As a scattered sea of white buoyantly congregates around the statue of Billy Bremner ahead of kick off, fans look ahead to another cold Yorkshire winter at Elland Road.
They won’t have forgotten in a hurry that it was this time last season when things began to go south under former boss Thomas Christiansen, leading to a 10th, and eventually 11th managerial change in six years as they buried themselves into mid-table under Paul Heckingbottom. The lack of experience in both bosses’ résumés was evident and left many heads placed firmly in hands, wondering if the rotating door at Leeds would ever stop spinning.
But despite the grey clouds looming above, there’s now an unwavering positivity seeping through the crowds ahead of the visit of Brentford. Grinning parents have brought children, decked in full kit, to their first game. Early morning flights from Belfast and Dublin were packed with Irish fans, some of which say this is their first trip to the ground since 2001. Use of the towering East Stand’s upper tier, often deserted in previous years, has become the norm this season due to high demand.
Since Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival in June, there has been a firm change in attitude at Leeds both in and outside the dressing room. The former Argentina and Chile boss’ decision to join the Championship side understandably raised many eyebrows across the football community earlier this year. This is one of the world’s most admired, if not unconventional, managers. Poaching his services should be regarded as a huge success. But as he’d never set foot into the English game before, and doesn’t speak the language, there would need to be a degree of patience.
It wasn’t long though before Bielsa, nicknamed ‘El Loco’, was comprehensively shaking things up. He wasn’t just putting his players through far longer, heavier training sessions than before, with a meticulous programme drafted out for each individual. He also sent them around the Ashton Thorp facility picking up litter for three hours, so they could appreciate how hard the average fan had to work to purchase a ticket. A classic move from the Argentinian’s unorthodox school of discipline.
“We feel like there’s something changing here,” concur two regulars, Lesley and Ian, clutching a polystyrene plate of chips between them. “We’re always talking about how we’re a big club, and we should be doing better than this,” adds Lesley, reflecting with disdain on the last few seasons. “But there’s not been anything there like this before. We’re just hoping the momentum carries on now.”
The differences on the field are as evident as on the touchline. Bielsa watches on from his blue bucket – he dislikes standing and the dugout is too low – as his team continue to dominate. Even when quality has dipped, Leeds have at least come back into the game late on. They’ve come from behind to clinch points in five games this season. A draw against Brentford, courtesy of a last-minute equaliser, is further proof of that fighting spirit.
The international break came at the right time for Bielsa. Injuries have plagued the side so far, and this period will have hopefully allowed Gaetano Berardi and August player of the month Kemar Roofe to return to fitness. It’s also a beem chance to put those not heading off on their travels through their paces once again.
“There’s been big changes between a lot of the players,” says Adam Forshaw, reflecting on the season so far. “Everybody bought into it and you can see it’s working… it’s pleasing for all of us that our hard work’s paying off, and credit to the manager and his staff that he’s brought in. They’ve really made the difference for us.”
Forshaw is a big fan of his manager. Although he’s not started a game for Leeds this season, partly due to injury, he’s happy just to learn from his new boss on the bench. It’s his attitude which encapsulates what Bielsa needs for everything to run smoothly. For the Argentine’s high-intensity regime to work, he needs his players to be ready to listen. And so far, they’ve all been singing from the same hymn sheet – even if it has been carefully translated from Spanish, word for word.
“He’s just a perfectionist I would say,” adds the midfielder. “He just wants everything done professionally. Everything done right. I think he doesn’t mind the times if technical things aren’t there. But if you really are working hard and the fundamentals, the basics, the high-intensity work [is there], I think eventually the technique comes through then as well.”
In his slow, but impressively thorough press conferences, Bielsa stares down the table as he calmly answers every question, one line at a time to his translator, in great detail. He may not give interviews, but some of these have gone on for half an hour compared to the five minutes or so other managers are willing to give.
“I’m always thankful when people support me,” says the 63-year-old when asked about the reverence he’s been shown so far. “One of the best feelings you can have is when you know that people love you. At the same time, I don’t give a lot of importance to these expressions because they stimulate the vanity and the vanity does not make us better people. So I’m thankful, but deep inside me I try not to take this too seriously. And then with the time you see the dimension of the impact you have in one place.”
In the “beautiful” city of Leeds, as the Argentinian refers to it, the fans are happy and the players are happy. And the owners are showering the manager with praise too. Since his acquisition of the club last summer, Andrea Radrizzani has seen his investment double. Although he still thinks Leeds are being “penalised” in the Championship under its current format, he has faith that with Bielsa at the helm they’ll be playing Premier League football again in no time.
“I think everything [has to do with him],” says Radrizzani, “The club has progressed already in terms of management, facilities and also the sports side is doing better, so all the combination, the big impression is the club is catching up to be a modern club and to be soon, if not this year maybe the next one, to be ready to go in the right direction.
“That’s what I wanted after last year. I really wanted to have a manager to have a strong leadership who would be a catalyst for the whole club, the players because I thought we needed to change the culture the culture of work and in the entire club and very quickly he has achieved this objective.”
There’s no denying the rising levels of optimism at Elland Road this season, which is only building as things progress. As long as all parties are on the same page, and the manager can exercise his unique style, the side stands a better chance than ever of awakening this giant from its 15-year slumber in the Football League.