The Premier League needs Leeds United. It needs the mystique of Marcelo Bielsa, a manager so beloved by Leeds fans that two of them are in a recording studio working on Bucket Man as a musical tribute to his match-day seat of choice. It needs Bielsa’s intense, imaginative football. It particularly needs the passion of the Leeds faithful.
There are some great travelling supports in the Premier League, such as Manchester United and Newcastle United, among others, and Leeds would be a welcome addition on the road as well as with the atmosphere that they generate at Elland Road. After Leeds played away to Preston North End on April 9, the police officer in charge of the away section at Deepdale praised the 5,516 visiting fans for being “as loud as ever and no issues, no arrests”.
Leeds fans would represent an antidote to some of the ills besetting the Premier League. They are the opposite of the glory-hunters swooning because of a club’s prominence. Leeds fans might consider a half-and-half scarf if stitching together Leeds United and the Kaizer Chiefs, Lucas Radebe’s old team. They are the antithesis of what Roy Keane famously termed the “prawn-sandwich brigade”. If somebody mentioned opening a tunnel club at Elland Road, the ready wits on their terraces would suggest that it was probably an escape route after 15 years’ incarceration in the EFL.
Supporting Leeds is a passion passed on from generation to generation. When they played Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, there were children too young to remember the Premiership years leaning excitedly over the yellow and blue railings almost two hours before kick-off at Elland Road, high-fiving Bielsa and his players as they marched from the bus.
Three hours later, a fan called Matt Richardson celebrated Jack Harrison’s winner so enthusiastically that he broke his ankle. A friend of his took a picture of Richardson in his seat afterwards, smiling, his left foot at a painful angle, continuing to watching Leeds before the medics arrived. As he was helped into a wheelchair, Richardson kept an eye on the game while doing a thumbs up to his mates, who took great delight when he was strapped in by shouting: “Seatbelt on”.
Richardson later tweeted from hospital that “this is what supporting Leeds United does to me” . . . “but idc [I don’t care] because Leeds won”. Victory took Leeds to 82 points, four behind the leaders Norwich City and three ahead of Sheffield United with four games to play in the compelling race for the two automatic promotion positions.
Leeds know they still have major work to complete. They also know how much they want it. If Leeds do go up, the city will acquire even more of a buzz, there will be more students switching there, and there will be smiles among broadcasters, knowing that noise is guaranteed at Elland Road.
After Leeds were relegated from the Premiership after a 4-1 thumping by Bolton Wanderers on May 2, 2004, their then caretaker-manager Eddie Gray remarked defiantly: “It will not be the end of the club.” No chance. Not with thousands of Leeds fans singing louder and louder in trying to lift vanquished players, including one of their own, Alan Smith, who was in tears. And this is why Leeds United survived. The fans. And that is why 13 days later, as they bade farewell to the Premiership with defeat at Stamford Bridge, the Leeds fans sang We’ll Meet Again.
Pablo Hernández, the 34-year-old winger, has been among the success stories under BielsaIAN HODGSON/PA
Barring some day-trips in the cup to elite venues, Leeds have been in exile for a decade and a half, away from all the riches and international exposure of the Premier League, and yet if anything support has grown. Millions were stunned when the actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, went on Jimmy Kimmel Live to promote Series 8 and talked excitedly “about a guy who magically transforms the north into this beautiful paradise . . . and his name is Bielsa”.
Coster-Waldau instructed the studio audience to shout: “In Bielsa we trust.” So a Dane is a Leeds fan. Why not? Leeds have a global appeal. Adversity has not alienated many. For many, there is enhanced pride at sticking by a distressed asset. All Leeds, Aren’t We? Coster-Waldau is. Hundreds of thousands are.
When the club tweeted a picture of Elland Road before kick-off on Saturday, Radebe quickly replied in an emotional salute to this “field of dreams” he graced for 11 years. It is great men and players such as Radebe and Gray, loyal Leeds servants, that stir even more love for this club, and an even deeper longing for them to return to on high.
Leeds also asked where people were watching the game against Wednesday, and were inundated with locations around the world, reflecting holidaying families on half-term but also the extensive Leeds diaspora: Dublin, Vienna, North Carolina and Coney Island, and Vancouver, Oslo, Cologne and Pietermaritzburg as well as Trondheim, Inverness, Bordeaux and Georgia.
Leeds have suffered much in their 100 years, so many well-known tales: cup-final shocks, managerial defections, inexplicable refereeing decisions, administrations, points deductions, supporters slain, players on trial, overspending, goldfish worth their weight in gold, the sale of Elland Road, strange owners, knocked out of the cup by a postman, play-off heartache, a season without a shirt sponsor, embarrassing tours and a redesigned badge that so angered fans they organised an online petition of protest.
Over the past 15 years in particular, the Leeds story has been part circus, total chaos with only the supporters staying firm. Theirs is an everlasting love, through thick and thin, almost gruel-like thin. Supporters kept turning up to be counted.
When they then dropped into League One, they were the best-attended club in the EFL and would have been 13th in the Premier League. Whatever their status, Leeds’s support has always been full-on Premier League. On reaching, against all odds, the 2008 League One play-off final against Doncaster Rovers, many Leeds fans flocked to the Doncaster ticket office when their 36,000 allocation was snapped up in hours. After 23 minutes at Wembley, the multitude in the Leeds section launched into Marching on Together, soon joined by hundreds of their number in the Doncaster section.
These are fans who kept the faith, even when they kept selling talent such as Luciano Becchio, Robert Snodgrass, Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson and that was just to Norwich City. Sam Byram, Ross McCormack and Lewis Cook also went.
Players went, the support remained. More locations poured into Leeds’s official timeline on Saturday: La Manga, Florida, Toronto and Tenerife, and Ko Samui, Kathmandu, Orlando and Sydney, and Madrid, Gibraltar, Alabama and LA. Leeds was certainly on Georgia’s mind. Matthew Fitzpatrick’s Keighley-born caddy Billy Foster wore his Leeds shirt under his overalls in Augusta, a Masters-stroke.
In Bielsa he trusts. After 25 managers, including caretakers, in 85 years, Leeds have raced through 18 managers in their mad, maddening past 15 years (with Neil Redfearn in charge four times) but have now found a saviour in Bielsa.
That is why they were watching in Bilbao and Buenos Aires, places where Bielsa is particularly revered. The meticulous Argentinian has made Leeds believe again, brought the atmosphere back, spent little, given youngsters a chance, got them playing from the back, made light of injuries, and always adhered to his style, even when results dipped. Even when 2-1 up against Nottingham Forest with ten men and 20 minutes left, Bielsa kept his team attacking. They lost 4-2 but didn’t sacrifice their principles. It is a purist ethos that has endeared Bielsa to such stellar managers as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino.
On it went, more missives from Leeds fans tuning in from Dallas, Seattle, Shanghai and Singapore, and Tipperary, Budapest, Sao Paulo and Oklahoma, and Kuwait, Mar del Plata, Brooklyn and Tennessee.
Those travelling to Elland Road from Plymouth and Pudsey and all stops inbetween swelled their average attendance to the 11th highest in England (33,868). Others informed Leeds that they were watching “on my phone whilst out for a family meal”, “between my fingers”, “from behind the sofa” and “in A&E with access to a defibrillator”.
What promotion would mean, if they hold on, is loyalty rewarded for those who keep turning up at Elland Road, and for those who moved away but tune in from afar, never, ever losing their love of Leeds United.
Also It would be very difficult to find a ticket now. I don't mind as long as we gain promotion though.
This is more important than been at the game.
Hopefully I'll see you next season in the premiership Alex