I must admit my heart sank when I saw a recent Yorkshire Evening Post headline insisting 2023 would be “Leeds’s moment”.
Did this mean that we, the long-suffering supporters of the perennially underachieving Leeds United, would have to wait another three years before returning to the Premier League?
Okay, the Whites have just been knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal. But they dominated the first half with their beautiful passing game, showing the watching TV millions they are once again a force to be reckoned with. And they are still top of the Championship and on course for promotion to the top flight.
I calmed down as I read the piece and realised that it was referring to the city – not its much-loved (and in most parts of the country must-hated) football team.
According to the chair of the Leeds 2023 trust, Ruth Pitt, our great metropolis is intending to defy the odds by having a year-long festival of culture. Just because the EU ruled that a British city could not become the European Capital of Culture – due to the small matter of Brexit – doesn’t mean we can’t assume that title anyway.
As with the city, so with the football team. The watching TV millions on Monday night would have heard 8,000 away fans singing: “We are the champions, the champions of Europe.”
This is because, in the 1975 European Cup Final defeat to Bayern Munich, the lads were cheated by the referee. Just because European officials rule you didn’t win the most prestigious club competition in the world…
As Pitt argued: “We are not just about arts and culture, we are also about sport, which is also very important.”
Indeed. As readers of this column will know, I often bang on about the connection between culture and sport.
Leeds is the third biggest city in the UK – the population is estimated to be around 750,000 – yet for some reason has been punching below its weight for several decades.
No longer. The BBC build-up to the Arsenal game began with Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones, explaining his passion for the team. He even compared the cult TV series with his beloved club: “They have more things in common than they imagine. Drama, uncertainty, love, defeats and battles for the throne.”
Leeds coach Marcelo Bielsa, the new King of the North, is a cultured man. The grandson of a judge and the brother of Argentina’s Foreign Minister, he is the darling of the media.
This is a far cry from the popular image of the side, reinforced in David Peace’s seminal novel The Damned Utd. It’s also a far cry from the 19th century image of the city as, in Charles Dickens’ phrase, a “beastly place”.
Leeds has reinvented itself many times since the Victorian age. There have been many false dawns. Anyone remember “the Motorway City of the Seventies”? I grew up in that era, when it was a byword for inner-city chaos, violent crime and bigotry. It seemed to be slipping into isolation and out of the mainstream of British society.
So I was very pleased to read The Independent’s Miguel Delaney’s description of the Bielsa-inspired revival as “having the feel of a cult band going mainstream.”
This new image is not entirely down to the bespectacled genius who sits emotionless on an upturned blue bucket on the side of the pitch. But our quirky messiah has turned our world upside down.
This why Leeds fans make videos of songs about blue buckets. Why they sing his name to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. Why they wrote Bielsa’s Rhapsody, a magnificent adaptation of the Queen ditty.
He has created a new culture, a new way of appreciating the game, a new attitude not just to football but to life itself.
In his unflashy way he has played a huge part in the revival of a so-called beastly place. Never mind 2023, in 2020 my perennially-underachieving club, and city, will hopefully be delivered from the wilderness and return to the promised land.
The Bucket Man cometh. In Bielsa we trust.