Leeds United face uphill battle against uneven Championship playing field - but Marcelo Bielsa can level the odds

The conclusion of contract talks with Leeds United allowed Marcelo Bielsa to take his leave of England and devote some time to his family in Argentina.

By Phil Hay
Saturday, 1st June 2019, 10:59 am
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.

He has seen little of Rosario since his appointment at Elland Road and he goes home with only a matter of weeks in which to draw breath.

Leeds’ defeat to Derby County in the Championship play-offs still feels fresh, a fortnight on from an evening of hell, but the transfer window is open, the club’s players are due back at Thorp Arch within a month and Bielsa will discover the schedule for next season in 19 days’ time.

Nothing brings the new term into focus quite like the announcement of the EFL’s fixture list.

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It is the fixture list, more than anything else, which will remind United of what went begging against Derby: dreams of Anfield and the Etihad replaced by the reality of visits to Oakwell, Kenilworth Road and certain venues they know so well they could drive to with their eyes closed.

A 10th straight year in the Championship makes Leeds one of the division’s longest-serving clubs, and long since deprived of parachute payments.

Six of the teams in the table next season will be supported by additional Premier League revenue, with £40m going to the sides relegated from the top flight, Cardiff City, Fulham and Huddersfield Town, and £35m paid to the three who dropped out in 2018, Stoke City, Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion.

There is no great correlation between clubs with parachute funding and promotion – of the sides who dropped into the Championship 12 months ago, only West Brom went close – but those six are where the money is flowing.

Huddersfield, to use a local example, will earn from parachute payments alone the equivalent of Leeds’ annual turnover.

Huddersfield’s re-appearance in the division and Barnsley’s promotion from League One maintains a strong Yorkshire presence in the Championship, two of six clubs from the county.

London will also be heavily represented after Fulham lost their Premier League status and Lee Bowyer’s Charlton Athletic saw off Sunderland in the League One play-off final.

Bielsa is about to get his first taste of Neil Warnock – a manager who warned in March that Leeds might be carrying a “soft belly” – when United play Cardiff City and he and Frank Lampard will cross paths again if Lampard and Derby agree to spend another year in each other’s company.

Cardiff, with Warnock, look well placed to recover from relegation quickly and a sensibly-managed summer would give West Brom the chance to compete strongly again.

Stoke City, who finished 16th this season and were forever off the pace, are arguably the club who will expect most improvement and have the funds to realise it but there is a wide-open feel to a league which is never much of a closed shop.

Bielsa’s decision to stay as Leeds’ head coach saw his squad installed as immediate favourites for the title but certain bookmakers have as many as 17 clubs in single figures to win promotion.

The EFL will announce its fixture list on June 20, six weeks in advance of the first weekend of the 2019-20 campaign. The season is set up to begin on Saturday, August 3 although the EFL intends to raise the curtain with a game on Sky the previous night.

Bielsa will try, as he did a year ago, to hit that weekend with his players in full flow.

Leeds have two friendlies confirmed for the summer, against Manchester United and Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia, but will add domestic fixtures to their diary shortly.

There were discussions about a third match down under, prior to the clash with Manchester United on July 17, but Bielsa decided against it for fear of overloading the schedule and increasing travelling time.

Leeds will fly home from Australia with just a fortnight to go before their opening Championship match.

Bielsa has inside knowledge of the league now and can see the many differences from the Premier League: a lower profile, less box-office appeal, more fixtures and the certainty that nothing less than promotion will satisfy anyone.

This is a rare summer at Elland Road, one in which the retention of Bielsa felt every bit as crucial as making it through the play-offs last month, but his holiday back home will be consumed by thoughts of the prize that got away.

“An unforgettable experience,” Bielsa called his first year in the Championship. Part two is already on the way.