The 2018-19 Championship: The Season Leeds United Fans Fell Back in Love With Football

"We've been through it all together, and we've had our ups and downs," is a line from the Leeds United club anthem "Marching On Together," and it is fair to say loyal Leeds United supporters have had more than their fair share of ups and downs. Competing in the UEFA Champions League in 2000-01, relegated to League 1 in 2006-07, and almost going out of business entirely during that time. However, something remarkable happened during the 2018-19 season: Leeds United fans fell back in love with the beautiful game.

Leeds United fans did not hold out much hope for the 2018-19 campaign, having finished a disappointing 13th in the EFL Championship the previous season. The club had appointed Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa as head coach, a manager of high stock who came with the nickname "El Loco Bielsa," meaning "The Madman Bielsa," due to his out-of-the-box thinking regarding training methods and gameday tactics. Bielsa's appointment resulted in the best soccer app for betting to shorten Leeds' odds of gaining promotion to the Premier League, but they were not among the favorites to return to the big time.

Bringing the Players Back Down to Reality

Bielsa immediately set out his stall. The local press reported Bielsa had made his squad pick up litter for three hours near the club's Thorp Arch training ground in Wetherby. "El Loco" argued this was the kind of work the average Leeds United supporter had to complete to be able to purchase a ticket to watch a game, so he wanted the players to know how it felt. The move went down a storm with Leeds fans, who had lost some connection with the underperforming players. It would not be the last time Bielsa hit the headlines for his out there methods.

The First Glimpse of Bielsa-Ball

Leeds United started the 2018-19 season against Stoke City at their Elland Road home. Stoke had been relegated the previous season but had managed to keep hold of most of its playing squad. They were the bookmakers' favorites to be promoted at the first time of asking. That may have been the case, but Bielsa had other ideas.

Leeds played some incredible football in their 3-1 dismantling of the Championship favorites. They were fast, fluid, and decisive in attack and relentlessly pressing when they lost the ball. The then-Stoke manager Gary Rowett was photographed shrugging his shoulders at one stage, seemingly not knowing how to combat the relentless sea of white shirts.

An impressive 4-1 win on the road to Derby County and a 3-0 demolition of Norwich City followed. There were bumps in the road, but Leeds United sat proudly atop the Championship table at Christmas, and the Leeds fans were loving life.

The Spygate Saga

Before the 2-0 victory at home to Derby County on January 11, Bielsa admitted he had sent a scout to Derby's training ground to watch how Frank Lampard's team was preparing for the game. Four days later, the EFL announced it would investigate the matter. On January 16, Bielsa called a press conference, and many Leeds United supporters were worried the Argentinian would resign. What followed next will be discussed in football circles for generations.

Bielsa did not resign; he gave an hour-long PowerPoint presentation showing his detailed analysis on every player and opponent he faces. The level of preparation and meticulousness had never been seen before, and some members of the press described the presentation as a coaching masterclass.

The EFL charged Leeds with not acting in good faith and issued a £200,000 fine, which Bielsa paid in full.

A Dip in Form and That Aston Villa Goal

Leeds suffered a dip in form after the turn of the year. They had lost only three games up to Boxing Day but were defeated ten more times by the end of the season. April was particularly damaging, with Leeds losing to Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, and Brentford. They faced fellow promotion-chasers Aston Villa at Elland Road in the season's penultimate game.

Mateus Klich scored a controversial goal in the 72nd minute. It was controversial because an Aston Villa player was down injured. Leeds looked like they would kick the ball out of play so he could receive treatment, but they went on the attack, and Klich scored. A ruckus broke out, resulting in two yellow cards and Villa's Anwar El Ghazi being sent off.

Amazingly, Bielsa instructed his players to allow Aston Villa to equalize with an uncontested goal, leveling the scores at 1-1, which is how the game finished. The gesture saw Bielsa and Leeds win the 2019 FIFA Fair Play award.

Losing in the Playoffs

Having missed out on automatic promotion, Leeds faced Derby County in the playoffs. After winning 1-0 at Pride Park Stadium, Leeds were in the driving seat to reach the playoff final. They went 1-0 ahead (2-0 on aggregate) after 24 minutes of the second leg but capitulated and lost the game 2-4, losing 3-4 on aggregate, thus remaining in the Championship for another year. Of all the teams to lose to, it had to be Derby from earlier's Spygate saga!

Although bitterly disappointed that they would not gain promotion to the Premier League, Leeds United fans were 100% behind Bielsa, whom they had nicknamed "God." Bielsa had somehow turned a squad of Championship plodders, who finished 13th during the previous campaign, into genuine title contenders; they had fallen back in love with football and their team.

Bielsa continued working his magic behind the scenes, and Leeds built on the Argentinian's first season in charge. During the COVID-19-hit 2019-20 campaign, Leeds United finished with 93 points, clinching the Championship title by ten points from West Bromwich Albion. Leeds United returned to English football's top flight for the first time since 2003-04. Leeds United was back in the big time, and it was all down to one man, Mr. Marcelo "El Loco" Bielsa.


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