Dan Chapman: It defies logic but Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa are right to stick to principles
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To stay as resolute as, say, Leeds United Football Club.
On the other hand, it might be possible to take quiet dignity to extremes.
One of my favourite details of the restart brainstorming in the Football League comes from a Zoom call of Championship managers.
Actually, two details. Because first there’s the yarn of Charlton manager Lee Bowyer ‘clashing’ with Howard Wilkinson, chair of the League Managers’ Association, who back in 1996 made Bowyer the most expensive teenager in Britain when he signed him for Leeds. Howard, Lee’s all grown up.
Their argument was about the statistical history of the last nine league games in any given season, and 23 other managers were listening in, wondering when stroppy Lee would get sent to his room.
Marcelo Bielsa was not one of them, and this is my favourite detail.
He was represented by an assistant, but they didn’t turn their camera on, or contribute to any of the discussions.
Imagine that blank, silent square, a cube of morality from West Yorkshire, impassive to the hysterical sobbing of the representative from Hull.
It makes sense for Leeds to leave their microphone off because they’ve never had much to contribute to any discussions about restarting.
Their stance has been clear from the start.
After locking down their training ground before anyone else, United have been ready to return to playing as soon as it is safe.
What else do they have to say?
That shouldn’t be a controversial policy during a global pandemic, and judging by reports dripping out of Championship clubs about their increasing exasperation with Hull City, it’s shared by most of the league.
Only self-interest is getting in the way, and Hull among others seem determined to tailor the outcome of an unprecedented public health emergency to their own best advantage.
The daft thing is that while Hull and Bowyer might disagree with each other now, they might both be saved by Leeds United’s policy, while the stout hearts of Elland Road have just as much to lose.
Wilkinson says the last nine games of a season don’t affect league tables much. Bowyer disagrees, believing his Charlton side can play out of trouble.
If the season does finish, Hull will be hoping to copy his confidence. And Leeds? With nine to play last season, they were on course for automatic promotion.
Over the weekend, Peterborough chair Darragh MacAnthony tweeted his admiration for Leeds and West Brom.
With an easy argument for going to the Premier League on a points-per-game average decision, both are bravely choosing football over bureaucracy.
Admiration won’t guarantee promotion, though, and if one thing has weakened during these later stages of lockdown, it’s the compulsion to do the right thing.
Why should Leeds and West Brom stick to their principles, while others are arguing so fiercely that common principles don’t apply to them?
What if Hull are right and Leeds are wrong? If they lose too many of the last nine games, all Leeds will get is laughed at. And, too often, that is the fate of the virtuous.
Or they’re accused of signalling their virtue, as if wanting to be good is a dirty secret to be ashamed of.
As with almost everything else, Marcelo Bielsa is against this grain.
When he explained why he allowed Aston Villa to equalise last season, he said it was not his decision alone.
He was representing everybody who had taught him to do the right thing, from his mother, to his teachers at Newell’s Old Boys, to the ground staff at Thorp Arch.
And he did it because every day people everywhere choose to do the right thing, while seeing people in privileged positions doing the wrong thing.
“I wanted to share this prize with people who do the correct thing, but get no recognition,” he said.
Virtue, according to Bielsa, is a signal lost among too much noise.
Virtuous or foolish is a question that has haunted Bielsa’s career.
Pablo Hernandez recently said that he loves playing for Bielsa, because if his team is losing they attack, and if his team is winning they attack.
But then, say Bielsa’s critics, thumbing through the record books in search of his last trophy, they lose.
Combine that with the Peacocks’ own history of lost finals, second place finishes and play-off defeats, and you’ve got a club and a coach who really should take the closest thing to a sure thing they’ll ever have and ask for the season to end now.
Nobody who loves football is in it for a sure thing, though.
Fans become bored when results look predetermined, and live for the games when everything is in doubt.
Playing the rest of the season isn’t only the right thing to do.
It’s what football is all about.
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice.
He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.