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Bielsa, the Super League, and the beginning of the end of football

“Everyone who is a part of this business that football has become is replaceable, The only people who cannot be replaced are the fans. The people who don’t ask for anything in return, only emotions.” — Marcelo Bielsa

I could have been a fan of a ‘super league’ team, had things gone a little differently. My Grandpa ended up in North London via Poland, and hence became a Tottenham fan. My mum had moved up to Leeds by the time I turned up, but when we went to visit my Grandpa, he would sometimes take me to White Hart Lane.

We would watch the likes of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, some of the best players in the country, perhaps the world. Whereas the one Leeds United game I went to was in the Second Division, a 4–2 home defeat against Ipswich on my 8th birthday. You can see why Tottenham held more appeal. I even had the full kit, as the photographic evidence above testifies.

But somehow, I never truly cared about Tottenham. The first time I ever remember really caring about the outcome of a football match was Leeds United vs Barnsley in 1990, as Leeds fought to win promotion from the old second division. I listened on the radio in my bedroom, desperately willing a win which would have all but clinched promotion, only for Leeds to lose 2–1. It says a lot that over 30 years later I remember the names of the Barnsley goalscorers (Archdeacon and O’Connell) but have no idea who scored for Leeds. I’m not sure why Leeds ended up mattering to me, as none of my closest friends or family supported them, but they did.

Leeds ended up getting promoted that year anyway, and the summer bought the Italia ’90 World Cup. At the time, the World Cup was the true pinnacle of the game. Scoring for their country in the world cup final was every players dream. It seemed truly egalitarian, wealth, power and historic success were no guarantee of victory, as Cameroon’s defeat of Argentina in the opening game showed. I was transfixed, watching every possible game, as England nearly made it all the way to the final for the first time in many years.

Over the next 2 years Leeds finished 4th and then 1st in the First Division. This is how it is supposed to work, I thought. Your team can be losing at home to Barnsley in the Second Division, then two years later be the Champions of England. Teams can rise from the Fourth Division to the first and back down again. Wimbledon and Luton can win major trophies. Leeds, Norwich, QPR and Sheffield Wednesday can win, or at least seriously challenge for, the league title. Of course there were certain teams that won more trophies than most (mainly Manchester United, unfortunately, in the Nineties), but with the right manager and the right team, everyone had a chance.

Then came the formation of the Premier League and the Champion’s League, which served to entrench greater power and wealth in the hands of a fortunate few teams. Still though, every team had a chance to succeed, and every team had a chance to fail. It wasn’t even obvious who the most powerful and wealthy teams would turn out to be. If you’d asked football fans in the Nineties or early 2000s who the alleged ‘big 6’ would be in 2021, they might just have easily said Villa, Newcastle or Leeds as Chelsea or Manchester City, who simply had the fortune to be bought by a rich owner at the right time in history.

Meanwhile, over the next decade or so, Leeds United had more ups than downs, culminating in five consecutive top five Premier League finishes from 97/98 to 01/02. Then followed 16 years of many more downs than ups. Relegation from the Premier League, near bankruptcy, relegation from the Championship. A parade of terrible owners, terrible managers, and players who didn’t care. Points deductions, and all kinds of other ridiculousness (this article by Daniel Chapman of The Square Ball catalogues the insanity of the period better than I ever could)

My interest in Leeds United waxed and waned over this time. I was never an obsessive super-fan. Football wasn’t my life. I attended relatively few games, and there were other loves in my life that took priority, music and friends, and later my wife and children, but even during the worst times, I always cared about Leeds United. Even when I almost wanted them to lose to get rid of a hated manager or owner, the club always meant a lot to me.

I didn’t meet all that many other Leeds fans, living as I did in Manchester and then Brighton, but when I did, there was always the sense of being part of a community of Leeds fans, with a shared humour and history (The Square Ball podcast and fanzine also helped with this). Even when I moved back to Leeds in 2014 after my own sixteen year absence, the team didn’t quite seem to be at the heart of the city, and certainly didn’t dominate conversation.

There were some good times during this period (promotion from League 1 on the last day of the season in 2010, Jermaine Beckford’s goal at Old Trafford earlier the same year), but they were few and far between.

Then, in 2018, came Marcelo Bielsa, and everything changed. Not just on the pitch, (although change on the pitch it certainly did, more than we ever could have imagined), but everything about the club seemed to improve. It engaged with the fans, became the heart of the city again, and was (in the main), run like a football club ought to be run. Suddenly everyone was talking about Leeds United, and even when I wasn’t watching a Leeds game I knew the score because I could her the shouts from neighbour’s houses. Pablo Hernandez’s injury time winner against Swansea in our promotion season, when the roars rippled round our block, was a particularly fine example of this.

Chairman Andrea Radrizanni takes a lot of credit for this, not least for appointing Bielsa in the first place, but is the Bielsa who is the symbol of the new Leeds United. Leeds have had good managers in the past, but few, if any, have also been good men. He seems to genuinely understand why football matters so much to fans, but also that there are more important things in life than winning a football match. He always takes time for fans who meet him in the street, or send letters or photos to him, he loves and is loved in return. He hasn’t spoken out about the ‘super league’ yet, but it’s not hard to know what his opinion will be.

It seemed Leeds fans would get to watch Bielsa take Leeds back to the Premier League, playing glorious, intense, attacking football. Then came Covid-19, and whilst he did take us back (or Take Us Home, as the documentary would have it), no-one was there to see it. Nor have any Leeds fans seen their team play in the Premier League, not the dramatic 4–3 defeat to Liverpool on the opening day, not the 5–2 thrashing of Newcastle, not last week’s dramatic victory over Manchester City.

Typical Leeds, we joked, finally make it back to the Premier League and we don’t get to see them play. But we didn’t mind too much, because we weren’t going to be relegated, so there was always next year. We might genuinely challenge for European places, or, who knows, even the Champion’s League. And at the very least we’d get to see Bielsa’s Leeds compete against the very best teams in the country.

Then suddenly, yesterday, the ‘super league’. We’re now left with the prospect of no Champion’s League, instead a competition designed to make it almost impossible for a team like Leeds to qualify, and if they somehow do, impossible for the, to compete. A Premier League, either stripped of the some of the biggest teams, or worse, effectively the B teams of those clubs, with nothing to play for, zombie teams taking up space. The World Cup, denuded of the best players. The domestic cup competitions, will they still even exist?

I’m glad I chose to support Leeds and not Tottenham, or more accurately Leeds chose me, so I don’t have to face the choice of whether to continue to support a team in this farce of a ‘competition’, but I’m under no illusions that Leeds would have refused to join if they had the chance. Radrizanni, has said the right things today, but the man who, for all the good he has done for the club, took Leeds United on a tour of Myanmar, can not be relied upon to choose integrity over money.

Whatever happens now, it feels like the end of football is nigh. Even if the breakaway fails, the last pretence that football is about sporting merit rather than money has disappeared, and if the alleged big clubs don’t breakaway, they will use this opportunity to further consolidate their power, then try again in 5 or 10 years time.

I woke up today as if in mourning. Dramatic, I know, and I have been to enough funerals over the last decade to know that football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s less important than that, but I still feel an incredible sense of loss, like a part of my life has been taken away. It’s an irony that Leeds’s last game was a memorable victory against one of the breakaway teams, and tonight we will become the first team to play against one of the breakaway teams since the official announcement last night. Tonight’s game against Liverpool will feel like a wake, playing against a team who were battling for a Champion’s League place, but now have nothing to play for with a place in the ‘super league’ guaranteed.

I can’t say it will be the last game I ever watch, as Leeds United will be too much to resist, especially under Bielsa, but I can feel my interest in football other than Leeds further drifting away. I have often said in recent times that I don’t really care about football, only Leeds United, a joke of sorts, but very much a true word spoken in jest. Without true competition, based on merit, without the dream of rising from the bottom to the top, or the worry of the opposite happening, following football will seem like the pointless pursuit that some have always thought it is. The beginning of the end.

“Everything that happened was so, so beautiful” Bielsa said when Leeds got promoted last season, and it was. But it isn’t any more.

Mark J Wray is an accountant by day, music-lover by day and night. He writes about music, music and money, and occasionally other things.

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