Not long after Leeds United established themselves as one of English football’s powerhouses in the early 1970s, then-manager Don Revie engaged in a public relations drive to change the club’s image.
In an effort to rid themselves of the tag “Dirty Leeds,” which followed the club due to their combative and confrontational style of football, the team tried to engage in a different way by running out at home matches in special tracksuits with their surnames embroidered on the back and autographed sock tags. They formed a line in the centre circle before kickoff, delivering a pre-match salute to all four corners of the ground and kicking plastic footballs into the crowd, all part of a charm offensive designed to give football supporters a more rounded insight into who Leeds were.
Something similar is happening now that Leeds are back in the Premier League. It’s been 16 long years since United were last in the top flight, and they’re wasting no time reintroducing themselves to the world stage. Leeds director of football Victor Orta claims the “FIFA generation” are now chiefly aware of their existence because of their belated inclusion in the popular video game alongside their Premier League counterparts, and that this is the time to capitalise.
Last weekend, the club signed a deal with Roc Nation, the sports and entertainment marketing agency founded by rapper Jay-Z, to expand the club’s brand and profile across the world, particularly in the United States and China.
“There was a strong air of excitement around a potential relationship with Leeds United across the company,” said Kelly Hogarth, Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications. “Within just an hour of speaking to Andrea and Angus we really bought into the strategic vision for the club. There was a clearly defined blueprint for success that we wanted to be a part of.”
And while the modern-day incarnation, led by progressive Argentinian manager Marcelo Bielsa, is markedly contrasted with Revie’s era and the team that flirted with glory under David O’Leary at the turn of the Millennium, only to subsequently crash out of the Premier League in 2004, there are strands that unite all three periods.
Leeds lost in the Championship play-off semifinals in Bielsa’s first season in charge in 2018-19, but cruised to the title last term in front of 35,000-plus fans every home game, and have continued their surge with a promising and uncompromising start back in the Premier League. (On Wednesday, Bielsa was named among the FIFA Best candidates for best men’s coach.) Although 14th in the table, Leeds took the fight to champions Liverpool on the opening day, setting the tone for an enterprising approach atypical of newly promoted teams, holding Manchester City 1-1 at home in between registering wins against Fulham, Sheffield United and Aston Villa.
This third act in the club’s history formed the inspiration for a mural unveiled in the city last week, featuring Kalvin Phillips, lifelong Leeds fan and homegrown midfielder, Albert Johanneson, the first black player to feature in an FA Cup Final (in 1965), and Lucas Radebe, captain for almost a decade in the 1990s and 2000s.
“To finally be here in the Premier League, we are living our dream,” striker Patrick Bamford told ESPN. “It’s unfortunate that we have come [up] when no fans are here. People watching on TV around the world will realise if fans were there. People don’t realise the size of Leeds as a club. Everyone here is humble, nobody is the main man: we’re a collective.”
“We’re ambitious,” winger Jack Harrison told ESPN. “If we can get the results, we can maybe reach Europe next year. It’s up to us to take the opportunity.”
The bond between Leeds and their supporters has arguably never been stronger. Now they are looking to take on the world.
Few managers in any sport possess Bielsa’s mystique. He is both an inspiration and an introvert, credited with influencing celebrated luminaries, including Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, yet shuns the limelight his talent naturally affords him.
Bielsa’s managerial career spans 30 years, starting at Newell’s Old Boys and includes spells at a variety of levels, including the Argentina and Chile national teams before a prolonged stay in Europe, firstly at Athletic Bilbao in 2011 prior to taking over at Marseille, Lazio and Lille. He’s not won a lot of trophies, but he remains coveted for his acumen, vision and team development. He only takes a job on his terms, too: Bielsa famously left Lazio just two days after being official appointed in 2016, but four weeks after outlining the players he wanted to sign, because of the club’s failure to back him in the transfer window.
Yet Orta had long decided the man many regarded as a volatile genius was his dream appointment.
Shortly after sacking Paul Heckingbottom, who ended the 2017-18 Championship campaign in 13th place, Orta was sat in a car with owner Andrea Radrizzani. The Italian businessman had ended a spell of turbulent ownership by acquiring full control of Leeds a year earlier, and typified his fresh approach by asking Orta who he would go after if money was no object.
“I told him Marcelo Bielsa and he said, ‘Call him,’” recalled Orta.
It was both a huge gamble to appoint someone as uncompromising as Bielsa, but also a massive coup if they could pull it off. Orta and Leeds chief executive Angus Kinnear flew to meet Bielsa in Buenos Aires after the conclusion of the 2017-18 season. When they arrived, not knowing quite what to expect, Bielsa informed them he had watched every minute Leeds had played in the campaign just gone.
Bielsa is meticulous by nature and famously exhaustive in his research. The challenge of returning Leeds to the Premier League appealed, and after weeks ironing out the finer points of his contract, the 65-year-old signed in June 2018. He found an apartment in Wetherby, choosing to take the 45-minute walk to and from Leeds’ Thorp Arch training ground every day, regularly but politely declining offers of a lift from journalists who’d pass him on their way to attend his press conferences.
He also quickly set about implementing radical changes at the club. Daily weight targets were introduced for the players, their running stats were monitored during practice sessions to the extent under-performance merited omission and a running track was installed at the training ground. It was a culture shock for the players he inherited.
“The minute he walked in, he changed the diet, he changed the weight we had to be at,” defender Luke Ayling, who joined the club in 2016, told ESPN.
“That was probably the first idea of how much he looked into things. I thought I was quite a skinny player but he came in and said ‘no, you’ve got to lose five or six kilograms.’ [10-15 pounds] I went away and worked hard to do that, but certainly now I feel better than I’ve ever felt. I’m 29, but I feel fitter than when I was 21 so it’s worked.
The most infamous — and brutal — session Bielsa puts on has become known as “Murderball.” It’s essentially a game of 11 vs. 11, broken up into segments with staff located around the edges of the pitch to put another ball in play the moment one goes out to make play continuous. There are no fouls called.
The routine is shorter than a match, but the unrelenting intensity makes it arguably the most physically challenging session in existence.
“It was quite hard to buy into it because some of his methods are stuff us English players have never seen,” said Ayling. “There is a lot of hard work, I’m not saying we didn’t work hard before, but it’s just the way we were brought up, maybe a bit of five-a-side on a Friday, a bit of keep ball, a bit of fun. But with the boss, it’s not about that, it’s about working towards that game, trying to get us in the best shape for that game.”
“When we first started doing ‘Murderball,’ I’d have said that was the worst thing, it was so hard,” striker Patrick Bamford told ESPN. “But now it is actually something that all of us look forward to. It is physically demanding and really tough but it is probably the most enjoyable part of training, the competitiveness. We’ve kind of grown to love it now.”
Bielsa famously keeps the relationship with his players strictly professional, rarely forming personal bonds. And his motivational techniques sometimes border on terrifying.
“If I have to cut a finger of mine to win tomorrow’s derby, I will,” he once told his Newell Old Boys players before facing Rosario Central. His nickname “El Loco” (meaning “The Crazy One”) was born.
Few members of the Leeds squad are thought to communicate with him away from Thorp Arch but that does not mean he is immune to sporting romance. Ricardo Lunari, who counts himself as a Bielsa disciple dating back to his time under his tutelage as a player, said in an Amazon documentary on the club: “If Bielsa doesn’t fall in love with a city, he will not go. Bielsa did not go to manage Leeds for just the football club, Bielsa went to manage Leeds for the city as a whole.”
There is a unity of purpose about Leeds reminiscent of the era that first put them on the map under Revie. Formed in 1919, Leeds won their maiden First Division title exactly 50 years later under a man who was also something of an enigma.
Revie was named player-manager aged 33 in 1961, two years after joining the club as a striker whose years, in truth, were catching up with him. Yet he was Bielsa-like in his innovation, implementing nutritional and dietary restrictions in an era when players largely consumed what they pleased — with many extending that liberty to alcohol and cigarettes — while also introducing a technical focus to training. He also sent the players for ballet lessons to improve their balance, and made under-performing individuals wear yellow tops in practice sessions to single them out from the rest.
Revie also changed the club’s kit from blue and old gold to all-white; some claimed it was an aspirational homage to Real Madrid, while others felt it was simply to make them more identifiable on the pitch. He firmly believed superior fitness levels would enable Leeds to overwhelm opponents. Bielsa would no doubt have approved.
Similarly, Revie also did not suffer fools. He got rid of 27 players in two years — back in the day when squad sizes were much smaller, and substitutions were only introduced to English football in the mid-1960s — but the results spoke for themselves. After achieving promotion in 1964, Leeds won the First Division in 1969 and again in 1974, in addition to the 1968 League Cup, the 1972 FA Cup and the Inter Fairs Cup in 1968 and 1971.
Yet Leeds were not popular throughout the country and support even wavered closer to home in Yorkshire. Leeds was habitually a rugby league town and had only been football’s First Division once, in 1924, prior to Revie’s arrival. And they were widely disliked for a fiercely aggressive style, with Revie having to defend a poor team disciplinary record over many seasons. It didn’t help that Revie engaged in something akin to the so-called “dark arts” himself, once asking the local fire brigade to flood the Elland Road pitch ahead of a game against Real Zaragoza. Yet it was all designed to foster an internal family feel with a fortress between them and the outside world, much to the chagrin of others.
Their style of football didn’t help. Revie’s team kept 24 clean sheets in their title-winning season, often edging games by tight margins. In this respect, Bielsa’s team have more in common with David O’Leary’s entertainers of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
After years of underachievement, Leeds finished third in the Premier League in 2000 and reached the Champions League semifinals a year later before flirting with a title challenge, only to fall away in the second half of the 2001-02 season. Excessive borrowing during this period caused a crippling collapse that saw Leeds plummet to League One by 2007, a nadir that feels light years from where Bielsa has taken them to in 2020.
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Leeds are 14th in the Premier League after nine games in their first year back, but they’ve won new admirers with their enterprising style, fearlessly unaltered from earning promotion at the second attempt under Bielsa last season.
The squad’s extremely high fitness level has helped them cope with the increased pace and intensity of the Premier League compared to the Championship, surprising many teams with a ferocious pressing style and intricate positional interchanging. Their bravery to play out from the back mirrors Bielsa’s ambition that far exceeds mere survival.
Phillips was rewarded for his individual progress in September with a senior England debut against Denmark — three more caps have followed since — and other players, including Luke Cooper, Ayling and Bamford, have defied critics who’d previously condemned them to a career in the lower leagues. They thoroughly outplayed Arsenal last weekend only to be held to a 0-0 draw — a rare off day for Bamford who has scored seven League goals so far, including a hat-trick at Aston Villa last month.
“If someone asked me who was the best manager I’ve worked for, I’d say Marcelo,” said Bamford. “And if someone asked me who was the hardest manager I’d worked for, I’d also say Marcelo. So they kind of go hand in hand. It is weird.
Bamford could be forgiven for thinking his chance in the Premier League had gone, having been released by Chelsea before loan spells at six different clubs and a permanent move to Middlesbrough, joining Leeds not long after Bielsa arrived at the club. Now 27, he is seizing his opportunity to lead the attack and embodies the club’s attitude as a whole.
“The manager is the first person to really believe in me as a number nine and give me, not the pressure, but the pride to wear the number nine shirt and be the main man,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Every season I always have a [goalscoring] figure in my head. I keep it all to myself and keep kind of ticking along.
“Is it more than 10? Yeah. I see how close I can get and whether I can beat it. It’s just taking each game as it comes really because there have been seasons where I’ve set I need to score a total amount of goals this month and if I’ve not reached it, I feel like I am chasing it and it puts unnecessary pressure on it, so I’ve got different ways of achieving it now.
“There is pressure, but it’s nice. You can’t complain: you’re in the Premier League, you’ve got a lot of people watching you. Put it this way: it’s not the same pressure as a doctor having to save a life, is it?”
Rumbling in the background of Leeds’ resurgence is the question of how long Bielsa will continue in his post. Although still obsessive about the game and in rude health, he is approaching a stage of life at which age becomes a factor. The longest he has managed at a European club was 113 games for Atletico Madrid; Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Arsenal was his 110th Leeds match in charge.
Director of football Orta began to draw up contingency plans at the end of the previous two seasons in case Bielsa opted out, but almost any successor will face a tough challenge given a squad moulded so irrevocably in his unique style. History serves as a warning, too: Clough lasted just 44 days in the job after Revie left to manage England, but such concerns are for another day. For now, Leeds are looking to ride the wave as long as possible, growing at home and abroad.
“After being out of the Premier League for so long, I think all eyes are on Leeds now,” Harrison told ESPN.
“Even now, everywhere I go in the world, there are always Leeds fans. Support is everywhere. There are so many people who are passionate about Leeds, we have to use that, take it through the year, be ambitious and try to achieve what everybody wants.”