Graham Smyth: Ahead of Derby County reunion, Leeds United's three-word mantra is keeping the main thing the main thing
A top-of-the-table clash, a Yorkshire derby and a reunion with the club on the other side of the Spygate hysteria – three very different games that all fall into the same category for Leeds United.
The visit of Swansea in a one-verus-two Championship meeting, a trip to Oakwell to face the Tykes and this Saturday’s fixture against Derby County can all be summed up in three words – just another game.
LISTEN: The Inside Elland Road podcast, episode 67That is how Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds are thinking about each and every game on their calendar.
They are all simply boxes to be ticked off, sets of three points to be gathered and pitstops along the route they hope will lead to the Premier League.
Listening to Bielsa’s players in recent pre-match interviews, you would be forgiven for thinking he had sent out a memo.
Barry Douglas was the first to utter the phrase before Steve Cooper’s Swansea arrived in Yorkshire to decide who would top the Championship that evening.
Stuart Dallas said it before the derby game, a contest that has an air of tension, at least off the pitch.
And Jamie Shackleton, a precocious Thorp Arch talent, became the latest to fall back on old faithful, when asked for his thoughts on Saturday’s game.
“It’s another game and another game we will look to get three points from and stay top of the league,” said the 19-year-old, toes firmly placed on the party line.
There are no discernible notes of disrespect in the words, not in the context of Bielsa’s own thoughts on the Championship, because there is an equality in the way he thinks about Leeds’ rivals.
In his very first pre-game press conference of the season, he talked about how competitive the league is, how each team has a chance of winning each and every game.
In his latest post-game meeting with the media, Bielsa spoke almost emotionally of the Championship, how ‘special’ it is when a team that can play as well as Barnsley is so far down the table.
But by turning all 23 teams into a homogeneous entity, he ensures his players are focused fully on the bigger picture.
There is no danger that his players could ‘get up’ for a ‘big game’ and then struggle to raise their motivation levels for a perceived lesser team.
There is no risk of providing fuel for the opponents’ fire, or words that will be pinned to the away dressing room wall at Elland Road.
Visiting teams require no further incentive to put their all into a fixture against the Whites, when armed with the knowledge that if they don’t, it could be a long and potentially embarrassing 90 minutes.
By regarding each and every fixture as ‘just another game’ it means it does not really matter if it’s ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby County’ or ‘Philip Cocu’s Derby County’.
The mantra allows Leeds to focus on what they can do to affect the present, instead of getting wrapped up in avenging past pain that cannot and will not be changed, regardless of what happens on the pitch this Saturday.
‘Just another game,’ won’t be part of Sky Sports’ treatment of this game. It is not a particularly ‘sexy headline’ that can be used to drive audience numbers, attract website traffic or sell copies of the YEP.
But it keeps the main thing the main thing.
Judgement Day it is not, nor is it Crunchtime at Lunchtime or the Binocular Derby.
It is three points, not revenge.
Three points, not hype.
Three points, not a title, not a promotion.
Bragging rights are for supporters, not players.
This is not to say that Leeds do not tailor their preparations to the opponent. When the hyperbole and moralising of foaming-at-the-mouth pundits was stripped away, what Spygate showed is the level of forensic detail Bielsa goes into, out of respect for what their opponents can do.
And because he and his army of staff do that job, the players can think about one thing – their own.
As Kalvin Phillips said last week before facing his fellow Thorp Arch alumni at Oakwell, ‘when I step onto the pitch, everyone is the same’.
Whether it is Alex Mowatt, Richard Keogh or Tiago Silva, it is just another chance to win the ball and do what Bielsa is drilling into him; ping it toward another White shirt and increase
Leeds’ rate of attacks.
As Bruce Lee said, there is no opponent.
There is just Leeds United and what they can control.
There is just another game.