When Gordon Strachan met Marcelo Bielsa - Leeds United legend on Thorp Arch encounter and cliche-busting Whites
Marcelo Bielsa’s quip to a national newspaper writer in December showed just how keenly aware he was of Gordon Strachan’s Leeds United status.
Ahead of the visit to Old Trafford, Bielsa was asked about the career of Manchester United hero George Best but replied: “I thought you were going to ask me about a Leeds United player, a more symbolic player for Leeds like Gordan Strachan.”
The Scot, Bielsa said, was just the player for such a fixture.
So when the former Whites captain paid a visit to Thorp Arch, it is no surprise Bielsa laid on a welcome fit for a legend and helped strengthen a bond that 245 appearances, 45 goals and Second Division and First Division titles with Leeds United had forged.
Strachan simply wanted a chat and some insight into the coaching at his former club, but came away with a revelation that explained why Bielsa’s Leeds have followed up a Championship title with a fine first season in the Premier League.
“We went up there just for a chat, I wanted to speak to everyone at the training ground and spoke to Marcelo before training,” Strachan told the YEP.
“He was great. I sat in on the team meeting, which I didn’t expect, he made me feel very welcome and then he said would you like to watch training.”
Strachan politely declined so that Bielsa, who had given up his time for a conversation, could get on with his work. But the head coach wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I said ‘you’re a bit late’ and he said ‘no, no the other coaches do the warm-up and then I go in there when the real stuff starts’.
“And when he does go in there, everything is 100 per cent.
“Every one of us works at closing down to a certain extent, movement and shape but this is all done at 100 per cent.
“The players have all got in their mind before they go out how they’ve got to work, where they’ve got to go, the yard where they’ve got to close down and within that intensity there’s somehow a fitness level built up that scares other teams.”
Strachan was part of a Leeds team for whom supreme fitness was non-negotiable under Howard Wilkinson and he took it into his own coaching career. The conditioning of the current Whites side unnerves opposition teams, he believes.
“It’s something I’ve said for 20 years, my belief since I was at Leeds, that the fitter you are you can actually scare teams, you win that battle right away,” he said.
“I think Liverpool had it when they won the league, teams went ‘oh no I’d rather not be here today’. I think that happens with Leeds.
“Other teams look at Leeds and know they’ll be pushed to their physical limit at all times. Normally in a game of football you can get a breather somewhere along the line but you don’t get a breather with Leeds.
“When they get the ball there’s a freedom to play but there’s a willingness to run without it and get back behind it, so fitness is a huge thing.”
Twenty-six years after his departure, Strachan rarely misses a Leeds game, relishing as much as any fan the entertainment value they provide. At times he removes his coaching hat to scratch his head.
“Most football fans are going ‘right when’s Leeds on, I’m going to watch them’,” he said.
“I’ve no idea what the score’s going to be but let’s watch it because there’s always something going on. You need to check your TV, make sure it’s not running fast because the game is flying along.
“It’s great for the fans and great for coaches to have a look and try and dissect. You scratch your head and go ‘right okay, I’ve never thought about that myself’ or ‘I didn’t think that would work but it does’.
“The man-marking at times this year, wow, how do you get away with that when you’ve got your entire back-four playing in the left-back area? You think ‘I don’t think I could be brave enough to do it’. I’d find it very hard to believe the players would believe what I’d be doing was going to work.
“It’s great viewing, a great couple of hours out of your day.”
As Leeds have gone about the business of entertaining the Premier League audience, they’ve picked up enough results to ease well clear of the relegation fight.
Strachan admits he didn’t see them performing as they have but fully expected them to leave a lasting impression.
“Pre-season I talked about teams that come and go in the Premier League and you don’t really notice they’ve been there, they don’t leave a mark, there’s teams in the league just now who don’t leave a mark but Leeds leave something.
“Did I expect them to play so well and get so many results, especially against the top teams? Maybe not, but I did say Leeds were going to add to the spectacle.
“The Premier League has a lot to be thankful to Leeds United’s players, staff and Marcelo for, in particular for producing football that’s not guaranteed them a win but guaranteed entertainment.”
The players who have caught his eye are too numerous to mention, he says, because the level of performance across Bielsa’s squad has been consistently high.
When pressed, it’s the stalwarts of the promotion side who earn his seal of approval.
“There’s about 13, 14 players who get picked and you wouldn’t say any one has been below what you expected from them,” he said.
“But there’s big plusses with [Patrick] Bamford, I think he’s been absolutely terrific. To lead the line, do so much work and do so much work when the other team’s got the ball and still have the ability to score goals, run the width of the 18 yard box and take knocks, I like him.
“I’ve always liked [Stuart] Dallas, [Luke] Ayling and [Kalvin] Phillips. That’s putting them just above players who are playing exceptionally well all the time.”
Watching on as the men who wear the white shirt he not only graced, but became fiercely attached to, do it justice once again in the English top tier, Strachan can hardly hide his pride. For him, everyone carrying responsibility for the club’s fortunes and redefining what the words Leeds United Football Club mean should feel exactly the same.
“I still have my Leeds United friends and meeting Marcelo, the coaching staff and players was another added link to the club again for me,” he said.
“There’s a pride. Over the years it has always been ‘dirty Leeds’ and we laughed it off and quite enjoyed it as Leeds fans for a number of years, but I think we’re quite enjoying people watching the club and enjoying the football so much.
“It’s breaking down old cliches. Being a successful team is one thing, but breaking down cliches is an incredible thing to do. It looks like Leeds are everyone’s second team. Everyone involved must be so proud. They must be so proud.”