“It is impossible not to dream of ascending”, said Marcelo Bielsa in his first press conference in charge of Leeds United. The Argentine was the spearhead of businessman Andrea Radrizzani’s project to end 16 years of suffering on Elland Road. A journey that ended with a happy ending, but along the way it has left a history of descents, ascents and a lot of pain.
Radrizzani bought Leeds in 2017 and from then on the team began to improve, but things did not always go for the Whites, a team that went from playing the semifinals of the Champions League to selling their best players, loitering through England’s lower divisions and racking up ridiculous after ridiculous to the despair of their fans.
Those Champions semi-finals against Valencia in 2001 was a great shout of glory for Leeds, but it had terrible consequences.
Peter Ridsdale was the club’s president during those years and, despite initial success, eventually mortgaged the club. He borrowed up to £ 60 million that the club would repay in subsequent years with qualification for the Champions League. The problem was that neither in 2002 nor in 2003 they succeeded, only getting into the UEFA Cup and imploding the club financially.
A group that had in its ranks Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Alan Smith, Mark Viduka, Robbie Keane, had to sell their assets for prices below their real cost. Keane, for example, went to Tottenham Hotspur for £ 7m and Ferdinand for £ 30m to Manchester United.
Those who stayed saw the decline of the team that, beset by debts, ended up going down the drain in the 2003/2004 campaign, just two years after playing the semifinals of the European Cup.
Ridsdale rushed out of the team in March 2003, leaving more than 100 million pounds in debt and the team dying. A slab that they were about to save the following season, falling in the playoff for promotion to the Premier against Watford.
Then began the darkest period in Leeds recent history. In May 2007 they declared bankruptcy, were sanctioned with 10 points and relegated to League One (Third division) for the first time.
There the club was on the verge of disappearing, since, unless they got out of the financial situation they were in, they could not start the next season and would be excluded.
The businessman Ken Bates saved them by buying the club, although they were sanctioned with 15 points, which weighed down their options. Without that sanction, they would have been promoted directly.
After two years of playing the playoffs and not achieving the goal (they lost the final with Doncaster in 2008 and in the semifinals with Millwall in 2009), the third time was the charm and Leeds became a Championship club in 2010 when they were second in League One.
Leeds settled in the middle of the table, but the problems did not end. The club was sold by Bates to GFH Capital and later to the Italian businessman Massimo Cellino, who, far from giving stability, upset everything even more with permanent changes in management. They had up to 12 coaches between 2012 and 2017.
The ‘Whites’ were gradually blurring part of their history and legacy, ending several seasons closer to relegation than to returning to the Premier League. They were outclassed by clubs with much less breed in the competition and became the object of ridicule by their rivals.
The hobbies began to sing to them “Leeds are falling apart again”, verse taken from the mythical song of the ill-fated group Joy Division, to laugh at them.
“We have already gotten used to being sung to us”explained to The Telegraph a Leeds manager this year. That was the situation for Leeds in the 2010s.
But by 2017, Radrizzani, another Italian businessman, this owner of the communication conglomerate Eleven Sports, took a majority stake in Leeds and began the umpteenth reconstruction.
That season, the 2017-2018, the push did not give the expected result and Leeds finished thirteenth, but for the summer, the blow of effect was coming.
Marcelo Bielsa, el Loco, the man who made Chile and Athletic Bilbao dream, landed on Elland Road. The man who was meant to end the suffering of an entire city.
In his first campaign he touched it. Despite spending most of the year in direct promotion positions, the team suffered a slump in the final stretch and settled for a playoff against Derby County, punctuated by the famous Bielsa spy case that aimed to cost him his position.
Leeds did not go up and the continuity of the Argentine project was questioned, but the board trusted in continuity.
A year after those events and this time without a playoff in between, Leeds is a Premier League team. The Leeds of Bielsa. The Leeds that no longer suffers.