Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa excited by the latest test in wide and varied career
Kes, the Ken Loach masterpiece, is high on the British Film Institute's list of movies to watch before the age of 14.
Now 63, Marcelo Bielsa came late to that party but at the end of Leeds United’s pre-season friendly at Oxford last week a DVD of the film was spotted in the away dug-out, sat on top of his notebooks and bags.
Football and the lure of taking Leeds by the horns drove ‘El Loco’ to these shores but Bielsa came with a promise to immerse himself in his new surroundings: improve his English, embrace the locality and discover God’s Own Country.
Kes turns 50 next year and few productions are more Yorkshire at heart. What Bielsa thought of it and how the film fell into his hands is anyone’s guess.
At the Championship’s coalface, his faculties will be tested too. Bielsa’s career has taken him to six different countries and three different continents while creating a mass of devotees behind him but the kill-or-be-killed ethos of the Championship should prove an education.
When Leeds unveiled him at a media briefing on June 25, Bielsa had evidently done his homework.
“It maybe exceeds what I’ve originally heard about the league here,” he said, “but I’ve heard it’s the sixth or seventh best league in the world.”
Bielsa seemed enthused by that, saying he had a “real flavour and a real desire to start participating in this league.” Stoke City at home on Sunday, Leeds’ first game of the new season, is as good a taste as he will get.
No club have spent more than Stoke and no club is more fancied to win the title. There are no looseners or gimmies to start with: just an immediate dive into the most difficult of examinations.
Leeds were brittle at home last season, devoid of the aura they created at Elland Road with Garry Monk during the 2016-17 season. Bielsa said he did not see why the ground should instill any tension in his players.
“Having my first game at home and to have the kind of belief and excitement in what’s going to be a sell-out crowd, making it like a Premier League game, that for me is something to be really excited about, rather than it be considered a problem,” Bielsa said. “It’s something which really stimulates me. It’s an incentive.
“There are no easy games in football. We never think about an easy game as a manager but we are naturally optimistic most of the time. To give sense to any project or any plans for the future in a football sense, what drives you is having that desire, that hope and that belief that you carry out everything everyone wants, and achieve what everyone wants.”
Most of the clubs who Bielsa has worked for wanted something specific from him. Newell’s Old Boys, the first side he managed, wanted the feel of silverware again. In Mexico, teams like Atlas wanted his expertise with youth development and scouting. Athletic Bilbao, Marseille and Lille thought Bielsa could elevate them in their domestic leagues. Bilbao had most to thank him for when his time was up. And at Leeds, he is trying to end 14 years of slumber in the EFL. In every job he has done it his way, for better or worse. His work at Elland Road is proving no different.
Bielsa winds up with a copy of Kes, Leeds wind up with Kalvin Phillips as a makeshift centre-back. Bielsa tries to enhance his English, the club’s players learn how to understand the urgings of a head coach who speaks in Spanish. He has sought no attention since he came to the fore and courted no publicity, maintaining a silence which adds to his mystique. There was quiet amusement when Bielsa was seen dropping into McDonalds on the A59 an hour or so after Leeds’ pre-season friendly at York City.
Bielsa’s personality will be part of the ride this season. His tactics are a non-negotiable part of the deal for any club appointing him. Leeds knew what to expect and at a cost of more than £2m a year, they are in for drama one way or another.
“We almost have an obligation as managers to put into place what we believe and what we think is right,” Bielsa said. “We can’t convince people to do what we say and follow us if we don’t believe ourselves. You always imagine being part of some success and that motivates you. It makes you emotional.”