Stark warnings for Leeds United in Sheffield United's demise but Marcelo Bielsa can enjoy Premier League safety - Daniel Chapman
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.
From Sheffield United to Manchester City, weekend to weekend, Leeds United’s season has reached the point of Premier League safety and obvious metaphors.
From Paul Heckingbottom to Pep Guardiola, from Oli McBurnie to Sergio Agüero, who, out of contract at City, might just fancy one last challenge in the Premier League, mightn’t he, over the Pennines with Marcelo Bielsa?
He wouldn’t even need to move house and, rich as he is, he could join James Milner and Lionel Messi playing for free love and thrills in LS11.
How easy it is for Leeds fans to dream now. I think we’re realistic enough to know that, despite his father’s presumed pleading, Erling Haaland won’t be coming to Elland Road this summer.
But deep down we can’t help feeling that when he plays in Leeds next season for City or Chelsea, when he hears the noise from the Kop and the South Stand, that’s when he’ll realise his mistake, put in a full Beckford-for-Leicester style non-shift, tear up his contract and come home.
Picture it now: Haaland, goal for Leeds! A sensational overhead kick finishes Rodrigo De Paul’s cross! It’d bring Peter Ridsdale rushing back, begging for any kind of job. There’s so much to dream about, but there are still nightmares to avoid. That’s where Sheffield United step in.
As Leeds fans get steadily more carried away, and Sheffield United get steadily more relegated, it might be useful if we could keep playing the Blades every couple of weeks anyway, as a ghoulish reminder of what can go wrong.
Which, if Paul Heckingbottom is in the technical area, must have been everything, as we at Leeds know only too well.
Sheffield United aren’t just an idea of what might have been if we’d stuck with Heckingbottom’s version of the future instead of betting big on Bielsa. There are enough parallels between Elland Road and Bramall Lane to suggest Leeds aren’t comfortably out of the steel forest yet.
Their transfer policy, of buying the best of the Championship, was ours, until the value in European leagues became too great to ignore. Their owner Prince Abdullah’s United World Group, placing clubs in Belgium, India and Dubai in a portfolio with the Blades, is the sort of organisation Andrea Radrizzani has talked about emulating.
The conflicts with Chris Wilder about recruitment demonstrate the perils when a manager used to his way is joined by board members on the highway, and relationships spiral into distrust.
Leeds are, arguably, even more all-in with Bielsa, but what if, one day, they have doubts?
What-if is the point, because one remarkable aspect of the Peacocks’ recent ascent is how, after blundering through burning frying pans for 16 years, Leeds have acquired a knack for protecting their knuckles from the heat.
The transfer policy changed, the group model idea has stayed on the back burner, life with Bielsa is a life of peace - outside his yelling range, at least. Then there was the ultimate flip reverse that started it all: sacking Heckingbottom in the first place.
The newly released accounts for the promotion season underline Leeds’ life on the edge. They knew last season was their best chance to bet and went big, despite knowing this stupid game about a bouncing ball is a mad risk, never dreaming a pandemic would mean holding their nerve deep into July, while listening to Norwich City on a Zoom call arguing against the principle of promotion.
In retrospect, we can feel a pleasant tingle while asking, what if it had all gone wrong? But it’s still an eye-widening thought to remember, it didn’t all have to go wrong. Just one or two things going wrong could have ruined it all.
Angus Kinnear has speculated that Bielsa might have stayed for promotion attempt three, but what would he have had left to work with? Kalvin Phillips sold, the playing budget slashed, training ground improvements on hold, Jay-Z not answering the phone.
Never mind Haaland playing for free, we’d have been asking Pablo Hernandez to play for charity, while Massimo Cellino started calling late at night, hearing an old flame was about to go through a break up, saying it might be time for him to ditch Brescia so we could try again.
Read it, shudder, and rush back to thinking about De Paul, or even just the present day.
Sheffield United bottom, Manchester City top, Leeds United in the middle, edging one way along the see-saw, hoping skill, momentum and luck will keep gravity friendly, praying for a soft landing if they tilt.
La vida El Loco es bueno, but say ‘Heck’ three times in a mirror and you can still hear that flat doom-siren, ‘Ey up’ thumping north along the M1.