Three thousand Leeds United fans stand in the south-east corner of Derby County’s Pride Park stadium singing “You’ve only come to watch the Leeds” and, for once, it’s true. I’ve heard this song hundreds of times but this is the first time it’s ever been true. I have only come to watch the Leeds.
To be precise, I’ve come to watch a Marcelo Bielsa team live and in the flesh for the first time.
Leeds mean business
It was clearly a gamble when Leeds appointed Bielsa, a man whose two previous coaching positions, at Lazio and Lille, had ended abruptly. For those of us who prefer to recall his thrilling Chile team, the all-action Athletic Club side that shocked Old Trafford and the start of his spell at Marseille, the prospect of Bielsa coaching in England was tantalising.
Leeds shares more in common with Bilbao and Marseille than Lazio and Lille in the sense that it is a one-club city desperate for, and deserving of, greater things. There are few cities in England like Bilbao and Marseille, where you can walk around Casco Viejo or Vieux Port and only ever see Athletic or Olympique shirts, scarves, flags and posters. In England, you are never far away from someone wearing the colours of a top-six club.
Leeds may be the closest we have. Perhaps Newcastle. Perhaps Sunderland. All clubs whose fans have been derided for dreaming big while their results got worse and worse.
It all comes down to results, of course, but if the success fans crave cannot be achieved through results, the next best thing is to entertain them and make them feel a connection with the club again. For that, Leeds fans can certainly rely on Bielsa and his coaching methods. Success is an option too, because Leeds have started the season like they mean business.
Fifteen years outside of the Premier League
When I think of football in Yorkshire, I think of Leeds United. I’m too young to remember the Don Revie era but Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds were the best team in the country when I first started watching the game and, thanks to the effect of the Champions League, there was an even stronger sense of the big time around Elland Road by the turn of the century.
It all unravelled so quickly. By the time the current season comes to an end, Leeds will have spent fifteen years out of the Premier League. Since then, Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United have all spent time in the top flight and Huddersfield Town are there now. No one team could represent such a huge area but for many, Leeds remain the most synonymous with Yorkshire.
In other sports, Yorkshire has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Its cricket team won the County Championship in 2014 and 2015 and provide Joe Root, the captain, and Jonny Bairstow to the England side. The Tour de Yorkshire has been a huge success – this year’s edition brought 2.6million spectators to the roadside and generated almost £100million for the region’s economy. Olympians such as Nicola Adams, the Brownlee brothers and Jessica Ennis-Hill have all boosted the county’s sporting profile immeasurably.
Today, teenage football fans in other areas of Britain would not dream of lining Leeds up alongside those names. Leeds have been reduced to the status of a relic, known more simply for being “dirty Leeds” than anything else. Perhaps that tag will never be lost, and perhaps there is no desire from Leeds fans to lose it, but we arrive now at a moment in time when the opportunity has arisen for Leeds United to become a byword for something other than dirtiness or failure.
Talk of promotion may seem premature in mid-August but the nature of the performances, and the teams beaten in these first two games, deserves excitement. Fragile, wary excitement. Stoke City were dispatched 3-1 on the opening day at a fever-pitch Elland Road. I went along to Pride Park to see Leeds dismantle Derby County.
There’s a lovely balance to this Leeds side, powered by combinations and symmetry. Luke Ayling and Barry Douglas are the perfect, roving Championship full-backs. Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich are a well-suited pair in central midfield – Klich, in particular, has looked so composed in the first two games of the season that it seems odd he was sent out on loan for the second half of the last campaign and expertly curled in the opener.
The real deal
The real verve of the side lies in the front four of Ezjgan Alioski, Samuel Sáiz, Pablo Hernández and Kemar Roofe, whose interplay and movement off the ball has been too good so far this season for grizzled veterans like Ryan Shawcross and Richard Keogh. The scheming Sáiz looks a successor to the likes of Adel Taarabt, Anthony Knockaert and Rúben Neves – all of whom won promotion to the Premier League at least once – as a stylish player from abroad lighting up the Championship. He appears the real deal. Admittedly, Derby gave him the freedom to stroll through midfield repeatedly, especially in the first half, which helped.
After Tom Lawrence equalised for Derby with an unstoppable free kick, Roofe struck two very different goals in an accomplished manner. For the first, he drifted off Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori to head back across Scott Carson. In the second half, he tricked his way past the Derby defence before lifting his shot into the roof of the net.
Alioski added the fourth to send the Derby fans heading for the exits and leave Frank Lampard staring at empty stands when his first-ever home game as a manager came to a close.
As with so many well-balanced, competent first elevens, the question marks concern what will happen when injuries and fatigue hit. This is a particular problem with Bielsa sides due to the demand for tempo and high-pressing. Patrick Bamford doesn’t seem an immediate fit, his introduction in the second half overshadowed by another substitute.
Jamie Shackleton was born in Leeds in October 1999, when Elland Road was in the midst of savouring a six-match winning run in the Premier League. He made his debut at Pride Park and instantly appeared perfect for Bielsa’s system, quick to close down and economical in possession, seemingly yet another impressive youngster to come off the production line. More of the same would offer hope there is cover for the inevitable unavailability of first-team performers later in the season.
Leeds fans have spent years hoping for change. They must be hoping at the moment that nothing changes at all, that their players stay performing, stay winning, stay on course for the Premier League.