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Ezgjan Alioski: the comic relief in Marcelo Bielsa’s journey

His time at Elland Road looks to have come to an end, but the maverick will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Leeds United v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship
Leeds United players celebrate after Ezgjan Alioski put them 2-1 up in a Championship game against Bolton Wanderers in 2019.
Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

The first and thus far only North Macedonian to don the white shirt of Leeds United, Ezgjan Alioski was the ninth signing of the summer prior to the club’s 2017/18 campaign under Thomas Christiansen.

Joining along side a host of players - ranging from Mateusz Klich and Pontus Jansson to Jay-Roy Grot and Ouasim Bouy - the then-25-year-old was among the last additions to the squad prior to Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at West Yorkshire, which was immediately followed by a journey which would end the Whites’ exodus from the Premier League.

Despite never being the best asset available to the Argentine manager, and standing out as one of the players who risked looking out of their depth upon promotion to the top flight, Alioski has played a key role in Leeds’ return to the highest tier of English football, and he has earned a tribute now that his departure on a free transfer is looking inevitable. His contract ran out yesterday, and reports suggest he is attracting interest from several Turkish clubs.

In 171 appearances, Gjanni registered 21 goals and 18 assists; reaching at least eight goal contributions in each of his three seasons in the Championship. He primarily featured as a left-winger until Bielsa’s second season, but across his Leeds career he has operated in a total of seven positions; Stuart Dallas is most famous for his status as a utility-man, but Alioski’s versatility has proved crucial at times in Leeds’ long awaited escape from the second tier.

His debut in a 3-2 win over Bolton Wanderers saw Alioski assist Chris Wood’s final goal for the club, and the New Zealand striker was also on the pitch when the 29-year-old registered his last assist in the 4-0 victory at Burnley last season. The period in between was rarely consistent; successive goals across four games in November 2017 was as steady as things got for the maverick.

Under Christiansen in 17/18, Alioski was a mainstay in the starting 11, featuring predominantly on the left in midfield. Despite enduring the fall of Christiansen and the short, painful reign of his successor Paul Heckingbottom, the summer signing marked his first campaign at Elland Road with a nomination for player of the season. He was also awarded the goal of the season for an excellent long-ranged effort against Nottingham Forest that found the bottom-left corner.

Left-back duties did not begin immediately for Alioski upon Bielsa’s arrival in August 2018. For a second season in a row, he assisted on the opening day, lending a hand in Leeds’ second goal scored by Pablo Hernandez. The next match saw the winger add a goal and a further assist to his tally.

Things didn’t truly get ticking until the new year, though, when first choice left-back Barry Douglas succumbed to injury. In stepped Alioski, and five goal contributions in his first nine games in defence ensured that the Scot remained on the bench upon his return to fitness.

Starts became more sparse for the North Macedonian in the 19/20 season as Dallas found a new lease of life at left-back, but he still provided some important contributions to Leeds’ promotion, including two assists in the 5-4 thriller at Birmingham City and back-to-back goal involvements in the first two matches of the Whites’ unbeaten finish to the season.

Dallas continued to dictate Alioski’s position in the Premier League, this time rediscovering himself in central midfield, thus requiring the makeshift left-back to once again take up a more permanent residence in defence. The season would go on to define Gjanni in many ways. He has never been a character to land right in the middle: it’s either a mistake-filled horror show at Fulham or a thunderous strike into the back of West Brom’s net; a wrap around the legs of Danny Welbeck or an assist for the iconic winner against Manchester City.

Significant lows were endured, to the point that many Leeds fans are accepting that now is probably the right time for Alioski to depart for pastures new, but equally significant was his run of form in a stretch of games against the ‘big six’ between March and May this year. And as poor as he has been at times, there are still aspects of his game that Leeds will want replicated in his replacement - namely his endurance, attacking threat and outright passion. Junior Firpo will represent a major upgrade on the pitch, but it will take a far greater effort for the Spaniard to fill the void left by Alioski off it. After all, the contract offer that was on the table for several months goes someway to suggest Bielsa values him highly.

Of course, football is only half the story when it comes to Alioski’s time in West Yorkshire. Leeds United became a family under Marcelo Bielsa, and Gjanni took on roles ranging from the immature younger brother to the rabid pet dog. Either way, he was rarely the face of professionalism at Elland Road, but provided an excellent foil for those who did, and that is how he forged such a strong relationship with the club’s supporters.

‘Gjanni Cam’ became a beloved addition to the matchday tradition, capturing the weird and bizarre happenings behind the scenes prior to kick-off. Things weren’t much more normal on the pitch; from nibbling Hernandez’s stomach and clapping cardboard crowdies to pulling a ‘controversial’ raspberry at Dwight McNeil, Alioski made few friends and plenty of enemies during his time at Leeds. The folks at Arsenal Fan TV will certainly be glad to see the back of the madman, who was on the receiving end of a headbutt from Nicolas Pepe in the goalless draw at Elland Road last year.

Having provided the laughs throughout the lows and highs of Bielsa’s leadership, it appears as though the clock has ran out for Leeds United’s comic relief. It nearly ended sourly when unsubstantiated rumours linked Alioski with Galatasaray. It proved an immensely divisive issue among supporters, some of whom turned on the 29-year-old, only for the links to be proved false. Despite that scare, Gjanni will leave Elland Road knowing he is loved by Leeds fans, and that he has left a lasting, unique impact on the club.

Tributes from the Leeds fanbase