As we look forward to our final game of the current campaign, and the very welcome return of a proportion of our loyal supporters, it is time to reflect on our first season in the Premier League after a 16 year absence. There can be no doubt we have entertained, enthralled, educated, made headlines, been the light to guide our city through dark days of lockdown and single-handedly taken on the nefarious powers of the footballing establishment and emerged triumphant. But we should also recognise that the season has been about more than just my programme notes.
A top half finish in a season, where, based on historical averages, a newly promoted team has a 50% probability of relegation is a testament to the quality, passion and commitment of the entire squad. The fact that we have done it in the swashbuckling style that Andrea demanded, core to the Leeds United footballing DNA makes it particularly satisfying, whilst sitting top of the Premier League form table for the last 10 matches bodes well for next season, whilst happily confounding the proponents of the myth of ‘Bielsa Burn Out’.
The emphatic nature of the performance against Spurs (whilst briefly aided by some sterling work from Stockley Park’s crack Goal Prevention Unit) felt like a culmination of four years of hard endeavour. To follow that up with back-to-back away wins and six answered goals illustrated we are now adding consistency to our quality.
The development of the squad has been a thing of beauty, with the core of our Championship side stepping effortlessly up to Premier League and combining superbly with the new additions who, to a man, have integrated perfectly. Nowhere is this more evident than at centre-half where I believe we have more strength in depth than almost any of our competitors and can perm any two from Liam, Pascal, Robin and Diego and go into matches confident of our defensive solidity. Over one thousand minutes without conceding from a set piece illustrates the improvement across the season.
The season’s statistics throughout the team are equally impressive; Illan has made the second highest number of saves of any goalkeeper, Jack is the leading midfielder in terms of goals and assists, whilst Patrick ranks in the top five in the league for strikers on the same metric. Impressively Luke leads the whole of Europe in terms of ‘total yards progressed upfield with the ball’ which settles once and for all on the perennial 'Messi/Ayling best player' debate.
Hence tonight’s Player of the Season Award will be as hotly contested as the award for the most unusual body part declared offside by VAR. Stuart Dallas has looked the complete footballer by playing in almost every position in almost every game (and excelling in each), Raphinha’s form has surely set up a battle between Brazil and Italy to compete for his international services, whilst England can approach the Euro’s with confidence knowing Kalvin can be their world class midfield lynchpin.
Tonight’s event will also be an occasion to thank the huge number of people who have played their part in not only making this season a success, but also in continuing to build the foundations that will be the basis of making Leeds United great again.
Firstly, to Andrea, Jed and Paraag who’s understanding of the true meaning of custodianship has been put into brilliant focus against the sordid context of Project Big Picture and the European Super League. Secondly to Marcelo who has been the mastermind of this irresistible footballing renaissance and his loyal coaching staff whose passion and commitment are never diminished despite the intensity of their working environment. Head of medicine Rob Price and his team deserve particular praise for keeping the squad match fit despite the most rigorous of conditioning regimes including the weekly Murderball sessions where they could easily be confused for combat medics.
I would also like to thank all the Elland Road and Thorp Arch Staff, who, like all of us, have endured a challenging year. The results we have achieved on the pitch are a testament to each and every one of them. Particular thanks should go to the contumacious Leeds Directors Box Ultra’s who have travelled on a bus (sponsored by Taittinger and The Elland Road Cafe) to every away game where they have tried their best to channel the spirit of the Leeds United away end and charmingly trample any semblance of Directors Box decorum.
Today’s match sees us bid a grateful farewell to two players I know both hold special places in the hearts of everyone who loves Leeds United.
Firstly, to Gaetano Berardi, a man hewn from Swiss granite whose menace on the pitch is only matched by his quiet charm off it. Outside the club he will be remembered as a combative defender who knew what it meant to play for Leeds, inside the club he will also be remembered for his professionalism and influence around the dressing room. Marcelo’s decision to re-sign him knowing he would struggle for first team fitness proves this point and it was fitting he was able to make a Premier League debut as reward.
Secondly to Pablo Hernandez; ‘El Mago’ has written himself into Leeds folklore by being the inspiration behind our promotion season. Being nutmegged by Pablo became a rite of passage for seemingly every Championship player and he appeared to either score or be intrinsically involved in every goal that took us to the Premier League. His winner at Swansea and the scenes that followed will be etched in all our memories and I believe he will rightly be viewed forever as a true Leeds legend.
But once again our biggest thanks is reserved for our supporters. Whilst you have not been here in person, the boys know you are here in your thousands in spirit and be in no doubt, your loyal support has always been felt and appreciated.
In terms of looking forward, Marcelo and the board have been planning for next season since the turn of the year and whilst we will be using the window to strengthen, it will be done judiciously using Victor’s unique recruitment insight which will, no doubt, consign my pallet of ‘Orta Out’ T-shirts to another year in storage. However, the success of our next campaign will not be defined by the additions that we make, but the continued growth and development of the high potential squad we deliberately assembled. The future should excite us all, but nothing should excite us more than our biggest summer signing which will be the return of the Leeds United faithful. The promise of unleashing a packed Elland Road on the Premier League will be a joy to behold and it is this prospect that reinforces when we are united there should never be a limit to our ambition for our club and what we can achieve together.
Marching on Together