Do you believe in parallel universes? Alternative realities? Well, this morning there are three I don’t want to be in.
Firstly, one where this season’s Championship was voided after 37 games, where this season would be all for nothing,
But the worst universe, the one I really don’t want to be in, is the one where Marcelo Bielsa didn’t come to Leeds.
Leaving aside those three realities, there is another one. It’s one I don’t believe in yet, even though I’m in it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes over the last two weeks, but my brain can’t accept it yet. One with Ben White channelling James Rodriguez, volleying in from the edge of the box and Illan Meslier tipping the ball over the bar like Gordon Banks. One where we cling on to beat Barnsley on a Thursday, get promoted on a Friday, win the League on Saturday, and beat Derby on Sunday. One where Alioski runs off to celebrate with the crowdies, while Fulham defenders are lying all over the floor. Where a 30 pass move against Stoke is finished with a Bamford stepover and Pablo slotting the ball into the corner, One in which Luke Ayling runs the length of the pitch in 11 seconds in the 89th minute against Swansea and Pablo scores a goal that dug down into my very soul and pulled out a primal scream of joy and relief and release, which may have been heard 15 streets away, also setting off a distant echo of Gordon Strachan vs Leicester in 1990.
In this reality, I keep expecting to wake up in the shower like Bobby Ewing, to find that the whole of Project Restart has been a dream, and that we're still in limbo, stuck permanently on 71 points and 37 games.
I remember when Steve Redgrave won his 5th Gold Medal in a row at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, his first feeling was relief. The expectation and pressure had been so huge, it was relief that came first. I think that's true for me too. In this reality, it was other teams that fell apart, and buckled under the pressure. But Leeds did not.
My first experience of watching Leeds United was a MASSIVE, MASSIVE DISAPPOINTMENT. A feeling of absolute desolation. It was 1975 and I was 7. The European Cup Final vs Bayern Munich. The first football match I ever watched. If that experience taught me anything, it’s that losing something as trivial as a football match can rip the heart out of you. Jorge Valdano said ‘Of all the things which do not matter, football is the most important’. And I agree with him.
So, losing to Wigan at home last year, and losing to Derby in the playoffs all seemed quite normal. Nothing extraordinary. Just everyday Leeds United.
There have been so many grim times at Leeds, which are well documented elsewhere, so much to forget, and so much I don’t need to forget because I wasn’t interested enough to pay attention to it in the first place.
But I have paid attention to Bielsa and to this team. Because they demanded it. They blasted me out of hibernation. My brother has had a season ticket for the last few years, and he came back from the first game of last season against Stoke not quite able to believe what he’d seen.
The following game, away to Derby, I went round to my partner’s parents house while they were away at their caravan, and stole their Sky TV box with their Sky Sports subscription and plugged it into our Sky dish, to see if I could believe it either. It came on just in time for Leeds to be 1-0 up. And even the beginnngs of this team was like nothing I’d ever seen. Gone was a decade and a half of mediocrity, this was Bielsaball. I’ve watched football my whole damn life, and as far as tactics go, I don’t really know what I’m looking at, but for the last two seasons, watching Leeds play vs watching anyone else has been like the difference between being alive and being dead.
Maybe because results have been so important this season, and the Championship is such an attritional nightmare to get out of, we haven’t been able to enjoy it moment to moment. It was a lot like that in 1989/90. Similarly, I once cycled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and I always say that I managed to cycle the entire length of Britain without seeing any of it, with my head down looking at the map, trying to reach my objective. The last two games of the season, with the title won, the anxiety fell away, and you could actually see with stress-free eyes how good we are.
Those fans who’ve stuck with Leeds unflinchingly through it all, the good times and the bad, and who I admire for their fortitude, sometimes ask ‘Where were you when we were shit?’. Well, a lot of the time I was just doing other things. I have a finite amount of time and money, and sometimes Leeds just wasn’t worth it.
But like when Howard Wilkinson and Gordon Strachan blasted me out of whatever else I was doing in 1989, and demanded I take notice, and I went and bought a season ticket, so it is with Bielsa. You cannot look away. When Leeds are playing, you have to see it. Sometimes it kills you, and you think you won’t get to the end of the 90 minutes, and you’re glad that that shop next door but one has a defibrillator. But you have to see it. Even though you can’t explain why.
I saw Patrick Bamford interviewed on the pitch after the Charlton game, someone who has had his doubters everywhere, except for in Bielsa’s brain, and he was saying that he didn’t know yet what they’ve achieved. Well, I’ll tell you.
I’m 52 years old now. I was 22 when Leeds won the Second Division in 1990. And yet I have never forgotten that team of Strachan, Speed, Batty, Vinnie Jones, Lee Chapman and the rest. And I’ve never forgotten what I went through with them, during the 1989/90 season.
In the same way, these last two seasons under Bielsa will never be forgotten. Anyone who saw them, will remember them for the rest of their lives. And they won't remember just the winning. They will also remember How They Won. By outrunning, outpassing, out-everything-ing all the other teams. By being relentlessly persistent, and never stopping.
Marcelo Bielsa has the nickname 'El loco', but, as Phil Hay, said about him on his podcast yesterday, 'When you get up close to him, there isn't any madness, just obsession and devotion'. He's a cuddly grandfather like figure, who endlessly and patiently poses for selfies with adoring fans, who has turned perennial Championship mid-table languishers Leeds United into a ‘Total Machine’ And like 'The Terminator', who would never, ever stop, and who had to be lured into a steel mill and crushed, and shot and melted, and even then, there was enough left over to make 5 sequels, his 2019/20 Leeds United could not be stopped either. Not this time.
And this is my new reality. I haven’t quite accepted that I'm here yet, but I know one thing for certain. The Universe where Bielsa came to Leeds, is the one I want to be in.