Leeds United's 16 crazy years: Part 5 - Return to the Premier League
Marcelo Bielsa reluctantly joins the celebrations after masterminding Leeds United's return to the Premier League. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images.

Part One: Living the dream, Bates and play-off despair

Part Two: Administration and League One

Part Three: The end of Bates, GFH and Massimo's madness begins

Part Four: The Cellino era

2017-18: Double failure

The summer of 2017 was a fresh start at Leeds United, with Andrea Radrizzani now in full control of the club and the bleak days of Massimo Cellino at an end. Radrizzani’s first job was to put together his top team, including Middlesbrough’s head of recruitment Victor Orta in the role of director of football, with the greatest control over recruitment. Ivan Bravo was appointed as director of strategy, having previously had the same role at Real Madrid, while former Arsenal and West Ham United chief Angus Kinnear joined as managing director.

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The appointment most keenly awaited was that of head coach, after Garry Monk’s departure at the end of the previous season. Danish-born former Spain international Thomas Christiansen, who had led APOEL to the Cypriot league title and the Europa League round-of-16 the previous season, secured the job with an impressive interview in Madrid, with Radrizzani saying: “I liked his approach, very humble but at the same time very motivated to become the coach of Leeds. He was prepared and for the first time I saw a manager come in with a PowerPoint and details.”

Other decisions in the summer helped make a positive impression with fans, not least the repurchase of Elland Road. The ground had been in the hands of Manchester-based property developer Jacob Adler since being sold off in 2004 and successive owners had vowed to activate the 25-year buy-back clause, but Radrizzani was the one to live up to his promise, spending around £20m through his Aser company’s subsidiary, Greenfield Investment. Leeds United Ladies were brought back under the club’s banner having been cast aside by Cellino, and Radrizzani was indicating he would be around for the long-haul if successful: “If I go up I’m not selling. I am young, I can stay here for 20 years and enjoy. It’s a dream; why build all of this if I then have to leave?”

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They spent more cash in the transfer market than at any time in the past 15 years, helped by the £15m windfall from the sale of Chris Wood to Burnley, plus compensation to come of between £6m and £7m from the same club for the out-of-contract Charlie Taylor. The incoming signings included Mateusz Klich from Twente for £1.5m, Samuel Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski for around £3m each, as well as Felix Wiedwald as the new first-choice goalkeeper and Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who would go on to be second-top scorer behind only Kemar Roofe, on loan from Hamburg.

In stark contrast to each of the three bosses to begin the previous seasons, Christiansen made a fantastic start. Leeds were top of the Championship table for a fortnight in September after going through the first seven matches unbeaten, including six consecutive clean sheets after opening with a 3-2 win at Bolton Wanderers. They were also on form in the EFL Cup, scoring nine goals in the first two rounds against Port Vale and Newport Country and knocking out Premier League Burnley on penalties, before losing in the fourth round to Leicester City.

Three drastic swings in form would follow, however. Six defeats in seven saw them collapse down to 10th in the table at the beginning of November, but five wins in six then saw them sit in fifth over the Christmas period. A 2-1 win at Burton Albion on Boxing Day would prove to be Christiansen’s last, however, as a failure to win any of the next seven, including an FA Cup humiliation at Newport, saw him pay the price. Losing 4-1 at home to Cardiff City was the final straw, and Radrizzani apologised for Christiansen’s appointment, telling the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Anything that doesn’t work is a mistake so yes, I did make a mistake. I apologise to the fans and the club, and for my experience I need to learn and analyse better my choice before making it… We need to share this responsibility but probably the job was a little bit too big for him at this point in his career.”

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Christiansen was dismissed on February 4 and a new man was appointed within two days. Paul Heckingbottom had signed a new contract at Barnsley just days earlier but the lure of Leeds was too great, leaving their Yorkshire rivals “shocked”, albeit £500,000 richer. After securing an 18-month contract, Heckingbottom said: “It’s a big opportunity, a big football club and something you work hard for. I’m planning to make the most of it… When I spoke to Victor and the owner (Radrizzani), it really aligned with what I was thinking and how I’d like to work.”

However, it would be a second unsuccessful appointment. Heckingbottom won only four games and none away from home, failing to find the right team and system to rekindle a play-off challenge. His first win came in his fourth game against Brentford and only one more would follow before late April, by which time his long-term prospects at the club were looking unfavourable as they limped to a finish one place outside the top half.

There would also be a couple of PR own goals to stain Radrizzani’s first season. The first came in January when a new club crest, depicting the ‘Leeds salute’, was unveiled to widespread criticism and ridicule, with more than 75,000 people signing a petition to see it scrapped. The club dropped the design but would face more serious questions a few months later when a post-season trip to Myanmar, where the government and military have been accused of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority group, was planned. Shadow sports minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan called the club “morally corrupt” and British Rohingya Community UK described them as playing “football on the grounds soaked in the blood of innocent Rohingya children, women and older people”. But with Radrizzani’s eye on expanding his broadcast company Eleven Sports in south-east Asia, the tour went ahead in May with matches against a Myanmar league ‘All-Stars’ team and the national side.

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After that trip, a deal was secured with 49ers Enterprises, the business arm of NFL giants San Francisco 49ers, to hand over a minority stake in the club. The group had been interested in Leeds for more than four years, since the dying days of GFH’s reign as owners, and took at least a 10% stake with their president, Padraag Marathe, appointed to the board of directors. Radrizzani said: “This strategic partnership enables Leeds United to align with and gain invaluable expertise from the owners of one of the biggest global sports entities.”

But the season would end more familiarly with another head coach departure. Heckingbottom was let go, with Kinnear explaining that: “Our objective is to bring in a Head Coach with more experience who can help us reach the goals we have talked about since we became custodians of the club last summer.” Leeds were looking for a new coach for the fifth summer running, and after two failures Radrizzani and co needed to get this appointment right. And so they went big.

2018-19: El Loco, Spygate and fair play

It was Orta who first suggested the name of Marcelo Bielsa. To say it would not be an easy deal would be an understatement; where most previous appointments were honoured to be offered job, here the top officials at Leeds would have their work cut out persuading their man to join. Several weeks of conversations followed and a well-researched Bielsa set out his demands, before it could all be signed and delivered in Buenos Aires on June 14 and announced the next day. A fantastic brain, a dedicated man and an ‘El Loco’ character would be coming to Yorkshire.

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No coach has been more influential on 21st-century football than Bielsa, whose disciples include compatriots and former players Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone, plus Pep Guardiola, who visited him in 2006 to learn his ways before experiencing unprecedented success. His football was aggressive, focused on pressing high, winning battles, controlling possession and always looking forward. It was intense, as training would be, and he once declared: “If players weren’t human, I’d never lose.” He explained his style in his first press conference as head coach, speaking through a translator as would be the norm: “I want people to take the game by the scruff of the neck, not be scared to get on the ball and play and spend time in possession of the ball and not spending time trying to win it back.”

However, this was also a coach who had won nothing since an Olympic gold medal with Argentina in 2004. Since winning three championships in his homeland in the 1990s he had had a colourful – if undecorated – career; building the Chile side which later went on to great success; taking Athletic Bilbao to Europa League and Copa del Rey finals; walking out of Marseille straight after the first game of his second season; declaring he had no intention of coaching Lazio two days after his appointment; and lasting 13 games at Lille before being suspended and eventually sacked for his forceful determination to cast aside senior players for youngsters.

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From the outset, Bielsa’s focus was on improving the players already at the club, rather than demanding vast sums be spent on new ones. The only significant additions would be Middlesbrough’s Patrick Bamford for a minimum £7m - Leeds’s biggest transfer in 18 years – plus £3m-rated Barry Douglas from Wolves and four loan signings including Manchester City’s Jack Harrison.

From a bucket in his technical area, Bielsa oversaw the best start for any coach in Leeds United history. It began with hugely impressive wins over Stoke City and Derby County, before knocking Bolton out of the EFL Cup and defeating Rotherham United at home to make it a perfect four. The first Championship loss came in the ninth game, starting slow against Birmingham City, and they were only truly outplayed for the first time in their third defeat, a 4-1 reversal at West Bromwich Albion in November.

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A seven-match winning run followed, including away wins at both Sheffield United and Aston Villa. Roofe scored a 95th-minute winner at Villa Park and went even better three days later, netting twice in stoppage time against Blackburn Rovers for a 3-2 victory which put them three points clear at the top and six points ahead of third place. A difficult hand with injuries and the will of Saiz to return home for personal reasons had little effect on a team which was playing as the Championship’s best, but things never go smoothly at Leeds for too long and defeats to Hull City and Nottingham Forest either side of New Year followed, plus an FA Cup exit at Queens Park Rangers, before controversy reared its head.

On January 10, Derbyshire Police were called after a man was seen acting suspiciously outside Derby’s training ground. He was found equipped with pliers and binoculars and, while no crime was committed, ‘Spygate’ had begun. Bielsa, whose side faced Derby the following day, was quick to admit it was a member of his staff, but said it was not unusual conduct in other countries. That didn’t wash with opposite coach Frank Lampard, who said after Leeds won the match 2-0 that “on a sportsman's level, it's bad in my opinion”.

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Bielsa was willing to except criticism of his actions, but the perception that it was this spying that was leading his success cut deeply, and resulted in a remarkable PowerPoint press conference at Thorp Arch the following week. In it he admitted that he had “watched the training sessions of all opponents” during the season, but proceeded to give a masterclass of the level of research and analysis done on each player they faced. “I do not need to go to a training session to find out an opponent. Why do I go? Because it is not against the rules and I didn't know it would cause such an issue. It is partly down to my anxiety… When I was a coach of Athletic Bilbao we played Barcelona in a final we lost 3-0. I gave all this information I have shown you in Barcelona to Pep Guardiola. He said to me you know more about Barcelona than me!” Leeds were fined £200,000 the following month for not acting “with the utmost good faith” by watching training sessions, with Bielsa paying the sum out of his own pocket.

It was proving a difficult chapter of the season, with further defeats at Stoke and then at home to Norwich City at the beginning of February, with the Canaries knocking them off their perch at the top as a result. They also missed out agonisingly on the signing of Daniel James on deadline day, with his medical completed and media interviews done when Swansea City pulled the plug at the last minute, leaving Real Madrid goalkeeper Kiko Casilla as their only major signing.

They picked themselves up for a run of five wins in six, spoiled only by a QPR loss, ahead of a massive derby at home to Sheffield United, who trailed them by two points in a three-horse race for promotion. Chris Basham scored the only goal for the Blades but the damage was not terminal, with three wins in the next four putting them back into the top two. The real kicker came on Good Friday, against struggling Wigan Athletic.

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After 20 minutes, they were in full control; Wigan were down to 10 men and looked set for a long day when Bamford put Leeds ahead. They were still in full control throughout, and yet Gavin Massey goals either side of half-time saw Wigan leave with a scarcely believable 2-1 win. Leeds had enjoyed 77% of possession and no fewer than 36 shots, and even Bielsa was dumfounded: “If I look for reasons, I have no explanation that could justify a loss like today's loss.”

The result allowed Sheffield United back ahead on goal difference, and Leeds were further wounded by a 2-0 loss at Brentford three days later. Another Blades win on the following Saturday meant that, in their penultimate fixture, only a win over Aston Villa on the Sunday would maintain any chance of automatic promotion.

For 72 minutes, Elland Road watched an even, open game of football without any goals. For the following six minutes, it witnessed farce. Events began with a challenge from Leeds skipper Liam Cooper which left Jonathan Kodjia stricken on the ground, and Roberts nonchalantly motioned as if to put the ball out of play. Instead, he rolled it down the touchline, where Klich collected, ran inside and curled it into the bottom corner. Villa’s players and staff were justifiably incensed, and so began almost five minutes of melees on the pitch and the touchline.

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While a red card was being shown to Villa’s Anwar El Ghazi, Bielsa had summoned Cooper and instructed him to allow the opposition to score, and when the game did finally restart he was frantically yelling ‘give the goal’ to let Albert Adomah run through – almost uncontested, with competitive instincts getting the better of Pontus Jansson – and equalise. The goal consigned Leeds to the play-offs, but it was a gesture which would be recognised later in the year by FIFA, who awarded Leeds and their coach its Fair Play Award.

One man who might not have agreed with that award was Lampard, still seething from Spygate as fate put the two sides head-to-head in the play-off semi-finals. The first tie went largely to plan at Pride Park, with Roofe scoring the only goal and Derby failing to register a shot on target. No team had ever failed to reach the Championship play-off final having won the first leg away from home, and their success looked almost certain when Stuart Dallas put them two goals up early in the second match.

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But a night of extraordinary drama would transpire, with Derby’s comeback prompted by the introduction of Jack Marriott just before half-time. He scored with his first touch after a terrible mix-up between Cooper and Casilla, before Mason Mount scooped the ball in and Harry Wilson converted a penalty after a Jansson pull on Mason Bennett’s shirt. Leeds were back level in the tie within five minutes as Dallas scored his second, but they were weakened by Gaetano Berardi’s red card for a foul on former Whites midfielder Bradley Johnson and, with the team pushed up, were caught out as Marriott won it.

Bielsa was contracted for two years but there was doubt in the aftermath of their play-off defeat whether he would want to continue. Leeds were left waiting for a few days as he reflected, before hearing his demands for season two including the sale of Jansson, with whom there had been friction, and keeping Jack Clarke, who had enjoyed a fantastic breakthrough season. A compromise was reached – Jansson would eventually go to Brentford while Clarke was sold to Tottenham Hotspur but returned on loan – and Bielsa would be at the wheel again. Surely this would be their season?

2019-20: The perfect marriage

Rarely had Leeds United supporters approached a new campaign with as much hope and expectation as they did for their 100th season. They were firm favourites for promotion and rightly so, but after so many false dawns and failures nothing could be guaranteed until it was officially in the bag. It would take much longer than anybody could have imagined in the midst of the most unprecedented challenges, but the excruciating wait would finally be over.

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Bielsa was again happy with his lot ahead of the season, not signing a single senior player. The squad was supplemented once more by loan additions, none more important than Brighton and Hove Albion defender Ben White, who proved a more than able replacement for Jansson. Harrison returned for another year, joined in attack by Wolves's Helder Costa and Arsenal's Eddie Nketiah, while Roofe was surprisingly allowed to depart for Anderlecht.

Like the previous year, things began well. They won five of their first six games in all competitions and were the early Championship leaders, suffering only fleeting setbacks such as a first defeat to Swansea and then losses on consecutive weekends in the capital to Charlton Athletic and Millwall.

After that they were unbeaten in 11, including a superb seven-match winning run. The third in that run of victories, a 2-1 success at Luton Town secured in the final moments through an own goal, put them in the top two, where they would remain for the rest of the season. However, despite standing 11 points clear of third-placed Fulham after a win over Hull, staying in those promotion spots would not prove simple.

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Their winning streak was brought to a halt in the most dramatic of circumstances; their 3-0 lead over Cardiff was a fair reflection of their dominance when the most astonishing of comebacks was launched by the Welsh side, who somehow claimed a draw. After that Leeds could hardly buy a win, losing to Fulham and drawing on Boxing Day with Preston North End before an even more extraordinary clash with Birmingham, in which they threw away the lead three times before a 95th-minute own goal gave them a 5-4 victory. When Bielsa was asked after the match if his heart was okay, he simply replied: “I’m alive”.

Leeds held title rivals West Brom to a draw on New Years’ Day but then lost five of the next six, failing to score in all of those defeats. They were unfortunate to lose out to Arsenal in the FA Cup but were toothless against Sheffield Wednesday, QPR, Wigan and Nottingham Forest, only winning against Millwall after coming back from 2-0 down to triumph 3-2. When they then drew at Brentford after a Casilla howler – not the first – Fulham trailed them only on goal difference and it appeared that, as opposition fans delighted in singing, Leeds really were falling apart again.

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Casilla was also in trouble off the field, having been charged with racially abusing Charlton’s Jonathan Leko in a match back in September. At the end of February he received an eight-match ban, and Leeds would come under some criticism for backing their player both before and after the verdict.

Illan Meslier, signed on loan from Lorient over the summer, stepped up between the posts with Leeds’s season back on track, amidst a five-match winning run in which they didn’t concede a single goal. After start-to-finish footballing exhibitions against Yorkshire rivals Hull and Huddersfield Town, it looked like nothing could halt their march to the Premier League, but there would be one final obstacle in their path.

The first known case of Covid-19, a novel coronavirus which began circulating in a region of China in at least November 2019, in the UK was reported in late January, and its spread was accelerating at a concerning rate by March. In the space of a couple of weeks, normal life was brought to a halt, including football. The season was suspended as the country, and the world, dealt with the threat, which was brought home in Leeds by the death of one of the club’s greatest legends, Norman Hunter, after contracting the virus.

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During the nationwide lockdown, debate in football circles centred on how to resolve the season, with many leagues being brought to an early finish or declared null and void. While self-interest reigned across much of the sport, Bielsa and Leeds were insistent on wanting the season completed if safely possible, despite the fact an early finish and points-per-game settlement would have seen the club promoted. Skipper Cooper said: “We are not the type of club who want anything passing to us. We want to go and accomplish it ourselves… Some may call us mad for that but we want to do it properly and we want to go and finish what we have started.” The club also showed its unity by being one of the first to agree voluntary wage deferrals amid the pandemic’s economic fallout, allowing other staff and casual workers to continue to be paid.

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At last it was announced at the end of May that the Championship season would resume behind-closed-doors the following month, with a quick-fire nine-round conclusion. Leeds made the worst start with defeat at Cardiff but bounced back for a crucial win over Fulham. A reset was required after a draw with struggling Luton, but from there they would get the job done with a perfect six wins.

They were on the cusp of promotion after Pablo Hernandez’s late winner against his old side Swansea, followed by a fortunate win over Barnsley. That derby victory came on Thursday; the following day it was down to rivals Huddersfield to secure them promotion if they could overcome West Brom. They duly obliged, and within 24 hours Leeds were champions too after Brentford slipped up against Stoke. After all the toil over the years, the job was done with two games to spare.

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After securing the title, Bielsa said: “People had a lot of hope for this promotion. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the happiness they are feeling. Love is what every human being wants in life.” Bielsa loves Leeds, and Leeds loves Bielsa. After whole eras at the club characterised by enmity, hatred and warfare, with owners and managers from the unqualified to the despicable, it was this perfect marriage that returned Leeds United to the Premier League.