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Leeds United v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship
In Bielsa We Trust: the Argentine manager greets fans ahead of a Championship match in 2019.
Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

Even if the ship were sinking, we were still willing to go down with the captain

It is rare for managers in football to retain such strength of support and loyalty from fans despite suffering back-to-back thrashings and the threat of relegation looming, but Marcelo Bielsa is no ordinary manager.

By the summer of 2018, Leeds United had long been a sunken ship. The foundations were rotting away from consecutive seasons of mediocracy. With every mid-table finish in the Championship, the light at the ocean’s surface looked more and more dimmed. The captains who sunk the vessel had long abandoned ship, while others failed to restore it in the years since.

Then came Marcelo Bielsa.

Elland Road had likely never before witnessed such a drastic change, such a burst of life from something that most assumed was near-permanently broken. That 3-1 win over Stoke alone is proof enough that even in the most dire of circumstances, Bielsa has what it takes to turn things around. Which makes the club’s dismissal of their prized manager and the timing of their decision even more frustrating.

Bielsa was not just responsible for a sudden tide of positive results, enabling Leeds to compete at the top of the Championship table like they never had in the previous eight seasons; he made the club a unified force for the first time in living memory for some fans. Even long-time supporters of the club who had witnessed Don Revie’s golden era and Howard Wilkinson’s exponential rise to the top were relieved that such a long period of anguish had come to an end.

A reignited spark between players and fans is usually a given that comes free of charge when results are going the club’s way, but Bielsa’s influence reached well beyond that. The Leeds United chairman and board had established themselves as pantomime villains during the dark days prior to and during the lengthy Premier League hiatus, but thanks to Bielsa’s success, and the manner in which he achieved his goals, saw the likes of Andreas Radrizzani and Victor Orta achieved heroic statuses of their own - statuses that risk being tarnished if their chosen path to survival does not bear the fruits they have promised.

Granted, fingers began to be pointed at various parties after underwhelming transfer windows and an unprecedented injury crisis, but what Bielsa’s sacking has shown us is that even if his methods were no longer delivering the same results, he had earned the right to see out the season. Instead, the 66-year-old was the subject of hours of speculation, before the club finally announced his departure the morning after rumours had first been spurned by the likes of TalkSPORT and The S*n.

If Bielsa’s previous seasons at the club tell us anything, they imply that the decision taking by the club was rash and exposes a lack of patience. Of course, patience has been hard to come by this season, but this is not the first time Bielsa’s Leeds have struggled in the early months of the new year. 2019, 2020 and 2021 saw similar runs of poor form, and every time Leeds bounced back. It was not enough to avoid a slip-up at the end of his first season at the club, but in the following two years Bielsa led the Whites to the Championship title and a top-half Premier League finish.

Even in the aftermath of the playoff heartbreak, the first concern of fans was not necessarily their club’s failure to grasp promotion at the final hurdle - we all knew that despite the outcome of that rollercoaster season, Bielsa’s position as manager would be integral if this group of players were to take Leeds back to the top flight. Similar reservations are being held now; yes, we have suffered significantly poor results, and the bottom three is drawing ever closer, but Bielsa’s DNA is embedded within this club and its players. Take him away, and the risk of relegation arguably grows even greater.

Whatever happens for the remainder of this campaign and in the coming years, Leeds supporters will always be thankful to have witnessed Bielsa’s transformation of not only a football club, but an entire city - a city that the Argentine is now ingrained in. Not just through physical reminders like the murals and street names, but through the memories that will be passed down through the generations of Leeds fans for many decades to come.

No other manager could have provided such an unexpected injection of joy at Elland Road, when newly-relegated Stoke were played off the park. No fan would ever exchange the highs of Kemar Roofe’s back-to-back last-minute winners against Aston Villa and Blackburn, nor the lows of the ‘spygate’ scare and the playoff defeat to Derby. Pablo Hernandez’s winner at Swansea and Bielsa’s lifting of the Championship trophy was not witnessed in person by supporters, but neither events will ever be forgotten. The same goes for Patrick Bamford’s brilliant hat-trick at Villa and Stuart Dallas’ incredible winner at eventual champions Manchester City.

Bielsa’s only trophy may have been in the second-tier, but under the circumstances it meant as much as any, and when we look back at Bielsa’s era it will be held in a regard not dissimilar to Revie’s and Wilkinson’s. After all, it was his ideals and philosophies that brightened our days supporting Leeds United - and how his distinguished way of thinking and living made us all better people - that best represent the Bielsa years, more so than medals and trophies.

For Leeds to avoid slipping back into Championship obscurity, Bielsa’s influence at the club cannot end here. Even if they require some level of adaptation, his humble ideals and complex philosophies still provide the clearest path to success with this group of players. Within the story of Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich and Adam Forshaw, Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford, Bielsa plays a central role. He instigated a revival few thought possible, and even in his absence, he is still our best chance of surviving and flourishing.

His heart may lie with Newell’s Old Boys, but ours lie with him, and we hope he knows that.

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