Marcelo Bielsa's gesture, more cruelty for Leeds United's Diego Llorente and a forecast of Euro 2020 tears

Why can’t it all be Marcelo Bielsa popping along to coach the Leeds United Under-12s?

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 10th June 2021, 4:45 am
LOW POINT - Diego Llorente had already suffered a series of low points since his move to Leeds United, before a Covid-19 test took him out of the Spain camp. Pic: Getty
LOW POINT - Diego Llorente had already suffered a series of low points since his move to Leeds United, before a Covid-19 test took him out of the Spain camp. Pic: Getty

Why can’t it all be Kalvin Phillips pinching himself in the England Euros camp, not so many years after he was painting Saint George’s cross on his mum’s house to herald the start of a major tournament?

Why can’t it all be Tyler Roberts grinning from the Wales camp in Baku, at the thought of his new three-year Elland Road contract?

Why can the sun not just shine on Leeds United for a while, without a cloud appearing in the sky?

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The cloud had already darkened Diego Llorente’s horizon this season, giving him far more than his fair share of gloom, before he tested positive for Covid-19.

For a player who fought back from three separate injuries, all the while dealing with the difficult transition to a new country, new division, new dressing room and new language, a call-up to the Spain squad for the European Championships felt like the right ending. It felt just, given what we saw from him when he finally got going in a Leeds shirt. This was a player who relished a fight, his quiet, introverted manner at Thorp Arch belying the aggression with which he defended in the Premier League.

And yet, with less than a week to go before La Roja began the summer’s major international competition, Llorente’s opportunity to taste it for the first time was cruelly swiped from him by a swab.

It might not be the end of his Euro 2020, there may yet be a slight hope, but it is another huge setback for a player craving blue skies and a clear road to his desired destination.

It’s tempting to rationalise it as ‘a very Leeds occurrence’. It holds shades of Gaetano Berardi wrecking his knee on a day of celebrations at Derby County, or Stuart Dallas scoring a winner at Manchester City only for his screams of joy to echo around an Etihad devoid of Leeds fans. Even the sight of Phillips in agony seconds from the season’s final whistle, his England hopes in the balance, felt ‘quite Leeds’.

But, in truth, it’s just football, which is just life. It’s never only highs. The highs and the knowledge of how good they can be, make the lows sting ever more, so the adage that you should never get too high or too low is logical but, in reality, an impossibility.

Telling Llorente, or Phillips for that matter, to keep their emotions in check when the call came for the Euros, would be as futile as telling the starstruck youngsters visited by Leeds United’s head coach this week to keep it a secret.

We can’t have nice things only but, when they come along, particularly in the form of the man who the Under-12s’ parents and guardians idolise never mind the youngsters themselves, they are to be cherished.

Just imagine going into school to tell your teacher and your mates that Bielsa rocked up at training, spoke to you and put you through murderball. The entire group were undoubtedly bouncing off the walls even after charging about in man-to-man chaos.

Bielsa’s gesture, as almost anything the Argentine says or does, put lumps in throats for the Leeds fanbase. Football, whether played by Bielsa’s Leeds or not, makes us feel. It connects us to other humans, those we share a passion with and those, like Llorente, we empathise with. It draws very human responses from us and tears, both happy and sad.

And there will be so many of those over the next few weeks.

The tissues will be at the ready in the Phillips household and across the city if Leeds’ son is one of the 11 men in white or blue singing God Save the Queen.

For a boy from Armley to make it as far as the squad is a big enough source of pride, but the sight of him representing his country on a stage so grand will move most of Leeds. Just imagine if he scores. Imagine, if you’re one of the many Whites from north of the border or, let’s be honest, from many other countries, Liam Cooper scoring against England.

Major tournaments hold generation-defining moments. Gerry Armstrong’s winner against Spain in 1982. Gareth McAuley’s header against Ukraine in 2016. Archie Gemmill against the Netherlands in 1978. Ray Houghton’s goal against England in 1988 or his one against Italy in 1994. Hal Robson-Kanu against Belgium five years ago. Geoff Hurst in ’66. Gazza against the Scots in ’96.

It won’t all be sensational goals and iconic winners - Gazza’s tears in Turin occupy the same space in the English psyche as his heroics six years later - and it can’t all be happy tears, but we’re all about to feel something.

Football, as Llorente will attest, can be cruel. It can also be brilliant.