If we can't enjoy watching Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United in the Premier League perhaps we never will - Dan Chapman
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.
I wonder when we’ll enjoy watching Leeds United again.
A lot of fans say they rediscovered their love of football with Marcelo Bielsa, but that’s turning out to be a love of success. The actual football is wrenching guts as hard as ever.
Bielsa said that the last 25 minutes against Fulham were United’s best of the match. He was impressed by his players’ control of the game at 4-3, ending the rapid exchange of goals. Mateusz Klich became a dominant defensive midfielder, and the unlikely front two, Tyler Roberts and Ezgjan Alioski, should have added a fifth.
Thanks to them, Marcelo could relax. The fans? Not so much.
The stadium was sadly empty, so we can’t describe how our Premier League return would have ended, amid anxious whistling to end it from around the 80th minute. Instead we have to assess the social media reaction and imagine all the furniture chewed in that time.
What was actually at stake? Three points are always important, and a first win in the Premier League is a landmark. Defeating a promoted peer could help the final league table. But, even when the season starts properly in August, nothing is ever decided in September. This was the second game of the season, and we should save some angst for Easter.
We might not even need it. What bemuses me about Saturday’s high tension is that we came to the Premier League to leave it behind. Unless there’s a serious chance we’ll win the title, or a serious chance of relegation, sweet mid-table awaits, so why the pressure? Relegation is the bigger risk, but judging by their start, Manchester United should worry more.
It’s a great paradox of Bielsa’s time at Leeds that he has, throughout, preached the joy of football, how dread pressure to win at all costs is ruining the game. But, by making making promotion possible and rekindling so much interest, he increased that pressure, making games so important we couldn’t appreciate the football until the title was won.
Derby and Charlton were the victims of our happiness, but that soon ended.
Last week was a reminder of why we wanted promotion so badly. The Carabao Cup exit to Hull couldn’t have been any bleaker. Elland Road, empty even of crowdies, looked and sounded as dire as it did on any Johnstone’s Paint Trophy night you’d rather forget, even some league games. It was like a last crying farewell from our old doldrums before rolling out the gladrags for our Premier League debut.
The end of our exile was supposed to lift the weight of those bad old days from the club. All the talk of the Premier League was about deliverance and the promised land.
But, on Saturday, the promised land was met with all the stress still bottled up from the Championship, and none of the gallows humour that gave those days a warped veneer of fun.
It’s like we’ve spent 16 years getting chucked out of auditions and booed off from talent contests, only to finally win X-Factor and have our dreams come true. And we’re too busy crying in the back of a limo to notice we’ve got what we always wanted.
How much of September football’s importance is real and how much is invented is hard to tell. The permanent state of breakdown broadcast by someone like Mark Goldbridge, the Old Trafford obsessed YouTuber, gives an impression of excess importance to every touch, as he gurns and cries for the camera through the most mundane mid-table match.
His hysteria has been reflected and amplified until screaming into an imaginary webcam after the award of a goal-kick feels like part of the new normal.
Marcelo Bielsa would tell us these games are not significant. Even the important matches fade. After success, Bielsa says: “We don’t remember the games won, but we remember the behaviours, the anecdotes.”
It’s why Mateusz Klich smoking a cigar is a symbol of promotion as much as Pablo Hernandez scoring at Swansea, why we look at Lee Chapman and friends on his sofa in 1992 the same way we look at Brian Gayle’s title-sealing own goal.
But Leeds fans are peculiarly demanding. It’s not often acknowledged, but the circus keep-ball at the end of the famous 7-0 defeat of Southampton in 1971 was the sort of thing that got Don Revie’s team booed at Elland Road.
With an eye on fixture congestion, he’d tell his lads to ease off at 2-0 or 3-0, then despair at the reaction from fans wanting 90 minutes of non-stop action for their hard-earned.
We’ve certainly been getting that this season, yet somehow, it’s still not enough. But, if we can’t release ourselves from the tension and enjoy Bielsa’s football now, perhaps we never will.