Picture this. It’s March 2018. Forbes Magazine name Jeff Bezos as the richest person in the world for the first time, surpassing Bill Gates with a value of $112 billion. Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal are poisoned by nerve agent in Salisbury, England - Prime Minister Theresa May believes it to be “highly likely” that Russia were involved. And the footballing world looks forward to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with talk throughout the country being that football may well be ‘coming home’.
Amongst it all breaks a story of French wonderkid Ousmane Dembele, signed that summer by Barcelona for the eye-watering fee of £135 million, pleading with compatriot Hadi Sacko for a match-worn shirt of one of his idols: Pierre-Michel Lasogga.
Dembele adores the way Leeds play in the Championship under the leadership of Thomas Christiansen and then Paul Heckingbottom, and he idolises the German front-man whose 10 goals propelled the Whites into 13th by the season-end.
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it.
That’s because it is ridiculous. And anyone who would’ve thought that same story would be true in three years time - albeit swapping Lasogga for Bamford, Sacko for Illan Meslier, Christiansen/Heckingbottom for Marcelo Bielsa, and the Championship for the Premier League - would also have sounded absolutely ridiculous.
So, to Thursday, and the latest episode of the Leeds United Podcast, with Bamford - now one of four podcast hosts - revealing that exact story. Meslier came to him after Leeds’ 2-1 victory at Craven Cottage last Friday, a win which ended a 17-game winless hoodoo in the capital, asking for his shirt:
Patrick Bamford talking about Dembélé being a Leeds fan and asking Leeds goalkeeper Meslier for Bamford's jersey ❤️ pic.twitter.com/DSUTfmAKbW— mx (@MessiMX10i) March 26, 2021
The young shot-stopper - who recently earned his call up to the French under-21 squad for the European Championships in Hungary and Slovenia - Facetimed Bamford at around midnight with a Barcelona shirt in his possession. On it read: “To my bro Bamford... From Dembele”.
This, the latest of a series of high-profile Leeds-lovin’, highlighted once again how far the club has come since the takeover of Andrea Radrizzani and subsequent appointment of Bielsa. Monumental improvements on the pitch have been reinforced by similar growth off it, as Leeds have gone from ‘sleeping giant’ to multinational global superpower. Well, almost.
The adoration of Manchester City duo Benjamin Mendy and Aymeric Laporte, disciples of Bielsa. The interaction between Stuart Dallas and Erling Haaland as the Norwegian wunderkind asked for the shirt of the Cookstown Cafu during an international match. The multi-million pound investments of Paraag Marathe and his San Francisco 49ers consortium, followed by former Youtube co-founder and CEO Chad Hurley. The collaboration with Roc Nation, the talent agency and record-label founded by Jay-Z. The Leeds shirts sent to LL Cool J. And now Barcelona’s second most expensive signing ever fan-boying over the prospect of shirts from Bamford and teammate Kalvin Phillips.
This is just the beginning of the new ‘Leeds United brand’ and something which, after 16 years out of the English top-flight, preceded by years in which there was barely such a thing as a global football brand, is entirely uncharted territory.
It is something, however, that shows no signs of losing momentum. Leeds’ (just about) guaranteed presence in the Premier League next season means another year of worldwide attention, and another year of gargantuan renumeration. And the planned progression into the upper-echelons of the league is sure only to increase such attention, and such revenue.
How much of this is down to Bielsa directly is hard to clearly understand. The style of football that has grown from his tenure has been irrefutably significant. But he will have played no direct part in the investment, nor the collaborations, nor the globalisation of the brand. He will not have demanded Leeds pair up with Jay-Z and he almost certainly won’t care who LL Cool J is, never mind the potential market that can be infiltrated with his influence.
This is - somewhat impossibly, seeing as he is God to many in the fanbase: the highest power of all - above Bielsa. This is Radrizzani securing the club in the top-flight for years to come, long after Bielsa has left and long after Radrizzani himself has left.
This is the kind of investment that lays the foundations of a Premier League club for longer than any player, and manager or any owner.