Rob Atkinson: Falling back in love with Leeds United

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Sometimes, even the longest, most loving relationships become a little jaded, with one party wondering of the other: what did I ever see in them?

Then, out of the blue, you rediscover something magical about this long-term object of your affections, something you thought had faded from view and departed forever – something irresistible that makes you remember why you fell in love in the first place.

5th August  2018......  Leeds United v Stoke City Skybet Championship'Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa.   Picture Tony Johnson.

5th August 2018...... Leeds United v Stoke City Skybet Championship'Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Picture Tony Johnson.

And, all of a sudden, you’re head over heels again, as besotted as you ever were all those years ago, when the flame of love first burned bright and lit up your whole world for you.

Such was the rush of emotion and renewal that I felt last Sunday, sitting dazed in my lofty perch high among the rafters of the West Stand at Elland Road. I’d just witnessed my one true sporting love re-emerge in all her former dazzling glory to bewitch and beguile once more as in the days of my youth.

The name of the lady is Leeds United – a fickle and capricious jade, guilty of leading me a not-so-merry dance over the last decade or so, with few highlights amid much disillusion and betrayal.

But love never dies, not a love like this one anyway, and the lesson of last weekend is that any sign of redemption can banish years of bitterness and disappointment.

That’s how stunning United’s whirlwind dismissal of much-fancied Stoke City was; even now, I can hardly believe what I saw with my own astounded eyes. Any renaissance needs a catalyst and, for most football recoveries, the answer is a multi-million pound influx of talent to reinvigorate the playing staff.

But, for United, the lodestar is a 63 year-old Argentinean by the name of Marcelo Bielsa, a maverick coach hailed by Pep Guardiola of English champions Manchester City as “the best in the world”. Bielsa has imported new talent into Elland Road, but most of the transfer activity has been in an outward direction, giving us a leaner, fitter squad, with a hungry look about it, and the emphasis on quality above quantity.

Even so, and to widespread groans of dismay, the starting eleven to face hot favourites Stoke included only one newcomer, defender Barry Douglas, from Wolves. The rest were the usual suspects from last season’s tale of mediocrity – but, if the faces were familiar, the performances were utterly unrecognisable.

Leeds simply tore into Stoke from the off, making a very good team packed with talent look like dazed and bewildered pedestrians, scattered in disarray by the remorseless United juggernaut. The Whites pressed and harried, they niggled and tormented, and Stoke had no answer at all. Under the influence of the Bielsa effect – long may it continue – Leeds just blew Stoke away.

Even when the hapless visitors briefly threatened a comeback, courtesy of a dubious second-half penalty, Leeds hit back swiftly to restore a two goal advantage, and the visitors ended up battered, confused, outplayed and, ultimately, overrun.

From my vantage point, it was a breathtaking spectacle. Over 30,000 United fans, almost all in white shirts, packed the stands to dazzling effect.

The Stoke faithful were raucous initially but, as the afternoon progressed, their defiant roars subsided to a whimper as Elland Road bellowed its approval, almost lifting off the roof when those three Leeds goals went in.

It was an afternoon when Leeds United reasserted itself as a football force – now all they have to do is keep up the good work for another 45 gruelling games.

That’s a tall order but, with Bielsa at the helm, it doesn’t feel impossible.