'In my first two years I would go to a League One or League Two game' - Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa on his love for EFL

”Number 48, that’s Crawley Town the League Two side...19 is Leeds United, the winners back in 1972.”

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 9th January 2021, 5:14 pm
COMFORT ZONE - Marcelo Bielsa, an admirer of lower league English football, takes Leeds United to Crawley Town on Sunday afternoon. Pic: Getty
COMFORT ZONE - Marcelo Bielsa, an admirer of lower league English football, takes Leeds United to Crawley Town on Sunday afternoon. Pic: Getty

When the FA Cup Third Round draw was made and the Whites were plucked out by the hand of Robbie Savage to visit Crawley, it was a nice moment for John Yems.

When you are, as the Red Devils were then, a lower mid-table League Two side and you draw Premier League opposition at home you cannot ask for more, as the Crawley boss admitted.

But he was not alone in celebrating, because for Marcelo Bielsa, this is a glamour tie. You can just picture him, in his Thorp Arch office, clenching both fists in delight as Savage held up ball 19 because, for a purist, the third round draw was a gift.

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“For me [the FA Cup] represents English football in its purest form,” he said ahead of Sunday’s tie.

“It allows you to link with the history of the clubs in England. That’s why I’m very happy to be in this competition.”

His love of English football’s lower leagues is already on record – last season he waxed lyrical about the purity to be found beneath the Championship.

Taking in games, live, in some of the EFL’s more rustic, intimate venues, where the players on display are not world class but still provoke passion, love and loyalty from those sitting around him in the stand was a treasured pastime for Bielsa before a global pandemic and the demands of Premier League life came along.

Who can blame him? Have you lived if you’ve never lost the feeling in your appendages at Boundary Park or tasted the vegan fare at Forest Green Rovers and the sea air at Blundell Park?

Up close, the love Port Vale fans have for Tom Pope and the welcome they give away supporters feel a lot more real and a lot more raw than some of the experiences to be had in England’s biggest, most expensive grounds.

This season, however, Bielsa has swapped the EFL for the Premier League, Kenilworth Road for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the old and quirky for the new and shiny.

The presence of some of his youngsters as loanees at League One and League Two clubs has given him a weekly excuse to get his EFL fix but the FA Cup draw has allowed him to get his hands dirty analysing the earthy fourth-tier football that many supporters at that level would never swap for what they call the plastic football of the top flight.

“There are players from Leeds United participating in those leagues and I on a weekly basis have a look at their performances and that is my contact with these leagues,” he said.

“The sole fact that we have to analyse the opponent we have to face allows you to take a look into League Two, the stadiums, the styles of play, the players at this level. This is very good.

“It’s a lot more difficult now but in my first two years when I had time I would go to a League One or a League Two game because I really enjoyed the ambience.

“It’s not the same to perceive the essence of the English game when you go to a 60,000 seater stadium and you go to one of these games with 5,000.

“And for me it is very attractive to see the folklore and the picture of these small teams.”

Bielsa values how important the little guys of English football are to their fans, when they are not sitting in the plushest surrounds and watching the prettiest football.

Anyone can love their club when they’re booking a Champions League place year in and year out, but try being a Chesterfield fan after successive relegations.

“It is very easy to love one of the top five teams in the world but it is a lot more difficult to love a team that is in the bottom five places of League One for example,” he said.

“It is very nice to see the affection that fans have for team that are not as big.”

Bielsa’s tone when he talks lower league football is not patronising in the slightest and when Leeds travel outside their comfort level on Sunday to face Crawley, the head coach will find a challenge he knows will be difficult, amid the League Two charm he loves.

Yems suggested Leeds should be taking Crawley seriously. He needn’t have worried, not about that at least.

Bielsa enjoyed his homework this week but it was just as thorough as his preparation for the best teams in the land.

“To play against a team in League One or League One is not easy,” he said.

“[Crawley] respond to a direct approach, defensive organisation is also a tradition. They have two interior midfielders with creativity and they have forwards and wingers with the capacity to unbalance the team.

“In this moment there are games being played in the cup in Spain and if you have a look you will find some unexpected results because what is attractive in football is that not necessarily the team who is better wins.”

Leeds are not taking the little guys lightly.