After 16 long and often painful years, fans of Leeds United have had double cause for celebration this weekend with a return to the top-flight of English football confirmed and the wrapping up of the Championship title, the club’s first silverware in nearly 30 years.
Since it last played in the Premier League, Leeds has tried 15 managers in a bid to restore it to its former glory days, but only the latest, a 64-year-old Argentinian with a reputation for eccentricity, hence his nickname “El Loco” (mad man), has succeeded.
Marcelo Bielsa, who counts top coaches Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino among his admirers, is now a revered figure for fans of the northern England side, long a “sleeping giant” while sides across the Pennines in Manchester United and lately Manchester City have dominated the Premier League title race.
Since being recruited by Leeds’ Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani, Bielsa has transformed a mid-table team in the second-flight Championship to title winners, playing his brand of high-pressure, attacking football that places incredible demands on players but also brings results.
The journey from also-rans to champions has not always been smooth and Bielsa’s attention to detail and preparation landed him in hot water last season when it was revealed he had sent a “spy” to watch rival Derby County in training, with Radrizzani left to apologize for his actions.
It was typical of Bielsa, who undertakes exhaustive scouting and detail on his opponents.
“I think he is the best-prepared manager I’ve ever seen in my life,” Manchester City’s boss Guardiola has been quoted.
Another side was also revealed during his momentous first season at Leeds, winning a FIFA Fair Play Award for ordering his side to allow Aston Villa to equalize after Leeds had scored in a key clash with a Villa player down injured.
Disappointment followed as Leeds faltered in late season having led the standings, slipping out of the top two automatic promotion spots, then losing 4-3 to Derby in the playoff semifinals.
Many expected Bielsa to depart, but in a coronavirus-interrupted season he has led Leeds back to the promised land of the Premier League and the massive financial rewards on offer.
Whether he can go a step further and bring the sort of success that the club enjoyed in the late 1960s and 1970s under Don Revie will be a talking point next season.
In a sad footnote, three of the club stalwarts from the era, 1966 World Cup winner Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter and Trevor Cherry have passed away during the course of this extended season.
Radrizzani, who is reportedly set to offer Bielsa a new and extended contract, will be hoping for success on the pitch, the club won the last title of the old Engllsh First Division in the 1991-92 season before the Premier League was formed, but also to avoid the ruinous financial turmoil the club endured at the start of the century.
In a bid to compete with the likes of Manchester United, Leeds, who reached the semifinal of the Champions League in 2002, overstretched its budget and paid a heavy price with the exodus of top stars and relegation in 2004.
The club went into administration and had the indignity of a spell in England’s third flight before returning to the competitive 24-team Championship in 2010 as League One runners-up and enduring a frustrating decade with a string of managers and also uncertainty off the pitch until Radrizzani restored some stability.
Winning promotion is one thing, topping the Premier League quite another, although Bielsa has led sides in Argentina, Newell’s Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield to three titles.
Spells as Argentina national manager, topped by the side’s gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, and with Chile, leading La Roja to the 2010 World Cup and with it massive support from its fans, followed.
Returning to club football, Bielsa enjoyed success at Athletic Bilbao in Spain, pitting himself against La Liga powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid, and reaching the final of the Europa League and Spanish Cup in 2012, unfortunately losing both.
As Marseille manager, Bielsa took them to the top of the French standings and eventual fourth place in his first season before a bizarre two-day spell at Serie A Lazio, leaving with the ink barely dry on his contract in a dispute over player recruitment.
His last job before Leeds came back in France at Lille, clearing out an aging squad with exciting replacements such as now-Arsenal star Nicolas Pepe.
Since taking over at Leeds in June 2018, Bielsa has also pursued a policy of nurturing young players and it has reaped rewards, with the Championship title confirmed on Saturday with two games still remaining after defeats for rivals West Bromwich Albion and Brentford.
An emphatic 3-1 victory over Derby on Sunday set the seal on a fine weekend for Bielsa’s men, who were able to celebrate in traditional style at the final whistle, albeit without any fans to share their triumph.