Emotional farewell but future looks bright at Leeds United

To be satisfied with your lot and still be able to see how things could be better is not far off ideal for a football manager.

Leeds United are in a pretty good place and for all that he continues to play his sadistic will-he-won’t-he game over a new contract, it seems almost certain Marcelo Bielsa still will be too come August.

This was the second season running a Yorkshire side finished ninth in the Premier League. For Leeds, though, it feels like another step on the journey rather than the destination.

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Bielsa’s team has grown before our eyes this season.

Fans and Pablo Hernandez at full time. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“In the second part of the season we conceded 50 per cent fewer goals than in the first part,” he pointed out. “Had we had that security defensively throughout the campaign we could have added those points I would have liked.”

Part one was for the punters, part two for the professionals, but by the end the Whites had struck a pretty good balance. No wonder Bielsa was “satisfied”.

On Christmas Day, Leeds were conceding more than two goals a game back in the Premier League. It was acceptable because they were scoring enough to be more than competitive and this was their first season at a new level for almost everyone, Bielsa included, so we had to cut them some slack.

Bielsa did not hide his anger in his Christmas Eve press conference, the spirit of goodwill badly lacking as he lambasted the media for ridiculing his side after a 6-2 defeat at Manchester United. He would not, he insisted, change his ways.

Pablo Hernandez waves to the fans as he is subbed. Picture Bruce Rollinson

But he did. He evolved them.

From that point on, Leeds were a goal-a-game team when it came to conceding, tightening up even before the considerable quality of a finally-fit Diego Llorente slotted in at centre-back.

So this is a team and a coach that is willing and able to learn, a club with a feel-good factor bursting around it as the joyous terraces finally reopened to fans after 14 unbearable months on Sunday demonstrated and with new faces in the directors’ box showing continuous progression financially too.

Leeds played better in 2020-21 than in their 3-1 win over a West Bromwich Albion side who are already relegated, but it is doubtful if any of the 8,000 fans in the ground had a better day.

Patrick Bamford turns to celebrate scoring Leeds's third goal from the spot. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“Did you miss us?” asked a banner in the Norman Hunter Stand. Did we?

The noise they made was ridiculous, lifting the occasion beyond a routine victory.

A sloppy Kalvin Phillips mistake at the end might have been infuriating if it actually mattered, and he certainly could have done without picking up a shoulder injury less than 48 hours before Gareth Southgate named his European Championships squad, but it would have taken a lot more than that to spoil the fans’ day.

In amongst the 3-1 win, secured by a Rodrigo header, a Phillips free-kick and a Patrick Bamford penalty, they were able to say their goodbyes to an emotional Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi, wearing the famous white strip for the last time.

And with Everton rounding off their end-of-season meltdown, the Whites were able to hop up a place in the final standings.

It is a sad fact of footballing life that all things come to an end, but Leeds genuinely do feel like they are moving on and moving up without great servants Hernandez and Berardi.

Elland Road was electric long before kick-off.

Leeds took a while to get into their stride but when Hernandez nutmegged Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the 12th minute, it was confirmation they were there.

Shortly after Everton went 2-0 down at Manchester City the Whites took the lead, Rodrigo heading in Raphinha’s corner. It was the Spaniard’s fourth goal in as many matches – exactly how someone with a European Championships on the horizon wants to sign off.

Phillips’s free-kick after a foul on Hernandez was worthy of the occasion but try as he might, Hernandez could not get his goal, Sam Johnstone saving as the playmaker spun and volleyed, then beating another shot away.

After chesting the ball down, Hernandez had a shot deflected wide with his replacement, Tyler Roberts, ready to come on.

Frustratingly, the change had been made by the time Leeds won their penalty.

Even “warrior” Berardi was emotional as he and Hernandez departed amidst a mass of hugs.

Although Matt Phillips’s shot against the post was a reminder they had to stay focussed.

Ezgjan Alioski, who will also have been making his final appearance unless a new contract can be agreed, had to be on his toes to avoid a calamitous own goal from the rebound.

Grady Diangana sat Ayling and Alioski on their backsides only to blast over before half-time substitute Bamford converted the spot kick when Harrison’s cross struck Okay Yokuslu’s hand.

There then followed a surreal moment when Hal Robson-Kanu pounced on a poor Phillips touch to score to almost complete indifference.

Phillips also hurt himself in stoppage time making a bad tackle on Diangana which earned him a booking and did not appear for the lap of honour.

Any worrying will have to wait. Leeds had lots of celebrations to catch up on.

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