What is football for? Why do people go, week in and week out, to watch teams that very rarely come close to achieving anything close to their ambitions, and at times can barely be bothered even to trot through the motions? Why do they expend so much emotional energy in entities that at any moment can be taken over by the corrupt or incompetent? What’s the point?
Fans anger quickly these days but disillusionment takes much longer to set in. There is far more booing in stadiums than there used to be, and social media gives public vent to the grumbling that was once confined to pubs, which probably inflates it and at times gives it a performative aspect. But attendances are far more stable than they used to be. People keep going.
Yet disillusionment had set in at Leeds United. Crowds have fallen from an average of nearly 40,000 in 2002-03, the season after they reached a Champions League semi-final, to under 22,000 in 2015-16. There had been a recent upturn but, still, what has happened this season has been astonishing. Marcelo Bielsa has given Leeds something to believe in again.
What happened against Aston Villa on Sunday, when he instructed his side to concede a goal to cancel out one that had been scored against the spirit of the game, will cement his legend. A win would have kept Leeds’s hopes of automatic promotion alive. This was a match that mattered. The gesture had consequences.
What if Bielsa had not ordered an equaliser? There would have been condemnation from some quarters, as well as the delicious prospect of John Terry, Villa’s assistant manager, fulminating about fair play, but others might have concluded that the protocols over putting the ball out for an injured opponent are not fit for purpose and that it was only a matter of time before this sort of chaos ensued. Others might have noted how controversy seems to dog poor Stuart Attwell, a referee once fast-tracked to the Premier League but now essentially a character from a 1970s sitcom, beset by implausible misfortune despite his best intentions. But Bielsa preferred not to win in such a way.
Perhaps it was not quite such an act of, to use his term, nobility as that of Stan Cullis, in his last game for Wolves before retiring, refusing to bring down Liverpool’s Albert Stubbins when he was clean through on the final day of the 1946-47 season, allowing him to score the goal that ensured Liverpool, and not Wolves, won the title, but it was similarly born of the belief that winning should not be at all costs.
Bielsa is stubborn, at times infuriatingly so. What might he have won if he had compromised his relentless style as so many of those who have learned from him have? This season has followed the classic Bielsa arc, the soaring start yielding to a stuttering finish. The stats seem to show Leeds running just as hard now as they did in August but that is not the only measure of fatigue. “It’s a method that provokes a certain level of tiredness,” said Juan Manuel Llop, who played under Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys. “Not just physical tiredness, but also mental and emotional tiredness because the competitive level is so high that it’s difficult to keep up with it after a period of time.”
But that stubbornness is precisely why Bielsa is so inspirational. In August, I went to Yorkshire v Worcestershire in the County Championship at Scarborough. On the train there, the talk was not of cricket but of Bielsa. In the stand, a group of 70-odd year olds spoke with rare enthusiasm of Leeds’s start to the season and painstakingly went through their instructions for watching a stream of that evening’s game at Swansea. An experienced cricket writer, a man who oozes Yorkshire cynicism, babbled about being more invested in Leeds than he’d even been.
And that was after a month of Bielsa, when all he’d really done of any note had been to have his players pick up litter to demonstrate to them how privileged they were. But even his public utterances, his deadpan double act with his long-suffering translator Salim Lamrani, had been imbued with a sense of integrity. Bielsa isn’t just an eccentric and visionary football manager, he also has a profound moral core, which is why the spying allegations in January provoked him to such a self-excoriatory response.
In an environment that so often these days is about nothing more than making as much money in as short a period as possible, Bielsa grasps the notion of a club as representative a region and its people, of something more than a collection of celebrities generating content to drive social media traffic.
He understands support, what it is when a football club is part of your heritage, part of your being. And he understands that in such circumstances, success is only part of what is important. Whatever happens in the play-offs, Leeds fans will never forget this season. They will always have the memories of the time the love came back.
Bielsa may not win as often as he should but then what is winning if it is without nobility?