Leeds lost more than a manager with the sacking of Bielsa

Ian King
Leeds United's former manager, Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds United have reached the end of an era with the departure of manager Marcelo Bielsa and the owners have let head rule heart this time.


There’s a sense of mourning around Elland Road. The relationship between Leeds United supporters and Marcelo Bielsa was different to that of most fans and the guy who picks their team. He was the manager who returned the club to the Premier League, but he was also much more than that. He became an identity; in a one-club city like Leeds, such a talismanic presence possesses an influence that stretches far beyond a mere football club. Messianic is the word. The normal rules do not apply.

By July 17, 2020, most of the restrictions from the first lockdown had been lifted, but public gatherings were still limited to no more than 30 people. Enforcement of that in Leeds city centre was never going to be likely that evening after Huddersfield Town beat West Brom, thereby guaranteeing Leeds United’s return to the Premier League after an absence of 16 years. For a club that had been in administration, dropped to League One and been knocked out of the FA Cup by Histon live on television within a decade of having played in a Champions League semi-final, it was the culmination of a very long way back.

Finishing in ninth place in the Premier League last season was an even greater achievement than it was recognised for. Perhaps it was Leeds’ historical record, their perception as A Big Club, that led to this, despite the fact that, in the financially-calcified world of the Premier League, they did so with the 19th-highest wage budget. But this time around the whole season rumbled on behind closed doors and while fans could still watch matches live from their living rooms, it wasn’t the same as being there.

The fans have returned but Leeds’ second season syndrome has hit hard. The playing budget is still the second-lowest in the Premier League, and the squad has been stretched to breaking point by injuries to key players. They’ve conceded 20 league goals in February alone, with little sign that this terrible defensive record was going to end. Even when there was a glimmer of hope with two successive league wins at the start the year, this came off the back of having conceded 16 goals in their previous four games.

For all this, the decision of the club to sack Bielsa at this particular time remains a huge risk. Sacking a manager in February usually hints at panic more than anything else, and in choosing this action the owners of the club have chosen to expose themselves. Investment in the playing squad has not been high and faith in Bielsa came to act as a shield for those running the club. But Bielsa has gone now and regardless of the identity of his replacement, the owners are firmly under the spotlight instead. They will not escape considerable anger should Leeds be relegated. And they’ll never even know for sure whether Bielsa could have kept them up himself.

It should go without saying that it didn’t need to end this way. Even had they ended the season getting relegated back into the Championship under Bielsa, it’s difficult to imagine, had it simply been announced that he would not be renewing his contract, that the send-off would have been anything but warm. Even at the full-time whistle at the end of the Spurs match, their third absolute clattering in a row, there was only a smattering of boos around Elland Road. He had credit in the bank until the very end.

The commoditisation of football has reduced what matters to winning, but in truth the game is capable of touching something much deeper than the dopamine hit that comes when your team lifts a piece of silverware. It can make you think about yourself and your values, about loyalty and integrity. And when somebody within the game – especially when it can feel like so much of the game lacks any sort of moral barometer – seems to embody the values we hold, the effect can be profound.

For many years, Leeds United have been considered something of a pantomime villain and their decline was cheered on by the fans of other clubs. For younger Leeds supporters, this is what supporting them had always been. Those of us who are speeding through middle-age at an ever-increasing rate of knots can occasionally forget this, but there are plenty of Leeds United fans for whom that 2020 Championship title was as good as things have ever been. Too young for the Revie years or the 1992 title-winning team, they have lived under the shadow of the club’s history for many years. With promotion back to the Premier League those fans were given something of their own; the importance of that shouldn’t be understated.

In some respects, football is a perpetual game of push and pull between the head and the heart. The head could see full well that Leeds weren’t improving, and that the possibility of relegation had quite suddenly become very large in the rear-view mirror. But the heart saw Bielsa as something far bigger than could be created by cold, hard numbers. We all recognise that winning is important. Most people prefer to support a team that wins. But at Leeds, Bielsa came to represent something more, something arguably closer to the reason why we get involved with the game in the first place. Small wonder they’re in mourning.