In every dressing room you’ll find a star man and I’ll admit straight away that I was never it. It’s not always as obvious as someone like Lionel Messi but there’s invariably a player who gives a team that little bit extra.
We had it at Leeds United with Jermaine Beckford. No doubt there were times when me being injured (or banned, I hear you all say) gave the manager a headache but I can’t imagine many days when people were walking around shouting ‘Christ, we’re without David Prutton!’ I’m not being self-deprecating because I played my part at Leeds and there were periods when I was always on the teamsheet but I wouldn’t describe myself as a match-winner.
If Becks went missing, it planted a little seed in the team’s collective head. It’s subconscious more than anything because footballers are taught to be belligerently confident in all circumstances but Jermaine scored goals and he scored them for fun.
If he was on the pitch, you know that the opposition probably had to score at least once themselves to get anything from the game. And so over time he became a vital part of the machine.
It’s probably not true to claim that any individual player in this current squad at Leeds is as decisive as Jermaine was in League One but you’re not telling me that the return of Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe this weekend won’t give everyone else a little injection of mojo. Personally I’d be very happy about it. You’re third in the table, you’ve lost one in 12 and these two attacking assets make you stronger again.
Marcelo Bielsa on how Pablo Hernandez' Leeds United return could benefit Samuel Saiz
Marcelo Bielsa will feel that too but what became apparent in the time that Hernandez and Roofe were out – and let’s not forget Gaetano Berardi either – is that he’s wholly opposed to the idea of a squad being about the few. That interests me because in general you find that the further into a squad a manager has to reach, the less confidence he has in the line-up he’s fielding.
That’s human nature but in reality, when a coach says he trusts the whole of his squad sometimes what he means is that in public he’s not prepared to say otherwise. With Bielsa, I think he’s honest.
He’s put a small squad together, with some academy lads in there, and you can see that they’ve all be schooled and coached to the same degree as each other.
Bielsa hasn’t just focused on his strongest XI and left the rest to chance when injuries arise. He spends less time worrying about the guys who are out than he does thinking about those who are stepping in.
That matters to players who are on the fringes. You want to know that you’re valued and there’s nothing worse than being made to feel like your manager or head coach is worried by the fact that you’re having to play. Then it’s a case of ‘thanks for that but our star man’s back so see you later’ and it becomes a real kick in the balls.
Marcelo Bielsa reveals the one key area Leeds United focused on over the international break
If you expect fringe players to contribute much in that scenario, forget it.
I say that while transparently hoping that Hernandez and Roofe both start at Blackburn Rovers today. There was a definite difference in results without them last month and common sense tells you to lean towards your most talented footballers.
But equally, Bielsa is probably the one coach who could confound expectations in that respect. He comes across as the last person who would pick his team on reputations.
What you’ve got at Leeds is a meritocracy. Players picked on merit. The form so far has justified Bielsa’s decisions and I can’t think of many occasions where his judgement has been in question. It hasn’t all been perfect because nothing ever is but no-one in his dressing room could feel aggrieved about favouritism. No wonder it’s a happy camp.
And beyond all that, there’s another side to this. Hernandez, to my mind, is the player at Leeds with the most talent. But we’re two months into the season and he’s already missed seven games with a hamstring strain. You want him to play a big role but quite honestly, having no back-up plan or no-one else you trust to fill in for him would be ludicrous. Star men win games but in many respects, it’s the best and healthiest squads – emotionally and physically – who win seasons.
And I like where this Leeds squad are at.