Dear Premier League...forget what you think you know about Leeds United, these are nice guys who finished first

Dear Premier League, forget everything you think you know about Leeds United.
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Whatever preconceived ideas you might have about this football team, perhaps based on a decades-old reputation, previous deeds or a hatred you’ve never really been able to fully explain, put them to one side.

The team and the head coach you will soon be welcoming to the finest stadia in the country are very good at football, but they’re equally good at being human.

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When he arrived two years ago, Marcelo Bielsa inherited a mid-table squad and transformed them into champions, with tactics and physical demands that made them a nightmare for opposition teams.

Not only would they outplay their rivals, Leeds outran them and like a dog with a bone, persisted and persisted until they had what they wanted.

After games, Bielsa would almost always spare a smile and a kind word for his opposition manager, before telling the press the league table was unfairly representing the ability of that manager and his team.

There were never any mind games, no attempts to pile the pressure on rivals.

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He never criticised a referee. There were no knowing smiles, winks or invitations for journalists to draw their own conclusions on decisions that unfairly cost Leeds, and there were some whoppers. It was never about him.

GRANDAD BIELSA - Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa embracing seven-year-old season ticket holder Riley Ross who suffers from a rare genetic conditionGRANDAD BIELSA - Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa embracing seven-year-old season ticket holder Riley Ross who suffers from a rare genetic condition
GRANDAD BIELSA - Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa embracing seven-year-old season ticket holder Riley Ross who suffers from a rare genetic condition

He plays down a manager’s impact during a game, preferring to highlight the work of his players.

Even when the FIFA Fair Play award was bestowed on the Argentine, he credited his family, his first club Newell’s Old Boys, his coaching staff, his captain Liam Cooper and the Leeds fans for accepting the decision to give Aston Villa a goal.

There is little doubt that Bielsa is a demanding man. Chief executive Angus Kinnear has highlighted that as a key factor in the club’s ability to gain Category One status for their Thorp Arch academy.

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Bielsa wanted improvements and because the club acquiesced, the club benefitted. Bielsa is also a warm and generous man. Selfies are never too much trouble, requests always met with the same polite smile. He might be a hero to the person holding the camera phone, but he is genuinely touched to be held in such high esteem.

SUPPORT - Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas and Leeds United were there for Oliver Rahnavard when his father died earlier this year. Pic: Leeds UnitedSUPPORT - Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas and Leeds United were there for Oliver Rahnavard when his father died earlier this year. Pic: Leeds United
SUPPORT - Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas and Leeds United were there for Oliver Rahnavard when his father died earlier this year. Pic: Leeds United

When he returned to his modest flat in Wetherby on Friday, promotion sealed, he told a group of well wishers he wasn’t expecting such a welcome and patiently, gleefully bumped forearms with every outstretched limb.

When people reach out to Bielsa, he reciprocates. There are countless tales of supporters receiving replies to their letters, accompanied by signed photos.

Jo Bedford, a season ticket holder since 1990, wrote to the head coach in Spanish to express her belief that, after almost a decade of illness and an even longer period of Leeds United-related nightmares, his arrival was a Godsend.

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When the reply came, it read: “Dear Joanne: I appreciate the love you express to me in your letter. It’s something that I really appreciate. I wanted to congratulate you for your struggle to overcome the adversities that life put you. Don’t give up and go ahead with optimism. Yours sincerely, Marcelo Bielsa.”

SPECIAL MOMENT - Liam Cooper surprised life-long Leeds United fan Martin Stead when he was moved into a hospice, joining Josh Warrington on a special visitSPECIAL MOMENT - Liam Cooper surprised life-long Leeds United fan Martin Stead when he was moved into a hospice, joining Josh Warrington on a special visit
SPECIAL MOMENT - Liam Cooper surprised life-long Leeds United fan Martin Stead when he was moved into a hospice, joining Josh Warrington on a special visit

Bielsa never looks happier than when he’s with his adoring public. On Sunday, after Leeds beat Derby County 3-1, he insisted that his car was brought to a halt outside Pride Park when he spotted disabled Leeds fan Bethany Kelly.

He parted a small crowd, making a beeline for her wheelchair before throwing wide his arms for an embrace. The video went viral.

At York in pre-season the head coach spied seven-year-old Riley Ross and jumped out to give the youngster a cuddle. Riley, who plays frame football for a Gainsborough Trinity disability team, lives with a rare genetic condition. He has a special relationship with the 65-year-old from Rosario.

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“Bielsa came out one day at Elland Road and picked Riley up for a cuddle and has remembered him ever since,” said mum Ashleigh.

“Riley is in awe of him, he adores Bielsa. Everything is Marcelo Bielsa. He calls him Grandad Bielsa.

“York is the moment Riley remembers. It’s one of those moments you’ll never forget.”

When he arrived two years ago, Bielsa inherited a squad of decent human beings, among whom there was already a culture of generosity when it came to supporters - particularly those in need.

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There are stories about lots of Leeds players doing nice things for their fans - youngster Leif Davis also hopped out to greet Bethany at Derby and presented her with a shirt, Pablo Hernandez received a message of support from Riley and responded via his wife Mar with a promise to send the youngster a shirt - but two names crop up time and time again.

Club captain Cooper and his best mate Stuart Dallas have built a reputation as two men who will go out of their way to help.

Martin Stead, a lifelong fan, moved into Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice last October for the final weeks of his life, after almost 10 years with cancer.

The family were expecting world champion boxer and Whites fan Josh Warrington, but he came with a special guest.

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Martin’s son James had returned early from a holiday in Rhodes knowing that time was of the essence.

“When I landed my mum told me she’d spoke to Josh, she knew his dad for a number of years and someone had helped arrange a visit to Wheatfields,” he told the YEP.

“We just assumed it would be Josh coming but Liam came along as well. They spent a good couple of hours there and brightened his day. It was probably the happiest they’d seen him in there for the two or three weeks he was in Wheatfields.

“I’m so happy they’ve won promotion. Dad said to Liam that day ‘just do your best, I know you give your best every game but I want you to go up this season and I’ve got total faith in you, whether I see it or whether I don’t.’”

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From the small things - the pair left their seats on the train home from London after a 2-1 defeat at Millwall to go and buy beer for fan Declan Greenwood and his pals, Cooper always makes a fuss of the matchday mascots - to the biggest things.

Martin Sykes provides security for the players at Elland Road. The promotion celebrations have been bittersweet - his father Fred is terminally ill.

“Coops knows all about the situation and some of the messages he’s sent have been a real help in making me realise I made the right choice going back to work - dad wanted me to, he knows what the club means,” he told the YEP.

“I’ve been privileged to know hundreds of players but Coops and Dallas are up there with the best, they’ve helped mould the club back to its rightful standing amongst the community. They care, personally and professionally. That’s what counts.”

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Ten-year-old Oliver Rahnavard went to matches with his dad Daniel, until the 36-year-old tragically passed away in January.

Oliver’s uncle, Nick Burns, was keen to show Oliver that football would still be there for him and convinced him to go to the Millwall game. Leeds United did the rest.

From owner Andrea Radrizzani to the media team, Leeds showered Oliver with love and support.

Oliver left LS11 that night with memories of a behind the scenes tour, photos with the players, Cooper’s signed shirt and the captain’s armband.

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It didn’t stop there. Leeds were relentless in pursuit of Oliver’s happiness. Cooper stayed in touch, Dallas spotted the family at the ground a week later and approached them, unprompted, to give him a cuddle. Oliver later visited Thorp Arch to play pool with his heroes.

“Having suffered a tragic loss in the family, the club were amazing,” said Nick.

“Liam and Stuart still keep in touch. They couldn’t do enough for us and it was genuine, most of it was done in private, clearly not for exposure.

“Then when my mum passed away both Cooper and Dallas got in touch to offer support.

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“It’s unbelievable and I’m so happy they’ve won the Championship because I cannot think of a group of people and management who deserve it more.

“A credit to the club, football and the city.”

Dirty Leeds? Not quite. These are nice guys, they just happened to finish first.