Why the San Francisco 49ers must follow Marcelo Bielsa's example at Leeds United

The San Francisco 49ers arrived at Elland Road at just the right time.
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Three weeks after their initial investment in a 15 per cent stake of Leeds United, Marcelo Bielsa was appointed as head coach.

By that point, Leeds had been wandering the EFL wilderness, outside the Premier League, for 14 years.

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And no sooner had the minority shareholders taken their seat at the boardroom table than ‘coach Bielsa’ as Paraag Marathe calls him, started a revolution that, in two short, exhilarating and dramatic years, led the club back to the promised land.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Pic: GettyLeeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Pic: Getty
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Pic: Getty

What’s more, he did it without demanding the level of financial backing others had needed to escape from the Championship.

“We have invested a lot, but less than many others,” said owner Andrea Radrizzani yesterday.

Yesterday’s announcement that the 49ers had increased their stake to 37 per cent was no bolt from the blue, things had been heading in that direction ever since Bielsa hoisted the Championship trophy above his smiling face at Elland Road last summer.

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Why wouldn’t they want a bigger slice of the action? Especially now that it’s top flight, prime time action, with TV revenue in the tens and tens of millions and commercial opportunities so plentiful Leeds are having to bat them away until they have the necessary infrastructure in place to meet demand.

It did not go unnoticed that just 90 minutes before the £50m-plus investment was confirmed, Bielsa was playing the part of the dream head coach.

His preference to work with a one-year contract might present some challenges for a club wanting to plan for the short, medium and long-term future but his lack of demands in the January transfer market must come as a relief for both halves of the ownership structure.

Leeds shelled out £100m in the summer to add what they and Bielsa believed was the necessary quality to compete in the Premier League.

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It was a serious outlay, a ‘heavy’ burden on club finances as Radrizzani put it and had it gone wrong in the first half of the season, necessitating further additions this month, the 49ers’ investment might quickly have been swallowed up by an unforgiving marketplace.

Instead, Leeds are sitting quite pretty in a comfortable enough mid-table position having done rather well so far at a new and much more difficult level. The new money arriving from stateside can ease some of the financial pain already felt at Elland Road.

It is largely thanks to Bielsa that the club into which the 49ers are putting this fresh investment is in a much better place than the one they first backed in 2018.

The 15 per cent they already owned is worth more than they paid for it, just like the players at the club in 2018 have increased their value significantly ever since Bielsa transformed them from Championship mid-table dwellers to top-flight mid-table operators.

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Bielsa has added huge value. The challenge for the 49ers is to follow suit.

Injecting all that cash is a good start, but just as important will be the way in which they impart their knowledge and lend the expertise Marathe talks about.

Leeds are playing with the big boys now and trying to compete, on and off the field, at a significant disadvantage. Anything the money men behind an NFL franchise can do to get Leeds up to speed in a commercial and even sporting sense, will go down well with the rank and file of the club’s support.

It seems unlikely that the 49ers would get their feet under the table and kick off their shoes just to be spectators, and you have to think that a future takeover is something they have given at least a little consideration to.

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If that day is ever to come, then understanding the club’s culture and connecting with the fans in the way Bielsa has done will be vital.

He hasn’t simply dabbled in Leeds United, he’s all in. We won’t see 49ers executives renting flats above shops in Wetherby but if we see even a fraction of the passion and obsession he exhibits for this club, their stock will rise in Yorkshire.

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