Marching on together: Bielsa and Leeds show team spirit as wait goes on

Louise Taylor
Photograph: Paul Thomas/Getty Images

The plinth supporting the landmark statue of Billy Bremner outside Elland Road bears a simple, yet evocative, message. “Side before self, every time,” it declares, reminding everyone of the former Leeds United captain’s personal mantra.

In a very different way, and a much altered context, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds are now emphasising they are every bit as big on teamwork as the trophy-hoarding, no-quarter-given Don Revie side Bremner helmed with such a memorable mixture of finesse and ferocity.

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The Championship leaders’ reaction to being stuck in an unwanted, coronavirus emergency induced, holding pattern at a time when the Premier League is clearly visible on the horizon has been impressively mature and measured.

On Thursday Bielsa, his players, senior coaching staff and club executives accepted a wage deferral in order to protect the jobs and incomes of 272 less well remunerated members of both the club’s backroom staff and its army of casual workers. Other teams are now expected to follow their lead.

Bremner was, aptly, described as “10 stone of barbed wire” on the pitch but he would surely have approved of the current Leeds captain, Liam Cooper’s role in negotiating an arrangement designed to prevent the loss of homes and livelihoods.

In the absence of the customary 35,000 match day crowds at Elland Road Leeds are, according to their chief executive, Angus Kinnear, losing “millions of pounds” a month. With an annual £40m wage bill becoming unsustainable first teamers have agreed to their wages being temporarily capped – a reduction to a sum in the region of £6,000 a week – leaving the balance to come when normality is finally restored. While the average Championship salary is around £12,000 a week, Bielsa’s top earners, Patrick Bamford and Kiko Casilla, command around £30,000.

Never in Leeds’s 16 year top-flight exile has it been more imperative to secure a Premier League return with its attendant, £100m broadcast revenue funded cash infusion but, given the lives being lost and the wider economic crash, the club is not about to feel sorry for itself.

Top of the second tier and, seven points clear of the play-off places with nine games remaining, the players could be forgiven for feeling like travellers within sight of their final, long dreamed of, destination who, after a desperately circuitous journey, find themselves left circling interminably amid thick cloud.

An awful lot of hard work, mental as well as physical, has gone into reaching this position but a bigger picture has been grasped. Already Bielsa’s squad have donated sufficient money to prevent the largely matchday funded Leeds fans foodbank from folding while individual players, most notably Cooper and Stuart Dallas, have gone into role-model mode, using social media to emphasise the importance of social distancing. Holbeck Together, a local charity helping the elderly, has received the club’s entire food stocks.

Cooper and company can now only hope the Elland Road larders will be refilled and the season eventually concluded with the team still occupying a top-two position. No one wants the current campaign to be voided with promotion and relegation either suspended for a year or Leeds and second-placed West Brom becoming part of a temporarily extended 22-club top tier. If being in limbo is bad enough, the sheer uncertainty about the future is worse for players and fans alike.

Or at least it initially seemed so. Daniel Chapman, co-editor of the Square Ball fanzine encapsulates a now almost unimaginably altered local mood. “Two weeks ago the idea of calling off the season had everyone saying ‘Typical Leeds’,” wrote Chapman in the Yorkshire Evening Post. “That’s gone. Any defiance the mirror now shows is mostly wide eyed fear as I think less often of promotion. The death tolls from Italy are of a scale that can be mapped onto blocks of seating at Elland Road. The notion of the virus being ‘typically Leeds’ seems absurd now that we can appreciate it’s global impact on our increasingly local lives.”

If, and when the current Championship campaign resumes, Cooper and company must regain the momentum that was serving them so well. Given the likelihood of playing behind closed doors, they will surely have to do so without their adrenaline-supplying supporters and that incessant “Marching on Together” soundtrack. What affect might that have? And how might a lay-off involving players training alone at home influence a team whose high intensity style demands unusually hard, and highly intricate, daily practise-ground drilling.

Bielsa’s squad went into lockdown with personalised exercise plans, sleep monitoring devices and diet sheets complementing the deliveries of exercise bikes and other gym equipment to their houses. Their daily weigh-ins and body fat monitoring are now undertaken electronically with the results taken on trust.

All head coaches are control freaks to varying extents but for a micro-manager as obsessive as the Argentinian to suddenly be forced into taking such a hands off approach at a time must be particularly disorientating. As his squad cycle and run along Yorkshire’s country roads – and especially those surrounding the footballers’ mecca of Linton, near the market town of Wetherby – what on earth does Bielsa do? How does he fill the time which would normally be occupied by his famous daily dust inspection at the club’s Thorp Arch training ground.

Despite his Argentina-based family remaining in South America the Leeds manager has opted to stay on in his modest flat in Wetherby. Bielsa now has little option but to indulge his passions for reading, taking long walks through the adjacent fields he has come to love and, above all, playing an active role in WhatsApp groups created by the players, coaching and medical staff. “This club’s communication has been second to none,” says Cooper. “There’s been a lot from Marcelo on WhatsApp telling us to stay safe.”

Locally based Leeds fans cannot wait to see Bielsa drinking coffee in Wetherby, posing for selfies in Morrisons or listening to music on his headphones as he makes the hour long walk to Thorp Arch once more.

For the moment though, they can rest assured he and his squad really are all about “side before self”.