Special report: Leeds, a city united again after years in football's wilderness
When Leeds United take on Derby County at Elland Road on Friday night, the focus, for once, will not be on the ghosts of Don Revie and Brian Clough, those two sons of Middlesbrough locked in eternal rancour. Nor will the well-worn footage of Norman Hunter looming out of the Baseball Ground mud and murk to trade haymakers and uppercuts with Francis Lee merit another airing to define the two rivals by their glorious and sometimes ignoble past.
Leeds, still two points clear at the top of the Championship despite back-to-back defeats, are a club that have been liberated from nostalgic infatuations and ceaseless turmoil since relegation from the Premier League in 2004 by material progress towards promotion under Marcelo Bielsa.
Derby, in sixth, are a far more mature and cohesive side now than the one Leeds trounced 4-1 at Pride Park in the second match of the season. “I’m really looking forward to it,” says Eddie Gray, Leeds’ most graceful player who also served his beloved club in two spells as manager. “It’s a big, big game. There’s a lot of optimism in the city and we have a great opportunity to go up.”
It’s another sell-out at Elland Road where signs of transformation and renewal are evident since Andrea Radrizzani became the majority shareholder in 2017. It has never been a pretty ground, stop-start development caused by decades of boom and bust and the consequent confusion of styles have robbed it of elegance. Nevertheless, its stark asymmetry, one enormous stand dwarfing the other three, is always arresting.
Yet on Tuesday, a crisp but bright winter’s morning, the car parks filled by conference and seminar goers, it felt cared for again. The towering banners swooping down from the top of the stands featuring the squad’s leading lights may be only superficial adornments but they reveal a willingness to acknowledge that this is a place that thousands of people treasure, rather than a once-a-fortnight revenue generator, the cost of whose upkeep peeved previous owners.
A lick of paint symbolises more than just a desire to tart the place up. The consideration shown for Elland Road’s importance in people’s affections is there in the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust-funded mural of the 1992 title-winning midfield - Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed – with Howard Wilkinson that has given the once notorious Lowfields Road underpass, where opposition fans braved ambush, a significantly less menacing air. Similarly, the pavement telephone junction boxes that lead back into the city past Revie Road used to be uniformly drab in corporation khaki but are now vibrantly white, yellow and blue.
Slogans that may seem trite to others – Billy Bremner’s “side before self”, “the only place for us” and “marching on together” from the song Leeds, Leeds, Leeds – are writ large on everything from seats to facades and shirt collars, homilies and commandments that have nourished an identity. The Leeds United Superstore, even in the midst of the January sale, was well-stocked and staffed. Just a few years ago, when neglect was hard to differentiate from contempt, the range was so meagre they filled some shelves with scores of discount packs of Ainsley Harriott Savoury Rice. Welcome to an episode of Can’t Stock, Wont’ Stock: Schlep over from town for a replica kit, leave instead with a bargain dinner that required only rehydration.
On Friday, across Elland Road at the Old Peacock, where you can buy beer in quart pots that demand a two-hand grip, the bar will be rammed by teatime and a nervous excitement palpable in the hum. Fifteen years since Leeds dropped out of the Premier League, Bielsa’s approach and success so far has made the club and the city feel united again.
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” says Mick Hooson, a fan since 1970. “The style of football is a joy to watch compared with some of the stuff we’ve seen over previous seasons, we’ve got a team that dominates possession and regularly has twice as many shots on goal as the other side.
“The club was absent from the city centre for years but now has two shops [opened in 2016 and last summer] and you do see more stickers in cars, more people wearing hats or badges on their coats. We’ve been away so long that there are supporters now who weren’t born when we were last in the Premier League.
“My son, who is 19 in a couple of weeks, went to his first game on Boxing Day when he was four but his generation at school, Leeds supporters were not the majority – it was Chelsea, Man Utd even. When I was at school there were no Man Utd fans – there was one Liverpool fan who actually came from Liverpool but everyone else supported Leeds.”
It’s not just a generation of fans that has been lost to Leeds but a couple of generations of players, too, as another fan of almost 50 years’ standing, Fergus Dick, points out. “We’ve sold James Milner, Lewis Cook, all those kids,” he says. “If we could just get to the point where we don’t have to sell our young players anymore. And Bielsa loves the kids – to see Jack Clarke roaring down the wing fills your heart. We need those kids to stay and the only way to keep them is to go up. So we’ve got to go up.”
While there is anxiousness, there is no hysteria beyond the customary blowhards on Twitter, and Bielsa’s character has been instrumental in that. “He’s so humble and a real servant of the game,” says Adam Pope, the BBC Radio Leeds club correspondent and commentator. “There’s no false modesty, no deflection tactics when explaining defeats, he always supports referees and is totally willing to take responsibility when things go wrong.”
Despite the Championship defeats by Hull and Nottingham Forest and QPR’s victory in the FA Cup last week, Leeds continue to create chances but have been dogged by a failure to be clinical even during the run of seven wins that preceded them. No one has had more shots per game than Leeds, and only Norwich have managed more shots on target, but as Bielsa pointed out, they have the efficiency of a bottom-five team converting them, putting away only one in five or six chances rather than their promotion rivals’ one in every two or three.
Having lost Jamal Blackman, Samu Saiz and Lewis Baker from the squad that started the season, Leeds’ progress with essentially the same team that ended last season in 13th is testament to Bielsa’s coaching skill. “They have the ability to stay there,” says Pope. “But it’s whether they have the resources and whether they get that bit of luck with injuries that they haven’t had at all. There’s a real excitement but there’s also a feeling of ‘it’s Leeds, it can go wrong at any time’.”
Bielsa’s preference for a small squad, confidence in his youth players to cope when the injuries have mounted and inclination to keep attacking, to try to win every game, is a high-risk strategy. But any attempts to mitigate this in style and recruitment would feel more like emasculation than compromise. Leeds hired him knowing his methods and are where they are because they have empowered and entrusted him.
“He has instilled a belief in the players that his ideas and way of playing the game is the way to go about it,” says Gray. “The players are all buying into it and everybody’s in harmony.” Even with major fitness concerns for Pablo Hernandez, who has made 10 goals and scored another seven, Bielsa says: “We have no excuses whatsoever not to win against Derby. We have the players - we have to reach the win, with optimism.”
That word, “optimism”, keeps recurring and Leeds fans have long since appropriated the “Leeds are falling apart again” taunt as their own song of scornful defiance, a sarcastic weapon against pessimism. As Gray says, “You can’t not have hope now. Aye, we’ve had a little blip but we’re top of the division going into the second week of January, playing good football. This is a great opportunity – you’re not going to get a much better one.”