Enigmas cast long shadows, and that’s what we have at Leeds United right now. The bright light of optimism and a dark corner of pessimism. It’s rare at Leeds that we have one without the other. Some fans are excited to just go again; others sick that we’re not starting a week later in the Premier League, where Aston Villa and Sheffield United secured places many wrongly assumed we’d take.
Right now I’m closer to the latter than the former. It feels like that was the chance; that the squad is weaker than it was a year ago, and maybe people have had more time to work out how to play against us now. But then that’s where the magic of Marcelo Bielsa comes in. He’s already captivated us and inspired us once – so can he build on that second time around? I really hope so. Last year was a great season with a shit ending.
As enigmas go, Bielsa sits somewhere between Marlon Brando and Bobby Robson. It’s great when you get to bask in the warm glow of humanity that surrounds him personally, or revel in the pounding attacking play of our football team, but it’s just fucking confusing when you try to work out his weirdness.
Like going into a season with one experienced centre-back. Having just two last year seemed precarious, but Pontus Jansson was a firm fan favourite and Liam Cooper was much improved under the former Argentina manager. In the smashing opening run of games where we went eight games unbeaten, diminutive explosive device Gaetano Berardi defined an unexpected role for himself at the heart of defence, probing out to break up play before it could even come near our backline.
But as the season went on there were injuries, red cards and defensive lapses. Midfielders were drafted into defence and it became very apparent, to me at least, that we were crying out for some mature cover to step in for key games; a John McClelland-style player who wouldn’t play a whole season but who knew what to do when called upon.
McClelland was one of six (!) playable centre-backs in Leeds’ squad for their last title win. Howard Wilkinson had a first choice of Chris combo Whyte and Fairclough; McClelland the senior reserve; the young guns from Sheffield Wednesday in Jon Newsome and David Wetherall; and although he mainly played left-back for us, Mike Whitlow (he went on to spend much of his career as a centre-back).
This summer, Ben White has been signed on loan from Brighton, but this promising 21-year-old centre-back is yet to ever play in the Championship or above. This lack of defensive cover is not only weird, but borders on the perverse. It’s not even cover, it’s first-teamers. It’s starting to feel like David Lynch territory.
The recruitment of Wolves winger Helder Costa is genuinely exciting – and I’m not wanting to piss on anyone’s pre-match chips – but did we really need another winger? It’s always good to improve on a position, but it feels like there are areas which need addressing far more urgently.
We didn’t struggle to create chances last year, and we have eight first-team players who can and have played on the wings – not to mention two fairly exciting attacking full-backs. It seems a really strange position to be strengthening. Goalscorers and stoppers, yes. Creators? OK, let’s add a ninth.
Is this Bielsa’s doing, or is it just something that’s happened where he works right now? Leeds are a club with massive fan expectations and very clear historical business reasons to confound those expectations by being economically cautious. Nothing is straight-forward.
Are players sold because Bielsa doesn’t want them, or because Leeds need £18m a year to stay afloat? Are they recruited on loan because Bielsa sees something good in their future, or the board see something good in the wage levels?
Who knows. I’m writing this on a Friday. It’s sunny and there are 48 hours to go until the teams will come out and warm up at Ashton Gate. There’s some idiot on Twitter calling for the owner to leave because we’ve sold the second-choice keeper going into the last year of his contract. People who don’t support us are tipping us for automatic promotion; people who do are predicting the end of the world.
In our pre-season preview supplement, on sale now, we asked fans of all clubs to tee up their season. Supporters from 17 of the 23 Championship sides mentioned Leeds. Some were snidey comments, but most were admiring our elder statesman Pablo Hernandez or (begrudgingly) respecting the size and noise of our travelling support. Right now, no one knows what will happen on the pitch or in the boardroom – but the electricity generated by Leeds United fans away from home is beyond comparison.
The atmosphere at a game is the only thing we fans can control. And weirdly, that’s best when we’re out of control. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. But at least we have a good man on the manager’s bucket.
James Brown is the editor in chief of @FourFourTwo. He will be writing a regular column this season about the challenges of supporting Leeds United.
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