Marcelo Bielsa's weekly Leeds United sparring session the perfect defence for under-fire footballing tradition

‘When’s the presser?’

Friday, 4th June 2021, 4:45 am
SPARRING SESSION - Marcelo Bielsa's interactions with the media are still a source of fascination for Leeds United fans in West Yorkshire and beyond. Pic: Getty

Those words, repeated weekly by Leeds United supporters keen to hear the latest from their head coach Marcelo Bielsa, are proof enough that press conferences still have a place, despite what you might have heard to the contrary this week.

Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open, having been fined for her decision to exercise self-care and skip press conferences that bring on huge waves of anxiety, has sparked a debate over the traditional weekly gathering of media, managers and players.

The Osaka story even made it into Gareth Southgate’s Zoom with the media when he announced his England squad for the European Championships, even if an update on Kalvin Phillips’ fitness did not.

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Amid the for-and-against debate online, one commentator was certain that press conferences serve ‘absolutely no-one but unimaginative journalists’.

The anticipation around Bielsa’s weekly preview of whatever fixture is looming instantly shuts down that argument and, what’s more, if it were not for press conferences then Leeds fans would hear very little from a head coach they’ve fallen in love with.

As a rule, he hasn’t sat down for one-to-one interviews for years and any ‘exclusives’ you might see popping up here and there, are almost always part of his obligatory media duties, normally tagged onto the end of the regular Zoom call with the rest of the media.

Amusingly, earlier this season, when one international broadcaster began their interaction with Bielsa by introducing their audience to an exclusive interview, Bielsa interjected. “You are interested in saying that this is an exclusive interview, but I don’t consider it,” he said.

“If I have considered this way I wouldn’t be doing this. To me you are part of a press conference.”

So, barring his brief television interview an hour before kick-off and the one immediately following the game, interactions that are normally fairly terse, the press conferences are the only place where Bielsa faces questions Leeds fans want to hear answers to.

Sometimes, the press conferences aren’t great occasions, for a variety of reasons. If he’s been asked for the umpteenth time for a view on Patrick Bamford’s suitability for England, there will be no fresh insight or content worth writing or reading. That, of course, isn’t Bielsa’s fault but simply a lack of awareness, on the part of the journalist, of what has gone before in previous press conferences.

When you’re permitted two questions, maximum, wasting one feels like a particularly heinous crime. There are questions he will straight bat, every time. He won’t criticise match officials.

He won’t hammer his own players.

Questions about injuries have yielded less information than they once did with Bielsa but fans still appreciate knowing who may or may not feature on Saturday. The Fantasy Premier League crowd craves that knowledge.

Yet when a question tickles his fancy or prods at a sore spot or issue upon which he has clearly been ruminating, the next few minutes can be fascinating.

That’s not a phenomenon exclusive to the Argentine. Leeds fans, in huge numbers, pore over the words of the opposition manager every week before and after a fixture with the Whites.

Covering Chesterfield, I enjoyed the insight of Gary Caldwell, the intensity of Jack Lester and the anecdotes of Martin Allen and there was always an audience, regardless of whether the press conference was widely available to watch elsewhere.

At Leeds, the size of the audience dwarfs that and the appetite to read about and not just watch Bielsa’s dealings with the media is still sizeable.

Zoom has removed the discomfort of the stare that can accompany a response to a question he did not like, but Leeds fans seem to enjoy those glimpses into the mind and demeanour of Bielsa as much as any other. Few will forget his naming of the team for West Ham, the tribute to Diego Maradona or his passionate rebuttal of the analysis that followed the defeat at Manchester United.

All of those moments came thanks to the humble press conference.

Of course, they are of huge value to a daily newspaper like The Yorkshire Evening Post, providing much-needed content for pages and the website, and local journalists will obviously defend their importance to the bitter end.

They are also of value to Bielsa, because he can get his own message across to the people he values most.

And he gave the appearance of a man almost enjoying himself at times this season, most noticeably in the second half.

The next one won’t be until the 2021/22 season is upon us, unless something goes terribly and wholly unexpectedly awry with his new contract, and there is no doubt that, over the summer, they will be missed by more than just journalists, unimaginative or otherwise.