TUCKED under an iron bridge that carries a long disused railway across Gelderd Road in Leeds is an advertising hoarding.
The fear for supporters already reeling from play-off heartache was that this poster could soon be the last remnant of the Argentinian’s stay in Leeds.Richard Sutcliffe
Last summer Leeds United chose this spot, less than half a mile from their home, to showcase the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa.
As United’s hopes of returning to the Premier League came to a shuddering halt earlier this month all that remained was a tattered corner thanks to the havoc wrought by nine months of traffic using a thoroughfare that has carried generations of supporters from the city centre to Elland Road.
The fear for supporters already reeling from play-off heartache was that this poster could soon be the last remnant of the Argentinian’s stay in Leeds. Bielsa’s non-committal stance when asked about his future in the immediate aftermath of defeat to Derby County further fuelled concerns he might be tempted to walk away.
Yesterday, however, brought the news fans were desperate to hear as chairman Andrea Radrizzani confirmed Bielsa was staying. “Unfinished business” was mentioned by the Italian, along with a promise to “work harder to achieve our goal”.
This last comment may cause a few raised eyebrows among the players, who if anything seemed to be worked too hard last season at the behest of Bielsa.
But there can be little doubt Bielsa sticking around is a big boost for the club.
“It is a really exciting time to be involved as a player,” was captain Liam Cooper’s take.
The noises coming out of Elland Road suggest United will be looking to exploit the loan market next term. Money remains tight at a club where £11.8m had to be injected to “maintain operations and improve on-field competitiveness”, according to the last available accounts, for 2017-18.
Hopefully lessons have been learned from a year ago. For all the giant strides United made under Bielsa the club’s loan business left a lot to be desired.
Jamal Blackman made just two appearances in the League Cup before a broken leg saw the goalkeeper return to Chelsea, while Lewis Baker, another addition from Stamford Bridge, made little impression before cutting his own stay short at the turn of the year.
Izzy Brown had an even more frustrating stay, managing just 11 minutes on the pitch, despite being fully fit since January, due to Bielsa clearly not feeling the former Huddersfield Town midfielder fitted into his style of play.
Jack Harrison, completing the quartet of loanees under Bielsa, is someone who Leeds clearly believe in with the winger understood to have been sounded out about a possible return from Manchester City next season.
The 22-year-old undoubtedly had his moments. The sublime pass for Kemar Roofe’s goal at Derby, for instance, would not have looked out of place at his parent club.
Nevertheless, Harrison was still some way behind the likes of Tammy Abraham, Tyrone Mings, Harry Wilson, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori in terms of making a big impact on loan in the Championship.
If Leeds really are serious about going one better next term, and the loan market is to be their chosen route, bolder thinking is required with only Premier League players who have already proved themselves in the second tier – a la Abraham, Wilson et al – placed on the target list.
Getting this right is key, particularly because the last two summers have both brought at least one major sale to balance the books and there is every chance United will field serious interest in Roofe, who will be out of contract in 2020, and Pontus Jansson.
The United hierarchy agreeing to Bielsa’s requests for changes behind the scenes played a part in him agreeing to stick around. A 1km running track, for instance, is to be installed at the club’s Thorp Arch training base. The swimming pool that was drained and then abandoned during Massimo Cellino’s reign is also to be brought back into full use.
It is, however, football reasons that are most likely to be behind this football obsessive sticking around. For all the disappointment surrounding how the season ended, Elland Road was a vibrant and exciting place to be last season. Giving that up would not have been easy.