Why Marcelo Bielsa isn't feeling any promotion pressure at Leeds United - 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.

Tuesday, 11th February 2020, 6:00 am

It felt shocking to hear Marcelo Bielsa say it so plainly: “The supporters are not believing any more in our team.”

What happened to soothing cliches about having the fans always with us, getting behind the lads, the crowd being the 12th man?

You don’t get that with Marcelo Bielsa. He won’t patronise United fans by ignoring that they’re unhappy. He won’t claim they’re wrong, either. He knows that only winning football will change their mood, and that’s okay, because he thinks he has the answers for that.

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It was harder to believe him, at the end of his hour-long press conference, when he said, “I don’t feel pressure and I don’t feel I am showing tension.”

But then you remember the pressure he’s been under before. At the 2002 World Cup, with the weight of an enormous soccer-mad nation on his shoulders, he was “the protagonist of the worst failure in the history of the Argentina national team”.

But he carried on to win the Olympics.

That famous story of him chasing Newell’s Old Boys’ fans with a grenade in his hand can’t be told without its beginning: Newell’s had lost 6-0, and angry supporters had come to his house for a word.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa. (Pic: Bruce Rollinson)

It’s not something I’m aware is happening in downtown Wetherby as yet. And it’s worth remembering, that season, Newell’s went on to win the league. Marcelo Bielsa has done pressure.

He’s also been warning us for almost two seasons about how the increasing concentration on results at all costs is harming football, because who can play the beautiful game under so much pressure to win?

Bielsa is aware, as few people in football seem to be, of a truth about the modern supporter: that we don’t really enjoy it all that much anymore.

Football is expensive. The players are overpaid. Facilities for fans are poor. Policing is draconian. Terraces are sanitised. Kick-off times are random.

Then the team loses, and some nerd – in Leeds’ case, the head coach – pulls out a graph of stats to tell you the team played well. Why would anyone put themselves through all that?

Well, once upon a time, we put ourselves through it for 90 minutes of escapist entertainment. Thrills and spills, drama and skills. Saturday afternoon came down to one question: did you enjoy the match? And when a ticket and beer didn’t cost a small fortune, it was easier to answer, yes.

But then clubs and leagues realised that 90 minutes a week left a lot of minutes not monetised, and now we’re hooked into football 24/7.

The game itself still lasts only an hour and a half, so the rest of the time has to be filled with something else to keep us gripped – social media, mainly, where football debate is a marketer’s dream match-up of eyeballs and adverts – so that our time spent following football has been utterly changed.

Being a football fan in 2020 is 95 per cent scrolling a phone angrily, five per cent watching a game.

Leeds United are under pressure for promotion, but for what?

If your enjoyment of football is based around a match-going routine, camaraderie, and 90 minutes of, hopefully, entertaining football, that will continue even if Leeds don’t go up. The cast might change, but the game will go on.

The upwards pressure is commercial. It’s often said that the Premier League would welcome Leeds back, but why is that? It’s because we have a large, worldwide support with deep pockets who will make the league more appealing to sponsors and broadcasters.

When Marcelo Bielsa says money is “destroying football,” as he did last season, he means it is destroying it for us, who love it.

How have we been so seduced by the hope of paying astronomical ticket prices to watch VAR ruin games that our February fixtures are so unbearably tense? There has been a lot of conversation lately about whether United need the help of a sports psychologist, and perhaps they do.

But, like the wellness industry that has sprung up to ease another Bielsa favourite, burnout, this is just selling a cure for the symptoms, not the cause.

If we’re worried about the effect of pressure on Leeds United’s players, is the answer in coping mechanisms? Or is the answer, y’know, less pressure?

If you think I’m responding to the Peacocks’ diminishing chances of going up by questioning the entire concept and meaning of promotion because my toys are half out my pram, you’re right.

But if you’re wondering how Marcelo Bielsa can claim he’s not feeling pressure at the moment, this is a reminder of what he’s been telling us for two years.

If all you want are results, avoid games and check the classified scores. But remember there’s a lot more to loving football than that.