Barry Douglas on mixed Leeds United feelings, meeting with Marcelo Bielsa, Premier League Whites and the future
For Barry Douglas and his wife Debbie playing a full part in Leeds United's promotion celebrations came naturally.
The pair were often credited for their role in helping to change the social scene at the club, replacing lads' nights out with a more familial culture, so when the Championship title party was in full swing and when a group of key first-team players took the celebrations to Ibiza, Clan Douglas were right in the midst of it.
This was the second time the left-back had hung a Championship winner's medal around his neck, but unlike his first time round at Wolves when he started 38 of the 46 league games, his role on the pitch at Leeds was not the one he wanted.
Injuries and the form of others meant that Douglas had to be content with six starts and nine appearances as a substitute.
The problem was that he was not content.
He didn't show it - in October head coach Marcelo Bielsa gave a lengthy tribute to the Scot's professionalism and dedication to the team - but as a second promotion to the Premier League in three seasons came into focus, Douglas knew the life of a passenger was not for him.
Looking back on his time at Leeds brings up mixed feelings.
"Ultimately it was a really enjoyable time because we achieved promotion and Leeds is now back on the rise to being a top English club, where they belong," he told the YEP.
"It was frustrating too, with the injuries and lack of game time. It was a time for learning a lot about myself because there were moments when it was tough and I had to really analyse things and go about things the right way."
With the promotion as properly celebrated as a pandemic made possible, thoughts at Elland Road quickly turned to the Premier League season and Douglas had a decision to make, one the club were happy to leave entirely in his hands.
After a meeting with Bielsa, the decision he took was to spend the final season of his Leeds United contract out on loan, back in the Championship, with Blackburn Rovers.
"I was under no false pretences that it would maybe have been difficult to get the game time I was after," he said.
"Ultimately that's why I left to go on loan. I was never told it's not for you. I had a nice honest conversation with Marcelo at the start of the season, he told me they loved having me around,
I was professional, one of the leaders and I trained properly but game time was going to be difficult to come by, with the way the guys were performing. I had the choice to either stick around and see what happened or go and explore options that could maybe give me more opportunities to play week in and week out.
"Not everything has to be aired in public but it was a very informative and honest conversation that I benefited greatly from. I respect him and I think he respected my character and me as a footballer but ultimately my living is to play football. I didn't just want to rest on my laurels and just go on the journey without contributing. That's kind of how I felt towards the end of the promotion season because I wasn't playing as much. When you lose that sense of purpose you don't feel the best within yourself to compete when you get the chance. That's why the decision was always in my best interest to go and get games and enjoy my football again."
So as Leeds took the fight to the Premier League, Douglas took his services to Ewood Park and did battle once again in the Championship.
An 'up and down' season in his words saw Rovers finish 15th. He believes they underachieved, albeit in an unforgiving division, but the move allowed him to play regular football. And by playing 29 league games, he dispelled any notion that the injuries he struggled with at Leeds had simply become part of his reality as a 31-year-old.
"Ultimately I played a lot of games, played a lot of football, stayed injury free and one of my main goals was just to get back playing consistently week in week out and performing and I feel like individually I did that," he said.
"I was never in any doubt [about staying fit]. It's one of these things in football, people, fans like to create this narrative surrounding players and it sometimes sticks unfortunately. I knew physically I was fine. At Leeds it's a different regime so your body is constantly working at its highest capacity, so there's no room for any leeway when it comes to breaking down. That was just because of the demands put on you from the training to the games. Taking a little step back, although still needing to perform consistently and with intensity, allowed me to stay fit and look after myself, maybe a little bit more than I was allowed to at Leeds."
Douglas happily admits he would have relished the journey Leeds have taken to the top half of the Premier League, thrilling and surprising pundits and neutrals alike with their attacking philosophy. Instead he has had to watch from the outside, thrilled but not surprised.
"Nothing has surprised me, I know how they go about their business," he said.
"Obviously it was a step up in class and as much as they've had their good games and bad games, over the duration of the season they can be so proud of themselves. They've conducted themselves brilliantly. They've gone in with a positive belief, the style and philosophy has never changed. I don't think they fear anyone and sometimes it can backfire but I think when you set your stall out like that most often you'll get success if you stick to it. It's been such an enjoyable season for them. It would have been lovely to be a part of it but it's been nice to watch from afar and support the guys because they're friends at the end of the day."
He might not have taken the latest step alongside his Thorp Arch pals but his part in the journey can never be taken from him.
On the day he left for Blackburn Victor Orta penned an open letter of thanks on behalf of Leeds United for the role he played, revealing he had 'sparked a change in the dressing room' as a 'positive influence.'
"I didn't see it beforehand," said Douglas.
"People have praised me and my wife, but we're very open people and we like to socialise, that's the norm for us. When you get a few in the group on the same wavelength then it can be infectious. Just setting the standards in that aspect, there was a real togetherness. All the girls away from football had a togetherness as well and that allowed the guys to be successful on the pitch. Away from football everyone was happy and had good relationships. I think it's massive.
"You always hear about clubs being family friendly and having that family culture. I don't know what Leeds was like before I was there but when I was, it was very family orientated, probably driven from within. Even upstairs, the owner used to do meetings and functions for the players and their wives so everyone could get to know each other and talk."
The senior group at Leeds, which included Douglas, Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas and Pablo Hernandez, were able to influence the younger element and try to ensure everyone was meeting the required standards, on and off the pitch, in order to meet the required demands of Bielsaball.
"Everyone is different, young guys need to be young guys and enjoy their lives, but it does set the standard when the senior guys are living right," said Douglas.
"Sometimes if someone needed an arm around them or putting back on the straight and narrow, we had plenty of figures in and around the dressing room to do it.
"Most clubs that are successful have that spine, that camaraderie and it's only a positive thing."
Positivity is one recurring theme with Douglas, if you follow his social media. Family, 'the single most important thing,' is another. His loved ones' opinions are the only external views he seeks and family will be a key consideration in what happens next.
His deal at Leeds is up and he's a free agent.
"I told my agent I wanted to go and play football, stay injury free and then we'll sit down after the season and address things, make a plan for next season," he said.
"If there's a conversation to be had at Blackburn I'm sure my agent will explore it. I don't know their plans but as it stands I'm away from Blackburn and looking for a new venture."
He's unaware of the 'noise' linking him to a move to Rangers, although admits if a chance to move back to his home city arose he'd have to consider it, and having taken the road less travelled by with spells in Poland and Turkey, he's open minded about his future.
"It depends what opportunities present themselves," he said.
"As a family it would be a lot more difficult [to go abroad] now, we've got a newborn and a toddler, Kayden is three next month, obviously we need to take that into consideration now. But we'd definitely be open to trying something new and getting out of the comfort zone. If it's a new culture and a new language again absolutely. But if it's domestic, great.
"This is a great league, a tough league and it would be lovely to try to add a third promotion to the CV."
On that CV is now an entry marked 'Leeds United 2018-2020, played a full part in something special.'