Time and reality struck cruelly but Pablo Hernandez' Leeds United legacy was already ring-fenced
The history of Leeds United is littered with players who were either brilliant or reliable but Pablo Hernandez resides in a select group who were both.
His vision to spot passes and the technical skill to execute them made him brilliant. His attitude and consistency made him reliable.
In the Championship he was a luxury player, not in the sense that Leeds didn’t really need him or that he was just there to attack when the mood took him, but because he provided elegance of a standard few could match and even fewer could stop.
For Leeds, he was as much a workhorse as a wizard, putting in the necessary graft and setting examples in training and in games.
That is what made him the most name-checked of all Marcelo Bielsa’s squad, when the question ‘who is the best player you’ve played with?’ was thrown at them.
As ever, to get a real feel for a player and an idea of how good he is, it’s best to ask those who see him day in and day out, or those who know what a really good player is because they were one and played with others.
Last season Kalvin Phillips spoke of Hernandez, then 34, returning for pre-season in supreme condition and laying down a marker for his team-mates with everything he did at Thorp Arch.
He started with a bang, too, with that beautiful goal at Bristol when the world appeared to move in slow motion as the ball arced through the air, and he added an assist to boot.
Onlookers never knew what he was going to do with the ball, but he did, before he received it. Leeds fans came to expect the unexpected. The pass for Stuart Dallas at Stoke a few games later was one to be savoured forever.
But the evidence of just how hard he had worked was never more evident than in the closing stages of that season, when he not only nursed an injury but lovingly took Leeds by the hand and led them to the promised land.
Of the nine goals and nine assists he added, none were more important than the goal at Swansea City, the one for which he will best be remembered.
But there were so many talismanic moments just like that, which is why Elland Road legend Eddie Gray speaks so highly of the Spaniard.
“Pablo has been terrific for the club,” he told the YEP.
“When you think of some of the games he’s played in the Championship, he brought a lot of class to the team. His ability on the ball was tremendous and his work ethic as well. I think that rubbed off on a lot of the players and I’m sure many of them will be delighted they had the opportunity to play with him. He’s been a great servant to the club over the past few years.
“He deserves all the credit he’ll get and I think he’ll get a terrific reception on Sunday. I’m just glad there will be some fans there to see him at his farewell.”
Time, as Gray, his fellow greats and every other player discovers, stands still for no man.
There were occasions last season when all and sundry shook their heads and marvelled as Hernandez took on Benjamin Button-esque qualities, hinting that he could defy science and play forever.
This season, in the division he is so responsible for getting Leeds into, reality has struck with its trademark cruelty.
Niggling injuries have prevented him from producing Premier League memories to match those he created in the Championship.
“It is a shame we didn’t have him in his pure prime in the Premier League now,” said Jermaine Beckford, who knows how it feels to become embedded in a moment that echoes for years to come.
“That Pablo Hernandez would’ve been phenomenal, getting up and down the pitch, the quality of pass and his awareness and finishing.
“He’s not played as many minutes as he would’ve liked to I’m sure but that is unfortunately part and parcel of getting a little bit older and becoming one of the senior pros.”
Despite Hernandez not featuring a fraction as often as he would have wished, Beckford is right when he says it matters little when the 36-year-old’s legacy is already ring-fenced by all that came before this season.
“He is such a gifted and talented football player but also a lovely person,” he said.
“I think that is one of the reasons why he is so appreciated by and loved by Leeds United fans.
“He’s earned the right to do whatever he wants to do from here onwards. He’s been able to bless the football club with his huge talent.
“There’s a lot on and off the field he has brought and he will always be appreciated for what he has done for the club.”
Hernandez has been so good for Leeds and vice versa – the club breathed life into a fine career that was drifting. Hernandez has been there for Leeds and from this point on it’s up to the club and its fans to reciprocate with the treatment and respect he deserves and, if ever the need should arise, any help and support he desires.
As he rides off into the sunset, to be reunited with his family in Spain and plot his next adventure, Hernandez does so a hero, with 174 appearances, 36 goals, 41 assists, countless nutmegs and a place in history secured.
Adios El Mago. Reliably brilliant and brilliantly reliable.