Marcelo Bielsa: How Leeds United head coach turned team into champions

Leeds celebrate winning promotion
Leeds were guaranteed promotion and the Championship title before they won 3-1 at Derby on Sunday

A fabled litter picking exercise at the Thorp Arch training ground in the early stages of his tenure saw Marcelo Bielsa begin clearing the detritus that had piled up around Leeds United over much of the previous two decades.

It was a humble act from modern day players, demanded by a head coach who wanted them to understand how long supporters have to work to pay to watch them perform.

Former Leeds striker Kemar Roofe revealed afterwards: "He maybe wanted to bring us down back to earth. It was good and the whole place got a little tidy up as well." And some.

Around the same time, the dugouts at Carrow Road were cleared of all strappings, water bottles and debris after eventual Championship winners Norwich City were left obliterated by a 3-0 scorching.

Leeds and Bielsa left the Canaries' home as if the footballing tornado that had engulfed it for 90 minutes had passed without trace. Understated and devastating, the Whites were on their way back.

Bielsa's wrecking ball had swung into devastating momentum over a seven-week period after arriving from Argentina, a feat all the more remarkable considering the reversal of fortunes that preceded his coming.

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'Back where we know we belong' - watch fans react to Leeds' promotion

'Get Bielsa? Impossible'

El Loco was the madness amongst the method to ensure Leeds won promotion. It was a crazy proposition.

Following the sacking of Paul Heckingbottom in June 2018, owner Andrea Radrizzani had asked director of football Victor Orta "what is your ideal situation?" regarding a new head coach.

"Bielsa" was Orta's reply, "but I think it is impossible." The chairman said: "Why don't you try?" They did - and they succeeded.

Revered and adored in Argentina, Chile, Marseille and Bilbao, this godfather of coaching to Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino endeared himself to the Leeds fan base immediately.

What was not to love about high pressing and humility, combined with an iron will and an unwavering commitment to an aesthetically pleasing style intent on victory whoever the opponent or occasion?

Who else could fuse a lad from Wortley - around a mile and a half from Elland Road - with a Juventus legend to possibly create England's future midfield in the form of the 'Yorkshire Pirlo' Kalvin Phillips?

Kalvin Phillips
Kalvin Phillips has been dubbed the 'Yorkshire Pirlo' for his performances in midfield under Bielsa

The development of players has been exponential. Poland international Mateusz Klich was on the discard pile after returning from a loan spell in the Netherlands with FC Utrecht until the sale of Ronaldo Vieira and an injury to Adam Forshaw saw him create a blip on Bielsa's radar.

He spotted something others had not; a whirring motor of a midfielder and ever-present figure who would drive United forward in each Championship game, whilst adding a goal or two along the way.

Defender Liam Cooper, who had arrived from Chesterfield under previous owner Massimo Cellino six years prior, has now captained Leeds into the Premier League.

No more taunts of 'League One Liam' for a mature player who had always conducted himself with an air of responsibility around the club regardless if he was in the side or not due to injury or loss of form.

His centre-back pairing with Brighton loanee Ben White has meant Leeds have topped the clean sheet charts in a league for the first time since 1996-97. Cooper bought into Bielsa, he helped others to follow and Bielsa improved them all.

Embracing history

Bielsa is aware of Leeds' rich history but has never leaned on it, besmirched it or used it as an excuse. His attitude has been 'mea culpa' in defeat and magnanimity in victory.

Never courting the headlines himself, he wants the spotlight to reflect off his players and shine on the supporters whose welfare he felt was inextricably linked to the team they loved and the game he loves like an amateur.

A Corinthian spirit which saw him lauded for gifting a goal to Aston Villa last season, after he was accused of villainy by those who felt he had crossed a metaphoric line somewhere on a public highway by sending staff to watch another side train.

A stranger in a foreign land, supposedly renowned for its sense of fair play, treated unfairly, in this reporter's opinion. A foreigner who had without reproach conducted his business across South America and Europe in similar fashion but who had now fallen foul of football's authorities.

Marcelo Bielsa
Leeds' victory at Derby was their 55th win in 99 games under Bielsa

Conspiracy is the regular refrain of the Leeds fan bemoaning any act perceived to block the club's ascent.

"Leeds scum." "Dirty Leeds." "Leeds falling apart again." Just some of the jibes directed at the club by their rivals.

It's all so tiresome, all so grinding and all so wrong.

Bielsa knows a fan's pain. He has won things, admittedly just a few trinkets along the way, but for him: "Being successful deforms us as human beings, it relaxes us, it plays tricks on us, it makes us worse individuals, it helps us fall in love with ourselves.

"Failure is the complete opposite, it forms us, it makes us more solid, it brings us closer to our convictions, it makes us more coherent."

The misery of a season ago was destined to be, maybe. They say it's always darkest before the dawn and, despite missing out on automatic promotion after taking only a point from their final four games, never was it bleaker than that 20-minute period either side of half-time in yet another failed play-off as United lost control of a seemingly unassailable position against Derby.

The ultimate implosion. So very Leeds.

Leeds players are dejected after losing to Derby in the play-offs
Leeds lost a 2-0 aggregate lead as they were beaten in the play-offs by Derby last season

Bates, Beckford and the talent drain

It's 15 years since chairman Ken Bates grasped what he called a drowning club with "its head above water gasping for breath… now… on the surface swimming against the tide".

A growing tsunami was what Leeds were to face though, and not the customary currents of ebb and flow which most football clubs manage to navigate.

Manager Kevin Blackwell, before Bielsa the closest to returning Leeds to the top flight, saw his side implode 3-0 to Watford at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in the 2006 Championship play-off final.

It precipitated a horrendous descent; including, a year later, being effectively relegated to the third tier for the first time in the club's history 38 years to the day after becoming champions of England for the first time.

Administration, points deductions and more play-off final heartache followed, and a whole generation of supporters were lost as they were priced out of Elland Road, which was becoming a mausoleum. It was difficult to watch. Fans were disenfranchised.

Cue Simon Grayson's attacking and cavalier football to restore fun and a return to the Championship.

On a nail-biting final day of the 2009-10 season, a departing hero was restored to the team, given the armband and scored the winning goal to beat Bristol Rovers and secure promotion from League One - all after his side were reduced to 10 men.

It was Jermaine Beckford's parting gift in a season when he had also scored the winner in an FA Cup victory over arch-rivals Manchester United at what was renamed the 'Beckford End' at Old Trafford by jubilant Leeds supporters.

Jermaine Beckford
Jermaine Beckford starred for Leeds as they won promotion out of League One under Simon Grayson in 2010

Beckford left that summer to join Everton on a free transfer to play Premier League football.

Players of value were sold too, with Jonny Howson, Robert Snodgrass and Fabian Delph among those to move on as the club's top talent was drained.

A false dawn and the King of Corn

Supporters' groups mobilised. Banners waving, they marched on together from Leeds city centre to the ground to force change.

It came from Middle Eastern bankers GFH Capital, bearing the gift of £1m Crewe midfielder Luke Murphy.

There was a charm offensive, a popular management appointment in Brian McDermott and the promise to repurchase the ancestral home of Elland Road. All of it masked the real issue.

The cachet of having ousted Bates all disappeared as they left the club branded "potless chancers", saddling Leeds with a debt owed to them, still losing money, and a maverick of an owner in Cellino in their place.

Sardinian Cellino, dubbed the 'King of Corn', was almost chased out of town in a taxi before being permitted fit to run the club.

He repeatedly clashed with the Football League, but, like Bates and GFH before him, could not stop throwing dead money at the club, nor win a place back at football's top table.

Garry Monk led the team to 75 points in his sole season in charge in 2016-17 but no wins from the final five games somehow meant no play-offs.

Top scorer Chris Wood and talented left-back Charlie Taylor left for Burnley, and Monk for Middlesbrough.

And just to add to the schadenfreude of opposing fans who loved nothing more than to see Leeds fall apart, why not have an annual cup nightmare to add to their failure to reach or get through the play-offs?

Humiliation at home to Hereford, knocked out by a postman at non-league Histon, rings run around you at Rochdale, defeat on a plastic pitch at Sutton and then left spitting mad as Samuel Saiz was sent off at Newport.

A roll of dishonour as long as the managerial casualty list, which at one point saw six appointments in two years under the "manager-eater" Cellino.

"Coaches are like watermelons, you only know [how good it is] when you open it," the Italian said. McDermott, David Hockaday, Darko Milanic, Uwe Rosler and Steve Evans were all cracked open. Only Neil Redfearn, who had spells as caretaker and permanent boss, provided resistance.

A man with a five-year plan

Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani
Leeds have won promotion to the Premier League three years after owner Andrea Radrizzani took over at Elland Road

Cellino's reign was finally ended when sports rights entrepreneur Radrizzani completed his £45m takeover in May 2017. The glasses in The Old Peacock, the pub opposite Elland Road, were suddenly half full again.

His rhetoric was matched by action once he assumed full control. He bought the ground back himself and relieved Leeds of a punitive rent. It made supporters feel their club was coming back to them.

It took a while for things to settle. After Monk's departure, the Thomas Christiansen experiment that started so well self-combusted.

Heckingbottom came and went in a season sandwiched by the controversies around a new badge design and a post-season trip to Myanmar.

A mid-table finish was 15 points less than the previous campaign. If it was reverse gear on the pitch, there was a clear plan to accelerate the club forward off it, including proposals for the academy, the club's charitable foundation and the regeneration of LS11.

Radrizzani's vision was to return Leeds to a place amongst England's footballing elite within five years.

The club have achieved it in their centenary season, with promotion celebrated amidst a pandemic that has seen the passing of club legends Norman Hunter, Trevor Cherry and Jack Charlton mourned.

A new one now lives. Bielsa has led Leeds out of exile and swept the stables along the way. A cleaner, fitter, smarter team has been coached to greatness. He has restored pride and improved all around him.

Leeds United are back in the Premier League and football is better for it. The edginess and the "nobody likes us, we don't care" swagger will return too.

But remember, it's all because, just for once, the nice guy won.

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'Back where we know we belong' - watch fans react to Leeds' promotion