It was half-term in parts of Yorkshire this week and Leeds United’s Under-23s fixture had queues stretching back from the ticket office at Elland Road. Marcelo Bielsa was in the crowd; not quite incognito but wearing a hood and keeping a low profile.
He was spotted soon enough and spent time after the final whistle dealing with a similarly long line of requests for photographs, patient and willing in spite of his retiring personality.
“In football the most important element are the people who love the shirt, the club,” he said.
“They’re not asking for an autograph or a photograph of me. They’re asking for a picture with the head coach of Leeds United. I understand the feeling that links the fans with the person who represents their club so I never say no to anyone who asks.
“The most significant thing in football is the love people have for their club and the identification of many around something which allows them to gather together and express themselves. We live in an individualist society but this is something which unites people. The chance to be part of it in a privileged position is something people desire, and it’s a privilege to be here.”
The attention comes with the job, as Bielsa has found before, but so does the weight of a city and a club who are desperate for someone to grant them deliverance.
Bielsa found himself talking about God yesterday, in the context of his misfortune with injuries to his players, but he has thousands around him who crave divine power from him: a season and a story with a happy ending after constant, demoralising let-downs.
The expectancy in Leeds with 14 Championship games to play is partly ingrained and partly what Bielsa has generated himself. His squad have been a top-six team from the get-go and they are the only side in the league who can say that victory in all of their remaining fixtures would hand them the title.
There is no chance of form so consistent in a division so tense but Leeds are exiting the period where the table takes shape and entering the period where issues are decided.
Bielsa’s career would not be 30 years in the making if the pressure of the run-in failed to enthuse him. He spoke about relaxing by walking in the Yorkshire countryside last weekend, in the absence of a Saturday game, but was not craving a rest. “I never get tired,” he said. “The basis of our profession is the competition and when the consequences of the competition are final, that’s when we are most happy.
“The expectancy of the fans is legitimate and we know what the fans feel, thinking about the possibility of having the team promoted. But we have the same hopes as the fans, first of all because we desire the same thing as them. And second because we know we represent the feelings of many people and this has to boost our strength.”
Not every coach in his post, and not every player who passed through United’s dressing room, dealt well with the clamour for tangible success. No manager since Howard Wilkinson in 1990 has been able to deliver in the Championship and Bielsa is the 15th since Leeds dropped from the Premier League 15 years ago.
He was asked if he ever found expectation hard to carry. “I never feel that I need external support to increase my desire for my team to win,” Bielsa replied. The same rule applies to results, particularly in a week like this when every scoreline involving teams around Leeds served to worsen United’s league position.
“We don’t feel any obligation just because rivals have positive results. But we don’t feel we don’t have a duty to win when our direct rivals don’t win either.”
Leeds host Bolton Wanderers tomorrow with four points separating the division’s top four clubs. It is hard on the face of it to see anything other than a title race and a scuffle for automatic promotion which will rage to the very end of the season. Bielsa, though, has avoided predictions all year.
“It’s very difficult to focus on what hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “One of the things that makes football the most attractive sport in the world is that it’s possible for the team who don’t deserve to win to actually win.”
The uncertainty of a season and the unyielding demand for high performance poses the question of how coaches find enjoyment in the midst of it all. Bielsa admitted to feeling a higher level of patience in England than abroad but said football had developed in a way where success made a rod for a coach’s back: where each achievement merely generated pressure for more.
He recounted an article he read in El Pais, a daily newspaper in Spain, which discussed the same principle. “I don’t remember the author,” Bielsa said, “but the person was a thinker. He gave the example of Real Madrid.
"Out of the last five Champions Leagues they’ve won four of them. The last one was just some months ago. But even in this case when the team stops winning there’s a crisis.
"It means the person who gave them something, instead of getting gratitude they only develop the obligation of having to win constantly. Not making a link between the final results and the path you choose is the only way to survive in this profession but those who value public results reject this.
"Those who value public results, they either praise the good things or they condemn the bad things.
“These days nobody has patience and the positive things you’ve done before are forgotten immediately. People are always expecting positive things. The article gave another example, which is extraordinary.
"The maker of a TV series who just finished a season, instead of getting the gratitude of the people who watched it was being asked to make the next season. As if it was easy for Pep Guardiola to build a team like Barcelona, unforgettable, every three years.”