manufactured top-six narratives. While the media gave spygate as many barrels as they could, they had to limit the airtime they were giving to a Championship club; we ended up with a frustrated and restricted version of the circus that could have pitched up at Elland Road if our league position had justified it.

Leeds fans have long wondered, sharply this season, if the EFL work secretly to keep Leeds in their division, a cow filled with cash and status; the flip to that is wondering whether the Premier League aren’t manoeuvring just as hard behind the scenes to have us promoted into their competition. Never mind the bidding wars for overall Premier League broadcast rights; BT and Sky would both be staring at a Leeds United Premier League fixture list like dogs outside a butcher’s window, wagging their tails and showing their tongues in hope of being thrown Leeds vs Manchester United, Leeds vs Liverpool, even Leeds away to Bournemouth, if they know their history.

The match at Bournemouth that took Leeds into the First Division last time was nearly thirty years ago, but the reaction to that weekend’s events still provides a basic template for what Bielsa can expect if he takes Leeds up. ‘Leeds Scum Are Back’ shrieked the Daily Mirror, charging Leeds not only for the misbehaviour in the town on that May weekend by the sea, but for the perceived sins of Don Revie’s team, for Leeds fans’ part in the national hooliganism that blighted British football in the 1970s and 1980s, for Vinnie Jones’ existence — as it was at Wimbledon, mostly, given his season at Leeds was so mellow. Leeds were dreaded because they were Leeds; and the First Division, even as pundits demanded Leeds be banned from entering it, secretly couldn’t wait to have the ‘Leeds Scum’ back.

Part of the beauty of Howard Wilkinson’s achievement back then was that he barged straight through the hatred and the criticism, won the title ahead of the nation’s darlings, and established Leeds as a normal and almost mundane part of the early Premier League’s top-five furniture. The tragedy of the years that followed under Peter Ridsdale was that he, along with David O’Leary, Terry Venables, and several unhelpful players, agents and journalists, made Leeds such a template for soap opera that the scriptwriters for Dream Team couldn’t compete, and the phrase ‘Doing A Leeds’ entered the lexicon and stuck. No matter what scandals Premier League clubs have been embroiled in since, the way Leeds plunged out of the division in 2004 established them as the original nutters of the 21st century, and the mark Leeds made then has yet to wear away.

Perhaps the impact of Ridsdale’s Leeds endures because it would fit right into the modern game; in fact, it would thrive. The debts that brought Leeds down wouldn’t have bought Paul Pogba, the fee for one midfielder a mere drop in the deluge of Premier League broadcasting income now, but equivalent to the flood of cash that washed Ridsdale’s dreams away fifteen years ago. The £18m fee that Ridsdale negotiated for Rio Ferdinand — bravely or foolishly, depending on your point of view — would hardly cause even Bournemouth’s accountants to flinch these days; they just paid that for Dominic Solanke, give or take a million.

There’s so much money at the top of the game that it’s almost impossible for a club to spend its way into oblivion the way Leeds did. Ridsdale and O’Leary’s policy of spending millions on a squad of prodigious young footballers, whether there was room for them in the team or not, has pretty much become the norm; just look at Chelsea’s loan squad, and imagine how much O’Leary would have spent on Lewis Baker back in the day. The difference is that the risk has gone — for now, at least.

The difference at Leeds is that Ridsdale and O’Leary have gone, too, replaced after a decade-and-a-half of absurdity by a careful and sober developer of players, who prefers to insulate himself from the media and has to be begged to show interest in the transfer market. We can only imagine Ridsdale and O’Leary’s behaviour during a spygate episode: the former fielding questions, as he did in 2002, on BBC Question Time; the latter blaming everybody he can think of in a Sunday newspaper column. Those would, probably, be the responses of most people in that position now. But Marcelo Bielsa is not most people.

There will be multiple ironies if Marcelo Bielsa takes Leeds back to the Premier League. He’ll be accused of winning promotion by cheating, by people ignoring the clarity of his mea culpa. He’ll have redeemed Leeds United’s previous sinful collapse, but in an era that now celebrates such largesse and chaos. He’ll doubtless guard the club’s transfer budget as carefully as his own child’s piggy bank, an anachronistic trainer in a league that works on shopping lists. At press conferences and in post-match interviews, journalists will bemoan their lack of access and sensationalise every gesture, for Bielsa to discuss with the old ladies sharing his table during his morning coffee in Wetherby town centre. There’s no need to spy on Bielsa; if you want to know his team, his tactics and his philosophy, you only have to ask.

Is the Premier League ready for that? They weren’t even ready for Howard Wilkinson’s team last time we went up. Bielsa is almost too pure for the modern football world, and too much purity in a swamp like the Premier League could be toxic. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)