Why El Loco is the football hipsters’ choice
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As the new season kicks-off JAMES BROWN looks at an unexpectedly exotic managerial appointment which offers a ray of hope for his club.
Not since Kevin Keegan went to lower league Fulham or European Cup-winner Rafa Benitez dropped into the Championship to get Newcastle United promoted has the world of non-Premier League football been lit up by such an extraordinary appointment as the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa, the former Argentina and Chile coach, at fallen giants Leeds United. But even such an audacious appointment needs to be backed with signings.
There was a photo doing the rounds on Twitter recently that pretty much sums up the lot of the transfer-starved football fan desperate for new arrivals at their club. The picture was of Andrea Radrizzani, the Leeds chairman, asking a young fan with an autograph book, 'what should I sign?' To which the kid replies 'at this stage just about anyone will do'. Radrizzani took the hint and swiftly acquired last season's leading left back in the division, Barry Douglas, from Wolves, and then striker Patrick Bamford from Middlesbrough and a young winger on loan from Manchester City, Jack Harrison.
All managers and fans who know anything about the game will tell you it's easier to be promoted by having better players than the other team. It's simple stuff. Hence the frustration when you don't improve on the playing squad that under-achieved the year before. There is occasionally another route, though: the coach that inspires average players to success. Much-travelled Neil Warnock achieved this feat at Cardiff City last season.
His former club Leeds have given themselves a similar possibility of success and promotion out of the second tier into the promised land with the appointment of Bielsa, a man two of the leading managers in world football, Pep Guardiola of Premier League champions Manchester City and Mauricio Pochettino of pretenders to the throne Tottenham Hotspur, consider to be the one of the most influential coaches in the game. The Argentine Bielsa has built a reputation for advanced intellectual player analysis through, among other things, enormous player-video consumption. He takes the time to know everything about the players to hand, and then works out how he can improve them.
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Not having cast my eyes much further than the away grounds of Brentford, Derby County and Bristol City in recent years, when Bielsa was appointed I held my hand up and said: 'I've never heard of him.' When talkSPORT breakfast host Alan Brazil did pretty much the same, he was hung, drawn and quartered on Twitter, where Bielsa's appointment received a positively volcanic reaction among the world of Mundial magazine-reading football hipsters. In terms of response, it was a little like when the original Star Wars stars reappeared as older versions of themselves in The Force Awakens.
The reaction ranged from utter disbelief and mockery at such an idea to simple awe. This is, after all, a club who the FT recently listed as one of the great fallen giants of European football; who have quietly slipped out of the chaotic reign of the previous owner Massimo Cellino who appointed a footballing nobody in David Hockaday – a likeable but virtually anonymous youth man, as his first coach. He later refused to allow any player to wear the number 17, and asked the father of a potential new recruit to remove his shirt during a meeting because it was purple, both for superstitious reasons.
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The club is now on better footing but for the new owner, Radrizanni, this is still his third manager in a year. To me the appointment felt a little like Jock Stein's little-known 44-day stay in the manager's office at Elland Road in 1978. A managerial great who was possibly past his best. Despite being an eye-catching appointment, it's a while since Bielsa has enjoyed sustained success and he left his most recent jobs at Lille and Lazio after 13 games and two days respectively.
His acclaim is not without foundation though. The highly-regarded Leeds United correspondent of the Yorkshire Evening Post, Phil Hay, has described Bielsa as 'the godfather of modern, intellectual football' and no-one has gone into bat against this opinion, yet.
Bielsa established his reputation in South America, where his passionate desire for football at its finest, and the lengths he went to show that love, won him the nickname El Loco. Anyone who has ever seen a spaghetti western won't need a translation here.
You don't have to do too much to be considered an outsider in football, as Eric Cantona proved, but Bielsa has both genuine success and eccentricity to his name. He made his name with Newell's Old Boys in Rosario, the city he grew up in among a family of academics, winning the Argentine league ahead of more fancied opponents. Rosario is also the birthplace of both Lionel Messi and Che Guevara, men whose status combined could almost reach the esteem Bielsa is held in locally for delivering them the league.
He managed the Argentine national side for six years between 1998 and 2004, coaching a generation of stars, including Diego Simeone, the manager of serial Europa Cup winners Atletico Madrid, former Real Madrid left back Gabriel Heinze and legendary centre forward Gabriel Batistuta, all of whom have been keen to praise his influence when asked. He went on to manage Chile, getting them to the World Cup, after two tournament absences. Bielsa established his credentials even further in Europe with a successful two-year period at Athletic Bilbao, playing remarkable football to knock Manchester United out of the Europa League in 2012. Bilbao were clapped from the pitch by United fans, who are unlikely to extend the same courtesy should Leeds ever reappear at Old Trafford.
If his tactics and vision have been put to more productive effect by his former pupils, his reputation for doing things differently lives on. He is an enigma who refuses one-on-one interviews, but is happy to host two hour-long press conferences after games. He is said to have responded to irate fans who came to his house by approaching them with a live hand grenade and has been known to discuss the fortunes of his teams in tears.
Since his arrival he had been taking a crash course in both English and Yorkshire. He's been seen with a DVD of Ken Loach peak-Yorkshire epic Kes at an away friendly in Oxford, has sung the praises of the Yorkshire Dales and in an attempt to keep the county tidy and show his pampered players what real hard work is like he's had them spending hours picking up litter at their training ground. His first game – a 3-1 victory over Championship favourites Stoke City – was so impressive one rival fan questioned whether it was actually Barcelona playing in white.
Passionate, professional, unpredictable and provocative, if Bielsa sticks around long enough to make a lasting impact he could just be what Leeds and the Championship needs.
James Brown is the author of Above Head Height: A Five-a-Side Life.