Return to glory: Leeds United’s masterplan is in its final phase

It wasn’t long after moving into his Manchester City office that Pep Guardiola wrote out a full Marcelo Bielsa speech on his white wall, not far from where his Johan Cruyff statuette stands. He reads it every day, ruminating on the words and forcing them to the centre of his mind. 

“The moments in my life when I have improved are closely related to failure,” the speech kicks off. “The moments in my life when I have regressed are closely related to success.”

Bielsa’s words have been somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy since he followed Guardiola to England in 2018. He took a once-great, then-Championship mid-table Leeds United into third place, only to falter in the playoffs. This year, he was on course to turn automatic promotion into a formality but a recent string of inexplicably poor results have called that into question.

Still, the initiative remains with United. And should they seize it, the reverberations will be felt in the Premier League — and likely even far beyond.

The speech continues: “Being successful deforms us as human beings, it relaxes us, it plays tricks on us, it makes us worse individuals, it helps us fall in love with ourselves.”

If all goes to owner Andrea Radrizzani’s plans, Bielsa may have to contend with more mainstream success than he has ever imagined. Promotion would bring so much more than the glamour of facing off against coaches like Guardiola: it would set Leeds on a path back towards their once high pedestal.

Understanding how this could happen begins with the club’s gargantuan fanbase. Loyal, fervent and too often mired in hooliganism controversies, Leeds boasts supporters that have refused to turn their back on Elland Road — no matter how dire things have become. By capitalising on those sheer numbers with prudent commercial strategies, Leeds is currently bringing in revenue that is more than double the average Championship figure.

A sound investment

Their influence is not confined to that pond. As reported by The Athletic last month, replica shirt sales have exceeded 110 000 for the season and are likely to push 120 000 by its close. That amount places the brand firmly within the country’s top 10 at the very least — potentially tens of thousands ahead of some Premier League clubs.

In light of the club’s ambitious drive to return to top-flight football, the world’s leading kit manufacturers have been left scrambling to get a slice of what might grow into an even bigger pie. Kappa wants to renew its contract, with Nike and New Balance circling, but most reports suggest Adidas have all but locked down a lucrative multimillion-pound contract that would rival everyone but the elite of English football. Whether it will be confirmed in the next two months and what provisions are put in place should Leeds fail to achieve promotion will be most interesting to watch.

Of all people, it was Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish that pointed out this huge potential to Radrizzani when the two found themselves seated next to each other at a dinner a few years ago. It didn’t take long for the Italian to crunch his own numbers and in 2015 he took the risk of acquiring a club still reeling from the financial crisis that plummeted them into a relegation spiral more than a decade ago. Fast-forward three years and he had flipped the club’s investment profile on its head as he sold a 10% stake to the San Francisco 49ers — an American football team valued at $3.5-billion.

Radrizzani looks set to continue to offload shares under the guise of recruiting investment for Leeds. Most notably, he’s attracted the interest of Qatar Sports Investments — owners of powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain — and has openly batted his eyelids at them, throwing out a  £100-million valuation of his holding. Such a behemoth would undoubtedly pump hefty sums into the club, should a deal be struck, and would establish a firm set of starting blocks for any new Premier League adventure.

What differentiates this Leeds iteration from that of five years ago is a clear vision and plan; with Bielsa, the club has the man to execute both of those. Currently second, four points off first, a return to their 2019 form should smooth out their surge to automatic promotion. In the absolute worst-case scenario, United lose in the playoffs and come back with an even stronger shout next season.

The great irony in all of this is that Bielsa has achieved his own cult status despite collecting very few accolades along the way. Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino are two of the most respected coaches of their generation, yet both are self-proclaimed “disciples” of a manager with a lot of empty space in his trophy cabinet. One must wonder just what role he will have going forward if he helps create the nouveau riche Leeds his handlers dream about.   

“I was happy when I enjoyed amateur football,” Bielsa continues in the speech on Guardiola’s wall. “I was happy when I matured as I was in love with my job. I have a deep love for football, for the game, for the corner kick, for the narrow space, for the long line on the pitch, for the football itself. I despise everything that comes after those concepts.”

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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