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Gaetano Berardi: the lion who put side before self, every time

Leeds United’s longest serving player will leave the club at the end of the season.

Burnley v Leeds United - Carabao Cup Third Round
Berardi was bloodied in a League Cup clash against Burnley in 2017.

The era of Covid has posed some immensely difficult challenges for Leeds United and its fans, who have endured the passing of Revie-era legends Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Trevor Cherry and Peter Lorimer. Today, though, will provide an opportunity for supporters to give their farewells to modern-day heroes. Pablo Hernandez established himself as one of the Championship’s greatest ever players as he played a starring role in the Whites’ promotion to the Premier League, and fans are eager to give him the send-off he deserves against West Brom. But an equally emotional departure will be that of Gaetano Berardi.

In an open letter to fans shared by The Square Ball, the Swiss defender announced he is leaving the club at the end of the season, just days after ending his lengthy first team absence in the 2-0 win at Southampton. Arriving at Leeds in July 2014, Berardi was the first of Marcelo Bielsa’s promotion-winning side to join the club, and went on to make 156 appearances.

The then-26-year-old took a pay cut to join Leeds during a volatile period in the club’s history. Massimo Cellino was the club president, and Berardi would play under revolving door riders in David Hockaday, Neil Redfearn and Darko Milanic over the course of the forgettable 2014/15 season. Accrington Stanley were the opposition during the defender’s debut, and although he assisted Souleymane Doukara’s opening goal, the match would be remembered for Berardi’s acrobatic last-minute challenge that resulted in a straight red.

Six sending offs have followed since, including three in the 2017/18 campaign, but it was his passionate, hardy attitude that made him a fan favourite at Elland Road. His shirt was bloodstained on three occasions; the first two a result of elbows from Rotherham strikers in his second season at the club and the last coming in a 2017 League Cup clash at Burnley (above) - shortly before he headbutted Nottingham Forest’s Matty Taylor in a heated Championship exchange.

Derby County v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship - Pride Park
A typical challenge to win the ball from Berardi shortly before his injury in the penultimate match of the 2019/20 Championship season at Derby.
Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

Supporters will fondly remember the 32-year-old for his ferocious defending and hesitance to pull out of tackles, but he has left his mark on far more than just a handful of unfortunate Championship attackers. “Side before self, every time” is a saying coined by Billy Bremner and immortalised at Elland Road. It first resonated with the great Don Revie team of the 1960s and 70s who frequently put their bodies on the line to land Leeds with their most successful period. But since he arrived to little fanfare almost seven years ago, Berardi has taken on the role of embodying the famous motto.

We are currently in the fortunate position of loving almost every member of what feels more like a family than a squad of players, but such a connection between fans and players was merely a pipedream in the summer of 2014. The group which earned promotion from League One had largely been disassembled, and the mid-table rut in the second tier was well and truly underway. Star players saw a stepping stone rather than a home in Leeds.

But that was not Berardi’s style, and he made it known to Leeds fans in the infamous ‘sick note six’ saga. Guiseppe Bellusci, Mirko Antenucci, Marco Silvestri, Edgar Cani, Dario Del Fabro and Doukara were all signed at a similar time to Berardi. When they made themselves unavailable for an upcoming match against Charlton through alleged injuries, however, Berardi - who actually was injured - refused to partake in the revolt and travelled to London. Where many players came, failed to make an impact and left, the Swiss defender was forging a lasting relationship with supporters who had grown accustomed to heartache.

It has not been plain sailing since then, and consistent first team football is something that has eluded Berardi for much of his time in Yorkshire. Moreover, fans have not always felt so positively about the Brescia youth product, particularly after the 2018/19 Championship play-offs. The wind was blowing for Derby at Elland Road, and a stunning comeback was on the cards with 12 minutes of normal time left. A poor challenge on ex-Leeds midfielder Bradley Johnson resulted in a second yellow for Berardi, though, and the writing was on the wall. Seven minutes later, Jack Marriott scored his second and Leeds’ promotion hopes had been cruelly ended.

Leeds United v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Play-off - Semi Final - Second Leg - Elland Road
Berardi catches Johnson late in Leeds’ historic play-off loss to Derby.
Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Of course, very few players have enjoyed a perfect run during their time at Leeds, and even fewer can stake a claim to forming a close bond with the fans having joined during some of the darkest days in the club’s history. His error against Derby as an honest one, and he had more than made up for it by the time he next faced the Rams. Many players across elite football saw their contracts run out before the season’s end in 19/20 due to the three-month break during the first wave of the coronavirus. Those who did sign short-term extensions were risking their futures, as any injuries could end their hopes of playing club football the following campaign.

This did not faze Berardi though. His contract was running out and his future with Leeds was uncertain at best, but the lion had made his home among the Peacocks. Pen was put to paper, and Berardi put everything on the line to ensure Leeds could cross it and end their 16-year spell in the wilderness. Playing the full 90 minutes in Leeds’ last match prior to promotion, a 1-0 win over Barnsley, Berardi started again as a promotion-winning defender at Pride Park. Disaster struck after 30 minutes in the form of a torn ACL, and although a joyous Berardi celebrated with his teammates after the final whistle, the repercussions could have been ill-fated.

Luckily for him, Marcelo Bielsa had entirely changed the fabric of Leeds United, who were among the first clubs to take wage cuts in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Whites offered Berardi the opportunity to recover at Thorp Arch despite his precarious contract situation, and he made a handful of appearances for the U23s before making his long awaited first team return against Southampton, around 10 months after he sustained his injury. There may have only been a few undercover Leeds supporters at St. Mary’s, but supporters across the world were jubilant to see their hero return to action.

Today will be a remarkably emotional day in more ways than one. Leeds as a club has endured so much, experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows, all without fans in stadiums. Another rollercoaster of emotions can be expected as West Brom are welcomed to Yorkshire on the final day of an extraordinary campaign; 10,000 supporters will celebrate the incredible achievements of Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi, and tears will be shed as they take their final steps on the Elland Road grass. Most importantly, the club’s fanbase will have a perfect opportunity to let the departing duo know just how much they mean to Leeds United.

How are you feeling ahead of the conclusion to the 2020/21 season? What has been your favourite Berardi moment? Let us know in the comments and over on Twitter!