And it was beautiful by Phil Hay – thank you for the memories Bielsa

And it was beautiful by Phil Hay – thank you for the memories Bielsa.  This book was an opportunity to relive the time and gain a deeper understanding with reflection. 

And it was beautiful by Phil Hay – thank you for the memories Bielsa.  I am a Leeds United fan so I am biased about Bielsa; I remember the stories in this book right down to individual games, and I remember how upturned the world of Leeds United came to be as a fan.  This book was an opportunity to relive the time and gain a deeper understanding with reflection.  After sixteen years in the wilderness I watched Leeds not only return to the Premier League but also finish ninth in the first season and with a style of football that brought managed chaos to the league.

The arrival of Radrizzani and Orta was underwhelming at first – Leeds were plateauing for years.  The new owners and management recruited failed managers and the initial impression was more of the same.  Then came Bielsa who worked largely with the same players using his fairly unique techniques to enable them to play above their own known abilities. 

Phil Hay brings the story of his short adventure with Leeds to blistering life. Bielsa became a demi-god to fans, transforming players into heroes, bringing a new level of principles and integrity to leadership that we had not seen since Don Revie.  His level of control of the club was beyond what coaches typically had – such as with the youth team and training ground. 

This is written by a journalist and like other books that have been written by journalists – usually political – it has a diary feel to it.  I listen to Phil Hay on the Square Ball podcast and he is certainly informed and insightful. The coverage is typically what I already knew from when I followed the season on media. This book is not, is a behind-the-scenes story. The key weakness to the biography is that Phil Hay is not able to meet with Bielsa to tell us what makes him tick. 

At times Phil Hay has insights that add value to the story – tactics, talking to informed sources and nuggets such as Massimo Cellino dismissing the catering staff with no replacements so there was no milk in the fridge at the training ground. But I didn’t learn as much as I hoped.

Phil Hay tries to paint that picture of how Bielsa was different from his beginnings as a coach with his more radical style of training and fitness.  Despite the pressing and running Bielsa ultimately lacked that goal scorer, shown in the low ratio of shots to goals.  He also became notorious for refusing to have a Plan B – instead – just score more.

The story has alternate chapters for the chronology of the promotion to the premier league, with the other chapters about the club in general – moments in the Championship and League One.  I found this disorientating and disruptive to the flow of the story.

The epilogue sits very uncomfortably with the story as it rushes through a whole season in one chapter and runs counter to the rest of the book; the epilogue criticises his approach to his last season where the team’s performance falls apart.  Other than over-training, a high number of injuries, and Bielsa’s stubbornness, it is difficult from one swift chapter to understand how it fell apart so suddenly. Bielsa was dismissed on 27th February 2022, after 170 matches in charge, having promoted Leeds to the Premier League and changed how football can be played.  It was emotional at the time, however bad the results were, the fans stood by their coach.

Whilst Hay praises the owner and bosses (Radrizzani, Orta and Kinnear) for what they did for the club, but fans have a different opinion.  Radrizzani and Orta certainly played a part in mismanaging Bielsa’s final year.

What Phil Hay does not report – which has been reported elsewhere – is that Bielsa apparently offered to resign in that lasty year on the basis that he had taken the squad as far as he could and would need new players to progress.  I don’t know true if this is or not, and it does run counter to what Phil Hay reports.  However, it does indicate that without new players the squad was still very championship standard. The epilogue leaves a sour taste to the whole book – a rushed and negative end to what is a homage to a rare hero in Leeds’ hundred year history. Thanks for the memories, Bielsa.

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