From Massimo Cellino to Marcelo Bielsa - Phil Hay on 13 years of covering Leeds United

Don Warters, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s old Leeds United writer, classes Leeds as one of journalism’s best football patches and not because he is biased.

By Phil Hay
Monday, 17th June 2019, 9:28 pm
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.

“You’ll never be short of a story,” he told me when I first started this job and people who think that 13 years in it has the makings of a good book always get the same answer: where to start and how long would it be?

Twitter worked out the other day that the 13 seasons I’ve covered comprised of 681 games, 293 wins, 958 goals in Leeds’ favour and much more besides but football is not the half of it.

Former Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino.

You’ve never seen how Leeds United roll until you’ve seen Massimo Cellino in an Arab headdress, jumping around his office shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ in celebration of an accord with Gulf Finance House which fell apart a few days later.

Leeds go where most others clubs don’t and where you never thought the sport would take you when a university tutor first began teaching you the basics of match reporting. No-one ever said you’d finish up with Twitter photo-shopping your head onto the body of Moses, or writing an article like this.

I grew up in Edinburgh, supported Hearts and knew very little about Leeds before the Evening Post found themselves short of a sports writer and gave me a go in 2004.

Following the city’s club makes you understand the city’s spirit. There’s a perception of Leeds being arrogant and deluded, of a sense of entitlement when it comes to football, but then you come here and discover its soul; a mixture of pride and salt of the earth.

Leeds United and Kevin Blackwell following play-off final defeat in 2006.

The place has a talent for introspection, which is to say that no matter how much people defend their club against the outside world, no-one is more critical of Leeds than the club’s support itself.

It’s that which makes this a prime patch for a football journalist: the news it generates and the relentless demand for the news to be covered. Not everyone likes what you print but even so, they still want more of it.

The peril of writing about football is that footballers and football clubs, or some of them anyway, read what you write.

The desk comes with no impunity. To those I upset who didn’t deserve it, I’m genuinely sorry. I’d be annoyed too. To those I upset who did deserve it, I’m genuinely not.

Former Leeds United boss Dennis Wise with ex-owner Ken Bates.

The job pays us to say what we see or think, which is not to suggest that we are always brave or savvy enough to do so, and Leeds’ 16-year stretch in the EFL tells a story about how many times the promising soundbites given by prominent figures at Elland Road have been matched by their contributions.

It’s generally better not to paint a picture of success at a club where there is none.

Mediocrity is very easy to find. Those who deliver are more scarce, which is why Leeds never let go of the Revie or Wilkinson eras and why some of the players I respected most were those who dragged the club over the line in League One, irrespective of the fact that Leeds should have been walking League One.

There was, apparently, some reluctance among the squad who were here a few years ago to watch the excellent documentary ‘Do You Want to Win?’, owing to frustration about the constant focus on past history.

But there is a lesson in that documentary about how Leeds treat and revere those who make the club smile and fulfil its promise. Marcelo Bielsa, until the second leg of the play-off semi-finals last month, was very nearly there.

At no stage was the criticism ever personal and on occasions it wasn’t harsh enough. There are many who tell me that parts of the Bates era deserved more scrutiny and pressure and I can’t disagree.

I regret my lack of experience back then and was learning on the job. On the other hand, Cellino sent my wife and me a bouquet of flowers after our second daughter was born, telling us that “a new baby is special.”

It was thoughtful of him and extremely generous but it didn’t buy him any leeway with the Evening Post (not, in all seriousness, that he was motivated by that).

Three months later, we published a column of mine effectively saying Cellino’s time was up).

As it happened, the Italian could be good and funny company. I just took issue with so much of his behaviour as owner, while accepting that he had things about him which were demonstrably better than GFH.

To a point, the more insight you get into the machinations of football the more cynical you become about the sport but there is no denying that the life of a football writer is a privilege, particularly when set against more exacting and consequential jobs.

It becomes a timeline of weird and wonderful events: the time my laptop blew up a bar in Ruzomberok, the police fining us for driving with no lights on during the sunniest of days in Slovakia, Cellino and his headdress, the threat of legal action from GFH (writs which always seemed to get lost in the post) and the 1am detours through Melton Mowbray which the Highways Agency specialises in.

All of that without touching on the football itself or the experience of turning up to a press conference at Thorp Arch to find Dennis Wise sitting with a pile of articles he was unhappy with.

Dennis always took those well.

Here’s the thing, though. I joined the Evening Post in March 2004 in the week when Gerald Krasner and the Yorkshire Consortium bought Leeds.

The club were relegated from the Premier League a month-and-a-half later.

The first competitive game I covered was the 2006 play-off final and I’ve never, in 13 years, reported on a Premier League game.

I’m not the superstitious type but something tells me that Revie would have burned me on the pitch a long time ago. And if it was me all along then promotion next season should be, well, nailed on.

I’ve been lucky at the YEP, aside from the terrific staff I’ve worked with, to have carte blanche to cover Leeds without distraction and in a way I saw fit.

Without going into details, my next job will have me writing about the club and the fact that 13 seasons haven’t tempted me to take a different direction says something about how intoxicating Elland Road is: not always healthy, not always good for you but highly addictive and impossible to leave alone; a place with soul and a place which captures your mind.

An astonishing number of people despise Leeds United or what Leeds United stand for. But this club was never made for them.